I am standing atop Europe’s largest heap of sand, the Dune du Pilat. Before me, the Atlantic Ocean spreads infinitely, teasing its magnitude before disappearing on the horizon. Behind me, a giant forest of pines stretches inland, slowly being chased by the dune; over time the 60 million cubic meters of silky fine sand are pushed eastward by wind and tidal movements. In the summer, dune-goers sunbathe on the sky-high beach, 361 feet above sea level. Today, swaddled in scarves on a cold, clear day, they slog their way to the top, many dropping to their knees to finish the steep climb.
As I walk across the shifting sands — a task even more strenuous than traversing jagged cobblestone streets — my calves cramp up. Winds lash my hair, whipping onto my face and sabotaging my every selfie attempt. Months later, after my return home, I will find sand in the seams of my shoes. So why would anyone leave the vibrant streets of Paris for a giant mound of unruly sand in the southwest corner of France?
“Paris is dirty,” said a Parisian woman seated next to us at a cafe a few days earlier, lighting a cigarette. Doesn’t she like living in Paris? “In some ways, yes,” she says, “but I’m ready to leave.” She wants somewhere quieter.
Not so jaded as our cafe companion, my fellow traveler and I find Paris beguiling, its romance effortless, its cool undeniable. But we also know that equally interesting — and yes, quieter — cities lie outside of this tight coil of arrondissements. So we set off the next day to visit Bordeaux, a two-hour high-speed train ride to the southwest. The city and surrounding wine country carries a regional character all its own, one we could absorb at a relatively slow pace. And part of it is that enormous mound of sand.
The view from the top of the dune is one of the most incredible in all of France. Beneath the 360 degrees of sky, the yin of green treetops is separated from the yang of cold saltwater by this improbable mountain of sand.
We’d come from Bordeaux, nearly 40 miles away, that morning with two friends who live in the city. After the hike — essentially up a vertical beach — our appetites begin to grow. We shake out the sand from our shoes and socks, climb into the car and head back up the small highway in search of lunch.
Driving north, we curve around the Arcachon Bay and then head down the peninsula of Cap-Ferret. Up and down the cape, signs for dégustation d’huîtres, oyster tastings, lure us to stop. In a blip of a town called Le Canon, we find ourselves winding through weather-worn shacks, decorated with shells and colorful paint peeling from the siding. A golden retriever seemingly fueled on sun and mollusks bounds between the little houses and leads us down to the shore, where we watch a solitary fisherman, in no mood to chat, trawl nets from the water.
In case there were any illusions about the singular focus of this huddle of houses along the bay, a menu posted on the outside of a restaurant makes it clear. Oysters can be had by the half-dozen or dozen, plus a handful of snacks, and a few local wines — but “no coffee, no dessert, no ice cream, no crêpes, no fancy stuff, no burgers, no fries, no mussels, no soda, no salad, no clafoutis. … ”
For a meal that’s more substantial than oysters and wine, we file into what looks like nothing more than a cafe and tabac, but extends into a sunny, simple dining room. Lunch consists of several affordable glasses of wine, freshly caught fish prepared simply and perfectly, and a mélange of springtime vegetables. For dessert, the cafe gourmand plates mignardises — decadent mini-desserts including a cream puff, a madeleine and chocolate fondant — alongside espresso.
In Bordeaux, oysters are everywhere. At a local haunt, Le Petit Commerce in the heart of town, you can shop for bivalves plucked from Arcachon Bay that morning, arrayed on ice alongside whole crabs and other fresh catches. Or you can take the 15-step trip across Rue de Parlement to the store’s sister cafe, where six plump and sweet oysters hit our table as we scan the chalkboard for the day’s two-course prix fixe menu. The best lunches in France come this way: The diner selects some variation of appetizer or salad plus entree plus dessert for an extremely reasonable price (usually around $20). Today, the selection brings us a lentil soup with poached egg or a spinach and ricotta ravioli to start. It’s followed by a whole fish with caramelized sweet potatoes or boudin noir (a meaty, rich blood sausage) with potato mash. Here, as in every restaurant we encountered, even the complimentary bread and butter is exquisite, and wholly devoured. The elegant simplicity of rustic French cuisine is in full splendor.
We spy young and old diners taking long lunches, lingering over glasses of wine and finishing with coffee. Junior, a bearded dachshund, saunters between tables like he owns the joint (in point of fact, his owner does). He pauses intermittently to look up at diners, willing a scrap to fall.
