Hole lot of fun: golf in Aquitaine
Golf has been played in Aquitaine for more than 150 years – and now’s the time to join the club
Saturday 27 March 2010
At most golf courses, the pro shop sells a mixture of clubs, stylish clothing, and accessories: balls, tees and so on. But at the Golf du Médoc, there is also an impressive selection of fine wines – 37 of them: one for each of the course’s 36 holes, and one for the putting green. On the course, the distance markers are bottle-shaped. Just in case there might be any doubt, here is the evidence that this championship course is located in the heart of some serious wine country.
The Golf du Médoc, which has hosted the French Open championship, offers two courses in one. “Les Châteaux” was designed 21 years ago by the American architect Bill Coore, and each of its 18 holes is sponsored by a grand cru wine chateau.
It is a traditional links course with wide fairways, contrasting with the more wooded terrain of the 18-hole “Vignes” course. Many of the golfing world’s best-known names have played here; but part of the appeal of the Golf du Médoc, according to its general manager, Vincent Paris, is it is accessible to golfers of all levels. “It’s playable – no matter who you are, you can enjoy it, even a beginner.”
An added attraction is the hotel, a low-rise modern building with excellent facilities, that was built three years ago and seamlessly integrated into the landscape.
Vincent Paris attributes the popularity of the Aquitaine region as a golfing destination to its diversity and its golfing culture. This can be put down to two Scottish army officers stationed in southern France during the Napoleonic wars. Eager to keep up their golfing skills, they travelled with their clubs and practised wherever they could. The countryside around Pau particularly appealed, and they later returned on holiday with friends. A British colony established itself, and in 1856 a golf club was opened. The French were slow to join in, and the club declined, but in 1960 the Pau Golf Club was restored to its Victorian glory, and can now claim to be the oldest in mainland Europe.
With a bar that looks like an English pub, Pau Golf Club is popular for its British atmosphere and for the unexpected challenges it can pose even for a talented golfer.
“People think that, because the course is short, they will play well,” says Nicolas Barraud, the golf director at Pau. “But it’s tricky. There are plenty of bunkers and water hazards.” Barraud says the course, designed nearly |150 years ago, has little in common with some of the region’s more modern offerings; nevertheless, the Pau Golf Club remains popular with golfers. “I think they like it that the greens are well protected, there are lots of hazards, and it’s scenic, too.”
Like Pau, on the edge of the Jurançon wine region, a number of courses are surrounded by vineyards, including the Golf des Graves et du Sauternais. The 18-hole course is long and technical, set in attractive flat, wooded countryside. The course is playable all year round: two days of snow this winter which caused it to close were exceptional.
The club’s president, Jacqueline Couerbe, has noticed it attracts plenty of English visitors. “I think it’s popular not just for the golf but because of the vineyards and the local cultural heritage. And of course because of the food. One of our specialities is caviar from the local sturgeon.”
Several golf courses provide accommodation, making it possible to combine even more easily the attractions of golf with food, wine and visits to the local cultural landmarks. Deep in the heart of the vineyards of Bergerac is the Château des Vigiers, a property that dates back to the late 16th century and which has been restored and upgraded into a luxury hotel. In front of the building is a 17th-century dovecote; a 27-hole golf course fans out all around.
Strenuous efforts were made, when the course was built, not to disturb the existing landscape, so there are vineyards around the perimeter, and some of the original plum orchards remain at the side of the fairways. The fruit is never formally harvested, but golfers in need of a sugar boost are encouraged to help themselves to a snack.
The original 18-hole course at Château des Vigiers combined an area of wide-open fairways, “Les Vignes” – “a forgiving course, although not easy”, according to Azzedine Chabi, who is in charge of golf – with “Le Lac”, nine holes surrounded by trees and water. Two years ago, “La Vallée” was opened, to provide a further nine holes that are longer, very technical and more challenging. There is also a six-hole academy course, to enable golfers to practise on something more realistic than a driving range.
All this means the Château des Vigiers can offer, in effect, three 18-hole courses, an attraction for golfers who want to stay for more than a couple of days without sacrificing variety. “The nearest course is more than an hour away,” says Chabi, “and people don’t want that. But with our facilities, very few people want to play elsewhere.”
Chabi comes from Morocco, and travelled widely before settling in Aquitaine. He is in no doubt the region is attractive for golfers. “It’s real countryside. The food and wine are important, and the transport is good. And it’s just very relaxing.”
* Golf du Médoc: Chemin de Courmateau, Le Pian Médoc; 00 33 556 703 131; golf-du-medoc.com
* Pau Golf Club: Rue du Golf, Billère; 00 33 559 131 856; paugolfclub.com
* Golf des Graves et du Sauternais: Lac de Seguin, St-Pardon-de-Conques; 00 33 556 622 543; golf-des-graves.com
* Château des Vigiers: Le Vigier, Monestier; 00 33 553 615 000; vigiers.fr
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