Walking the Dune du Pilat sand dune

Dune du Pilat is Europe’s tallest sand dune and, on the face of it, sounds a bit dull . . . I mean, it’s just a sand dune right?  Seen heaps of them . . . but . . . it’s actually a better experience than you’d initially think.  For one, the views from the top at 110m / 360ft are pretty impressive as you look across the various sand bars offshore and the giant spit of the Cap Ferret bending around in the distance.  Secondly, the contrast between the turquoise island paradise to the west, the evergreen forest to the east and the bright white / yellows of the sand dune are one of those sites it’s fun to gorp at for a while.  And finally, the whole walking along a giant sand dune largely on your own away from fellow tourists (see top tip below) is just cool.  Very much makes sense to be down as one of the Lonely Planet’s top highlights of France


Top tip – the vast majority of fellow tourists get to the top of the dune from the stairs that lead up from the main northern end car park, walk around a bit in that area and then head back down the stairs again to the car park.  I can see how this would be a tad underwhelming.  Instead, start to walk southwards along the top ridge of the dune – after a short time you’ll have it largely to yourself, have better views of the surrounding forest and find that walking along the ridge is far easier than the sand you’ll have been waling on before.  We walked along maybe 2/3rds of the way and then ran down the dune (which was fun) and the walked back along to the northern point of the dune via the shoreline, where we were able to walk around the dune on paths back to the carpark (you could of course just avoid this shoreline-route and walk back along the ridge if don’t fancy the longer route).  Whole walk from car park back to car park, including stopping a couple of times, took us around 2.5 hours


Extra tip – go barefoot.  Far easier on the sand

Wandering Bordeaux

Bordeaux is nice – the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town is pleasant and big enough to get enjoyably lost in; the Place de la Bourse is impressive with its mirrored effect looking from the fountains; and of course you have some of the best wines in the world to sample in the various wine bars and learn about in the museum La Cite du Vin . . . but the highlight of this part of the world is the vineyards themselves . . . and in particular around the Saint Emilion area (see Sampling wines in Saint Emilion for more detailed tips).  So, spend an afternoon if, as you likely will be, passing through, but not at the expense of time in the vineyards


Tip – the museum, La Cite du Vin, is surprisingly good.  It’s out of town a little, but only a 15min tram ride on the main route, plus it has views over the city with your choice of some free wine to compliment the view and the nearby Les Halles Bacalan is a market of tapas restaurants where the food is wonderful

3 week European roadtrip for mountains and wine

If you look through a typical European highlights itinerary it will invariably be dominated by the cities.  For instance, the Lonely Planet’s top itinerary for Europe is 12 cities and nothing else, and of its 24 overall European highlights, only 6 are not cities (the Norwegian Fjords, the Matterhorn, Greece’s Santorini, Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor, Transylvania, North Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid . . .  if you’re interested).  It’s understandable – Europe is a centre for culture and stunning capital cities, but it also has some world class experiences to be found outside of the cities and this itinerary gives you a flavour of those with a focus on its mountain and wine regions


With this itinerary you will enjoy:

  • Mountains – the most spectacular views of Europe’s premier mountain regions with Switzerland’s “big three” of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau from Interlaken, and the Pyrenes’ Cirques de Gavarnie
  • Wine regions – 4 of the best wine regions France has to offer with Bordeaux, Provence, Alsace and Champagne
  • Lakes – 2 of the world’s truly stunning lakes with the simply magnificent Lake Como and the Swiss Lakes surrounding Interlaken
  • Coastline – the epitome of luxury and style with the most famous stretch of coastline in Europe with the Cote d’Azur, its trio of corniches and Monaco
  • Hilltop villages and rural regions – the prettiest in Europe with the hilltop villages and elegant treelined streets of Provence and the timbered fairytale villages of the Black Forrest
  • Roman Ruins – some of the best preserved Roman Ruins with the Pont du Garde and the Arles Amphitheatre
  • Driving – and of course, some of the best driving scenery in all of Europe as you pass from one mountain range to another and along some of the prettiest countryside on the continent

Driving the Alsace Wine Route

There may be more famous wine routes in the world, but The Route des Vins d’Alsace might just be the best overall package when you consider a few factors that makes this such a great experience.  Firstly, the countryside for the route is an appealing combination of rolling lush green fields, misty mountains and castles perched on top of outcrops throughout the 170km / 105mile route, which, as it sounds, is just awful.  Secondly, and continuing the awful theme, the villages dotted along the route with their small alleyways and central squares look like something straight from a fairytale

Now, for those first two factors, I realise that there are other wine routes in the world that offer such equally dreamy surroundings, but consider the third factor – the Alsace region’s history of swinging between France and Germany provides a intriguing mix of culture that is basically unique – think French attitudes, but speaking German.  And, finally, the Alsace region does not have the reputation of the likes of Bordeaux, Tuscany, Napa Valley and the Garden Route, so with that comes reduced visitor numbers and, to be honest, a much more down to earth and less douchey vibe.  You can enjoy in a bit more quiet as you spend a couple of days stopping in the quiet fairytale towns and deciding which of the wine cellars spread every mile or so you want to visit


A highlight of France


I haven’t written a detailed review as I only spent a few days in the region, but for a good route guide, I’d suggest this site – https://blog.ruedesvignerons.com/en/travel-guide/alsace-wine-route/ – which gives a good overview of the places to stop

