The largest sand dune in Europe, the oyster capital of France and the irresistible temptations of Bordeaux

 
 

The invigorating smell of pine needles, piquant ocean salt and sun-dried August flowers – some experienced French perfumer could make a nice fragrance using the vivid scents of the dense coastal air. Here, no matter how deeply you breathe, it’s still not deep enough.

Riding a rental bike and pedaling as fast as possible, we swish along empty roads towards the natural wonder located nearby, the Dune of Pilat. The roadside villas are hidden from view behind thick greenery, and the lacework fences deny our natural curiosity. However, this is no time to admire the architecture. We’re running out of time to reach our destination, to catch the dune when the setting sun turns the sand gold and paints the horizon in shades of grey and pink.

Finally, here it is – a giant sandy mountain. Climbing up the unsteady surface is no simple task. Every step causes a small avalanche, and your sneakers soon fill with fine sand. Somewhere on the side there are stairs, but it’s only for the weak in spirit and body. I kick of my shoes and go barefoot, and sink to my ankle in warm silky sand. It's no faster like this, but feels much more luxurious.

The Dune of Pilat, located in Arcachon Bay, is the largest sand dune in Europe. It's over one hundred meters high and five hundred meters wide, and extends for almost three kilometers. The dune is alive, constantly growing and shifting from side to side. They say that every year the sandy mountain becomes higher by about four meters and recaptures another few meters of the sea.

This giant sandbox is Aquitaine’s main attraction. Tourists ascend the ridge for the spectacular photo opportunity, a view over the narrow yellow strip of the beach, the giant Cape Ferret headland, the sandbank sparkling on the matte background of blue water, and the dense greenery of the coniferous forests. Some local teens are lying on the sand nearby, smoking and picking tunes on a guitar. Children run wild, finding out which of them is the king of the mountain and almost tumbling all the way to the bottom in the process. And the adults, having laid out bread, cheese and wine on a cover prudently carried with them from home, arrange picnics.

I first heard about Arcachon Bay, which is known as the oyster capital of France, three years ago from an occasional acquaintance while chatting in a restaurant in Bordeaux. Sipping a glass of red in anticipation of the main dish, Mathieu told me that for the best oysters you must head to Andernos-les-Bains, where the oyster farmers live. Even the freshest mollusks are sold for peanuts, and you can try the oysters caught all around the bay.

It seemed to me that the French are a little shy about spreading word of the resort. It’s almost as if they want to keep the bay secret, with its sandy beaches, fantastic nature, clean air and endlessly calm ocean water.

Hotels here are few and far between, and you need to book rooms six-months in advance of the high season, when the water in the bay warms up to 23–24° C. The busiest place is Arcachon. The city appeared in the middle of the 19th century. At first the hill was covered with villas looking like palaces from a fairytale and decorated by multi-faceted turrets with chiseled balconies and arched windows. This area was named Ville d'Hiver – Winter City. Later on came Spring, Summer and Autumn, and Arcachon began to be called the city of four seasons. In reality you can come here at any time of the year to take a leisurely stroll along the beach and through the pine groves, breathe the ocean air, gorge on the sea delicacies and indulge yourself with the sea-water therapies available.

It seemed to me that the French are a little shy about spreading word of the resort. It’s almost as if they want to keep the bay secret, with its sandy beaches, fantastic nature, clean air and endlessly calm ocean water.

Hotels here are few and far between, and you need to book rooms six-months in advance of the high season, when the water in the bay warms up to 23–24° C. The busiest place is Arcachon. The city appeared in the middle of the 19th century. At first the hill was covered with villas looking like palaces from a fairytale and decorated by multi-faceted turrets with chiseled balconies and arched windows. This area was named Ville d'Hiver – Winter City. Later on came Spring, Summer and Autumn, and Arcachon began to be called the city of four seasons. In reality you can come here at any time of the year to take a leisurely stroll along the beach and through the pine groves, breathe the ocean air, gorge on the sea delicacies and indulge yourself with the sea-water therapies available.

To look at the city and the bay from a height, you need to climb the Eiffel Tower. Yes, that’s right, there really is one here. The shaky metal structure of the Sainte Cecile observatory, to which the spiral staircase leads, was built by the young and still unknown Gustave Eiffel. A sign at the bottom gives fair warning that no more than six people can be at the top of the platform at any one time. Even on a calm day, the tower sways slightly, but there are quite many visitors nonetheless – the sight from the top is certainly worth it.

