I stopped going to the Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera) about a decade and a half ago. Too crowded, too expensive, too built-up. But throughout the 1990s I went regularly, stealing away on the night train that departed from the Gare d’Austerlitz. My destination was always Nice (I adored that city), but I explored other towns strung like pearls along the coast: Cannes, Juan-les-Pins, Antibes, Cap Ferrat, and Menton near the Italian border. There was something romantic, dangerous and thrilling about those night trains. You never knew who you were going to meet in the corridors at midnight; you never knew with whom you were going to share your sleeping compartment (six bunks, called couchettes, to a compartment; you had to climb up a little ladder to get to the top bunk.) It seems funny now, the idea of sleeping with complete strangers in a stuffy train compartment. Towards the late 1990s the train company had the good idea to create “women’s only compartments” which locked from the inside.
But the Riviera lost its allure for me in the 2000s. The place had become over-run with tourists and both crime and prices increased drastically. Modernization attempts killed the sleepy charm that had once lured me there. So I switched coasts and discovered Arcachon, Cap Ferret (not to be confused with Cap Ferrat), La Rochelle and the Ile de Ré, all sparkling summer destinations on France’s western side. For visitors to France I still recommend the Côte d’Azur, but not in July and August. As for those night trains, sadly they’ve been phased out.
La Rochelle or Arcachon are good starting points, both little gems and both leading to beautiful islands: the Ile de Ré from La Rochelle and Cap Ferret from Arcachon. There’s also the Dune du Pyla that’s worth visiting, a massive sand dune and famous tourist destination that receives a million visitors per year.
At the foot of the dune, numerous campsites are nestled in the pine forests. It should be known that French campsites are far from rustic. No canoeing, setting up tents and fighting off black flies and racoons like I used to do in Canada. No roasting weenies and marshmallows over a campfire while sitting on a log singing Kumbaya. The French like their comfort; they also like rules, confined spaces and organized group activities. A decade ago, when the kids were little, we spent one July at a campsite located at the foot of the Dune du Pyla. It’s called Les Flots Bleus. We were assigned a mobile home on a patch of earth measuring roughly 20 square meters.
It was fun (and funny) to watch the French in a different habitat. No matter where they find themselves, they adhere to strict meal times. Lunchtime is lunchtime and at noon sharp you could smell the beginning of meals being cooked inside the mobile homes or on barbecues outside. Tables were set, wine bottles were uncorked and simple lettuce salads with home-made vinaigrette were prepared. Camembert was unwrapped and meat was grilled. People strode by carrying baguettes, purchased at the on-site and all-important boulangerie. I admire the French for their food and meal discipline. Living in France taught me how to eat properly. The number one rule? No snacking between meals!
In the afternoon, groups formed to play pétanque under the trees while the kids headed to the pool, the beach or the giant dune. To see my past posts on Arcachon and Cap Ferret, go up to the top right hand corner of this blog and type Arcachon into the Search box. Here’s a video of another Atlantic island I’ve yet to explore: