Cycling the southern French atlantic coast

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The south west coast of France has given us some of our happiest times of the trip so far:  the sunshiney ‘highs’ of Dune du Pyla; the cleansing smell of the endless pine forests; the light catching the squeaky-clean, green of the spring leaves on the ancient oak trees; the glinting ocean, the angry ocean, the misty ocean.

We also had some of our wettest and perhaps disheartening days on this coast too, with the endless dripping from the sky bringing frustration, floods and uninvited mosquitoes.

Perhaps, if we had it over we might have choose to skip some of the boring bits of the cycle-path, or some of the rainy days, but maybe the sunshine wouldn’t have felt so exceptional if it weren’t for the rain that came before it.  This journey had the good and the bad, the salty and sweet – it had its share of highs and lows – but the memories that we hold are good ones and we will treasure them forever.

DAY ONE: Hourtin to Lacanau-Ocean | 46km

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We woke up to warmer temperatures and a blue sky day; all very novel for us. It didn’t even rain overnight, another novelty.  We left our campsite early and cycled around the top end of Lac d’Hourtin-Carcans, France’s largest freshwater lake.  As we cycled out of Hourtin we rode along a track with markers on it and ladies sitting at a table with water and bananas.  Carl stopped to ask why they were making all the effort for us and they laughingly explained that it was the day of the Medoc Iron Man, and we were cycling on the running path. They were expecting the runners shortly, so we skedaddled as quickly as possible – so as not to get caught up in the crowds (nor to be outrun by any iron-men!).

The cycle path took us through the woods and along the lake’s edge for a good part of the way.  There seemed to be very few other people around and it made for pleasant cycling.  Unlike the Germans and Dutch, the French don’t seem to be out exercising all weekend – perhaps preferring to stay at home and eat their delicious cheeses and bread!  It worked for us, as the path was clear and quiet.

All of a sudden, we came to a clearing and our track petered out.  We found another small sign showing the continuation of the track and another one next to it saying, cycling prohibited – ‘piste uncyclable’.  There were only three other paths, one where we had come from, one going in the wrong direction and another that was part of the Pilgrim’s track, Camino de Santiago de Compostella – made of soft sand.  We had no choice, but to head onto the ‘piste uncyclable’, a tiny track mostly about a ruler length wide.  The uncyclable bits reared their heads a few times, where the track disappeared and we were left adrift in sea-sand – impossible to cycle through, especially on loaded bikes!  We made it through, with a little effort and were soon on smoother tracks again.

We had to cross the large dunes in order to get to the ocean, and we delayed the inevitable a few times, choosing to stick to the lake in favour of making the crossing.  When we did eventually cross, it was like interval training – the hills were steep (and thankfully mostly short), but pretty tiring.  Mosquitos were thick in the air, probably from all the rain.

We made our way in to Lacanau-Ocean, a small sea-side surf town and bought some supplies, including some goodies from the sea-side markets, before heading for a campsite on the hill.  It was a beautiful setting amongst the pine trees with the scent of the ocean in the wind. We drifted to sleep while being serenaded by the local entertainment trying (trying being the operative word) to sing Christina Aguilera, ACDC and Beegees, oh dear!

  • Very, very large campsite with individual camping spots, on sand, pine needles or wood chips
  • Clean facilities, with good showers.
  • Huge entertainment options, including pools, jacuzzi, games room etc.
  • Spa and wellness centre
  • Restaurant, pizza kiosk and Bar.
  • Supermarket and Launderette.

DAY TWO: Lacanau-Ocean to La Teich | 76km

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The cycling was fantastic today; very serene through the pine forest, flanked by sand dunes on our right.  The cycle path was dotted with picnic spots and many people were out to enjoy the good weather, surfers were heading to the ocean, although we weren’t quite sure what they were doing there as it was as still as a millpond.  There were oak trees dotted between the pines, and the dappled sunlight through their bright green, spring leaves was just beautiful. The breeze was on our backs for the first time ever and we flew along, even over the dunes, which were only small hills this time.

We met a dutch cycle-tourist on the path and stopped for a chat. He asked us if we were on the pilgrim’s trail to Santiago (something we would be asked a lot on this trip down the coast).  He had given up on his cycle due to the weather and was heading back to Holland and laughed at the irony as the sun had now started shining.  He told us it was the wettest spring his 83 year old mother had ever seen!

Everything was so beautiful in the sunshine and we stopped a few times to enjoy the scenery and soak in sunshine, rather than rain!  We stopped for lunch in Ares – a typical french ghost town, being both Sunday and lunch time.  After a few recce’s around the place we found a small patisserie open, and sat on the town’s church steps and ate our baguettes and chocolate eclairs – bliss!

