Sprawling along the crest of its hill, with majestic views of the Luberon and Mont Ventoux, Ménerbes was once poetically - and accurately - compared by Nostradamus to a great ship floating in a sea of vines.
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Summer is the busiest time for tourists, of course, but you could enjoy Ménerbes equally in the spring, when we visited amid a cloud of cherry blossom, in autumn when the vines are ablaze with red or even in winter when the black truffle season is in full swing. Locals advise you to approach the village from the north to get the full impact. Pictured: an aerial view of Ménerbes.
Named one of the official Plus Beaux Villages de France, or Most Beautiful Villages of France, Ménerbes was made famous by Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, his best-selling 1989 memoir and its two sequels, Toujours Provence and Encore Provence (plus the 2006 spin-off film A Good Year). In fact, though, Mayle lived in the outlying countryside and has since moved to another property near Lourmarin.
François Ozon's hit 2003 thriller Swimming Pool, starring Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier and filmed in a villa in Ménerbes, has also helped burnish the village's seductive image.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
An ancient tomb, or dolmen, still visible just outside Ménerbes suggests the area has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Remains of Roman villas and a cemetery have been found in the village and successive waves of invaders and settlers came in their wake.
In the Middle Ages, by a quirk of history, this entire region fell under the control of the Vatican. Known as the Comtat Venaissin, it was a Papal enclave in the middle of Provence and continued to be so even after the Avignon Papacy had ended, for over five centuries from 1274 right up to the French Revolution.
Today the area is still referred to informally as the Comtat in recognition of its curious past. Ménerbes sits on the southern edge of the Comtat while nearby Venasque was its original capital.
During the Wars of Religion that swept France in the 16th century, Ménerbes was captured by the Huguenots (Protestants). It was quite a coup given that the village sat in land owned by the Popes.
The Protestants in Ménerbes somehow held out against a siege from between 12,000 and 15,000 Catholic troops for five years (one story claims they got provisions through a secret tunnel), before surrendering in a defiant procession accompanied by flags and drums.
WHAT TO SEE
The most substantial historic sight is the mediaeval Carmelite Abbaye Saint Hilaire about 4 km / 2.5 miles east of Ménerbes: click here to read about it. Also outside the centre of the village is that dolmen (a megalithic tomb or cave) which dates back to the second century BC and is the only one in Vaucluse.
It's known as the Dolmen de la Pitchoune, pictured, and is found on the D3 from Bonnieux about a kilometre before you arrive in Ménerbes.
Rather unimpressive to be honest, the dolmen sits in a ditch on the right-hand side of the road and, though marked with a small sign, is easy to miss.
If you bypass the village and continue along the D3 towards Cavaillon, one of Ménerbes' more oddball attractions awaits: the Musée du Tire-Bouchon, or Corkscrew Museum. It's in a vineyard, the Domaine de la Citadelle, 2 km / 1.2 miles north of the village.
The museum is more intriguing than it sounds, especially if its founder is around for a chat, Yves Rousset-Rouard was a film producer, whose first movie was the international erotic superhit Emmanuelle (1974). He went on to produce two sequels, as well as several highly successful French comedies, George Roy Hill's A Little Romance and two films by Joseph Losey.
Monsieur Rousset-Rouard, pictured, bought the vineyard in 1989 from a farmer who - like others in the area at the time - sent all his grapes off to the local co-operative to be made into wine. He had bigger plans, however. He set up his own winery the next year and since then half a dozen other vignerons have followed suit.
He originally started the museum as a gimmick to reel in visitors, but seems to have become a real enthusiast and a member of the International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts, an exclusive association with a limited membership of 50 "helixophiles" (as corkscrew collectors are known). It appears that this is something of a world-wide cult.
The corkscrew was, surprisingly perhaps, invented by the English in the late 17th century. "Often the most beautiful corkscrews are made by non wine-producing nations where wine is expensive and exotic and drunk with great ceremony," Monsieur Rousset-Rouard points out, logically enough.
