We often find ourselves sitting on the wall at the front edge of the pretty village of Menerbes, whilst we’re out exploring the area on our bikes. In fact I think we must seem like part of the furniture there, and have been recognised a few times now, as we have been sitting absorbed by the view.
Like so many of the hilltop villages here it has an incredible view, that stretches as far as Mont Ventoux, and we spend time just sitting and watching the light shift across the hills, whilst listening to the swifts screaming as they hurtle around the rooftops. Needless to say it’s always a very lovely way to pass a few minutes (often more) on our way around the Valley, as it is almost the furthest point on our ride, so we feel we have earned a sit down!
What we hadn’t done though was to have a really good look around the village, in fact I would go so far as to say that our well-worn route up from the war memorial, past the shops and Cafe du Progrès to the viewpoint was, for many years, about the extent of my knowledge of the village. Which to be honest was rather appalling, considering the amount of times we have visited.
So when, a couple of years ago, Marina, the teacher at Learn French in Provence told me that she had arranged a guided tour of the village with a local historical guide, I thought I would go along and explore it in a little bit more depth.
Of course as with anything organised by Marina it is designed as a French listening and comprehension exercise, but there are certainly worse ways to extend your French language skills. So I cycled across to the village (which was probably not my best move on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year), sat on ‘our wall’, whilst I munched on a pain au chocolat and ambled around the Thursday morning market, to pass time before we met our guide…
Françoise (our guide), is a local historian, with an incredible knowledge about the local villages , and the history of the valley and provencal life, and when we met her, she handed us our question sheets, to be filled in as we took a tour of the village.
Very quickly I realised that what I had always thought to be the village, was in fact just a small part of it, and that the village itself had a very fascinating history indeed.
Set on a rocky, boat-shaped promontory, the village seems to hang above the Luberon valley, with open views towards the beautiful villages of Gordes, Roussillon, Goult and Joucas. It’s very easy, when you look at its location, to understand what a strategic position it would have had during any times of historical conflict, and it quickly became clear that Menerbes had seen more than its fair share of these.
The village’s name is derived from the Greek God Minerve who is linked so strongly to the creative industries through arts and trade, a little fact that is quite easy for me to remember, as it is the image in the ‘poinçon’ or hallmark on old French silver that I use in my creations.
As a settlement Menerbes predates Roman times, and previously was excluded from Provence, instead forming part of the Comtat De Vennissin, which was firmly within the territory of the Popes and as such a Catholic village…. This seemed a minor fact at first, but the importance of this became much more apparent as Françoise started to lead us around.
It was only when I actually started to walk and look properly that I began to see the details that I’ve missed before, guided by someone who was able to point them out.
Just past the Lavoir towards the village is a beautiful stone building, which has clearly been extended upwards over time. Originally this would have rung to the sound of horses hooves clattering on the cobbles as it was a Coaching Inn in the 17th century, but was then built upwards to house a ‘magnanerie’ for silkworm production.
Producing the silk from the cocoons of the little worms was clearly a very labour-intensive task, with them having to be constantly fed Mulberry leaves, which had to be collected from the trees around the village. In the approximately 36 days it took for the worm the develop its cocoon, they would munch their way through hundreds of kilos of leaves.
It was evidently worth the effort though, as each cocoon created approximately 5km of raw silk thread, which had a high value at the time and must have been a lucrative business for the village.
Wandering on we passed old buildings with their faded shop signs, giving a hint of the businesses that used to trade in the village. I love these old ‘ghost’ signs, they give such a lovely insight into the past.
And of course the Cafe du Progrès, renowned for its links with Peter Mayle, who wrote about it in his book ‘A Year in Provence’. The cafe has recently been beautifully renovated, and can now no longer be described as having made ‘a consistent and successful effort to avoid being picturesque’
Looking out from ‘our wall’, over the viewpoint and across the terraced garden filled with sculptures, Françoise explained that the small Chapel that we always look at, is named after Notre Dame de Grasse. It was one of many built just after the Plague swept through the area, being constructed on the edges of villages which survived the Plague, to thank God for saving the villagers, and to protect them from future, similar epidemics…….
As ever it took me a while to drag myself away from the view and we carried on, meandering then into the old village passing the former home of Dora Maar, a renowned photographer & painter, and also muse to Picasso, who spent time in the village too. Francoise explained that their relationship was far from healthy, and ultimately she was destroyed by him, with him humiliating her with comments such as her being ‘La femme qui pleure’, leading to a breakdown that ultimately informed the mood of her later paintings .
