You must remember this: There’s more to golf in France than chasing a little white ball around. The game as it’s played in Gaul is not a card-and-pencil affair. In fact, it would be criminal to plan a buddy trip to this venerable nation where the five senses, not just the desire to crack a drive or hole a putt, are fully engaged and satisfied. Centuries of refinement have made France what it is today: every life lover’s ideal destination.
Ye brethren who embrace golf as a stag affair, hear me: France begs to be discovered and celebrated in the company of women. The reason is simple. There is no better place on earth for the non-golfer, i.e., the “golf widow,” to roam around while the committed embark upon their Napoleanic pursuit of par.
Not that the women of France don’t play golf, especially given the improved sportswear available these days. At the golf clubs my wife and I visited, from the vineyards of Bordeaux to the foothills of the Alps, nearly every group we encountered was a mixed foursome. The vast majority of these golfers were walkers, the men and women stylishly attired, their bags pulled on trolleys, their rounds completed promptly in four hours. Less time on the course means more time for dining and socializing. France sets the pace for both.
Staked out by tall mountains, meandering rivers and two seas, France is a largely rural country, yet one where even the tiniest pays (settlement) has an air of savoir-faire not found anywhere else. Its appeal as a place to visit is undeniable, but from a pure golf point-of-view, few courses in France are worth crossing an ocean to play. It’s not Scotland. It’s not Ireland.
Of course, that’s no reason to stay home.
As with everything else in golf, it is necessary to think outside the (tee) box to achieve the desired result. Pairing excellent courses with historic chateaux, defined here as feudal castles, vineyard estates and large country homes with a grand hotel thrown in for good measure, is the way to go in a country whose praises have been sung since the Greeks pulled ashore 2,500 years ago. Say what you want the world’s sparkling new hotels, but there is something special about the venerable spaces within a well-kept chateau, about actual French windows that swing open to admit air and light and the dewy fragrance of the countryside. It is in such moments that everyday cares slip away.
Let’s start at Chateau des Vigiers, a secluded property located 90 minutes east of Bordeaux, the world-famous wine capital an hour’s flight from Paris. To drive at a leisurely pace through the renowned vineyards that radiate out from the medieval city of St. Emilion, the orderly rows of trellised vines laden in autumn with thick bunches of purple grapes, will gladden the heart of anyone who’s ever tried to grow anything. The abundance of fruit nestled under the leaves is impressive, but wine produced here is an expression of the soil, of the terroir. France may not have invented wine, but the French have perfected the art of transforming grapes, a medium through which the earth speaks, into a beverage for the gods.
The classically-styled Chateau des Vigiers, built in 1597 on the site of a much older edifice, is actually in the Dordogne, with Bordeaux on one side and Perigord, known for its truffles and castles, on the other. Vigier’s high-ceilinged guest rooms, done up in rich fabrics and decorated in period furniture, are the epitome of what has come to be known as the ‘French country house’ style, an insouciant motif imitated from Monterey to Miami but never duplicated outside France. Many of the rooms overlook a golf course parted through plum trees, vineyards and an oak forest. The layout’s signature feature is not a fearsome dogleg but a 17th-century dovecote, an octagonal stone house once used to house domestic pigeons. It now serves as a backdrop to the ninth and 18th greens. Opened in 1992, the Donald Steel-designed course is well-conceived if a bit plain, though the bunkers are in all the right places and there are no easy putts on the greens. From the tips, it’s a little more challenging than it looks. (La Vallee, a third nine added by Steel in 2008, is a welcome addition to Le Lac and Les Vignes, the nines that comprise the original 18). By the way, Vigiers, like most courses in France, is marked in meters. The 135-meter stake equates to 150 yards, which is information enough on vacation.
After the round, golfers can repair to Le Chai, a casual brasserie contained in a rustic building where grapes were once pressed. Four enormous poplar beams support the ceiling. A roaring log fire warms and scents the room on cool evenings. Outside, a large stone terrace shaded by walnut trees is the perfect place to gather on a sunny afternoon. Les Fresques, the chateau’s gourmet restaurant, is a temple of haute cuisine. Our dinner was flawless: seared pike-perch (a local fish) served in a fragrant black truffle sauce followed by roasted duck overlaid with seared foie gras so light and delicate it seemed to float above the plate.