We continued cycling around the Arcachon basin on an excellent, although boring, cycle path.  We  came to the town of Andernos which a huge beachfront area and had to stop as the festivity in the air was infectious.  We bought ice-cream and waffles and sat on the promenade watching the beach-goers and just absorbed the summer happiness.

We found a campsite in the town of La Teich, a relatively small municipal site, which was nice and quiet and spent the remaining afternoon hours relaxing at the pool,  so happy to have finally seen the sun.

CAMPSITE: Camping Ker Helen
  • Nice quiet campsite with individual camping spots, not very well maintained with thorns in the grass!
  • Clean facilities.
  • Beautiful clean pool.
  • Bar and restaurant (not open when we were there)
  • Small shop (didn’t looked like it was open any more)
  • Washing machines.

DAY THREE: La Teich to Dune du Pyla | 35km

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We left early  the next morning and and rode to Arcachon. We cycled past some oyster sheds, which I believe the area is famous for. I was considering oysters for breakfast, but couldn’t understand a word of the menu and couldn’t find anyone around to order from, so we pushed on.  We arrived in the town, which was pretty and touristy with very unique architecture: ‘Arcachonnaise’, apparently scorned by the French for decades prior to being recognised as something quite unique and charming.  The town felt welcoming and we bought some croissants and coffee and sat at the waterfront to enjoy. Archacon reminded us both of  Cape Town, minus the mountain of course!

We met  a young norwegian couple who were cycle-touring to San Sebastian, they had just started their ‘tour’ that morning and were in search of gas for their stove, as were we.  We had a good chat with them, telling them of our desire to head to Tromso later in the year.   They both had lived in Tromso and strongly encouraged us to go there.

We headed out of the town towards the famous Dune du Pyla. It is Europe’s tallest sand dune, shifting east at a rate of approximately 4m per year. Apparently its already swallowed a few roads and a hotel!   There were four or five campsites to chose from, and we chose to stay in the campsite that promised water-views and booked into a luxury tent for three nights. The tent was charming, the views were breathtaking and the weather was blessedly sunny. We spent a relaxing afternoon watching dozens of paragliders ride the thermals above the dunes and out to sea. Sadly, while we were there one paragliders crashed into the dune and was taken away by ambulance on a backboard. We chatted to one guy there and found out that a lot of the paragliders were German and usually paraglide in the Alps.

That sun set just before 10pm and we sat on a little wooden bench looking out across the shining bay, watching the masts of  a flotilla of yachts sailing by into the golden horizon, thinking how good life was.

  • Enormous campsite next to the large sand dune – pitches on pine needles & sand.
  • Clean facilities.
  • Lots of camping options with striking sea views.
  • Supermarket and laundry.
  • Restaurant, bars and creperies.
  • Huge pool area.
  • Direct access to beach and sand dune.

DAY FOUR & FIVE: Dune du Pyla

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The days seem to pass by here so fast, we loved every minute of our stay here and spent a lot of time out on the dune watching the paragliders and the beautiful water below.  Sunset on our second night was even more spectacular than the first, possibly the best we have ever seen.  These days will remain in our memory forever.

DAY SIX: Dune du Pyla to St Eulalie en Born | 65km

After leaving our beloved Dune du Pyla behind, the day made for a fairly boring ride. The forests were not as pretty as before, feeling more ‘industrial’ and less natural.  The temperature hovered between 29 and 31 degrees, which felt unusually hot, but after the weeks of cold we weren’t complaining!

We stopped in the town of Biscarosse, once again a lunch-time ghost town…found an open boulangerie and enjoyed some downtime in the cafe, over baguettes and coke.  After lunch we  found the local post office and posted some items of clothing back to friends in Australia (every gram counts on the bikes)!

After settling into our campsite we noticed the sky was a purplish-blue colour in the distance.  We hadn’t seen anything quite like it before but figured it didn’t look good!  We packed up our camp to ensure everything was under cover, and climbed inside the tent expecting the worst.  The storm that hit was enormous, it felt like we were under fire in our little tent with wind-drive hailstones the size of cherries pounding the fabric. Even with guy-ropes secured, it thrashed around trying desperately to lift off the ground in the howling wind. Inside we packed up our valuables and prepared to evacuate (with helmets on!) if the tent should break and prayed with all our hearts that it wouldn’t.  Thankfully no harm was done and when the madness had passed and all was silent – we unzipped the door to find our tent sitting in its own little lake of water from the cloudburst and felt a sudden tiredness from the aftermath of adrenalin.

