Pyla dune—the highest sand dune in Europe

The last three posts touched on how the landscape of Bordeaux affects wine characteristics. But there are landscape features that are just fun for their own sake. Billed as the highest dune in Europe, we had to visit Pyla Dune, a geologic feature along the Atlantic coast south of Arcachon, a popular seaside that is an easy 52-minute train ride from Bordeaux. Bike paths are prevalent, so we rented bikes to ride along the coast of Arcachon Bay to Pyla Dune, a pile of loose sand that continues to be pushed inland by the wind. On the map, loose sand is a light tan color; it appears as a beach along the sand spit north of the entrance to the bay, as sand bars near the entrance to the bay, and as a large rectangular block just south of the bay’s entrance (the Pyla Dune).


Currently, the dune is migrating eastward an average of 3–5 meters/year. Because of changing positions of the bay’s entrance and sand bars, the dune is eroding on the western (seaward) side. This erosion has exposed 4 paleosols (ancient soils) that show a dune has been at this location for at least 3500 years. Soils have been dated by radiocarbon analysis of organic components and by human artifacts—one paleosol contains Bronze Age tools and another contains 16th century coins. (The web site——has more details about the site.) A pine forest was planted in the 19th century to stabilize the dune, but this forest is being slowly buried as the dune migrates east—this east side of the dune is shown on the photo below.


The dune provides a popular site for people to visit and climb. Although the dune achieves a height of about 107 meters (350 feet), most people can manage to make the climb. From the top there is a fabulous view of the bay and Atlantic coast.


The sand is mostly fine and made of quartz; there is also a small percentage of dark-colored heavy minerals like magnetite that make interesting patterns. This view is looking north from the dune along the east shore of Arcachon Bay to the forested town of Pyla-Sur-Mer.


Pyla-Sur-Mer is a residential town located between the dune and Arcachon. Its seaside location, upscale homes, and pine forest reminded us a great deal of Monterey and Carmel in California. Hopefully, this town will not be buried by the dune. At current rates, the road and campground directly east of the dune will be buried in 40 years.


Arcachon is famous for its fresh oysters, so we had to sample them in a Pyla-Sur-Mer restaurant, which also served us excellent moules frites (mussels and fries) and fish.


This was an interesting outing from Bordeaux, to which we returned for a day exploring the city. Here is Jay with Lynn, our Ashland friend who, together with her husband Mark, are studying wines in Bordeaux for several years. (Mark was working in the harvest that day.)  We then got on our bikes and traveled to Toulouse, the journey’s end.


Biking between two rivers—the Entre-Deux-Mers region

The Entre-Deux-Mers region is located between the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers that feed into the Gironde estuary. The name, though, is “between two seas” or “between two tides” because the rivers have a tidal influence. The Gironde has a large tidal range and during the largest tides, a tidal bore (single wave) will move upstream in the rivers. One of our B&B hosts said her daughter rode it one time!


Like the Saint Emilion region, this region is also characterized by mostly limestone bedrock with thin, clay-rich soils. An agricultural irony is that the poor soils are what make Bordeaux wines so good. When the vines have to compete for limited nutrients and water, the grapes achieve more concentrated and distinctive flavors. (By the way, it is not legal to irrigate the vineyards here.) If you find the Entre-Deux-Mers label on a French wine, you will know it is made with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes, sometimes with added Sauvignon Gris or Muscadelle. They are always white and range from dry to sweet. Red wines are also made here but they must be labeled as generic Bordeaux or (for the better ones) Bordeaux Superior. In contrast, in the Médoc region, only the red wines can have the Médoc label, and white wines must have the generic Bordeaux label. How nice to find a free tasting room along our path.


But our focus in this region is on biking—through the UTracks (Canadian) company we did a 5-day self-guided bike tour from Bordeaux to Toulouse. They supply the bikes and the maps, and we get ourselves to the destination where our luggage and a B&B room are awaiting us. Our travel is mostly on “vélo voies verte”—bicycle green ways—with some scenic back roads thrown in for interest. The first day was a path on an old railroad bed that is named after a French man who won the Tour de France in 1939.


Most of the journey was along the Canal de Garonne, which was built in the mid 1800s as part of a system that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea (see map above). The autumn colors and temperatures made for a scenic, pleasant journey. The scene below was typical, with the path on the canal’s left bank.


