Driving Through South-Western France

We rented a car from Hertz to explore outside the city. It was a standard and very compact. I could imagine it would be very uncomfortable for anyone larger or taller than me!

Driving outside of town was very amusing (at least for me). There were constant roundabouts, even on the highway! Made sense though – no stoplights slowing you down.

photo of a sand dune against a blue sky

The Dune of Pyla/Pilat

Our first stop was the Dune of Pyla/Pilat (we saw two different spellings for what appears to be the same place). I’d picked up a postcard with it the day before and remarked on it to Matt. It hadn’t crossed my mind to actually visit it, but Matt did some research and it was now #1 on our To See list for the day.

The dune blew our minds – it was my favourite part of the trip! It was unlike anything I had experienced before! It was 110m high, 500m wide, and 2.7km long. Unlike the [diminutive] sand dunes I knew from camping trips to Pinery Provincial Park back home, you could walk all over this one! It was a little hard to watch people run and slide down with “Do not walk on the dunes…” engraved in me from the Pinery, but the joy radiating from people as they ran and slid was wonderful to witness!

Matt and I hiked up to the top of the sand dune. I was in a constant state of awe, stopping to photograph everything. Matt took the steepest route he could find (he does love a good slope!) and I took the regular footpath. I felt like I was in the Sahara Desert – this was the most sand I’d seen in my entire life!

Except it wasn’t a desert. On one side was a forest of evergreen trees and the other was the Atlantic Ocean. Apparently the dune is slowly taking over the forest and has even covered homes in the area! It moves 1-5 meters a year, sand being blown in by the wind from the sea, then tumbling over into the trees.

On the ocean side, it slopes 5 to 20 degrees, and on the forest side it is much steeper: 30 to 40 degrees! This made for a very exciting hike. The steepness provided a sense of danger, as if we could fall to our deaths, but the sand prevented us from falling. Even when people tried to slide down, the sand stopped them.

photo of people hiking on a sand dune


We would have liked to walked the whole dune, but there are only so many hours of sunlight in the day… and a winter’s day at that! So, we got back in the car to drive in the direction of Arachon, the nearest town, to pick up some food before heading out to the medieval wine town of St. Emilion.

I had read on one of the dune’s information plaques that locals salvaged wood from below the dune for their oyster shacks. That gave me a craving for seafood, so we set our GPS to the cheapest seafood place nearby. We had imaged something like a chip truck or seafood shack, but instead we found ourselves in an upscale town made up almost entirely of summer homes! It was like a ghost town. Most of the cottages/villas/condos were shuttered up. I had never seen such a dense array of vacation homes, and to think that is all these were: summer homes! Wow.

We had trouble finding anything open. We did find two restaurants by the pier, but they were expensive. We wandered the vacant streets, occasionally passing an old woman in a fur coat or a couple out for a stroll. There were more people along the beach, but even that was nearly empty.

Burger Bros

We found a burger joint that was open. The staff at Burger Boys were very friendly. Matt ordered a cheeseburger and I had the plat du jour. The staff didn’t know how to describe the plat du jour in English, so all we know that it was some sort of cut of beef. When they tried to explain it to Matt, he thought they were saying it was some sort of steak. Each time Matt said “So, its some kind of steak?” the waiter would wave his finger at him, “No, no, not steak!”. This happened at least twice.

I quite enjoyed my mystery beef. It had been awhile since we’d have any real meat as we’d been primarily living off of bread and cheese during our trip. It came with fries, which I ate in the European way: dipping them in mayonnaise!

Grocery Store

We spotted a grocery store that was open so went in to check out the wind selection. There were some boxes for bottles that I presumed were free like back home. Most of them were mouldy, so I presumed they were just trying to get rid of one. Matt took his time looking over the wine bottles. The French wines ranging from 0.77 to 92€ on the grocery shelf! When we went to the cash, they charged me 2€ for the mouldy box. When I protested, they said I had to buy it because I had broken it. I didn’t know how to communicate all the boxes were broken.

photo of a medieval town from above

St. Emilion

The next destination on our road trip was the medieval town of St. Emilion. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with lots of wineries. As we approached, we finally got to see the Bordeaux we had been expecting. There were rolling hills, old vineyards, crumbling old stone walls, regal chateaus, and winding cobble stone streets.

We were greeted in St. Emilion with the bell in the old church ringing out overhead. Doves cooed and the afternoon sun gave a soft orange hue to the stone walls of the town.

The medieval part of town felt abandoned except for the occasional tourist or shopkeeper. We wandered about admiring the picturesque quality of the town. There were sheep grazing by a vineyard, a cat lazing in the sun, and birds sitting on the clay roofs of houses. It was if time had left this place untouched except for the electric lamp posts that lined the narrow streets.

We stopped in a convenience store that also served as the local bar for some mulled wine. The shop keeper had to search for some take-out cups for us, and steamed the wine with the espresso machine as if it were milk for a latte! We continued our wander, sipping our mulled wine, the cups warming our hands.

We tried to find a winery that was open, but all the gates were locked shut. I had read you needed to make appointments at chateaus, but I thought that only applied to professionals in the industry or high-balling connoisseurs . That might have also applied to the general public I now suppose. Bordeaux was very different from the wine country I knew back home in Niagara!

We continued our hunt for an open winery by car until sun down. We found a bakery that was open and bought two delicious loafs of bread and a canalé. One bread was forked on either end, giving it four heels for Matt to enjoy (I don’t like the heels of bread). The other was packed full of olives and the soft bread melted in your mouth. It was so good!

photo of a vineyard at sunset

Last Night in Bordeaux

We made our way home in the dark. Once we got back into town, the car stalled twice in traffic. The stress of that helped give us a jolt of energy to pack that evening. We had a dinner of bread, cheese, and wine, splitting our canalé from St. Emilion in half to enjoy as dessert. Once our bags were packed and ready by the door, we crawled into bed and fell asleep.

Back to Paris tomorrow… then home!