The Musée du Tire-Bouchon contains over 1,200 corkscrews, labelled in English and French and dating from the earliest examples to the present day. Some are beautiful bejewelled treasures, some poignant, such as corkscrews made of bullets in the trenches of the First World War.
There are combination spoons and corkscrews, a 19th century, British-made gun-corkscrew. ("Just don't get them mixed up!"), ironic American Prohibition-era corkscrews and, as you'd expect from the producer of Emmanuelle, some rather sexy designs involving phalluses or female legs. Many are unique.
You can take a tour of the winery too, of course (it's now run by Monsieur Rousset-Rouard's son, Alexis). With its north-facing vines, the Domaine de la Citadelle yields wines that are more characteristic of the Rhône Valley than of the Luberon. Twenty different wines are made here, mainly Syrah-dominated reds but also rosé (15% of the production) and white (20%).
Not content with all this, Monsieur Rousset-Rouard then proceeded to move into politics. In 1993 he became a deputy in the National Assembly for Vaucluse, then stood for Mayor of Ménerbes in 1995, where he remained in office until 2014.
Among his achievements (from the tourist point of view) was the opening in 2004 of the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon, a centre to promote the truffles and wines of the Luberon.
Monsieur Rousset-Rouard also took measures to revive truffle culture in the area, such as tax breaks for locals who plant truffle oaks (he has planted 150 truffle oaks on his own estate). The Domaine de la Citadelle and the Musée du Tire-Bouchon are open all year round.
Ménerbes itself is long and narrow, even by the standards of Luberon's perched villages: a full kilometre / 0.6 mile from end to end. Charming to stroll through, it offers ancient houses, churches, chapels and a bell tower, pictured, plus magnificent views both east and west across the Luberon. You'll find, towards the "stern" of Nostradamus' ship, La Citadelle, a 16th-17th century citadel converted into a rather magnificent private dwelling (yes, Monsieur Rousset-Rouard lives there).
Also at this end of the village is a small house once owned by the American painter Jane Eakin which has been converted into a museum of her life and work. Click here to read about Eakin, Staël and other artists who lived in Ménerbes.
At the far end, in the "prow", is a 16th century church and Le Castellet, Ménerbes' little mediaeval chateau, which was bought in 1953 by the French-Russian painter Nicolas de Staël and is still owned by his family (it's not open to the public).
In between on the place de l'Horloge at the heart of the village is a more recent arrival, the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon. An essential destination for foodies, it's a temple to these two top products of the region.
This lovely old 17th-18th century mansion combines a restaurant, shop, wine cellar, truffle museum and a training, information and conference centre. Fortunately it's big enough to perform all these functions.
The Hôtel d'Astier de Montfaucon served time as a hospice and a boys' school before becoming the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin. And it also has a delightful formal French garden, pictured below, where you can eat a truffle-infused lunch or sip a glass of Luberon wine while enjoying stupendous views.
The restaurant (which also has an indoor area for windy Mistral days) seats only 30 covers, so be sure to book ahead.
It has a very short menu with such items as truffles in omelettes or with pasta and some unusual desserts such as Carpentras strawberries in basil and truffle-infused balsamic vinegar or (the house speciality) Pomme Isabelle: apple in truffle-scented caramel.
The food isn't cheap but the wine list is very reasonably priced and, as you'd expect, comprehensive. You can also buy the wines by the bottle at vineyard prices: there are some 2,000 bottles to chose from, representing over 50 producers, all from the Parc Régional du Luberon (the Luberon Regional Park) and the Ventoux, Luberon and Pierrevert appellations. Click here to read more about the wines of Northern Provence.
The free tastings, for people who just drop in, are in the wine cellar while a private, tutored class for groups (by appointment only) is in a first-floor tasting room, pictured, which is equipped with individual desks and sinks and looks a little like a school science lab.
