Freedom at the Dune du Pilat

Freedom at the Dune du Pilat

with 34 Comments

 

Mei turned down the volume when we almost reached the Arcachon Bay. I was going to make a right turn to head towards the town of Arcachon, when I suddenly spotted the road sign “Dune du Pilat”. I hit the break. A dune? What could that be? Mei quickly unfolded the paper map on her lap. Her index finger moved feverishly across the map. Dune, Dune, Dune… I can’t find a Dune on this frigging map!

 

Mei was getting impatient… and so was I, as I kept checking in the rear-view mirror whether a car was approaching or not. Suddenly, she looked at me. You know what? Let’s just check it out! She turned up the volume, I hit the gas, and off we drove towards the mysterious dune.

 

A couple of kilometers further, another road sign led us to an outdoor parking hidden in the pine forest. A few remote cars seemed stranded on the deserted parking lot.

 

photo credit: Archigeek Dune du Pyla via photopin (license)

 

Should we bring a bottle of water? I knew that Mei usually gets thirsty out of the blue, at the most unexpected place and time. So, I always carry a bottle of water wherever we go. Nah! We probably won’t stay long… Our tiny purses slung across the shoulders, we walked down a narrow cobblestone path through the forest.

 

From afar, a tetchy metallic sound filled the air. The dissonant jingle reminded me of my childhood and yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on it… The further we trekked, the louder the clapper. When we caught sight of a row of wooden cabins, I finally recognized the sound. Mei looked at me and said: those are wind chimes, right?

 

Set at the brink of the pine forest, the wooden cabins were actually souvenir shops lining up like solitary sentinels. Most of them were closed. Bonjour! A lady, dressed like a gypsy, came out of nowhere and invited us to take a look at her store. We suddenly felt transported to an eerie parallel world. Or maybe it was the clatter of the dozens of wind chimes hanging outside her storefront. On vend aussi des boissons si vous voulez. Parce que là-haut vous ne trouverez pas grand-chose à boire.

 

I looked at Mei. Oops! Now that she knew there was no water “up there” (wherever that was?), I was sure she was going to say that she suddenly got very thirsty! In fact, I didn’t even wait until she uttered the desire to hand the lady 1€ for the bottle of water. Mei shot me a huge smile, followed by a shy kiss on my cheek…

 

photo credit: R3G15 Arcachon via photopin (license)

 

We continued our trek, which now pointed uphill. All of a sudden, we both came to a standstill. My jaw dropped as we stood in front of a giant dune. Imagine a wall made of sand reaching for the sky… 50m, 80m, perhaps even 100m high? Oh my goodness, what is that? I turned over to Mei and saw that she was as startled as I was. Well, I guess that’s the Dune du Pilat. And just like that, we both burst out laughing. Out of surprise and out of joy to have followed our guts…

 

We needed a few minutes to grasp the reality and size of what we were marveling at. We finally advanced to a wooden staircase embedded in the dune. A couple with a toddler also reached the stairs. The husband soon started to breathe heavily and cursed about how steep and strenuous the climb was. Do you think they serve beer up there? His wife didn’t seem happy about the question: How would I know! I told you to bring that stupid cooling box! And did you get the diapers for Marie? Mei and I exchanged meaningful glances but kept our mouths shut.

 

photo credit: Scalino Arcachon – Lacanau via photopin (license)

 

Next thing we knew, we arrived at the top of the dune and… stopped dead in our tracks. WOW! Someone led out a cry. It took me a moment to realize that it came from me. We were both so caught off balance that we dropped on the sand.

 

Sitting on top of the tallest sand dune in Europe, a gigantic yellow bosom nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and an enormous pine forest, I felt like I had reached a milestone in my life.

