From vines to pines

This week, we went from wine country to pine country as we left the Bordeaux area and headed further south through the massive pine forest that is Landes de Gascogne Regional Natural Park in the New Aquitane region in the south west of France.

After picking up our dog from his amputation operation from the vet in Cognac we spent some days chilling in the lovely little commune of Coutras, east of Bordeaux. It was perfect, there was a free camp site on the river with facilities and a playground for the kids. Liam & I got to do lots of yoga and I crochetted like crazy and got some new pieces uploaded to my etsy shop. It was just what we all needed after an emotional week. We found it hard to pick the next place but we were eager to visit some vineyards as we were so close to wine country. We knew we should be heading towards the Gironde estuary which is the largest estuary in Europe where the Dordogne & Garonne rivers flow by the centre of Bordeaux to the Atlantic ocean.

We picked the town of Blaye on the banks of the estuary & started driving west and there was acres of vines as far as the eye could see. We ended up pulling into a vineyard called Marquis de Vaubaun castle which welcomed campervans. We parked up and went to explore the nearby town and the citadel. The cidal was a huge star shaped fort similar to one at home in Duncannon in Wexford but maybe twenty times bigger. The lady at the tourist office googled the one at home and couldn’t believe the similarities.

In the middle ages trade in this estuary grew massively and Bordeaux became a major port but all this commerce and prosperity left the city open to attack and had already been the scene of many battles from Viking raids to a Spanish naval victory.

To control traffic on the estuary, Louis XIV asked the Marshall of France Sebastien Le Prestre de Vaubaun to improve the defence of Blaye. Vaubaun was the General Commissioner for Fortifications and he had overseen the building of 160 fortifications across France and in 1685, he built the citadel at Blaye and Bordeaux wasn’t attacked again until 1814. It’s now a listed UNESCO world heritage site since 2008.

Blaye citadel

We left the citadel to chill out back at our campervan and chat to our neighbours. Not only did this place welcome campervans, it provided free water and electric hook up and at 6pm every evening a hostess rings a bell on the mansion house to invite all the campers over to the lawn in front of the house for a complimentary apperatif which was a coctail of their own châteax red wine mixed with blackcurrant grenadine and we had it with nuts and pretzels. It was so special not only because we got to get tipsy for free but because it was the first time we actually properly socialised. We got chatting to some of our camping neighbours and made some lovely new friends. We met the cool German Achin and his bubbly partner Britta who loved playing games with the kids and they learned loads from her. They had a converted lorry campervan which they use for half the year and we may bump into them again along our travels. We also met Barry and Margaret, a retired couple from Lincoln in the UK who travel for a full month, three or four times a year. We arrived & parked up right beside them, they were the first english speaking campers we met so we had lots to say. They so generously gave us all of their camper vanning guides and maps for Spain, France & Portugal as they are finishing up their trip and heading home to their grandchildren. Margaret had googled our blog (since it’s on the side of our campervan) and it turns out she has a friend who I know and she lives and works on the Hook peninsula in Irelands south east where we are from. Small world. We loved our stay there, the following morning we all packed up and were leaving around the same time, we said our goodbyes, exchanged contact details and as we pulled out Ellen yelled out “auf wiederzehen” to our German friends and Alex’s cheeky head followed and he yelled “happy birthday” and off we all went.

We really had no idea where to go next but the sea was calling. The dune du Pilat on the Archachon peninsula, the biggest sand dune in Europe, was on our list and we decided to take the motorway for our very first time, bypassed the city of Bordeaux and we were there in just over an hour. We pulled straight into the carpark in the pine forest to the east of the giant sand dune and for a rather expensive €8 you can park there for two hours. I wont give out about the price though, I think it goes towards the conservation of the forest or dune or something, I can’t remember. We stayed for two hours running around the sand dune, roly-polied, took pictures and watched the paragliders take off from the top. The dune is 110m high, nearly 3km long and 500m wide and it’s been slowly moving east swallowing the pine forest at a rate of up to 5 metres every year and it’s known locally as the “sand monster” for that reason.

Dune du Pilat, the Landes forest on the east, Atlantic ocean to the west

Playing on the dune brought back memories of my own childhood when I used to spend all my summers on a bay called “the big burrow” in Fethard-on-Sea in Irelands south east. There were what seemed to me mountains of huge dunes with natural pathways and a crater in the dunes with driftwood seating and a little fire pit for barbeques. Being from a peninsula where you can visit a different beach every day for a fortnight, that one was our favourite and in the blink of an eye it was gone. As Jimi Hendrix once said “Even castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually”. It is the nature of sand dunes, possibly the cycle of them. They come and go, take over & take away. Once the dune in France eventually changes course, they expect to uncover a Bronze Age settlement but for now they are capitalising on the tourism of the dune itself. The dunes at my home in Fethard disappeared within a couple of years and changed the tides in the bay, it’s not as safe to swim there anymore without the dunes to shelter the beach but my grandmother always though it was a cycle, she heard the dunes at Fethard come every one hundred years so we should expect them back some time at the end of this century.

Dune du Pilat, the Landes forest on the east, Atlantic ocean to the west

On top of the biggest sand dune in Europe

We parked up and wild camped in the pine forest just south of the dune with all the surfers & windsurfers but it wasn’t ideal, it was dusty with fine wood dust mixed with sand and the breeze had covered us and the camper in it so we left early the next morning.

The vast area of the Landes pine forest

This forest is bloody massive, we can’t believe we’re still in it. It’s 10,000 square kilometres and was planted in the 19th Century. Prior to the planting of this huge forest, the Landes area was marshland and the people used to walk around it on stilts, seriously. The pines were planted mainly to rehabilitate the landscape and stop erosion in the region.

Jean Louis Gintrac (1808—1886), Inhabitants of the Landes

We stuck to the coast and landed at a place called Contis and parked up in a campervan park, still in the pine forest, this time beside a really cool lighthouse. Le phare de Contis was built in 1860, it’s 38metres high, has 183 steps and apparantly you can see Spain from the top and it flashes in our bedroom window 4 times every 25 seconds. It’s painted black and white and the first lighthouse we’ve seen that’s painted spiral-ey. We’re out of season now so it and all of the shops in the village are closed but it is a very chilled and relaxing place still busy with surfers.

Contis phare sticking out of the Landes forest

Contis plage

Liam went cycling yesterday to find a boulangerie to buy a few baguettes, three hours later he arrived back soaking in sweat after getting lost in the forest trails and had cycled nearly 50km for two baguettes but thankfully he brought back a pack of Heineken too. You know you’re getting close to Spain when the beer gets cheaper. I’ve been so surprised at the price of beer in France, €7 for a pint at most bars and it’s even expensive in the supermarkets, however you can buy a crate of wine for a tenner, a caraffe of wine in a bar for a fiver and literally half the supermarket aisles are filled with wine.

We are getting closer and closer to Spain and as we’ll probably be spending most of the winter there we better brush up on our Spanish.

Next stop, the Pyrenees

Published by Niamh & Liam Colfer

Niamh & Liam Colfer currently livin' on the Hook peninsula in County Wexford offering yoga and breath-work classes, personal training and hike the Hook walking tours. All about healthy balanced lifestyle, home schooling, travel, outdoor life, sea swims and on the Hook / off the Hook adventures.

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