Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Chateau du Sable (Sand Castle)

Note the size of people on the crest.
You have to see it to believe it.  The photos do not do it justice—no matter the distance or the perspective.  La Dune du Pyla is 2,700 meters long by 500 meters wide and 117 meters high (about 1.8 miles by .33 of a mile and 500 feet high)—a mountain of beach sand.  Formed by the actions of the sea’s currents combined with the wind, it moves into the forest by three to five meters every year.  There are none higher in Europe.

The Dune sits at the mouth of the enormous Bassin d’Arcachon—about 50 miles southwest of Bordeaux, about 150 miles north of Biarritz (just above the southwest corner of France).  After lunch in Arcachon looking out to the Bay, we drove through residential neighborhoods to La Dune. The approach from the parking lot passes a few shops selling lots of kitsch and the obligatory postcards and meanders through the pines.  The path isn’t long, and at this time of year, it’s free of the summer crowds.   

Sand moving into the forest
I walked out of the woods into the sand and to the base of a very long set of steps.  From this perspective—even before I put my foot on the first step—it was hard to comprehend the size of the dune.  It’s absolutely massive and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  The walk up the steps isn’t a piece of cake, but it’s manageable given the occasional platform.  It’s hard not to stop and gawk along the way.  At the base of the dune on one side, the forest is being slowly swallowed by the sand.  The trees remaining from prior years’ encroachment sit gray and dead.  Soon the green and living trees farther down will suffer the same fate. 

Sand brushed off at the top
At the top of the steps were three women waiting to descend—one well into her 70s and looking as though she could have had a few more carrots and a little less velouté sauce with her lunch.  Sand had blown over the steps making passage down a little risky and certainly more difficult than if the steps were clean.  One of the woman’s companions brushed the sand off the steps one after another to ease the passage down.  How she even made it to the top is beyond me; but we didn’t stand to watch the descent. 
The top in the distance
When we reached the top, we walked farther up the sand to the crest of the first dune.  The highest point is far in the distance, and we felt no obligation to go that far.  We stood on the crest looking on one side into the distance high above the forest canopy.  On the other side of the dune lies the Bassin d’Arcachon and the Atlantic Ocean. 

This is one of those places where I can imagine the feelings by visitors to the Taj Mahal and can remember my own visit to the Grand Canyon.  There’s a sense of disbelief that something could be so massive paired with a wonder that touches your soul. 

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