Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Other Side of Bordeaux – Beaches and Giant Sand Dunes

(Sept 2016) When most people hear the word “Bordeaux,” the first thought that comes to mind is usually “wine,” but Bordeaux is actually situated very near to the Atlantic Ocean and is home to many famous white sandy beaches, as well as the largest sand dune in Europe – the Dune of Pilat. On this trip I decided to explore the other side of Bordeaux, and enjoy some of the touristy sites located only a few miles from some of the famous vineyards. Of course, I also enjoyed some very fine wines!

Beach Near Bordeaux

Becoming a French Immersion Student in Bordeaux

On all of my other trips to Bordeaux (this was the 6th time I’ve visited), my focus has always been visiting the vineyards and chateaux of the region. This time, however, I was in Bordeaux for a two-week French language immersion class without a car.  Living with a French family, as part of my immersion experience, I was ideally located with walking distance of the CIVB Bar du Vin, the Grand Hotel, trams, and the Garonne River. Therefore I became a regular citizen, walking almost everywhere, and taking public transportation (tram, bus, train, taxi).

Statue in Downtown Bordeaux 
The house I lived in was built in the late 1800’s and was located on the Rue Palais du Gallien. Built of stone, it was tall and narrow, with a beautiful long garden in the back where we ate dinner most evenings. My room was located on the 3rd floor of the 4-story structure with a bath across the hall. I had to walk up and down a circular flight of stairs several times a day, and many nights had trouble sleeping because the un-air-conditioned room was very hot in late August/early September.

Mirror Lake at the Bourse in Downtown Bordeaux

However, I greatly enjoyed the evening meal of four courses with wine, including entre, main course, a cheese course, and then dessert.  Each night I struggled to understand the French conversation, but by the end of the two weeks I was able to converse on a basic level. During the mornings, I took intense French language courses, and in the afternoon met with business colleagues or attended the FrancLangue’s cultural excursions to local museums.

Cheese Course at Chez Sylvie's - Family Home for French Language Course

Visit to the Dune of Pilat

One Saturday, I decided to visit the famous Dune of Pilat – the largest sand dune in Europe, which is located about 35 miles outside of Bordeaux right near the ocean. Therefore, I walked to the tram stop in the large square called Quinconces, where I took the tram to the St. Jean Gare train station. From there, I caught the express train to Arcachon, which took 30 minutes. Arcachon is a charming little seaside town that I visited later in the day for dinner on the beach.

I exited the train station and walked only a few yards to the #1 bus stop. For one euro, I enjoyed the 30-minute bus ride that wove through tree-lined streets with flashes of the ocean in the distance, as we headed in the direction of the Dune of Pilate. People with surfboards got on and off the bus at the various beaches we passed.

Climbing up the Dune of Pilat

When we arrived at the famous park of the dunes, I followed the signs and soon was passing through a bevy of small shops selling ice cream and souvenirs.  Eventually I came to a sandy path surrounded by trees, which, after about a five-minute walk, opened up to the largest sand dune I have ever seen.

The Dune of Pilat has apparently been formed over many thousands of years, and shifts in size and shape based on the wind and ocean. Right now it is around 110 meters tall (over 300 feet), and is quite steep.  I watched in amazement as hundreds of people climbed slowly to the top – everyone barefoot and shuffling through very soft white sand.

View from the Top of the Dune of Pilat

After about 15 minutes of climbing, I reached the top and was rewarded with a great view of the ocean and Cap de Ferret across a narrow strait of water. Boats zoomed around and many people splashed in the water far below.  Since the day was in the high 80’s F with some humidity, I could perfectly understand the desire to be in the water. One surprising fact was that forests of pine trees surrounded the dune, and I wondered what type of pine grows in sandy soil near the ocean.

After sitting in the sand on top of the dune for a while, with hundreds of other people, I slowly descended to the beach far below and waded in the water.  I was dreading the long high back up the top of the dune to the bus stop, when I saw a sign stating there was an easier way back.  Therefore, I followed the directions up a steep flight of stairs that led to a residential neighborhood.  This was a bit confusing – how to get back to the bus stop?

Beach on the other side of the Dune du Pilat

 So I asked several people who all pointed in the general direction of the road, and after about a 30-minute walk through a housing developing, I came out on the main road again and saw a different bus stop.  Hoping I could still catch my bus back to town from there, I waited a short time until another bus approached, and thankfully it was the #1 bus back to Arcachon.

The Beach at Arcachon

Several years ago I had visited the beach at Arcachon on a cloudy cold day, and it was empty and lonely looking.  Therefore, I was unprepared for the masses of tourists that sunbathed on the beach and frolicked in the water when I arrived.

Popular and Crowded Beach at Arcachon

The bus dropped me off back near the train station, which is within walking distance of the charming downtown of Arcachon and the beach.  I liked the fact that Arcachon has a walking pedestrian street lined with colorful shops, flowers, and restaurants.  Peeking in shops and reading menus, I enjoyed a leisurely stroll through town until I came to the white sandy beach.  It was such a beautiful sunny day with everyone in a happy holiday mood, that it was impossible not to feel relaxed.

Pedestrian Walkway in Downtown Arcachon

After wading in the water a bit, I found a great little restaurant with a view of the beach, where I enjoyed a goat cheese salad and a big plate of mussels.  Seafood, especially mussels and oysters, are the specialty of the area. I enjoyed this with a glass of local white wine made from muscadelle, one of the less well known grapes that is allowed in a Bordeaux blanc (also called Sauvignon Vert). It had floral notes, was very fruity, and slightly sweet – just perfect with my mussels.

Mussels and Muscadelle Wine at Seaside Cafe in Arcachon


After my early dinner, I caught the train back to Bordeaux, and then went to visit the CIVB Bar du Vin (see next post).

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