In an increasingly artificial world, Vigiers has a genuine sense of place, as do all the members of Chateaux Golf & Country Clubs fold, a consortium of historic properties with either on-site golf or nearby golf stretching from Alsace-Lorraine to the Cote d’Azur. Making discoveries is part of the fun. For example, the chateau staff encourages guests to visit nearby Bergerac, a small town on the Dordogne River. In the center of town, half-timbered homes built in the Middle Ages line jumbled, narrow streets that rise to a pedestrian district near a hilltop church and museum. Bergerac is an ideal place to relax at an outdoor café and sip a local wine while you watch the play of light and shadow on the medieval buildings. The town, by the way, has no link to Cyrano, the famous long-nosed poet. Its most famous native is Montaigne, the Renaissance scholar and essayist who proclaimed the spirit of humanism and religious tolerance 400 years ago. Monty, as he’s known to the cognoscenti, is famously known for his skeptical remark, ‘Que sais-je?’ (What do I know?).
Those with time to spare can arrange wine tastings at famous chateaux in St. Emilion; explore the region’s fortified bastides (towns); or drive 90 minutes into the heart of the Dordogne, where Cro-Magnon man painted cave walls with graceful portraits of the animals he stalked.
Many years ago, I had the good fortune to visit the Vezere valley deep in the Dordogne, there to tour the art sanctuaries and primitive habitats of a sturdy race of hunters and food gatherers who bridged the evolutionary gap between the Fred Flintstones of antiquity and Homo sapiens. Bigger, stronger and hairier than modern man, Cro-Magnon man lived in rock shelters beneath limestone cliffs and managed to survive the onslaught of wild beasts and cold winds issued forth by the last Ice Age. He whittled spearheads and eyed needles from reindeer bone and antler. The last of the enlightened brutes, he made sure his front porch had southern exposure. By soaking moss in animal fat and lighting it with a flint spark, he was able to venture into dark caves and paint in freehand strokes the animals he hunted.
The most interesting village I encountered on the trip was Les Eyzies, a modest town tucked below the overhanging gray and white cliffs that provided early man with a natural awning. It was here that five skeletons ornamented with shell necklaces were discovered in 1868.
Built into the side of the cliffs from the ruins of a feudal castle is the National Museum of History, where the basic tools of pebble cultures dating back 100,000 years are displayed alongside the more sophisticated chopping, scraping and drilling tools used by later societies. By following the chronological arrangement of objects, visitors can see how man progressed from a rock-wielding dunce who tried to bludgeon his quarry into submission (casualty rates must have been alarmingly high) to the more highly evolved hunters who carried slim projectiles and who stalked their prey in groups.
In the museum’s adjoining rooms can be seen paintings, engravings and sculptures created by early man. These include rounded figure studies carved in rock, stone palettes with traces of pigmented minerals, kindergarten-style hand prints and grotesque pregnant figures probably intended as fertility symbols. Also on display are the remains of the animals Cro-Magnon man hunted, from woolly rhinos and curling-tusk mammoths to the large and ferocious bears that competed with man for cave dwelling space.
Though several of the caves where early artist-hunters captured animals first in their imagination and then on interior walls are now closed (man’s breath, among other things, was found to be anathema to the preservation of the fragile paintings at several sites), a few remain open to public view. Near Les Eyzies is Rouffignac, where La Grotte aux Cent Mammoths (Cave of a Hundred Mammoths) can be explored via a small electric train that travels 800 yards through an eerie maze of underground galleries.
On the gallery walls of the cave can be seen, by the light of the conductor’s lamp, drawings of horses, bisons, ibex, rhinos and a herd of wooly mammoths that has held up surprisingly well the past 12,000 years. Graffiti scribbled on the walls in centuries past detract somewhat from the simple, elegant drawings of Cro-Magnon man, but the paintings, outlined in manganese black, as well as engravings incised into the walls, leave a lasting impression.
Retracing the path of early man stimulates the appetite. One of the best dining rooms in the Dordogne can be found at the Hotel Cro-Magnon in Les Eyzies, where meals are served in an outdoor courtyard shaded by large chestnut trees. The water-streaked limestone terrace where Cro-Magnon man resided bulges from a cliff like a giant brow 60 feet or so above the establishment. It was here that I experienced the lunch of a lifetime: A foie gras salad topped with black truffles, followed by strips of duck served with mashed celery. House-made chocolate truffles were passed around for dessert. One taste of the champagne, and I knew it was the finest available: Krug Grand Cuvee. What finer beverage could there be to toast our ancient forebears?