The Atlantic coast, between the huge Garonne estuary and Bayonne, is essentially one long, straight, North to South line. The untameable and infinite Atlantic Ocean squares up with the Eurasian continent, in the shape of the huge Landes de Gascogne. In between, the Côte d’Argent, the Silver Coast, a 250 km-long beach.
The vast and flat pine forest called Landes de Gascogne is not the prettiest landscape in France, but perhaps it is the biggest: the forest covers a million hectares. As an elderly lady from the Basque country once said: “The difference between the Landes and the Basque country, is that in the Landes there is one pine, one idiot, one pine, one idiot. In the Basque country, there are no pines.”
The word lande means “moor”, however. Le pignada, a gascon word for the pine forest, only covered a few areas along the coast, due west of Bordeaux. There, the pines are the tallest trees, but oak trees, holly and bracken grow underneath. It is a lovely forest to cycle through, and you may see jays and red squirrels.
Further South, heather and gorse grow under the pine monoculture – it used to be a moor. Driving through it is quite monotonous. Straight roads cross straight forest tracks and fire breaks. Square plots of land only differ from one another by their relative tree height.
One dent in the Côte d’Argent is the bassin d’Arcachon, an odd triangular lagune. Its narrow mouth is only 3 km wide, between Cap Ferret to the North, and le Pyla to the South. The bassin is an extraordinary natural harbour, and a great sea-side resort for the frayed nerves of the Bordeaux bourgeoisie.
Life is here gloriously mellow. It is never too hot in the summer, thanks to the sea air. Under the pines are stylish and eclectic villas: the neo-classical, neo-gothic, mauresque or colonial styles of the nineteenth century alternate with maisons basques, with wooden frames and semi-circular windows, and contemporary houses, clad with pine. Lovingly tended gardens add to the quaint charm. Exploring on a bike has never been easier or more rewarding.
Sailing and socialising on the sea front are the main activities here. The natural harbour of the bassin is a great place for sailing: the Ile aux Oiseaux, Bird Island or the cabanes tchanquées, wooden shacks on stilts, provide interesting destinations for outings. All around the basin, and all year round, there is a brisk trade in the oysters that are Arcachon’s most famous produce.
Just South of the mouth of the bassin d’Arcachon, though, rises the remarkable dune du Pilat. No matter how numerous the crowds who come to visit this huge sand dune. Once they climb the steep slope that rises out of the pine forest, people are tired, dumb struck by the view, and tiny. More than 100 metres-high and 3 kilometres long, this one dune is a landscape onto its own. A match, perhaps a challenge, to the sea on one side and the Landes forest on the other. Suddenly nature is awesome again.