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Le Jeu Provençal

"Zat mountain behind us is La Sainte-Baume. Zat's where Mary Magdalene finished her days--her head is in the basilica up there. It's a holy place."

So spoke Bruno Lacroix, the animated golf pro at Golf de la Sainte-Baume, situated on the westerly edge of the Var not far from Aix-en-Provence. Behind him, the broad white shoulders of the Sainte-Baume massif cowl their namesake forest, one of the most important in Provence. Now a biological reserve, the Forêt la Sainte-Baume is the last remaining remnant of the multispecies woodland that covered the entire region millions of years ago. A dark green coverture rolls into the distance, made of beech, ash, aspen, ancient yew and holly.

"Also," Lacroix adds, "the air is special here, for respiratory problems. So," he says grinning, "you have holy and healthy . . . and golf!"

Sainte-Baume was designed by the French golf course architect Robert Berthet, who "take zee nature and make zee golf." He cut no trees and left all wildlife habitats intact. Lacroix reenacts the time when a wild Provençal rabbit ran between his legs while he was teeing up."Eet's nature golf!" he says.

Technically, Sainte-Baume is well-balanced golf too."Zee beginners, zey can make pleasure here," Lacroix assures. "I am a golf professional. I can make pleasure here."

The most challenging holes, he said, are five, with it's arrow-straight fairway, and nine, a "double dogs legs, left and right." The seventh plays uphill to a green so blind there's a five-minute traffic light nearby that golfers are asked use. Lacroix shrugs. "French golfers know zee etiquette but zey don't care."

Low clouds have descended like the shroud of Turin on the golf holy land. An unseasonable storm isn't far behind. Seeking shelter makes more sense than trying to play the Pont Royal Golf Club, a sophisticated nineties course set between Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, and between the Lubéron and Alpilles mountain ranges. What a shame.

Pont Royal is Seve Ballesteros's first course in France, designed for great golfers and duffers alike. But after a thrilling false alarm--a sign for Golfe du Lion, which turned out to be the Gulf of the Lion--the clearly marked signs to Aix win out. Relais & Chateaux signage leads the way to the handsome front door of Villa Gallici.


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