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Le Jeu Provençal

Stopping here is the right move. Villa Gallici welcomes with spirit and style, sort of like Martha Stewart meets Pavarotti for a little French tryst. A canopied bed, a private tea table, floor-to-ceiling windows that open over a wisteria arbor letting in great breaths of warm, stormy air. The use of color alone makes the place worth a visit, the halls and doors all painted in the rich, dusty ochers and olives of Provence. Even the housekeepers are dressed in traditional sunflower and cobalt Provençal cottons, and, you note, they're smiling! For all its elegance, Villa Gallici is fun.

So is its cuisine. Featuring Provençal ingredients to the haute spontané manner born, it forces you to make agonizing choices: flan of fresh salmon in a light cream of black radishes or a simple pumpkin soup with truffle juice; fillet of red mullet with potato waffles in a garlic cream or roast lamb flavored with Provençal herbs and ratatouille. Dessert is easy: roasted-fig-and-almond tart with honey, and shortbread with a lemon topping and seasonal red fruit (raspberries, cranberries, strawberries and red currants). All of this served in a candlelit dining room of such considerable romance you all but forget about golf.

"Saying Americans come to France to play golf is like saying the French go to America to eat."

Bertrand Brassart ought to know. His grandmother owned the Cordon Bleu cooking academy in Paris after the Second World War and helped it become famous. A "bleu chip" gourmand, Brassart is now the directeur of one of Provence's most promising golf works-in-progress, Golf des Baux de Provence. Presently a nine-hole par thirty-six, its great éclat is its location: in the lap of Les Baux, the tenth-century limestone fortress where the Lords of Baux--the original troubadours--perfected the art of courtly love by wooing local noblewomen. In the original Provençal dialect, bau means "escarpment"; to the north of Golf des Baux, the old limestone citadel glows on the hill in the sun like a cubist mining project.

Similar blanched outcroppings variegate the golf course proper. A stone wall marks olive groves on one hole, wild thyme and white lilac bloom beneath a crab apple tree on another. An old well here, an irrigation canal there, and all beneath the ancient white glare of Les Baux. The feeling is Provence absolute. Although the rest of the world tends to think of the entire southeast coast of France as Provence, residents of the Bouches-du-Rhône region disagree. As one local golfer put it, "The real Provence begins at Marseille and ends at Toulon." This, insists Brassart, inhaling the mint-scented air, is the true Provence. "If you like paintings, I think you will like this golf course."

And if you are charmed by the geological drama of Les Baux, then staying at Oustau de Baumanière will be your coup de grãce. It is as close to staying in the old fortress as you can get. L'Oustau, in fact, is a muscular limestone farmhouse, a mas in French, dating from the twelfth century, but its collection of rooms and outbuildings carry more of a monastic feel. Bivouacked into the white rock and juniper, it is at once closed and open, massive and intimate.

But this is just the beginning of its beguiling contradictions. L'Oustau's interior design too is perfectly modern while still honoring the mineral colors and forms of Provence. A limestone fireplace mantle against a yellow-ocher wall. A Dakota-armed pinot noir­colored sofa set upon ruddy, unvarnished stone floor tiles. Pure shapes in solid colors, clean lined and bright, like a 3-D Matisse painting you get to walk around in.

But the important thing is that you get to sleep here too, deep in your thick-walled room built into the stone bones of southern France. It's as if you are dreaming on the inside of geology, the red and yellow earth, the calcified rock, into which the French have etched their vineyards and olive groves, chãteaus and farmhouses and, now, scores of magnificent Mediterranean golf courses that fan eastward from your bedroom window all the way to Italy.


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