Scaling sand dunes and sampling oysters in Arcachon
On the second day of our visit to Bordeaux we decided to take a day trip to the village of Arcachon with our friend Lucile. Quoting our travel literature, “The beaches at Arcachon are a popular bathing location on the Atlantic coast. A long-time oyster-harvesting area on the south side of the tranquil, triangular Bassin d’Arcachon (Arcachon Bay), this seaside town lured bourgeois Bordelaise at the end of the 19th century. Its four little quarters are romantically named after each of the seasons, with villas that evoke the town’s golden past amid a scattering of 1950’s architecture.”
After about 40 minutes on the expressway, we arrived at a small village which ended at one of the oyster compounds.
Lucile parked the car and we walked through the small street that was lined with cafes and small buildings that the fishermen used. It was low tide so we could see quite far out into the bay. Across the small inlet we could see some of the flat-bottomed boats that are used in the process of oyster farming.
As we walked along, Lucile explained about the process of raising oysters. They begin as “babies” and the old-fashioned way had them attaching to tiles that were covered in chalk. They would be stacked in a certain way and put in the water until they grew large enough to be transferred to baskets where they would continue to grow until they were harvested. The entire cycle takes about three years. The newer procedures use what look like rubberized discs on a long pole. These are obviously more efficient as they hold more of the shellfish.
Because it was low tide it was easier to understand what things looked like on the bay.
There are about 7 “villages” like this one along the bay and most operations appear to be rather modest. However, when Lucile asked one lady how much they harvested in one year she replied, “About 15,000 tons” – this was for one operator! We also learned that all of the oysters in France have their beginnings here and when old enough, are taken to different parts of the country such as Brittany, where the weather and sea conditions have different effects and therefore produce their own unique flavor.
Lucile had made lunch reservations for 12:15 but we were ready for more sightseeing, so she changed to the later time and we made our way to Dune Pyla, the largest sand dune in Europe. It is known as a “foredune” because it runs parallel to the shore behind the high tide line and is slowly encroaching on the land behind it, swallowing up houses, roads and the forest. Also known as the Dune of Pilat, it comes from the Gascon word “Pilhar” which means “heap” or “mound”.
Steps have been provided for the climb and though it was arduous, we made it to the top where we were rewarded with great views across the oyster beds on one side and the huge Landes Forest on the other.
Our next stop was lunch in Arcachon but first we made a quick stop along the way at the Abatilles mineral water company. Although it was closed today, Lucile thought that the pavilion might be open where people can fill their bottles with the water. It wasn’t but it is a beautiful structure worth a picture.
Driving further into Arcachon we marveled at some of the beautiful, and large, homes in the area. They seem to have a style of their own and almost all are named.
Finally it was time for lunch! We parked in town and took about a 10-minute walk to the waterfront where we settled in at Diego Plage. This is supposedly the “in” spot for the town and renowned for their seafood. They didn’t disappoint. We opted for a dozen local oysters before our steak tartar and Dover Sole. Lucile enjoyed a large plate of assorted shellfish and we all shared the Profiteroles for dessert. This was accompanied by a delicious Graves white wine selected by Lucile.
Lucile had a busy week ahead with a trip to the Dordogne so we were back on the road by 3:00. Back in Bordeaux, we sadly said “au revoir” to our friend at the tram stop and returned to the Ship.