Celles sur Belle
Whilst not strictly on the west coast, I wanted to include this stop in our blog as it was a very pretty stopover after Poitiers, on our way to Île de Ré. An expansive, and at this time practially empty, gravel carpark on the edge of the small village, with free services and water. A small stream ran up the side of the tree lined grassed area, where we sat in the cooling shade at a picnic table for both dinner and breakfast the following morning. We had a short walk to explore the village, finding a rather grand house with formal gardens to walk through and a quaint pâtisserie to provide us with fresh bread and pain au chocolats.
This was an overnight aire on the way south after La Rochelle and our stay on Île de Ré. It was basically a rarely used car park at local sports fields, set aside for camping-cars with tree-lined and neatly defined spaces. The aire sat next to an old, abandoned railway line that hired out specially adapted platforms that allowed you to ‘cycle’ along the disused railway line; it was never made clear exactly how one would pass other slower moving carriages.
We watched a disparate group of school aged kids run around wildly, on some treasure hunt or complex information chase whilst their teacher or guide sat serenely at a nearby picnic table, occasionally calling out instructions or clarifications. It was a pleasant and relaxing way to pass a late afternoon in an otherwise unremarkable village location.
We got up, organised, ate and left early from Cozes, very unlike us, and got moving south and west to the coast, towards Dune Du Pilat. The road was newly surfaced, clear and straight, with so little traffic we could have been convinced we were back in the Australian outback. Managed forests of tall, black-trunked trees lined both sides of our route, as smooth tarmac and freshly painted lines guided us neatly along.
Dune du Pilat
Touted as Europe’s largest sand dune, and as one of the top ten locations to visit in the whole of France, we couldn’t pass by Dune du Pilat without a visit. Being our usual frugal selves, we parked up on the side of the road a kilometre or so past the main entrance, rather than pay the €8 parking fee. The walk back was delightful in the early morning sun, with birdsong and the damp woody smell of forests in the air.
The base of the dune was lined with tacky tourist shops selling all manner of souvenirs. Posters warned of how arduous and physically demanding it could be to climb the dune, and someone had decided to add a long set of timber stairs to the sand to aid the ascent of those otherwise incapable. We ignored this unnatural addition and instead ran up the side of the dune, away from the growing crowds, the cool sand feeling delightful between our toes. A few minutes was all it took to reach the top, to release an incredible vista out to sea and, perhaps more impressively, back over the huge expanse of dense forest behind, looking similar to the canopy of an ancient rainforest.
On the way back down the dune we passed hundreds of new visitors arriving and heading up, and could see coach after coach queuing to discharge their cargo in the direction of the shops and dune. We were never so glad for having made the effort to get up and away from Cozes early, as sharing the top of the dune with a thriving mass of people would have certainly lessened the experience. If you ever plan to visit, be sure to do so early morning.
Tassuat was another infill stopover aire on our way south. Little more than a standard car-park near a small harbour, only one suitable space remained that took a seven-point turn to position Benny into, but we soon settled into the space and agreed it was just fine for a one night stop. We walked to the local village centre and picked up some important provisions (wine) and then doodled along the sands at the harbour. The tide had receded a long way out, grounding all of the boats moored up along the coastline for as far as was visible. The coast was built up with once very grand houses that now act as holiday lets, hotels or in one instance as a primary school. They sit in large grounds with mature, overhanging trees and in the greying light and dark cloud cover of the day we arrived, they seemed ideal to be the setting for some spooky murder mystery event; straight from an Agatha Christie novel or a Scooby Doo cartoon. A little off the tourist trail, it had the feel of an aging resort town that time has not been kind to and was a little stuck trying to decide if having no tourists visit was actually a good thing or not. It may be very different in the summer.
With the sky grey and threatening rain, we were all set to be disappointed on our arrival in Biarritz. We found our chosen aire; a specialist urban, barriered car-park with only a few spaces remaining, so that at least was a relief, as there were no other options close by.
We walked the remaining mile or so into the centre following the coast, along a pedestrianised seafront with quite a few other visitors. There’s little more invigorating than a wild sea view and brooding dark clouds framing an unfamiliar place; exploration and expectation abounds. We walked past huge coastal houses built straight off the rock, looking both strong and imposing yet also exposed and vulnerable in the face of nature’s wrath, like lighthouses guarding the shore. We reached a small craggy promontory with a metal bridge across to a small island head, housing a shrine.
The wild Atlantic rollers could be heard rushing in below the walkway, eating at the rock and carving away the foundation of the coast path. The damp air smelt of sea, flowers and wild curry plants. We passed through a short tunnel in the rock and emerged to full panoramic views of the main centre and harbour, before wandering up to the main commercial district, with lots of shops and bars.
After much threatening, the expected rain finally arrived all at once, so we dived for cover under the deep concrete soffit of someone’s garage to sit out the deluge. It lasted only 10 minutes, and the busy streets were now devoid of people and filled only with umbrellas.
A large town with an even larger reputation, for backpacking, surf and partying. We had originally planned to stay longer here, to allow more time to explore and absorb the vibe, but unfortunately with the weather being what it was we decided instead to keep moving and head on down the road – next stop España.