Our server — on his second day of the job, we learn — is bad at hiding his excitement when we tell him we’re American. He finds several excuses to stop by our table to casually bring up basketball. Eventually, he drops the charade and stops by just to rattle off the name of every French player in the NBA. The owner, meanwhile, tells us repeatedly that his son married an American from Florida. “Cocoa Beach!” he keeps saying. Then he sends two glasses of Champagne to our table.
Like Champagne, Bordeaux wine is protected by official and historic appellations. The regional industry is built on terroir and tradition, knowing the land and taking one’s time, the perfect foil to the bustle and multiplicity of Paris.
Bordeaux’s wine region
Surrounding the city of Bordeaux, the greater wine territory consists of, to the west, the Medoc and Graves regions of the Left Bank; and to the east, the Libournais, Bourg and Blaye of the Right Bank. Oenophiles, wine distributors and people with very expensive drinking habits pilgrimage here in the late spring and summer to meet with winemakers and taste their blends, mostly some combination of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Guided tours ferry visitors from château to château, sampling wines from internationally recognized vineyards. If they’ve planned well in advance, they tour the historic premier cru châteaux of Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion, the first officially classified wines of Bordeaux.
For more history of winemaking in the region, we take another day trip to wind through the quiet, narrow streets of Saint-Emilion, roughly 30 miles east of Bordeaux. A medieval city with Romanesque churches, it was also the site of some of the country’s first vineyards, planted by Romans as early as 56 B.C. Natural caves were perfect for the production of wine, and you can still tour them today. When we do, we’re greeted by a mustachioed French man, eager to tell us about the barrels stacked behind him and provide samples from the bottles lining the cave wall.
Unsurprisingly, the greater wine region of Saint-Emilion is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
So is the city of Bordeaux. Known both as the Port of the Moon and the Sleeping Beauty, it is worthy of its dreamy monikers. The impeccably preserved city boasts more protected historic buildings than any city in France except Paris, and is recognized as an architectural embodiment of Enlightenment values: humanism, culture and the free exchange of ideas.
As we walk along the bank of the River Garonne, passing the majestic 18th-century limestone buildings of the grand Place de la Bourse and the ornate Pont de Pierre stone bridge, we are transported in time — and then vaulted back to modernity by the passing of a tram. The seamless light-rail system connects every corner of the city. We hop one to the Cité du Vin, and find more evidence of Bordeaux’s modern streak: The museum dedicated to all things wine is housed in a seemingly edgeless silver monument that rises over the Garonne like a levitating cloud of liquid metal. We make our way through the Cité du Vin’s impressive historical and cultural tour of viticulture, then head to the top floor of the museum for a complimentary glass of our choice, and one of the best views of the city.
One afternoon, after a leisurely prix fixe lunch, we stroll down the Rue Sainte Catherine, famous for its endless stretch of shops, longer than any contiguous stretch found in the country, even Paris. Almost exclusively pedestrian, Rue Sainte Catherine begins at the stunning Place de la Comedie, where Gordon Ramsay’s Brasserie Le Bordeaux in Le Grand Hotel sits facing the spectacular theater of the Opera National de Bordeaux, and funnels into the student-filled Place de la Victoire.
We stop for a canelé, a rum- and vanilla-flavored pastry that is shaped like a chef’s toque and hides within its chewy, caramelized exterior an almost custard-like center. (The regional chain, Baillardran, is a respected and ubiquitous purveyor of this specialty of Bordeaux.) Now late afternoon, we head into the Place de la Victoire to grab a drink. It is the magical hour when a coffee or an aperitif would be equally appropriate. From the modest cafes, scores of patio tables sprawl toward the center of the open square, and students from the nearby university break from their studies to fill them.
Despite our best efforts, our server recognizes interlopers and asks where we’re from. America, we say. His formerly cool demeanor melts into familiarity. “I love America. I traveled there when I was younger.” Where? “California, New York, my favorite was South Dakota.”
Our eyes widen in disbelief. “Really?” we press him. “South Dakota?”
Yes, he likes the open land. “The West,” he says, suddenly childlike.
He smiles and disappears. We still imagine he’s out there giving his enthusiastic pitch: “Forget New York. If you really want to see America, you’ve got to get out of the city.”
Hannah Sayle is managing editor at City Pages.