Ménerbes. Immaculate was the first adjective that grips the mind. I’ve got to say that I have never stepped foot in a village and caught myself transfixed by the pavement.
I passed ten minutes in Ménerbes, stupefied by a patchwork of varying shapes of square and rectangular stones of gray and gray-blue tones laid last year in the center of the village (photo above). Their evenness floored me. Narrow joints create a seamless surface that accommodates the putting of a golf ball. In other parts of the village, walkways are laid of stones identical in size, shape and color with very wide joints that form creases – ungainly to step on and deficient in aesthetic pleasure – common to those throughout Europe.
This unprecedented ‘street art’ came by way of the boundless generosity of philanthropist Ms. Nancy Negley, of Houston and Ménerbes., who purchased in 1997 and completely renovated The Dora Maar House whose stately edifice addresses the Luberon countryside to the north (consult details below). The French government under Nicolas Sarkozy made Ms. Negley a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
I find myself pierced by a pang of sympathy by having to point out just how little wear and tear these pretty stones are subject to. Summer days find the village bereft of activity, some gentle stirring of strolling tourists who find no relaxing cafe terrace or toward the evening when diners drift to two restaurants In the fall, the village is a still-life watercolor.
Bizarre to read in Toujours Provence (circa 1991) Peter Mayle ruminating that “change is in the air for Ménerbes,” a minatory bark that its inhabitants were getting soi-disant media savvy, eager to take in torrents of tourists like Gordes, which along with Roussillon, is a catchment of the summer deluge.
Total rethink. Twenty years on, Ménerbes has taken on the trappings of a “Lacoste bis,” a village muted, hollowed out year by year by more and more absentee owners aka résidences secondaires, having reached a tipping point where the year-round village population is inadequate to sustain shops and cafés
Last winter residents took to the streets with a petition, “So that Ménerbes. lives,” a cri du coeur of a grim reality of diminishing services and commerce: the only doctor in the village closed his office last November; a rehabilitation center closed last year choking off cash flow to keep the only pharmacy in business; the butcher is taking his retirement without replacement; the post office has been downgraded to an agency; the épicerie will closed once sold, a pizzeria has a sale sign up, and the future of the boulangérie, an endroit sacré in any village, is uncertain.
At first sight for tourists, the four circuitous streets that intersect at various angles and levels in the center of Ménerbes (no actual square) with two restaurants, a few shops and an art gallery appear as sufficient Provencal mise-en-scène.
To the locals, they are a reminder that Ménerbes is too dependent on those living beyond the village borders, and that such visitors are insufficient in number.
The most notable cautionary tale of this trend appears in the personage of the Manhattan food maven Eli Zabar, who purchased circa 2000 the Café du Progrès, a timeworn hang-out with a spacious grassy terrace; the café where Mayle popped in, where one combined the elements of village gossip inside and, outside, tourist chic. (Amplification: Ménerbes has what the French call “un café de pays,” a cramped scruffy space for locals, e.g. un café, un demi, le loto, which visitors avoid.)
Taking possession of a prosperous longtime Luberon fixture, Eli Zabar was clueless that the deal came with sort of a poison pill: the building’s two tenants – one operated the café and the other a restaurant whose entrance was festooned with loud signage – were locked into a nasty lawsuit, which, once resolved, compelled Zabar to shutter the establishment.
Subsequently, the café, leased to new operators, took the name Le p’tit bouchon. Business took an downbeat turn and the café closed. For the past two years Zabar has it on the market. Interested buyers may inquire here. Once a paragon of village vitality, the lifeless café is today a marker for the downside of gentrification.
Don’t be fooled by what you can plot by eye
Anyone who fathoms the dynamics of village life in the Luberon would tell you that the owners of properties are more and more those with the resources to pay for pricey renovations, constant upkeep and nagging taxes, and likewise, that these “proprietaires” spend more and more time elsewhere. At chic vernissages and post-concert drinks parties, the phone numbers guests exchange are not of restaurants or wineries, rather those of reliable gardeners, plumbers and pool maintenance who can provide for every contigency during the off season.
In the final tranche titled “P.S.” in Encore Provence, his third ode to the region published in 1999, Peter Mayle deserts his experimental and assuasive narrative, and reverts to a curious self-absolution, in a mildly sarcastic tone, from any who may accuse him of pumping too much air into the tourist bubble called the Luberon. An odd reflex when one considers that the region yearns for and thrives on tourism, and that the French government made him a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur for his tourist-magnetic mesmeric references to Provence.
From a serene perch in Loumarin, where he settled after shuffling off to Long island for four years, Mayle gazes out onto the bucolic scenery, and lapses into an old habit of copywriters, his initial profession, by using happy phrases of self-assurance to micro-manage your perceptions:
“Now, eleven years later, not much has changed.” And, “More than anything else, people make a place,
and the local inhabitants don’t seem to have changed at all.”
Howbeit, don’t be fooled by what you can plot by eye. Certainly, visually and olifactorily, the Luberon has a perpeptual prelapsarian look. It’s very much the same drive-by experience year to year. At the time Mayle penned his reassuring words the region was undergoing titanic transformations, redoings that continue today, reshaping the patterns and the rhythm of quotidian life. Local inhabitants did not change…they were becoming in villages and less less in number!
