The great Dune of Pilat

The great Dune of Pilat
Bushes and sand on the Great Dune of Pilat, La Teste-de-Buch, Bassin d'Arcachon, France, Leica M (Typ 240), Summilux-M 50mm, f1.4 ASPH, 1/3000 sec., f6.8, ISO 640

Europe’s Largest Dune is in France? Seriously?

Canada is known around the world for a truck load of reasons, but mostly for its coldness and vast territory. When people mention this to me I just love to ask them if they knew there is a desert in Canada. Their reaction is always the same, big eyes and open mouth. Then I tell them about the Okanagan Valley, more precisely the town of Osoyoos, which reaches 38˚ celsius in the summer. They even have a banana plantation and vineyards there! If you want to see for yourself, check it out here.

Two weeks ago I felt roles have switched and I was the one showing stupefaction when I read somewhere that the highest dune in Europe was actually in France, at around 9 hours drive from where I live. Our plans to go to Bordeaux then got an extension to reach the famous dune in Bassin d’Arcachon. I haven’t seen the Atlantic for a few years (except when flying over to Montreal), and I wanted to touch it, no matter what. Today’s post is all about The Great Dune of Pilat! If you’d like to read about the first part of the trip, you might want to check my previous post titled From Cahors to Bordeaux on this blog.

Where is the dune, Dude?

Bassin d’Arcachon is located in department of Gironde, in the Aquitaine region at about 50 km from Bordeaux and is very easy to locate, the road indications are very clear. You can’t get lost over there, and the road obviously end with the Atlantic ocean! The official website for the area contains a lot of valuable information and you find it here. You can spend weeks in the region because there is so much to do and see. Accommodations are plenty but in high season, as usual, reservation is a must. Anyways, we only had a day for this time and the dune was of course the first thing we wanted to see. The remaining of the day would be spent traveling to Cap Ferret (use the boat/shuttle) to avoid traffic jam, and of course a meal in a nice restaurant to enjoy local specialties. We were advised by a local person to try La Cabane (Complete address is 65, Boul. de l'Océan, 33115 Pyla sur Mer, France. They are closed on Tuesday and Wednesday (except during school breaks). Phone number is (+33) 05 56 54 50 67.) and it was fantastic. Great service, great food and wine. Thanks to Patou & Didier for a wonderful lunch. Another one to try is La Corniche which is located right beside the great dune.

Hey, What’s your name, Dude?

There seem to be quite a lot of confusion in the name for the dune. Some spell it Pilat, others use Pyla or even Pylat. But the right name is Pilat. In fact the confusion might come from the fact that there is a town called Pyla-sur-mer in this area. But the dune itself is not located in Pyla-sur-mer but in La Teste-de-Buch. Then people probably get all that mixed and even started to spell things differently. But the right (and official) name for the dune is indeed Dune of Pilat.

On being a wise tourist: be an early bird

The Dune of Pilat is a very well known touristic attraction and a lot of people go there every year. Be wise. Just like any site like this you have to get there before everybody. And that is early. We got out of the dune at around10:30am, after spending quite a while on the dune itself and on the beach below. When we reached the car and headed to the exit there were people everywhere. And I mean everywhere: parking, WC, the path that leads to the dune, the stairway to the dune, etc.. I don’t know what the peak time (pun almost intended) is over there, but for me that was it. After that, I’m out, and fast! Outside the site, on the road, we saw a huge line-up of cars, kilometers long. I just thought “leave, run away, get out.. now”). But I can understand such popularity, the dune site is beautiful. I definitely have to get back in September and this time I’ll stay overnight and wait for sunset on the dune.

What’s in the bag?

  • Leica M (Typ 240) + spare batteries x 2
  • Sony RX100 + spare batteries x2 (barely used)
  • 64GB Sandisk Extreme Pro SD cards x 3
  • Lens cloth & blower
  • Glasses
  • Apple iPhone 5
  • Moleskine Field Notes & pencil

Final Thoughts

I came back from Bassin d’Arcachon with a desire to go back again and spend more time visiting. We’re even thinking about renting a house there near the beach and enjoy quietness. I’m quite happy with the shots I got from that day and had a wonderful time out there. Very inspiring place. The first time I put my feet in the sand of a desert was in Death Valley, California in 2008 during a photo workshop with Steve Kossak. Death Valley is by far one of the most tremendous experience to have with sand dunes, rocks and high peaks. There’s no point in comparing the Dune of Pilat with Death Valley, but on both location I had this wonderful feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, in silence, with just a little constant sound of wind on the sand grains. That’s how dunes move.. and get us moving. In Death Valley, strong winds re-shape the dunes constantly. Everyday is a different spectacle. In La Test-de-Buch, the dune is actually moving inland. Scientist have compared aerial photos from the past with today and the dune is eating a bit of the forest behind a little bit every day. Roads and houses have been relocated for that reason in the past. It’s a very slow process, just like mountains moving up or down, but it’s definitely happening.

But there is still two questions I have no answers for: why is there a dune at this specific location and how did it form? If you know the answers, please share them with me, I’m curious! Thanks.

You can find the whole “color” picture set on my website at and the “mono” version at

Good Light!


© Normand Primeau