Faust, Toledo, Mona Lisa, Amadeus … I am in Arcachon, just an hour’s drive from the wine city of Bordeaux. Many of the streets and homes here take their name from famous characters of operas, men and plays. It’s hard to believe that long ago this was just an anonymous, desolate stretch of flat marshy land.
In the year 1852 the two enterprising Pereire brothers, well-known financiers in Paris at the time, arranged to have the railway lines laid connecting the town of Arcachon to Bordeaux. To make it profitable they laid the foundations of the Winter Town, and built a Moorish casino modeled on the Alhambra in Granada and a luxury hotel. Mature pines were planted to drain the marshes.
Wealthy aristocrats came to Arcachon to breathe in the elixir of fresh seaside air and inhale the fragrance of pines and it became the perfect “sanatorium village” for Europe’s sick elite.
The Four Seasons
Arcachon has four seasons, which have nothing to do with the weather! The different parts of the town were named after the seasons—a Spring Town with a thermal spring, a Summer Town where chalets were built along the seafront, an Autumn Town with the fishing port, marina and low, red tiled roofed houses, with brightly painted shutters. The lavish Winter Town was transformed into a sanatorium town and even today is full of sprawling villas in an architectural mosaic of genres and styles ranging from eccentric to quirky with Swiss chalets and Tudor mansions and Neo Gothic structures to English cottages.
Faded splendor … that’s the word that springs to my mind as I walk through the wide streets of Ville D’hiver or Winter Town lined with stately trees.
Legend has it that in 1520 a Franciscan monk saw two ships off the coast of Arcachon, that was going to sink in a violent storm. He prayed hard and calmed the seas. Soon afterwards he saw an alabaster statue of the Virgin on the beach. Today this statue is enshrined in the L’Eglise Notre Dame, the town’s main church.
Walking around Winter Town, I am entranced by Art Nouveau half moon windows, stained glass and intricate brickwork. I am impressed by the Moorish looking Villa Toledo built in 1862, with wooden balustrades cut with intricate designs into turrets and gables. There are large balconies and terraces located at the four cardinal points in many of the villas, which our guide says were meant to allow tuberculosis patients a place to sit and breathe in the healthy sea air.
The ghosts of the past haunt me—Napoleon III who stayed in the town on two occasions and high flying literati, royalty and artists from Alexander Dumas to Monet, who enjoyed the restorative air and also found inspiration here.
We visit the impressive Marguerite Villa where the musical maestro Debussy lived in the summer of 1880 when he was just eighteen years of age, and gave piano lessons to the children of aristocrats. The villa built like a Swiss chalet with latticed wood painted a powder blue, and three levels, has a curving staircase. The present owners proudly show us pictures of how the villa looked in yesteryears and its transformation over time.
I take a break at Parc Mauresque with unusual plants and trees, linked to the lower town by an Art Deco style public elevator. Mothers with babies in prams, locals on their way to work, all walk through this green lungs of the town.
We have our first glimpse of Arcachon’s show stopper, the Dune of Pilat, Europe’s tallest sand dune, formed by the relentless buffeting of the ocean and the winds. This bizarre chunk of sand looks like a steep ski jump next to the ocean—as if it was uprooted from the Arabian Desert. Over our heads paragliders twirl and pirouette in the azure skies.
The steep ridge of the Dune is a great launch pad for local paragliders and sand boarders. The most amazing thing about the dunes is that they are still growing at three meters (9.8 feet) a year as dominant westerly winds pile on the sand! For the not-so-adventurous, there is a wooden staircase with 190 steps to the top from where, at sunset, you can often see schools of dolphin and porpoise frolic in the waters.
The Flavor of Oysters
Arcachon’s real claim to fame is its oyster farms—it is the oyster capital of France. The Bassin D’Arcachon is a geological curiosity—an inland sea with mud flats and sandbanks with tidal sea water and the colors of a lagoon. Oysters are still farmed by trapping larvae on tiles and then moving them to calm nurseries in wired bags in the center of the sea.
Farmers rent land from the government and live on site in log cabins on stilts. Our guide tells us that each oyster has its own individual flavor fashioned by tidal conditions, plankton and water salinity. The way to eat Arcachon oysters she says is “au naturel,” that is fresh from the waters with just a dash of lime. We learn that the oysters take over three years to mature and that it is Arcachon’s delicate eco-system with two tides a day, which provide plankton for the larva to grow until spring makes the world’s best oysters.
Besides the oysters Arcachon has other claims to fame: it may have been the inspiration for the Eiffel Tower! Yes, we see the towering structure in the Ville D’Hiver quarter of the town called Observatoire Sainte-Cécile, the main frame of which is made out of train rails. It was designed by Paul Regnauld, an employee of the railways and his young assistant was none other than young Gustave Eiffel.
Our attempt to visit the oyster farms is foiled by nature. Strong winds ripple the waters as we head to the sea—the flat oyster boats called pinasses (because they are made of pine wood) lie precariously on the churning waters and the lagoon glistens a silvery grey.
To console ourselves we eat a leisurely lunch at the terrace of La Corniche, designed by famed interior designer Philippe Starck, fronting the Atlantic and the Dune Pilat with spectacular views of the dune and an infinity pool spilling over the beach. Like most of the local restaurants, this one features seafood platters arranged on beds of crushed ice accompanied by the delicious wines of the Aquitaine region. There’s just the drone of the bees, the tang of the sea in the air, with the skies the tone of crumpled parchment paper with wispy white clouds. I watch the dune splotched with colourful gorse, with climbers that look like tiny ants. For a moment in time there’s just nature and me—the silver sheet of water like a mirror, the play of light on the towering sand dune with their deep indentations under the vast blue skies …
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer and blogger based in Chennai, India who blogs at http://kalpanasunder.com/blog