CAMPSITE: Camping Du Lac – St Eulalie en Born
  • Well-maintained, quiet municipal campsite.
  • Clean facilities with washing machines.
  • Further amenities offered in summer, including pool and restaurant.

DAY SEVEN: St Eulalie en Born to Contis-Plage (St Julien en Born) | 44km

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We decided to have an early start to avoid the heat, and woke up to find everything shrouded in mist. Quite beautiful. The cycling continued much along the same paths as before, flat and well maintained, same pine forests, same old, same old.  We bought supplies at the local markets in Mimizan; beautiful sheep’s cheese, salami, fresh fruit and bread, and after stopping at a local coffee shop recommended by one of the market stall holders, we headed out to view the beaches and beyond. Here we met Simon, a French cycle tourist, and stopped for a chat and to compare notes. He gave us some tips on wild camping, but we haven’t been brave enough to try them yet…

We stopped at the town of Contis-Plage to eat our market produce.  We found a little bench looking out over the ocean to have our lunch  and hang out the wet tent to dry.  In the distance we noticed the storm clouds rolling in and decided to check the weather forecast. It promised drenching rain in an hour and then two days of heavy rain.  We had really hoped the bad weather was behind us, but it was not to be.

As we headed out of town, we saw a good-looking campsite, and decided to stop early to avoid the rain for the coming hours and days.  We booked a cabin and made ourselves comfortable once again…and then oh, did it rain!

  • Didn’t really get to see much of this campsite as we were in our cabin 24/7, avoiding the rain.
  • Seemed relatively new
  • Large pool and relaxation area
  • Supermarket on-site

DAY EIGHT & NINE: Contis-Plage (St Julien en Born)

Spent these two days sitting in our cabin, the rain poured constantly for both days, to the point where we didn’t even want to go to the campsite store to buy more supplies!  We worked on our blog and took it really easy, but felt frustrated and disheartened by the weather and the lack of action…

DAY TEN: Contis-Plage (St Julien en Born) to Capbreton | 81km

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We were glad to be on the bikes again today, although the route was very uninteresting again.  The pine forest continued, but had lost a lot of its previous charm and the path was completely flat.  We kept our speed up and the landscape whizzed past in no time.  We stopped in the town of Leon to feast on baguettes and noticed in the local paper that the past two days’ rain had caused massive flooding in the area.   We weren’t too surprised given the already sodden ground from previous weeks of rain.

No sooner had we left the town than we ran into the floods.  The ‘piste uncyclable’ had become ‘piste inondee’ – we headed on through battling swarms of man-size mosquitos…

We rode through the town of Soorts-Hossegor, a world-renowned surf town. We headed into town to find some food supplies and discovered nine out of ten stores were surf fashion shops, quite fascinating.  We continued on to Capbreton and rode around the waterfront – the water was calm – without a wave to be seen.  The atmosphere was peaceful with a number of locals and tourists strolling along the paved walkway, overlooking the shimmering ocean.  We spotted some german bunkers and gun battery units on the beach and reading up on them later,  discovered they used to be hidden in the  first row of dunes as part of the Atlantic wall but due to the tides of time they are now right on the beach, being continually eroded by the ocean.

Our campsite was largely underwater, but we managed to secure a pitch on dry ground and spent a quiet evening under the ubiquitous pine trees…

  • Okayish facilities
  • Large flat campsite under the pine trees
  • Pool (although we didn’t see it)

DAY ELEVEN: Capbreton to Bidart (Biarritz) | 52km

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Set out again, once more beneath the pine trees.  It wasn’t long before we came across another path that was ‘inondee’ – a local cyclist had just tried it and told us it was ‘uncyclable’.  We tried another route which was along a busy main road, but it soon joined the cycle path again.  There were a number of large puddles on both the road and cycle path and the going was slow.  Poor Carl was drenched by the bow wave of a passing car going too fast through a puddle and too close to our path – we stopped and had a bit of a laugh, as there was nothing much else we could do about it!

