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See You At The Cape (Part 2)

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Oyster-farming on the cape is nearly always a family business, because the beds are passed down from one generation to the nest, like the estates of the English gentry. In many places, you are likely to be waited on by the wife or the daughter of the oyster-farmer who brought your meal ashore. There are waterside restaurants that serve almost nothing but oysters, and are located no more than a dozen strong strokes of the oar from the beds. One such institution is the very charming Chez Boulan in the fishermen’s village, and it’s as busy as a bucket of crabs every lunchtime.

Description: Clockwise from top left: enjoying an oyster platter at Chez Boulan; Dune du Pilat; sunset in the Cape Ferret; the lagoon; Le Bistrot du Bassin; Atlantic beach at Cap Ferret; shellfish lunch at the Pinasse Café; Cap Ferret beach. Centre, the terrace at La Maison du Bassin

Clockwise from top left: enjoying an oyster platter at Chez Boulan; Dune du Pilat; sunset in the Cape Ferret; the lagoon; Le Bistrot du Bassin; Atlantic beach at Cap Ferret; shellfish lunch at the Pinasse Café; Cap Ferret beach. Centre, the terrace at La Maison du Bassin

A lighthouse srrs at the hub of Cap Ferret town. Its Cyclops eye is red at night, like a giant blinking traffic light. In the daytime you can climb to the top, and be rewarded with a great view of the peninsula. This is where to get an idea of the strange topography of the place. Look east and there is the town of Arcachon, beyond the drained sink of the basin; look west and you have the turbulent Atlantic, its white-headed waves launching their twice-daily assault on the remains of a crumbling German gun emplacement. These twp bodies of water are, in the end, part of the same sea – but only in the sense that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are the same person: le basin and la mer are temperamental opposites: one placid and calm, the other angry and threatening.

Description: L’Escale restaurant beside the jetty in Cap Ferret town

L’Escale restaurant beside the jetty in Cap Ferret town

The ferry for Arcachon leaves from a long jetty at the northern end of town. I caught the first crossing of the day; the tide was out, and in the sand below the pier there was a single set of Man Friday tracks, left by some crack-of-dawn jogger. I clambered aboard the little boat with the keen birdwatchers, the Lycra-clad cyclists and the taciturn anglers. We all squeezed onto the two rows of benches like day-trippers on a floating charabanc (which is more or less what we were). It’s half an hour to Arcachon, which has more of a seaside feel than Cap Ferret, and is well worth exploring. It was developed as a resort in the 19th century, and the promenade is populated with large hotels. Some of them have grand, balustrade deuxième-empire facades, others are faceless modern constructions. The big hotels, the shopping streets behind them and the wide, sandy beaches in front are all part of the ville d’été (summer town), the district of Arcachon designed to accommodate and amuse Victorian holidaymakers arriving on the train from Bordeaux. Follow the promenade south, towards the great sandy massif of the Dune du Pilat, and you find yourself in the ville d’hiver (winter town). It consists mostly of large villas built for rich French consumptives. Many of the houses are splendid neo-Gothic edifices, all turrets and steep roof lines; some of the later ones feature Art Nouveau half-moon windows. The shady streets of the winter town are a good place for a quite stroll, which should end in the Parc Mauresque. This little arboretum on a hill once accommodated a large casino built to resemble the Alhambra and is reached by a lift.

Description: Bassin d'Arcachon

Bassin d'Arcachon

I spent a leisurely day in Arcachon, and the next morning hired a bike to explore the places I’d seen from atop the lighthouse – the nearby villages of L’Herbe and Le Canon, and the wild Atlantic coast. It was an exhilarating outing. L’Herbe consists of a stretch of promenade, at the end of which is the small L’Hôtel de la Plage where, if you have cycled from Cap Ferret, you can stop for a reviving glass of something. The hotel marks the start of L’Herbe’s main street – if you could call it a street at all. It is a row of traditional houses that are part-bungalow, part-beach hut. They are all painted bright colours; some are half-timbered like a misconstrued Gallic take on the British mock-Tudor semi, others feature decorative gables carved in wood that make them look like dinky Russian dachas. Duck down the alleyways between the houses to sample oysters in a less formal setting than at the brasseries in Cap Ferret town. Take a seat and watch while the sea-farmer affects a few sharp twists of a knife, squeezes half a lemon over the opened shells, and places before you the archetypal Cap Ferret lunch.

Description: Lège-Cap-Ferret - le canon - l'herbe

Le canon - l'herbe

From Le Canon (the next village up) you can catch a boat to Ile aux Oiseaux (Bird Island). This is where you will find the so-called cabanes tchanquées, two picturesque little houses standing on stilts to raise them above the oscillating tide. The cabanes are enchanting in a bizarre kind of way, and they are the very symbol of Cap Ferret. They were built on this shallow spot as a base from which the oyster-men could keep an eye on their watery domain. They are, in other words, watchtowers, constructed to ensure that no conchological scrumper could make off with the lucrative crop.

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