The last village of the roadtrip was Ménerbes, which became famous thanks to Peter Mayle’s books–A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence, etc. I remember enjoying the books when they came out, but later feeling more ambivalent. He is the anti-Pagnol, rolling his eyes at the paysans‘ lack of sophistication, whereas Pagnol let the villagers have the last laugh, with common sense triumphing over book smarts.

A fine house. I’ll take it! Called La Carmejane, it was built on a castle from around 1081; it has layers of history, from this medieval façade to some 17th and 18th century additions and renovations. Would have driven Mayle nuts.
No, I like this one better. What a terrace. What a view!

You can see why expats would choose these villages to live in. If you’re going to bother to change countries, you’re going to pick someplace pretty. Ménerbes is officially beautiful–it’s on the list of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France–The Most Beautiful Villages of France. The influx of foreigners has renovated away all remnants of rural grittiness. Like the other nearby villages, Ménerbes is picturesque, a hilltop bijoux with sweeping views, and a surprising number of restaurants and shops for a population under 1,000 souls. All shut up tight on a Sunday afternoon in February.

That sky!
Yet another sweet abode.

I do remember Mayle complaining a lot about the mistral, or the north wind, and it was biting in February, though the bright sun helped a lot. Wind is what you get on these hilltops, and you’re glad of it come summer.

It’s all on an incline. How about those parking places?
More steps. Always steps in these hilltop villages.

Mayle also complained mightily about the reliability of such artisans as cabinetmakers, masons, electricians and plumbers. When I read the books decades ago, I thought, oh, those quaint provincials who appreciate their long lunches more than their bottom lines. But now I think that the artisans simply decided to put the Englishman at the bottom of their priority list. I’ve done three renovations in France and have nothing but praise for the reliability and quality of the artisans. Maybe in Provence, they’re different. I’m skeptical of that. The Carnivore’s talents undoubtedly came into play for the first two renovations. He was not only a native French speaker but was also fluent in Contractor Speak, having built a very nice house in Belgium with his own two hands. Plus he had a salesman’s gift for seduction. After two renovations, I had a trusty contact list for the third.

A decoration shop in a village of 900. A far cry from the agricultural past.
Spotlessly clean. But keep the patina!

I hope these photos encourage people to consider off-season travel. It’s true that the lavender fields aren’t in bloom, and just look a bit gray in February. But the lavender season is short–mid-June to mid-July. Poppies are earlier, May to June. Cherries and other fruit trees are earlier than that–in March. And almonds are the first, in February. By July, you can enjoy all the fresh fruits and vegetables the region is known for, and you get the song of the cigales (cicadas) when the temperatures are high enough–above 25 C (77 F). I won’t deny that summer in the south of France is like entering a magical bubble where the modern world becomes hazy and distant, while you luxuriate in a muffled bubble, where time feels slowed and the summer light creates a special filter.

I absolutely love arches.
Another one, called Port Saint Sauveur, or Holy Savior Gate, from the 16th century.

But look at those blue skies. And empty streets. There’s a different filter in winter and early spring, which is extra-sharp, extra-vivid, high definition. It’s nippy, but it isn’t freezing cold; I wore a trench coat. People still can dine on the terrace. And fewer crazies are on the roads.

Clock tower at the very top. Rebuilt in the late 16th century. With another arch!

In typical village form, the church is at the top of the village, which coils out from it down the hill. A square stretches out in front of the steps, site of how many familial crowds after baptisms, marriages and funerals? The cemetery is just to the side, looking very windblown.

Imposing and austere.
The gate was locked or I would have examined the dates on the stones.
For watering the flowers on the graves.

Ménerbes has a bounty of sweet little details:

Madonna and child in a niche.
Nearly vanished carved figures.
Next to the clock tower. Electrical wiring is such a challenge with Renaissance buildings!

The House of Truffles was, like everything else, closed. Beware of Sundays in France. They are for family dinners, maybe for brocantes/vide greniers. Not for work. It might be leisure for you, the visitor, but it’s work for those running the place. This building, Hôtel d’Astier de Montfaucon (Mount Falcon), was built in the 17th century. It became a hospital in 1751, and from the 18th century to 1953 was also a school. The many lives of solid buildings.