The next section of cycle path was flooded too, but the only other option we could find was a large motorway, so we took off our shoes and socks and decided to brave it.  The mosquitoes were out in full force again and Carl even had blood running down his leg from their continued attacks.  I had coated myself in anti-mozzie spray, but it seemed to do little to scare them off and their biting was continuous.  We made it through the first two flooded sections without much ado, but them came across a large (and what looked deeper) section that was completely inundated with water.  The mosquitoes were even worse when we stopped our bikes, so we decided to just push through it.  As we rode, the path disappeared and just became a lake – we couldn’t even see where the path was supposed to go at one point.  The water came halfway up our panniers and we began to doubt the wisdom of our choice.  The water was very calm, so we weren’t nervous about being washed away and as quickly as it had deepened it became shallow again…

We stopped shortly afterwards to oil the chains and do a minor service to the bikes.  Unfortunately due to the large amount of water on the bikes, some of the oil went on our brakes. (Which are disc brakes and allergic to oil…)

Subsequently, the ride into the town of Bayonne was a little hair-raising.  Thankfully it was flat for most of the ride, as with no brakes it makes for interesting cycling. We stopped in Bayonne for some lunch and wandered around a little – it was an interesting town, but didn’t have the charm to make us want to stay for long.  I had been having quite a bit of trouble with my back and neck, so asked at a local pharmacy for a reference to an osteopath in the area.  They pointed me a few doors down, and I was pleased to see that she had trained in England, so would understand a little English at least and I made an appointment for the following day.

We continued on our trip towards Biarritz.  The coastline was very beautiful along the way, but unfortunately the promenade didn’t allow bicycles and we were sent back to our cycle path, cruelly located one road away from the view.

Arriving in Biarritz, we were met with hill after hill.  This time it wasn’t the uphills we dreaded but the downhills.  With dud brakes that weren’t working at all we were in trouble.  Instead of walking up the hills, we walked down them – slow going and so disappointing, but the roads were busy with cars and pedestrians alike and we couldn’t take the risk of hurtling downhill out of control!

Biarritz, a ritzy, touristy playground for the rich, was startlingly beautiful.  We were mesmerised by the rugged coastline below. From the higher points, we could see the coast curve around the Bay of Biscay and down into Spain. The driving seemed a lot more aggressive here than anywhere else in France so we didn’t stop to take pictures, and we planned to come back (once we had sorted out our brakes!) – sadly, we never did get back there…

We were aiming for a campsite in Biarritz that advertised a view of the sea, but when we got there, we found it to be grossly overpriced. A British couple overheard us expressing our opinions on the price, and showed us another campsite up the hill that was more sensible. In the strange way that life works, we had the chance to pass on the favour the next day to a Tasmanian couple who approached us in broken French (sorry Tony!) asking for directions to the same overpriced campsite…

We settled in for a lovely sunny evening and dinner of pizza and pastis!

DAY TWELVE: Bidart/Bayonne

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We took the bus in to Bayonne to visit the Osteopath.  Caroline was absolutely outstanding and definitely put my world to rights.  We caught the bus once again and stopped at a cycle store on the way home to purchase new brake pads to repair the bikes.  The heat was in the mid-thirties and we spent a significant part of the afternoon in the pool as the local beach was a bit treacherous to swim in.

DAY THIRTEEN: Bidart to San Sebastian | 43km

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After days of magnificent sunshine, we awoke to a drizzly, misty morning.  I was a bit perturbed as we had to get to San Sebastian by evening, and we had read that the road there wasn’t the safest, let alone in low visibility conditions! Carl only has a navy rain jacket and was very hard to spot along the way, so we stopped at a sports store near St Jean de Luz to purchase reflective vests to increase our visibility on the road.

By this stage it was pouring down outside and very misty. We decided to have a coffee to see if the rain would settle down a bit. No luck – the rain continued unabated and we had no choice but to head on out.  As we were preparing to head back for more punishment we bumped into two British cycle tourists, George and Steven.  They had been cycling for 10 days and done an average of 150km’s per day – we were impressed!  We decided to ride together to San Sebastian, for safety in numbers on the road.

The rain was so heavy at times I felt like I needed a snorkel to continue breathing normally. As we rode along the cliff tops, we could hear the surf below, but couldn’t see a thing due to the mist.  It was fun having company on the road and the miserable weather seemed less of a factor as we chatted as we rode (except up the hills!).  The road way very hilly, but very beautiful too – although, so often we commented that if the sun was shining it would make for a beautiful photo!

We stopped in the town of Hendaye and had a coffee to warm up and get out of the rain for a while.  Carl and I decided to catch the train from Hendaye into San Sebastian as we had heard that the road was unpleasant and quite unsafe too.  The British boys decided to brave it and after a few photos, coffee and a few good laughs and good-byes – we parted ways.

The train trip into San Sebastian was simple, and we arrived to sunshine and an entirely different world from France! We also heard from the boys that the road was pretty hectic so felt a bit better about chickening out on the train!

Following post: Spain | San Sebastian


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