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Bay Watch - a trip to Arcachon in Gironde

Bay Watch - a trip to Arcachon in Gironde

Over the years Arcachon has been appreciated by seabirds, fishermen and later, by comfortably-off villa owners. Recently the town has undergone a radical transformation, but the style remains as distinctive as ever.

Until the early 19th century Arcachon was merely one more small fishing port among those dotted anonymously around the shores of a vast triangular-shaped natural lagoon southwest of Bordeaux. With its narrow, sheltered entry from the Atlantic, the Bassin d’Arcachon would doubtless have become a world-class seaport were it not for one major disadvantage: at low tide roughly eighty per cent of its 25,000ha surface area is left high and dry. On the plus side, though, the clean waters are just about perfect for oyster farming and a host of leisure activities.

Prior to 1841 few people apart from local fishermen and their families spent much time here, but everything looked set to change dramatically with the creation of a railway line from Bordeaux to La Teste, an ambitious project designed to introduce city dwellers to the newly-fashionable pleasures and health benefits of bathing. Initially, however, the scheme failed to achieve its hoped-for commercial success, and in 1852 the ailing line was purchased by Emile and Isaac Pereire, whose family owned large areas of the pine-forested land around the Bassin. The talented brothers had achieved great success with their residential development of Parc Monceau in Paris and were now hungry for a new challenge. Their company, the impressive-sounding Cie des Chemin de Fer du Midi, extended the line from La Teste into Arcachon, an area which had caught their eye a few years earlier when it added a deep-water landing stage. New visitors travelling by boat had fallen in love with Arcachon, which within the space of a few years had established a modest reputation as a summer resort. The brothers were convinced that if they could operate their railway all year round, it might finally become profitable. But how, exactly?

The answer to their conundrum came from an unexpected source. Before the discovery of Penicillin, tuberculosis was potentially lethal and endemic, the only hope for sufferers being good nutrition and fresh air. For those who could afford them, large treatment centres appeared in the Alps and beside the Mediterranean, but the Atlantic coast was considered too exposed by sanatorium developers, who consequently ignored it. However, a local doctor (a cousin of the brothers) noted that local fishermen and teams of workers exploiting the pine forests appeared untouched by the disease. As it turned out, the coastal plantations afforded an effective barrier from prevailing winds, giving Arcachon what seemed to be the perfect microclimate for tuberculosis treatment and convalescence.

The implications of this discovery were not lost on Emile Pereire, who immediately purchased a huge pine-covered dune immediately behind the resort. Rather than simply constructing a single sanatorium, however, he decided instead to divide the woodland up into individual building plots and market the resulting prestige development site as ‘la Ville d’Hiver’. Progress on what amounted to a collective sanatorium advanced rapidly, as a profusion of villas designed to accommodate the sick, their wealthy families and domestic staff suddenly appeared among the pine trees. The rapid rate of construction was achieved by the innovative use of a degree of prefabrication, the villas’ apparent architectural diversity actually concealing an underlying uniformity of basic dimensions and even floor-plans. The results were often spectacular – the development coincided with the height of the Belle Epoque period, wealthy families commissioning prominent architects to style their villas for maximum impact on local society.

Soon a showpiece ornamental garden appeared and was christened ‘Le Parc Pereire’ at an extravagant launch in the presence of Napoléon III and his family. This finally established Arcachon as a genteel and highly desirable retreat for the wealthy, and before long the social benefits had eclipsed its initial raison d’être as a health resort. The good times continued until the economic depression in the 1930s, which eventually found many of the villas either being sold or falling into disrepair.

Today, however, Arcachon’s fortunes have turned again. The Ville d’Hiver is once again calmly aloof and looking mercifully unchanged. Most of the elegant villas lining the steep, curving allées have been lovingly restored to their full former glory, the vibrant colours and stylistic vitality ensuring that they are as hard to ignore today as when they were constructed. From the outset the plots were never generously sized, but the setting and the villas’ highly individual appearances (accentuated by their deliberately varied orientation) once again attract wealthy property buyers, both from France and overseas.

Now mature pines still cover much of the landscape, so enjoying a bigger view means getting above them. The definitive viewpoint for the upwardly inclined is the Observatoire de Sainte-Cécile (a.k.a. ‘le Belvedère’) constructed in 1863 by architect and engineer Paul Régnauld. Wind your way up a narrow cast-iron spiral staircase suspended within a skeletal, railway track-style iron framework and you’ll feel it sway disconcertingly on its supporting cables. It’s something of a vertigo test (particularly when meeting other visitors on their way back down) but the panoramic views from a circular platform at the 32m summit repay the necessary determination with glimpses of the villas, the nearby Passerelle de Saint-Paul (an antique iron footbridge by Régnauld and Gustave Eiffel), the town below and the Bassin.

If that adventure doesn’t appeal, then there’s an elevated view of the town from the nearby Parc Mauresque – 8ha of botanical gardens whose exotic Moorish casino (designed by Régnauld) was destroyed by fire in 1977. The park was later re-landscaped as an arboretum and offers welcome shade on a hot day. In 1913 a cable-car began bringing passengers from the town below, but today the journey is via the Ascenseur Public (beside whose upper entrance is displayed a scale model of the Casino) which replaced it in 1949.

Below, between the Ville d’Hiver and the beach-side boulevards, the seasonal theme continues in the adjoining Ville de Printemps and Ville d’Eté, while behind the old fishing port lies the Ville d’Automne. Also developed were prestige residential areas like Parc Pereire, Le Moulleau and Les Abatilles, all served by a road network which can feel considerably more complex on the ground than the tourist map would suggest.

Visitors are still drawn inexorably to Arcachon’s celebrated beaches. Five are named, but everything is linked seamlessly, creating one glorious, impeccably-maintained stretch of pale golden sand. If sunbathing is your thing, look no further. On the other hand, if you prefer to walk, cycle, roller-blade or simply sit on a bench and enjoy the view from the shade of a tree-lined promenade you’ll be in good company, particularly at either end of the day. There’s always plenty to see, from traditional flat-bottomed oyster boats to water-skiers, cheerful sailing dinghies and packed passenger boats ferrying visitors to and from super-chic Cap Ferret, at the tip of a slender, sandy peninsula on the seaward side of the Bassin. Add upmarket boutiques, bars and restaurants and it’s clear that Arcachon has become adept at delivering exactly the kind of quality experience which people come here hoping to find.

What many of them won’t have been expecting, however, is the town centre’s bold new face, the result of an audacious redevelopment programme. If you think that sounds like history repeating itself then you’d be right – at least in terms of the architectural theme chosen by the planners. This is regeneration on a monumental scale, but somehow it works, not least since the detailing draws upon features from the original 19th century Belle Epoque villas. Much of the area is pedestrianised, so there’s time to explore and contemplate changes which when you’re standing among them are much more than mere pastiche. I’d call it a timely celebration of Arcachon’s defining style, but don’t take my word for it – go and see it for yourself.

As it turned out, the Ville d’Hiver was just the beginning. Once available space on the elevated site had been snapped up villa territory began to spread westwards towards Moulleau, Pyla-sur-Mer and Pyla Plage. Drive through them today and you have to say that, social considerations aside, their locations are anything but second-choice, many properties combining leafy seclusion with hypnotic beach views. Press onward and soon you’ll reach the world-famous Dune du Pilat. Currently around 114m high and 2700m in length, the Atlantic sees to it that Europe’s highest and longest sand dune is still growing. In clear conditions the awe-inspiring views from the top reveal virtually the whole of the Côte d’Argent, an area to which we’ll certainly be returning in future.

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© Living Magazine. Published August 2015