On warm Saturday afternoons, you will find Petaluma resident Ed Porto and a group of other locals in Oak Hill Park playing a friendly game of petanque.

Never heard of petanque? It's a French game similar to bocci that's considered one of the world's most popular outdoor bowling games. Petanque has taken root in Petaluma in recent years thanks to efforts by the Petaluma Valley Petanque Club.

"It's both a sport and a recreational activity," said Porto, president of the PVPC. "It's recreational, but some people do take it to the sport level. I'm one of those people."

Played in about 70 countries, Porto said that the U.S. now has a national organization of its own (Federation of Petanque USA), with 42 clubs nationwide and about 1,700 members.

"It's slowly growing every year," said Porto. "We're making progress and looking to grow and promote the game."

Porto discovered petanque in 1995. He was originally going to play bocci with a friend at the bocci courts in Sonoma, but noticed a group of people nearby playing petanque. He became curious and gave it a try.

"What's when I got interested in the game," said Porto. "I became very involved with the Valley of the Moon Petanque Club, which is a larger entity that does events and hosts competitions."

In 2007, Porto became connected with a couple other Petaluma residents who were interested in organizing a petanque club and finding a place to play in town. Though it took a few years, the PVPC was able to secure a spot in Oak Hill Park to create a court, which the club maintains.

"We just completed our fourth year there," said Porto. "In spring 2009, we put the court in, and since then we've done funrdaisers to raise money to improve the facility, put in a bench, did more landscaping and further enhanced the playing surface. We're pretty much done now. The facility is very attractive and it's a nice view up there."

The petanque club has grown to 28 members, many of whom gather on Saturday afternoons around 2 p.m. at the park for either a casual or competitive game.

The goal of petanque is simple — while standing inside a small circle with both feet on the ground, each player throws metal balls (boules) as close as possible to a small wooden ball (jack). It sounds easy, and it is as far as learning the basics of the game. But Porto said that petanque can involve a great deal of strategy and technique.

"No game is ever the same," said Porto. "There are so many situations that come up with petanque — the terrain you're playing on and where the boules lie on the ground — that affect play. It's a matter of knowing the game and being able to think a few balls ahead. You need to know where to position the boules for maximum effect. The more you play petanque the deeper you get into it, and the more strategic and challenging it becomes."

Though similar to bocce, the main difference between the two games is that petanque is played on any uneven ground, such as grass, sand or gravel. Bocce is played on a consistant surface in a bowling alley-style lane.

"Petanque is played wherever you want, whereas bocce is a little more precise," Porto explained. "You don't need much room to play petanque. It's less formal a game and can be played anywhere. Though it's easy to learn it is difficult to master."

PVPC member and Petaluma resident Teri Sirico discovered the game in 1997 when Schug Winery hosted an open house featuring petanque demonstrations by the Valley of the Moon Petanque Club.

"I tried the game and thought, &‘I can do this.' I also thought it was a great way to meet people," said Sirico. "I started going to the court and stuck around a bit. Eventually I became the first woman president of the Valley of the Moon club."

Sirico loves the game particularly for its social and competitive aspects.

"What I tell beginners is that perfect balance in petanque is a boule in one hand and a glass of wine in the other," said Sirico. "It's a great way have a pleasant afternoon and meet people. Me being a competitive player, I travel throughout the U.S. when I can to play in tournaments. You get the opportunity to make new friends from here and from around the world. My goal is to someday be able to represent the U.S. in a world championship."

While there is plenty of opportunity to become a competitive petanque player, the game can still be casual and is suitable for all ages. It's not a rigorous sport that requires the strength that many other sports do. The club currently has everyone from children to 90 year olds coming out to play petanque.

"It's a great game for all ages," said Sirico. "We really encourage people to come by the court at Oak Hill. We have extra boules, so people can feel free to come out, learn and play."

To learn more about PVPC, visit www.petalumapetanque.com.

The Valley of the Moon Petanque Club hosts the FPUSA Nationals mixed doubles, and men's and women's doubles tournaments on May 18-19 in the Depot Park in Sonoma. Spectators are encouraged to stop by during the afternoon games to watch high-level play. For details, visit www.vompc.org.

(Contact Yovanna Bieberich at yovanna.bieber ich@arguscourier.com)