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Nothing to Whine About in Burgundy

Family-friendly fun is surprisingly easy to find in this oenophile's paradise.


VESVRES-SOUS-PRANGEY, France — It was, without question, the most bizarre miniature golf course any of us had ever seen--tiny, rundown, seemingly abandoned, tucked away off a small dead-end country road in northern Burgundy.

But the credit card-size leisure "passes" that were available at tourist sites in and around the nearby 15th century walled town of Langres listed "le mini-golf" in precisely this spot, and if we looked carefully, we could see a crude, hand-drawn map posted on an exterior stone wall, guiding us back to a private home in an adjacent, unnamed village where, presumably, we could pick up golf balls, clubs and a scorecard.

Sure enough, we followed the directions and--voila--there was a pleasant woman sitting in her garage at the prescribed address, happy to dig out the requisite equipment and collect 30 francs--about $4.50--for the three of us, my wife, Lucy Stille; our then-11-year-old son, Lucas; and me.

We returned to the golf course, certain from our earlier, cursory examination that on so small a course, with no one else playing, we would finish in 30 minutes, with all of us well under par.


Every hole turned out to have impossible obstacles. A brick wall right in front of one tee. Several wood-and-metal barriers in the first six feet, one after another. A mock overturned milk container and a huge piece of plastic "cheese" in the middle of a putting green. To get around the barriers, we had to hit the ball off the course--a one-stroke penalty--on at least half the holes. It was all so daunting that we spent more time giggling than hitting the ball.

On miniature golf courses at home, I usually wind up within two or three strokes of the typical par of 54; Lucy and Lucas are slightly higher. Par on this course was also 54. My score: 89. Lucy and Lucas were over 100. But the course was right next to a canal, so between errant strokes, missed putts and raucous laughter, we yelled greetings to French families floating by on their barges. The experience wound up being one of the highlights of the delightful week we spent in Burgundy last summer.

I tend to plan my vacations around restaurants, so I've always liked Burgundy--home of some of the world's finest food and wines--but the region can also be great fun for kids, as our excursion to le mini-golf helped prove. Indeed, the main reason we rented a house in this location was that it offered a little bit of everything for everyone--not just good food and wine but sightseeing, relaxation, beautiful scenery and outdoor activities.

The house, which we had rented on the Internet, was about 20 minutes from the golf course. It had three bedrooms, a modern kitchen, large dining and living rooms and a huge frontyard filled with fruit trees, rosebushes and other plants I couldn't begin to identify. It also had several fireplaces and a good selection of English-language videos--none of which we initially expected to use. After all, this was Burgundy in late July. Who would want a fire? And who goes to France to sit around watching American movies?

Guess again.

It was unseasonably chilly that week, and it rained a little almost every day--although, fortunately, almost all the rain fell while we were driving, eating or sleeping. More important, since we were on vacation we didn't have to get up early, so we could stay up late.

On three of our seven nights in the house, we lighted fires and had our own classic film festival. We saw Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday" after dinner at a casual nearby restaurant overlooking a beautiful lake. We saw Ingrid Bergman in "Indiscreet" over a simple supper of bread, cheese, wine and fresh fruit on a day when we had driven two hours each way for a spectacular three-hour lunch at the Michelin three-star La Cote d'Or in Saulieu. We saw James Stewart in "Rear Window" over a dinner that Lucy cooked after a visit to the market in Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, about 35 minutes south of our house.

As it turned out, we had gone to Dijon on the wrong day--Monday, when the main open-air market was closed. We had a pleasant time there anyway--walking through the fine arts museum, which was once a ducal palace; coming upon an impromptu choral performance; admiring a 13th century Gothic church and lunching in the simple Bistro des Halles, across from the site of the market.

Even with the market closed, we were able to buy elsewhere fresh fruits and vegetables and most of the other components of the dinner we planned to have at home that night--including a strawberry cake that turned out to be one of the best desserts of the trip.

But as we left Dijon, Lucas said, "What kind of dinner will this be? We don't have a main course."

"Not to worry," I said, with more confidence than I felt. "Instead of taking the freeway back, we'll take the N74; it's the main road that runs through Burgundy. I'm sure we'll find plenty of places open with good things available."

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