 

I had just turned 19 and Mei 20. Adult life had just started for us. We were in love with each other. As I breathed in the salty Atlantic air, I felt a liberating sensation, like a rock falling off my chest. The weight I had been lugging around as a teenager. My own ball and chain filled with guilt, shame and regret. I was the serpent that bursts out of its old skin…

 

DunePyla

 

I took Mei’s hand. We went rolling down the sandy slope of the Dune du Pilat towards the ocean. Sky and earth were upside down. Sand was embracing every inch of our skin. I remember us laughing, screaming, maybe trying to sing…

 

When we reached the beach, I ripped off my shirt and raced to the ocean. I felt the crunching wet sand between my toes, a new energy flowing upward through my legs. Still I ran, throwing myself into the water, into the new blue freedom of being a woman.

 

As I write these lines looking back at what freedom felt like 17 years ago, I see how corny our story sounds. Like a soap opera from the 1990s. But our discovery of the Dune du Pilat was one of the truthful moments that defined us. This truth set us free.

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Freedom at the Dune du Pilat: Europe's tallest sand dune in Southwestern France © Travelwithmk.com

Freedom at the Dune du Pilat, France © Travelwithmk.com

Freedom at the Dune du Pilat: Europe's tallest sand dune in Southwestern France © Travelwithmk.com

Follow Kerstin:

Traveler - Storyteller

Kerstin is a 30-something French teacher, born and raised in a tiny Luxembourgish village, but who used to live in Bordeaux, Paris, Athens and San Francisco with her wife Mei. Fluent in 5 languages, she's above all a huge book enthusiast, a fervent writer and storyteller, and could never refuse a good old single malt whiskey. Oh, and she also loves coffee and chocolate (not sure in which order though).

34 Responses

  1. Kevin | Caffeinated Excursions
    | Reply

    I’m so lucky to have found your post because I’m *hoping* to spend a month in France this fall (I’m definitely preparing for the possibility of that not being possible, nonetheless I’ve got fingers crossed). I am still totally open to ideas of where to go and what to do, but I’m definitely the kind of traveler who wouldn’t want to spend more than a few days in Paris and have been looking for off-the-beaten-path places. It’s really incredible that you found this massive dune on a whim all those years ago, and it’s very cool that you have such a personal memory associated with it! The fact that it’s surrounded on three sides by dense forests is just so striking. I’ll definitely make a note of this and would love to be able to make it there this year!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      France has lots of hidden gems. And we definitely recommend you to explore the west and southwest of France when you spend a month in France. However, if you plan to go in late autumn or winter, make sure to check the weather forecast before heading to the Dune du Pilat. When it rains, it’d be better not to go there. Storms tend to move the sand dune towards the forest and inland. So it can be dangerous to visit at that time.

  2. Indrani
    | Reply

    Wow so interesting that there is a dune in France, new info for me. Good to know more about your early days. Happy memories! 🙂

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks, Indrani! We hope you’ll get to see the Dune du Pilat someday. 🙂

  3. Chelsea Messina
    | Reply

    This dune is huge! Have you checked out the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan? I have a post on it if you’re interested – they are MASSIVE, and there is not ladder in the sand to assist you to the top! I like the ladder idea haha

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      No, we haven’t been to Michigan yet. But if we ever go there, we’ll make sure to check out the Sleeping Bear Dunes! 🙂

  4. Kez
    | Reply

    All of my great adventures have started with my curiousity leading me off the path to discover something amazing. For me, this is the essence of travel, where the sidetracks become the main event.

    It’s amazing that you guys are still able to travel together after so long! Travelling with others makes me realise that I’m definitely a solo traveller!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Haha! Well, we hope we will still be together – and travel together – for many, many more years! We both have traveled alone a few times, mostly for work, and we’ve always regretted it after a day, because it’s just not the same if we can’t share our adventures together! 🙂

  5. carolcolborn
    | Reply

    Wow. Truly a great find. And you took, as usual, great photos of your discovery. Love that continuing story of the thirst for water.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you! But the photos are not ours. The ones we took back then are too old, small and blurry. haha…

  6. Tania Muthusamy
    | Reply

    I didn’t even know there was a sand dune in France. A lovely story of the two of you on your travels, going with your gut. I really enjoyed it.