I couldn’t find what the carving above the doors meant. I think it’s a péniche carrying barrels of wine.
A closer look, without the gorgeous planters.

Ménerbes has had its share of excitement. It was on the Roman road from Rome to Cadiz. It came under the thumb of Simon de Monfort, the historic villain who attacked the Cathars in Béziers, Carcassonne and elsewhere. It went back and forth during the 16th century wars of religion. Picasso came to town, and his lover Dora Maar had a house here. And then Mayle, who was early to that meme about “umm, should I move here?” But who wouldn’t think that?

Perfect shade of sage.
Surprise vistas.
All-around adorableness. And a niche!

Tell me: have you read Peter Mayle? What did you think? Have you been to Ménerbes?

La Vie Est Belle indeed.


17 thoughts on “Toujours Provence

  1. what wonderful photos!! I don’t remember reading Mayle, but there was a tv series made of a year in provence – it was quite entertaining, but possibly not very close to the truth? Another place added to my list of ‘must visit one day’ places!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely pretty, and there are a bunch of other pretty villages in the region, but I think you won’t find it special–it’s like villages in this part of the south of France.
      I kind of recall the TV series. I didn’t see it, but I heard of it. In the trope of “a stranger comes to town,” either the stranger is crazy or the locals are. In Mayle’s books, it’s the locals. Not sure they agreed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely to see the bones of these villages this time of year, without being obscured by leaves or tourists. I’m sure it’s pure magic in summer. I have a problem with tourists complaining about too many tourists – what do you think YOU are, then? Go at a less-crowded time of year, or find someplace else! I enjoyed all of Peter Mayle’s books, but he does come across as the smug, Brit ex-pat. I can see the locals not liking him, or the way he portrayed them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect he milked every episode for maximum effect.
      While these villages must be sublime in summer, I am glad to have seen them in winter, all to myself. Off-season has its benefits.


  3. I read Mayle’s books,and despite his portrayal of the locals or maybe because of them, I decided I must go there. It was in the 80’s and newly married off I went. Sadly,the marriage ended but my love of Provence goes on. Hoping to get back to France soon and explore other regions. Your articles are really helpful in my planning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also was charmed by the books before coming here, but after I realized they were condescending. He does wax on about the natural beauty. And he isn’t wrong about that!


  4. I can remember reading Peter Mayle’s novels on life in France and have to say I did enjoy them. I guess for me what I took from his experiences was that village life involved a cast of characters who knew how to enjoy food and life itself. Oh that cemetery, I do enjoy poking around cemeteries in the sense that reading those old headstones tells a story, often sad of people who passed too early. There is almost a sense of peace as you wander amongst the graves acknowledging those who lie below.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve read the Peter Mayle books and those by Marcel Pagnol (the latter in English, I should say) and enjoyed both in different ways. Mayle does make fun of some of his local neighbours in a somewhat “I’m superior” way, whereas Pagnols books are describing his, his family’s and friends way of life. Although I haven’t visited Menerbes, I have stayed in various parts of Provence, such as Beaumes-de-Venise and Pernes-les-Fontaines, usually in gites when my children were young. We used to visit other places in the region as much as we could, and this was in the 1990’s, so perhaps a bit less touristy, therfore more enjoyable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the number of tourists has exploded since the ‘90s, so you were lucky.
      Actually Pagnol had a little country vs. city theme in his stories. Jean de Florette grew up in Marseille and was well educated, so he was a bit of an outcast while also being too sure of the superiority of modern methods over traditional ways. Of course the twist is that his parents were from the village.


  6. It was so much fun to read of your visit to Menerbes and realize that I have many of those same photos. We were there pre-Covid and I hope the bakeries and restaurants we enjoyed are still open.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. We loved our stay and used our rental as a base for visiting the area. I actually made a list of all the towns and villages Mayle mentioned in his book and we planned our outings to visit as many as we could. There was a small market every week, a bakery near us where we bought fresh, warm baguettes every morning, and another bakery down the street that sold huge, colorful French meringues and a wider variety of breads and pastries. The sunsets were spectacular. We were there in September and the grape harvest was beginning. There was a tabac with an attached cafe overlooking one of the vineyards. I would go back in a heartbeat!

        Liked by 1 person

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