Sunday, November 25, 2012

Les Landes

Moliets-et-Maa is in Landes, one of five departments that make up the province of Aquitaine.  Landes’ western edge is the Atlantic Ocean.  Stretching right to the sea are forests and more forests of pine trees that were planted just over a century ago in an effort to tame the shifting sands and swamps of the area.  Prior to the taming of the sands, the postal carriers and the shepherds walked the land on stilts--the most efficient way to traverse the swampy land.  Landes still holds competitions requiring stiltwalkers to pick up something from the ground without getting off the stilts.  Imagine.  Moliets sits in the trees right at the edge of the ocean. 

The roads between villages stretch on for long distances and are bordered with bike and hiking trails and pine forests.  The pines are harvested and replanted constantly so the road moves from one forest of tall trees to a sudden barren patch of land.  Then farther on, what would have been barren land is full of small pine trees.  And the cycle continues.  Amidst the trees are ferns--thick blankets of fronds completely covering the ground at the base of the trees.  They’re an interesting contrast to the towering spires—all growing in very symmetrical rows and spaces.

South from Moliets is a string of beach towns that fill up in the summer and empty out in the winter, just like Moliets.  When we arrived here, there were two restaurants still open.  On Armistice Day, we had lunch at Chez Vincent, the last of them.  Vincent and his crew had enjoyed a bit of bubbly to celebrate the last meal for the season and thought a lobster would add a festive touch to our photo.  I think the joke was actually on the lobster.  Now the road to the ocean is completely deserted but for the occasional surfer, hiker, stroller.  Most of the apartment buildings are empty and there is a ghost-town-like quality to the area.  The town away from the beach continues year-round with its tourist office, post office, boulangerie, tabac, etc., where one can access the very basic services. 

Next hole
Moliets sports the sixth-rated golf course in France.  Designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., the fairways are nicely kept and present a challenge for the experienced golfer.  The surrounding woods provide a beautiful backdrop to two beautiful courses.  The golf course is always busy and we often take the 10-minute walk over there for coffee and to use the driving range.  Golf is a year-round activity and unaffected by the calendar.     

When we first arrived here, we noticed cars stopped in unexpected places and people wandering around the ferns in the gulleys between the road and the bike trail.  They carried plastic bags, straw bags, boxes—all wandering around with their heads down.  They were mushroom hunters.  The French love their fungi.  Pharmacists are trained to distinguish between edible and less-edible fungi; and all but the most experienced mushroom hunter would usually take advantage of that service or perhaps suffer the consequences—illness or worse.  At one pharmacy I noticed a full-window poster with pictures of the good and bad mushrooms for those days that the pharmacy is closed.  I’d rather trust the person than the poster. 

These days we see duck blinds going up in the middle of fields and far out in the swamps—loosely-formed boxes covered with a mish-mash of branches looking as if they might collapse if a light breeze comes up and surrounded by fake ducks.   Just as we heard in the Vaucluse, one day we began to hear shots fired in the woods and saw the occasional pack of dogs crossing the road followed closely by hunters.   I haven’t seen any deer or moose tied to fenders so presume they’re hunting fowl.  Partridge?  Pheasant?  Certainly geese and ducks—the non-domesticated kind.   Nearly daily we pass a farm raising geese for the regional foie gras (no translation necessary, I presume).  They have free run of a large field and are joined by many mallards, presumably freeloaders, that should stay put at this time of year if they know what’s good for them. 

In Hossegar and Capbreton, the largest towns to the south of Moliets, oysters are raised in what they call le Lac (lake), actually a sea-fed bay, which experiences the daily tides.  When the tide is out, the oyster bags are visible on the piers, and the oyster farmers collect them or turn them to ensure good circulation of water.  Also at low tide, the bay enjoys a variety of sea and other water birds—great blue herons, snowy herons, cormorants, and the ubiquitous sea gull.  On the mudflats, fishermen dig for worms.

We go to Hossegar (pronounced hoos-a-gore) and Capbreton for all our necessary services—supermarket, cobbler, lunch.  We have a favorite restaurant along the water in Capbreton where the food is good and the proprietor is friendly.  A new supermarket recently opened up (hyper-marché) where we can buy pretty much anything we want.  At this time of year, the weekly markets are skimpy and not worth exploring—often consisting of one vehicle with six or seven boxes of root vegetables and little else.  The distances between towns are littered with rond-points (roundabouts), and there are no “straight shots” we might prefer.  There are, in fact, nineteen rond-points between our apartment and the hyper-marché in Capbreton.  That’s a bunch of rond-points to maneuver for a package of toilet paper or bottled water, so we plan carefully.  In the summer with all the towns full of summer visitors, that drive must be maniacal.

Landes is geographically very different from anywhere else in France.   Like other areas, it has its medieval churches, its tastefully-decorated rond-points, its chateaux, its friendly people, bullfighting rings, and thermal spas.  What makes Landes different is the interior of the area--sparsely populated but for the trees—and the ferns.   

Sometimes, however, sparse is magical.       

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