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La Grande Dune Du Pyla, France
La Dune du Pyla - Highest Dune in Europe
August 2008 we visited La Dune du Pyla, a sand dune, while on holiday
(vacation) for a couple of weeks in Western France. We stayed in a
charming chambre d'hote (bed and breakfast) in Andernos Les Bains
which is on the north side of the Arcachon Basin about 60km west of
Bordeaux, and drove around the bay to visit this special sand dune.
is so special about a sand dune that it merits a visit? Well La Dune
du Pyla happens to be the highest dune in Europe – currently around
107m high, but as it's a dune, the height changes slightly as the
sand is blown around. It is a remarkable sight to see this enormous
sand dune, and after trudging up the wooden staircase to the top, the
views are breathtaking.
On a very clear day it is possible to see The Pyrenees mountains in the far distance, but more normally it is a spectacular view over the Atlantic coast, the inlet to the Arcachon basin and inland over thee tops of the extensive pine forest. Not only is the dune about 107m high, but it also covers a large area, extending about 500m inland and 2500m along the coast.
It is also called :
- La Dune du Pilat
- La Dune du Pylat
- La Dune du Pila
- La Grande Dune.
But for consistency I will refer to it as the Dune du Pyla, as that seem to be the most common name.
La Dune Du Pyla - Geography
The Dune du Pyla stands in a vast area of dunes in the western part of the Aquitaine region. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the region was planted with pines (pinus pinaster) making it the largest pine forest in Europe (La Forêt des Landes in French). The region can be subdivided into two areas:
- The area of coastal dunes, from the Gironde (Pointe de Grave) to Biarritz.
- The "Landes de Gascogne," a green triangle of pine forest with the Gironde estuary in the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the West.
The sand dunes in this region can be categorised into four basic shapes - parabolic dunes, crescent shaped or barchan dunes, round dunes and the foredune, or sand barrier along the shore. The Dune du Pyla forms part of this foredune and although it is the largest dune there are many other massive dunes in this area, for example, 47 dunes between 70 and 100m in height and 350 dunes between 50 and 70m in height, and many, many more of a significant size.
In total it is estimated that there are over 1500 dunes greater than 10m high. The vast majority are relatively stable as the forest anchors the sand, but on the coastal strip, the foredune is constantly on the move despite great efforts to prevent the sand moving inland. Palisade fences are built and grasses planted to try to halt the inevitable movement of the sand.
La Dune Du Pyla - History
You may think that like most geographical features, the Dune du Pyla has been standing high above this coast for thousands of years. But you would be mistaken, because although its origins may be way back in the distant past, much of the sand has been deposited in the last few centuries. In fact, there was originally a smaller dune, the "Dune de la Grave, which formed the base for the Dune du Pyla.
The time-scales can be calculated by studying the interfaces or paleosols - the dark lines of sand and other debris which run through the dune and are visible on the surface. They can be most easily seen when the summer tourist season dies down and the natural surface of the dune is not disturbed by thousands of visitors. For example, paleosol 3, can be found between 20m and 40m from the base, and it has been found to contain bronze coins and other evidence from the sixteenth century. This puts a definite fix on the height of the dune at that time.
Paleosol 4 represents the surface of the "Dune de La Grave" which was surveyed in 1863. This dune was planted with pines during the nineteenth century to try and stabilise the sand and for timber. But the forces of nature are sometimes unstoppable another 20 to 30m of sand was blown into pace to form the current dune around the beginning of the twentieth century.
So the Dune du Pyla, as such has only been in existence for around 100 years, rather than the thousands of year often associated with physical features in the landscape.
La Dune Du Pyla - Always On The Move
This great dune of sand, like all dunes, never stops moving so long as there is a wind blowing and sand to be moved around. The French Geographical Institute (IGN) has surveyed the position of the dune and by comparing maps and measurements, has calculated that the dune is moving between 3 and 4m inland every year.
The dune relentlessly moves on into the pine forest overwhelming anything in its path! About 8000 sq metres of forest are covered each year, and in 1987 a road was overlapped after an avalanche of sand, and finally buried in 1991. And typical of a property lost, would be the case where inhabitants of Bordeaux chose to have a villa built in a glade near the dune in 1928. Two years later in 1930, the sands began to overwhelm the house and even though the owners tried everything to stop it, the house was completely buried by the sand in 1936.
It is estimated that in about forty years, if the movement of the Dune du Pyla continues at the same rate, the Biscarrosse road and the campsite at the foot of the slope will be buried under the sands
Dune Du Pyla Area Map
Activities On The Dune
The dune is a very safe place to learn to fly para-gliders and hang-gliders as this video shows.