Traveling along Arcachon Bay is easiest in a rented boat, and when on the shore – hire a car or a bicycle. But a change of perspective never hurts and about half an hour's drive from the city there is a flying club, where for less than a hundred euros you can take a trip on a small two- or three-seat airplane, with a pilot.

Arriving at the airport, I felt like I'd stepped into a pre-war movie. The aircraft are rolled out from the hangars to the runway by hand. The cockpit can only be reached by pulling yourself up and jumping onto the wing. Inside there aren't any computers, just a few mysterious devices, but the pilot, who looks a bit like an elderly Jean-Paul Belmondo, isn't bothered. A quick briefing is held, and it’s chocks away!

Despite it's small size, the plane accelerates quickly and makes a smooth ascent. We bravely bank into a sharp turn, but seeing the look of horror on my face rather than delight, the pilot levels off. He understands that today it is better to forgo the aerobatics. Gaining altitude, we just make a few circles over the bay. From here one can clearly see the ships scurrying between the mainland and Cape Ferrat (at night, its lighthouse winks at the Arcachonians with a red light). I can see the Dune of Pilat down below, like a frozen yellow wave, and rhythmic rows of oyster cages, exposed by ocean at low tide, and Bird Island with its two picturesque houses on stilts.

After Arcachon, relaxing as any resort city, Bordeaux, which is only an hour's ride by train, seems large and pompous. On the Stock Exhange Square (Place de la Bourse), the luxurious buildings of the Customs Museum and the Stock Exchange Palace are reflected in the smooth surface of the water fountain. The facade of the Grand Theater, looking over the spacious Place de la Comédie, is decorated with 14 graceful columns and 12 statues of goddesses from the Roman pantheon. And the shop-windows in the "golden triangle", the most expensive quarter of the city bordered by the streets of Allée de Tourny, Cours de l'Intendance and Cours Clemenceau, promise all the pleasures that consumerism offers.

But it's worth getting off the main thoroughfares and heading down Bordeaux’s cosy back streets. It's a pleasure to walk around, stare at the shop windows and take a seat in a cafe. The tight alleys are full of bakeries, wine shops and delicatessens, where you will be constantly tempted by the local shopkeepers with samples of rare wine, cheese and foie gras. They know what they’re doing, tastings certainly whet one's appetite.

Where to go for dinner is not a simple question. Le Chapon Fin, a restaurant which opened shortly after the French Revolution, offers modern cuisine. But even more striking than the food is the interior, resembling a mountain grotto under a glass roof. If you want something traditional, then it is best to head to the bistro Le Bouchon Bordelais. The menu has some French classics: tartar, sweetbread and delicate сrème brûlée. Gourmet dining with a British accent can be had at Le Bordeaux Gordon Ramsay – the restaurant of the Intercontinental Hotel on Place de la Comedie. But, perhaps the best choice of all is to go to the Capuchins market (Marche des Capucins) and, settling at a shaky bistro table, order a luxurious platter of seashells, crabs and shrimps. And don’t forget to stock up on some French sweets, cheeses and pate to make your loved ones even more delighted upon your return.

Cultural component

  • The Museum of Aquitaine (Musée d'Aquitaine) holds tens of thousands of artifacts and documents that reveal the history of the region. The earliest exhibits of the collection date back to the prehistoric era, there are artifacts from the Middle Ages, Roman and early Christian times. Separate halls are dedicated to the art of the peoples of Africa and Oceania.
  • The Bordeaux Museum of Art (Musee des Beaux-Arts) is one of the oldest museums of fine art in France. It has paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Titian, Matisse, Renoir, as well as canvases by the finest artists from Bordeaux – post-impressionist painter Albert Marquet and one of the founders of the symbolism, Odilon Redon.
  • The Museum of Contemporary Art (CAPC Musée d'Art Contemporain de Bordeaux) has an impressive collection, with a core of about a thousand works created by masters of the avant-garde of the late 20th century. In addition, there are regular temporary exhibitions of contemporary artists, as well as concerts, seminars and meetings with figures from the art world.
  • The City of Wine (La Cite du Vin): a spectacular building resembling a decanter is home to a modern interactive museum, detailing the history, traditions and culture of wine production. The tour ends with a tasting in the panoramic bar on the top floor, and in the museum's boutique you can buy wines from 80 countries.
 

Text: Svetlana Troitskaya

Published on: May 20, 2018