The Winter Town of Arcachon

As soon as the sun starts to shine, residents of Bordeaux are irresistibly drawn to the Bay of Arcachon. Yet the beach isn’t the only thing this little inland sea has to offer.

Sixty or so kilometres from Bordeaux, the Arcachon Bay just behind the Atlantic Ocean, is a small area, sheltered from the worst sea conditions, even if the channels transporting water between the Bay and the Atlantic with the tides are rather dangerous.

The Bay becomes surrounded by cars as Bordeaux is drained of its tourists. However, I prefer to avoid the seaside, which is too overcrowded for my tastes and discover other little gems in a more tranquil, protected environment. In Arcachon, the town which gave its name to the Bay, I love to stroll through the Winter Town district. In actual fact it was this part of town which turned Arcachon from a fishing village into a renowned, elegant seaside resort. The Winter Town was largely constructed between 1862 and 1910 on a heap of sloping sand dunes close to the railway station.

There’s nothing surprising about that as the whole project was led by Arcachon’s Property Company (Société Immobilière d’Arcachon), a subsidiary of Compagnie du Midi who bought the first railway line to Arcachon on 1857 and built the station there in 1864. An initiative dreamed up by the banking brothers frères Péreire. Another driving force behind the Winter Town was doctors, who highly recommended the restorative climate to fragile patients and those suffering with tuberculosis.

I like to wander along the leafy streets of Winter Town which wind around showing glimpses of the park or incredible chalet style houses where you can imagine stories of times gone-by: turrets, keeps, eaves, jutting walls, verandas and balconies with intricate wooden railings can be found wherever you turn. A whole host of unique architecture and heritage from the 19th century magnificently preserved. It can be fun to try and figure out where the names came from: villa Faust, villa Marguerite, villa Toledo, villa Alexandre Dumas, villa l’Ensoleillée (Sunshine), villa la Vigie (look-out), villa Montretout (show-all), villa Giroflé (wallflower) or villa Brémontier in honour of the engineer who figured out how to build upon the sand dunes.

Every time I visit I can’t help walking along the little Saint-Paul walkway which straddles the road below and links Mont Saint-Paul and Mont Sainte-Cécile. I ought to add that ‘Mont’ is the rather pompous name given to two sand dunes. My great regret is that the particularly exotic and ornate Casino Mauresque was destroyed in the fire of 1977.

Before leaving Arcachon, I head back to the coast to buy some oysters and stop for an ice-cream at O Sorbet d’Amour and then in the boutique near the Casino, not because I want to gamble, but to admire the architecture of Château Deganne whose building it occupies.

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