  7. Jeremy
    | Reply

    What a cute story ! These unexpected discoveries which turned out to be fun are usually the most memorable parts of an already good trip planned ! I am the OCD one, and always plan my trip to the last detail. My partner is more spontaneous, living in the moment. It is good to have balanced mix ! That aerial shot of the dunes look ginormous ! Love to check this out some day ! =)

    • Kerstin
      | Reply

      Haha! Yes, it’s good that you and your partner are different regarding trip planning! I know that Mei usually plans much more in detail than she says. But since she loves to surprise me, she keeps everything secret until we almost arrive, and would then say: “what if we take a left turn now?” 😀 But that time in the Arcachon Bay, she had really no idea about the Dune du Pilat (back then, we didn’t have smartphones, let alone Google Maps).

  8. Sarah Carpenter
    | Reply

    This must have been incredible to just sort of stumble across. I love it when that happens so unexpectedly. It really is one of the most unusual sand dunes I have even seen with ocean on one side and pine forests around the rest. I had never heard of it before either, which is pretty surprising considering how unique it is!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      The Dune du Pilat is not very well known. Even today we know a lot of people who live in France but have never heard of it. 🙂 If you get a chance, we definitely recommend you to spend a day there!

  9. Sandy N Vyjay
    | Reply

    Loved reading this post, so poignant and touching, Dune du Pilat was indeed an appropriate setting. Could almost feel the shifting sand under my feet and the rush of the ocean down below.

  10. ansh997x
    | Reply

    I am not really a let’s check it out person but it is amazing that some of the best trips start with that quote. This dune is just gorgeous and perfect for an ideal weekend.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Hehe… we are both the “let’s check it out” kind of persons. Sometimes, we wonder if we would have ever found out about the Dune du Pilat – or many other destinations – if we were not such spontanous travelers. 🙂

  11. I am amazed by how tall the dune is. I wonder how it came do be as it appears to come out of the water?

  12. josypheen
    | Reply

    Wow! It’s so funny how some of the best possible memories start with a simple “lets check it out”

    Still, what on earth caused such a huge sand dune to be surrounded by a large woodland like that? I guess that is why it seems so incredible from your photos…i mean, you’d never expect something like that to be there!

    p.s. 17 years and still together!? I think you have found your perfect travel partner.

  13. I love when you find a surprise – not on the map – when doing a road trip. The Dune Du Pilat looks like a fascinating spot from the aerial view. I am sure it was a blast rolling down the sand slope. I don’t think this sounds corny at all. Something for us to find when we are next in France.

    • Kerstin
      | Reply

      Back then we didn’t have a smartphone, let alone Google Maps. So, it was actually nice to “get lost” with a paper map during road trips. 🙂 And yes, we had so much fun rolling down the dune! But I must admit that it was hard to walk back to the top! 😀

  14. Farukh
    | Reply

    Wow! Sand Dunes, forest, sea view all at one place. This is a bucket list spot. Thanks for sharing.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You’re welcome. We hope you’ll get to visit the Dune du Pilat someday! 🙂

  15. Courtney Byrneheim
    | Reply

    That is so cool! What an incredible find, and such a reassuring moment reminding us to sometimes veer off the path and be in the moment. It sounds like this was an experience that you and your wife will hold dear forever. Thank you for sharing!

    • Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you, Courtney. Yes, this was definitely a unique experience, and it took me many years to write about it. 🙂

  16. Wow, what a beautiful story! I was already envisaging myself there and felt the butterflies in my tummy already imaging how incredible that unexpected sight must have felt like, but then you added those personal lines about you being 19 and 20 and in love and I could really feel the warmth, optimism and love of the moment! And I had to laugh about Mei always carrying water with her as I’m exactly the same ha ha!

  17. diapersinparadise
    | Reply

    You know any story that starts with the words, “Let’s just check it out!” is going to be good! This is a beautiful tribute to the early days of your relationship, to finding yourselves and each other. And still exploring together, 17 years later! How wonderful!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you! Yes, it’s crazy how time flies! We’ll be celebrating our 18 years of love and relationship this coming July. 🙂

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