With a pretty walled garden, on the opposite side of the lane, which was filled with the scent of Jasmine, tumbling over the stones, her old home is now used for a Fellowship programme, linked with Houston Museum of Fine Arts, so continuing a strong, artistic link with the village.
From here though the older history of the village became more apparent as we walked up to The Citadelle. This huge stone building was rebuilt after the Siege of Menerbes, when the original village was damaged beyond recognition during a 5 year stand-off , and this fortress gives its name to the wines created in the vineyard below the village that is also home to the Corkscrew Museum (a place we have cycled past many times, but yet have to visit).
According to old drawings, Menerbes bore a striking resemblance to beautiful San Gimignano in Tuscany, with the skyline dominated by tall towers, built by the nobles that lived together in the village. This changed though, in 1573 when the village, was taken over by the Protestants, who were allowed in through one of the original village gates.
Very quickly, approximately 1000 Protestants secured the village, with the Catholics leaving to take positions on the plain below. This was the start of the Siege of Menerbes, which lasted 5 years, only coming to an end in 1578 after an intensive period of bombing that saw most of the old village buildings destroyed… The San Gimignano of Provence was gone.
The village was though rebuilt, with some buildings still showing signs of the original fortress below more recent constructions.
It certainly has the ‘lock-up’ with the most stunning view, and I can only imagine that it must have been very hard for anyone locked in the room, to watch the beautiful view outside, unable to be part of it.
This street continues up to a square, where you’re faced with the Musée de la Truffe et du Vin. Built in the 17th century it too has seen changes, shifting from being a hospital and a school, before opening as the Museum, with a beautiful garden restaurant at the rear.
Whilst we were there, there were also some sculptures, helping to frame the view..
The good thing about doing the tour with Françoise was that she was able to collect the key for The Church and another Chapel, both normally locked, allowing us to see places generally out of access to visitors.
Thanks to this we unlocked the door of the main Church, and found a beautiful interior, decorated with painted walls and ceilings….
….with an almost theatrical Altar area, housing a collection of cherubs that appear to have previously been part of an angelic orchestra, positioned as if they are playing (long since disappeared) instruments
In a side alcove is also an incredible marble altar which arrived on a cart from Avignon, although where from exactly, seems unclear. The effort that it must have taken to get the altar to Menerbes is hard to imagine, even a marble sink or pillar is hard to lift, so I really cannot think how they managed to move this, even in pieces, on a cart .
We ended up spending more time there than we thought, to allow the people who had noticed the door open and followed us in, to have a look around too, one in particular voicing his sadness that such buildings have to be kept closed now following thefts and vandalism, and i had to agree…
We then left the cool of the Church, locked the door and followed the path through the remaining stone gateway, and I understand, the one that was opened to allow the Protestants in that led to the siege…
…and made our way down to a path running below the village, past early Troglodytic dwellings, dating back to the 6th and 7th centuries……
From there, walking on to Le Castellet, a key point of the village during the siege, and more recently home to the artist Nicolas De Staël, who died in 1944, but whose work sells now for millions and still has traces in the village.
Then as we wandered back into the village and down a street, Françoise handed me a huge old key asking me to unlock an old door that opened into a simple and elegant Chapel. I love the fact that this key has been used in this lock since it was built, I wonder who else has held it too…
The interior of this little Chapel des Pénitents was beautiful, with an incredible, carved wooden ceiling, full of stunning detail, more normally seen in fine plasterwork, than in wood. Sadly details of the original, incredibly talented Artisan, who created it, are lost to history, and it may have simply been someone who had been helped by the Chapel, paying them back ‘in kind’
I must admit that it was lovely to get in out of the heat of the day, and to sit for a moment in this cool and tranquil place, chatting about the hidden beauty and incredible history of Menerbes.
Once we left we ambled back to the Lavoir, noticing the streets that were named after 5 young men from the village, who had been executed for the roles they played in the local Resistance, during the second World War. Another historical conflict that left an indelible mark on this village, like so many others in the area. in the footsteps of the Resistance
Leaving Françoise, I had fully completed my questionnaire (to be checked by Marina) and now knew so much more about a village that has a huge story to tell. It had been a fascinating morning that had lasted a lot longer than I had imagined, and so the cycle back in the furnace of the early afternoon sun, was a bit harder than I had thought … with many drink stops being needed in the shade of trees on the way.
Since that visit, we still sit on the wall at the viewpoint and look across the view that we love so much, but now I see it through different eyes, and imagine the scenes in times gone by, with the towers rising above me under bombardment from the forces in the Valley below.
A far cry from the peace and tranquility of the view today !