Chez Steel, Provence

When Peter Mayle moved to Provence over 20 years ago, his idea was to write, yes, but a novel, not a memoir that put his adopted hometown dead center of any tourist’s map of Provence. For better or for worse, in part because of “A Year in Provence,” Menerbes became an ever bigger tourist attraction than it was before the British expat  and his wife settled there. So much so that today the author is accused of causing local bakers to run out of bread, a favorite local cafe having to relocate and an overabundance of German tourists. Love him or hate him, it must be said that Mayles lent celebrity to local builders (whom he chided for laziness), a plumber who moonlighted playing clarinet – at least he had not been a surgeon in his prior life. Ask me and I will tell you that joke – tax-dodging lawyers, bandit truffle hunters and the infamous Mistral, a strong, very cold, dry wind that comes down from the north or northwest and plays an important role in creating the climate of Provence.

But Menerbes was not always Mayle’s Menerbes.

In the years after WWII, Menerbes was rundown. All it had to offer was gorgeous scenery and mostly great weather, plus lavender, mushrooms, truffles and a hardy but harsh red wine. Otherwise,  the place was about cheap holiday rentals and broken down monuments to its Roman past. Not much to check off on a bucket list. In fact, in the 1960s, Menerbes was nearly deserted, except for the likes of one Pablo Picasso and his paramour and model, Dora Maar. Very shortly, other artist types found it. And the rest is history.

After Mayle, Menerbes became a  much sought-after address for a second home.  According to our friends the Steels, whom we visited mid-October, Menerbes is now a lot like Telluride — only better (read fresher) food and fabulous but relatively inexpensive wine. The nearby town of Gordes, on the other hand, is like Aspen, very poshy, with wealthy denizens who like to wear it.

We spent three absolutely glorious days with the Steels, sightseeing yes, but not with our hair on fire. Mostly we lived like they live there: going to amazing markets  (Apt and Coustellet) and cooking the fabulous output we purchased there. We hiked and visited a few sights on the average bucket list such as the 12th-century Abbaye de Senangue, where we listened to the monks chanting Vespers one misty Sunday night.

But a picture is worth a thousand, even well-chosen, words. Watch Clint’s video for an overview. (It includes some of John Steel’s great black-and-white studies of the region.)

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