The black truffle (tuber melanosporum) is known as a Périgord truffle, despite the fact that in France 80% of them come from Provence. It's also sometimes called locally a diamant noir (black diamond) or rabasse.
Originally Provence's truffle harvest was huge: 2,000 metric tonnes at the end of the 18th century. They were so abundant that pigs were fed on them! By 1960 the crop had plummeted to a mere 10 metric tonnes, and the present small revival is due to an concerted effort.
The Maison de la Truffe et du Vin gives advice and tax breaks to locals who want to cultivate truffles and Ménerbes is twinned with Grinzane Cavour, near Alba in Piedmont, Italy, home of the white truffle. Truffle production today in Provence is around 35 tonnes a year.
The large shop sells truffles and related products such as truffle-infused olive oil, cheeses, mustards and liqueurs, as well as books. The main black truffle action is in winter: these truffles are harvested between November and March and the shop doesn't have the right to sell them outside that period (much to the frustration of the Insider, who visited in the first week of April when the shelves were already empty).
Ménerbes' big truffle market is also in winter, between Christmas and the New Year, though the prices will be sky-high as all the locals will be snapping them up for their New Year's Eve feasts. (The main truffle markets in the area are in Richerenches and Carpentras.) The Maison de la Truffe et du Vin also organises truffle hunts by prior arrangement.
From May onwards the summer truffle (truffe d'été) arrives. It's black outside and, unlike the winter truffle, white inside (though it's not the same as the fine white truffles from Albi) and has a taste of hazelnuts and artichokes.
The Maison de la Truffe et du Vin is open daily from April to October, and at weekends at the height of the winter truffle season. Website for the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon. Click here to read our full guide to the truffles of Provence,
The Tourist Office (actually just an information point in the corner of the little sub Post Office) is on avenue Marcellin Poncet at the "stern" end of Ménerbes. Municipal website for Ménerbes.
The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism in Provence includes a guide to Ménerbes and other attractions in the area.
How to get to Ménerbes: Ménerbes is 40 km / 25 miles south-east of Avignon, 16 km / 10 miles east of Cavaillon and 20 km / 12.5 miles south-west of Apt. It forms part of a small pocket of six of the Plus Beaux Villages de France or Most Beautiful Villages of France, the other five being Ansouis, Gordes, Lourmarin, Roussillon, and Venasque. If you were short of time, you could drive this entire circuit in under two hours.
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There's no train station in Ménerbes: the nearest ones are in L'Isle sur la Sorgue and Cavaillon. The village is served by one rather infrequent bus route, no.18 from Cavaillon or Apt. Click here for the current timetable (look for the link marked "horaires des lignes", then choose the relevant timetable from the list).
Where to stay and where to eat and drink: Ménerbes is notably short of conventional hotels. The main one, Le Roy Soleil, isn't recommended by locals. Three km / 1.8 miles north of the village, La Bastide de Soubeyras is a bed and breakfast with a better reputation. while some like La Bastide de Marie, also outside the village on the road to Bonnieux, near the Abbaye Sainte Hilaire. We spent the night at the quirky Bastide du Bois Bréant in nearby Maubec: click here to read more about it.
Despite Peter Mayle's numerous slap-up lunches in A Year in Provence, Ménerbes is not over-supplied with restaurants either, but the most popular seems to be the Café-Veranda on the avenue Marcellin Poncet.
Truffle hounds will want to make straight for the truffle-infused menu at the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon (see above for more details, and remember to reserve ahead).
There's no Michelin-starred restaurant in Ménerbes but you'll find several in Gordes and Bonnieux, each just 11 km / 7 miles away.
Photo credits (from top): © François Dijon for Wikimedia Commons, Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse, SJ for Marvellous Provence, Domaine de la Citadelle and Musee du Tire-Bouchon (two images), Véronique Pagnier for Wikimedia Commons, Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon, RWS for Marvellous Provence.