Sampling wines in Saint Emilion

The Bordeaux region is arguably the most famous and respected wine region in the world.  Whilst staying in Bordeaux the city is indeed nice with its UNESCO World Heritage listed old town and wide variety of wineries and restaurants (see experience entry Wandering Bordeaux for more tips), it misses out on that wonderful feeling of staying in the wine region itself. St Emilion and its surround wineries give you that feeling, and should be prioritised far ahead of Bordeaux the town.  The medieval village itself is gorgeous, sitting just above the vineyards for views all across the valleys (also UNESCO World Heritage listed), and its surrounding vineyards give that feeling of being in the premier spot for wine in the world . . . summer early evenings when the temperature is dropping, any remnants of the day tourists have left and you are there to enjoy world-class meal in a small part of paradise . . . the French, I must say, do this all very well



  • St Emilion itself – it can get busy in the day, so considering trying to spend time there in the early evening to avoid the crowds.  It’s worth also seeing if you can get to the balcony of the Hotel de Pavie – other than one of the church towers, it has the best views of the village and largely overlooked by fellow tourists who head down to the main square
  • Wineries – the highlight of the trip is finding a spot to have a meal in the vineyards, and potentially a wine tour / tasting.  We went to Chateau Petit Faurie de Soutard (Le Jardin), L’Atelier de Candale and Restaurant du Grand Barrail and would very much recommend all.  I’d also recommend Chateau Soutard for the wine tour
  • Where to stay – St Emilion is either daft expensive or very basic, so aim to stay out.  We stayed in a vineyard , Chateau Soutard Cadet, within walking distance of St Emilion and it was magical (but pricey).  Have a shop around for places further away that will be far cheaper and likely just as pretty, but be aware that public transport is basically zero so will need your own car

Sampling wines in the Champagne region

Driving through the rolling countryside or wandering through the Champagne-mad streets of Reims and Epernay, stopping at cellars ranging from small family run wineries to some of the largest and famous in the world, all whilst sampling and learning about how the crème de la crème of drinks is made.  Spending a few days in the Champagne region is a world-class experience and one that should be right at the top of the priority list when visiting France

The natural mountain amphitheater of Cirques de Gavarnie

For those beautiful Pyrenees views, its hard to beat the area just to the south of the town of Lourdes and, in particular, the easily accessible Cirques de Gavarnie with its sensational mountain amphitheater and laid back surrounding villages that provide a host of accommodation options.  The mountain behind, Mount Perdu, is actually now a UNESCO World-Heritage site both for its outstanding natural beauty and human settlement going all the way back to the Upper Paleolithic period (40,000 – 10,000 B.C.).  It’s only 1.5 hours walk from Gavarnie village to the the best views of the amphitheater and to see some of the waterfalls that are super impressive just after it has rained


Just one tip – the ease of accessibility of Cirques de Gavarnie means it is also the busiest of the three natural amphitheaters nearby.  Be sure to also consider Cirque de Troumouse and the most remote – Cirque d’Estaube, if you are keen to avoid the busy spots

A week in the South of France

The South of France in summer is the quintessential advert for all things great about the French way of living.  Hilltop villages straight from a fairytale; a tradition of superb wines grown locally; dry Mediterranean climate that fits so well with the elegantly treelined streets of the towns and wandering routes of the countryside; some of the best preserved ancient Roman ruins; and, of course, the wonderful French cuisine with local produce proudly sitting at the heart of all that goes on here


A week is just about the right amount of time to see some of the traditional sites such as the hilltop villages of Gordes, the Corniches of the French Riviera, the Pont du Gare and a slight detour for Carcassonne.  But also the right amount of time to settle into that wonderful southern French way of life.  It really seems to grab you and it is unusual to leave without some half-hatched plan in your head for returning one day for retirement


Frustratingly I lost many of my photos of the trip, but I’ve listed below my key highlights and tips

Classic highlights of Paris

One of the world’s most famous cities and with some of the most recognisable landmarks anywhere, Paris is quite simply one of world’s must-visit destinations.  However, it is unfortunately quite common for people to leave Paris a little disappointed.  In fact, Paris Syndrome (“a sense of disappointment exhibited by individuals when visiting Paris”) is a thing.  This is less down to the lack of allure from the big ticket highlights, and more people’s disappointment that Paris doesn’t meet their romantic dream-like expectations of the peaceful walk along the tree lined streets all to themselves as they drift to find a hidden restaurant with that perfect table sat out the front under the stars with perfect views of the Eiffel Tower . . . ahhhhh how wonderful . . . oh and with the subtle music playing in the background and that perfect (reasonably priced) meal . . . ahhhhh, yes, how dreamy.  Of course, the reality is that Paris is a big expensive modern city with millions of fellow tourists wanting a piece of the action and the ever-present risk of the moody grey Northern French weather


So, whilst I think many people do get that perfect visit, many don’t as they either don’t know the secrets or don’t have a local to show them round.  I’ve visited Paris several times, but haven’t really had that local knowledge, so I’m going to score the visit based on that which, in summary, is still “one of the world’s must-visit destinations” based on its big ticket attractions, but don’t build up your expectations to the point that you leave with Paris Syndrome


My only tip is to stay in Montmartre – the centre of Paris can be super busy, expensive and a little samesy.  Montmartre, in comparison, has a much more genuine feel, with pretty cafes spilling out onto the cobbled streets and super views over the city from the Sacré-Coeur basilica