The uncanny irony is that Mayle’s bracketing of reality into stereotyped septia-tinged notions – colorful markets, old men playing boules, wild empty spaces, and so on – neglects the aftereffects of a phenomena of which he is a vanguardist: gentrification (He has bought and redone three houses in the region.)
Unknowingly, or knowingly, Mayle was onto this phenomena in Toujours Provence when he vividly portrays in a patronizing tone the hyperactive pushy real estate agents in the region. Ironic that in evoking the charm of the Luberon, he is the perfect purveyor of advertisements – prose as Pavlovian preconditioning – hugely cherished by real estate crowd. And then comes calling the mild coincidence that Mayle, the agents and their clients all share a piece of pricey real estate: tables at tony Luberon restaurants.
To the extent that a significant percentage of ‘résidence secondaire‘ have brought new wealth to the region and upgraded the infrastructure, the thinning out of around-the-year denizens is evident in the fall in villages throughout the Luberon before the annual winter closing in early November. Mayors are scrambling. An example: When the bouglangerie closed in a perched village, the mayor purchased the business and then leased the “walls” to a new proprietor as the revenues were inadequate for a prospective buyer to qualify for a bank loan.
An unintended element of more absentee owners is the availability of upscale rentals for those that can afford weekly rates of 1000 euros per bedroom.
And so it goes. What is remarkable about the Luberon is that visitors are charmed by things being just the way they’re supposed to be: immediately when you arrive, for the first or the fifteenth time, you notice the stillness, an absolute stillness marked by the fragrance of herbs, lavender, flowers and shrub (garrigue).
Addendum: Yves Rousset-Rouard, the man to see Menerbes through.
It’s tough to grasp a vision of a way out, or a way to get people back into the streets. Any denouement of this stressful situation – for which he is not culpable – falls into the talented hands of the most dynamic Mayor in the Vaucluse: Yves Rousset-Rouard (in center of photo with red sweater).
Yves Rousset-Rouard knows how to move minds and cut deals. He made a name for himself in the film biz as producer of Emmanuelle flicks, as well as the less racy more traditional work of George Roy Hill and Joseph Losey. He is dynamic, charming, and personable. Aucun snobisme en lui.
After a serving as a deputy in the National Assembly for the Vaucluse in the early 90’s, Rousset-Rouard began his long tenure as Mayor in 1995, at the time when Peter Mayle was shipping off for four years on Long Island. A vigneron, his family owns the Domaine Citadelle where in 1988 he opened Le Musée du Tire-Bouchon (Corkscrew Museum). He has sponsored a contest for posters for the Musee at the Savannah School of Art and Design (SCAD).
Never abandoning a first love, he published this year a small book, “Les 100 mots du cinéma.”
In Ménerbes, his “productions” include the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin, a wine festival in July and a Truffle Festival in December.
Concerned with the charges of favoring “projets de prestige,” the Mayor has remained remarkably steady and focused on finding new enterprises to plant in Ménerbes.
I am not suggesting that Yves Rousset-Rouard will entirely succeed at pumping new life into Ménerbes. Finding a new owner of the café would be a good step forward. What I can suggest is that if you get to the Luberon, keep Ménerbes in mind for a visit, if just for the views and the newly paved streets.
Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon: Getting around the Luberon appellation for tastings at the far flung wineries can eat up days as well as petrol. On the lower floor you can taste Luberon wines from about 50 vineyards; the wine shop sells bottles at the same price as you would pay at the winery. The ‘Maison” also has a shop on the main floor offering olive oil and delicacies of the region. Lunch and dinner (two nights a week) are served in the sculpture garden. The Wine Bar / Restaurant and Wine Shop are open daily from 12:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Monday and Friday evenings. Place de l’horloge, 84560 Ménerbes, Tél 04 90 72 38 37, Website
Brown Foundation Fellows Program: The 18th-century town house was purchased in 1944 by Pablo Picasso for Dora Maar (1907–1997), the artist and Surrealist photographer who was Picasso’s companion and muse in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The Brown Foundation Fellows Program, based at the Dora Maar House, provides residencies of one to three months for mid-career professionals in the arts and humanities to concentrate on their fields of expertise. In 2006, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was asked to direct this project, now called the Brown Foundation Fellows Program at the Dora Maar House. The house is open to visitors during periodic early evening showings of the artist-in-residence’s works. Website
Joe Downing Park: Located across from the Dora Maar House, the park, a bit larger than a pocket park (perhaps three pockets), is dedicated to painter Joe Downing, a forty-year resident of the village who introduced Jane Eakin to Ménerbes.
Jane Eakin House Museum: The home of the American artist and painter Jane Eakin (1919-2002), a longtime resident of Ménerbes. The Jane Eakin House is open every day except Monday from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Rue Sainte Barbe. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website
Restaurant: Café Veranda, Ménerbes (BCB), Super place for lunch; Menu of the Day, entrée and dessert, for 16€ as well as six salads from 17€ to 21€, dinner menus at 29€ and 39€, Classy décor, excellent service; Quality Cotes du Luberon wines. Lunch from noon and from 7:00 p.m. for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Avenue Marcellin Poncet (center of the village). Tel: 04 90 72 33 33. Website
Galérie Pascal Lainé : Art gallery for the beau monde in the Luberon. Center of village opposite Café Veranda. Open from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. and from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.Tel: 04-90-72-48-30, Website