There are many locks along the way that are still used by boats. There are nautical stops where people can store their cruising boats. Some of the lock houses have been converted into museums or restaurants. This restaurant, named Le Poule à Vélo (the chicken on a bike), felt particularly welcoming to bicyclists and served a lovely 3-course lunch.


The landscape is dotted by quaint medieval-aged towns that could be explored because of their position adjacent to the canal or just a short distance away. The landscape is relatively flat, except where the rivers have cut down a little. In addition to grapes, there are many other agricultural products. We saw large orchards or apples and kiwis. The photo below is La Reole village.





The terroir of Saint Emilion

The terroir of the Saint Emilion AOC (see roundish purple region on the Right Bank in previous post) differs from that of the Médoc (of course). The climate has less of a maritime influence, and the limestone bedrock is close to the surface, with only thin, mostly clay-rich soils. We visited just one Chateau—Troplong Modot. Notice that the rocks in this vineyard are angular because they are pieces of the underlying bedrock, whereas the rocks in the Médoc are very rounded because they are pieces of rocks from the Pyrenees that were transported a great distance by rivers.


The clusters that remained on the vines at Chateau Troplong Modot were stunning bundles of fruit that appeared to burst with flavor. Also at this Chateau is a restaurant with one Michelin star—Les Belles Perdrix. The food was outstanding, and the  presentation exquisite. The chateau’s own wine provided a stellar pairing (like the Médoc this AOC is also primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but the Merlot grape tends to have the higher percentage). It’s hard to imagine what a three-star restaurant would be like!


The region surrounds the village of Saint Emilion, which is named after a monk who in the 8th century lived in a cave here and allegedly performed many miracles (for which  he achieved sainthood). The town is typical of a medieval village—buildings are made of stone and perched on a hill with crumbling remnants of an ancient wall. It does have one unusual element. The bell tower appears to come out of the ground, but it is actually sitting on top of a cathedral. It’s just that the cathedral was carved out of the limestone bedrock rather than being built above ground where everyone could see it. It’s possible to visit this underground church—called the “Monolithic church” because it was carved into “one rock”. It is reminiscent of the underground churches that are found in Cappadocia, Turkey.


The photo below was taken from the bell tower; it illustrates a distinctive aspect of the Saint Emilion terroir. In the Médoc, slopes are very gentle, whereas the region here is much more hilly, so grapes experience even more variation depending on whether they are on a slope facing north or south or east or west. But like the Médoc, the landscape here is also dominated by seemingly unending vineyards and chateaux.


Terroir extraordinaire—a key to understanding the wines in Bordeaux (and elsewhere in France)

The ancient Greeks understood the effects of location on wine characteristics, but it was the French who really ran with the concept, coining the term “terroir” and making it an essential aspect of their appellation d’origine controlée (AOC), the controlled designation of origin that is granted to wine, and other agricultural products, based on the location where the product is grown. Take wine, for example. In the U.S., we tend to focus on the varietal, and every bottle will tell us the wine within was made from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or other grape varietals. In France, however, the varietal is rarely mentioned. Instead, if the wine is from Burgandy, an informed drinker will know that whites are made from Chardonnay grapes and reds are made from Pinot Noir grapes.

In Bordeaux, almost all wines are a blend of grape types, with a focus on red varietals. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the dominant grapes—other varietals added in smaller proportions include Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Below is a map of Bordeaux that shows the major AOCs. While every word is not clear, you can at least see the different colors that pertain to the different AOCs. While in Bordeaux, we have focused on the Médoc—the long purple region on the Left Bank (SW side) of the Gironne estuary—and Saint Emilion—the roundish purple region on the Right Bank (NE side). Two rivers—the Garonne and the Durdogne—flow from the southeast into the Gironde estuary, where they mix with salt water from the Atlantic. In a few days we’ll be bicycling for 5 days in the Entre Deux Mers region, which is the large green area on the map located between the two rivers.


You probably know that terroir relates to geology! The rock and soil type in which the grapes are growing can impart qualities such as minerality and acidity. Climate and slope are also important aspects of terroir. Small differences in location—for example, north-facing slopes versus south-facing slopes—can result in variations in temperature and moisture that affect characteristics of the grapes and the wine produced. Consequently, the main AOCs are subdivided into sub-appellations based on these location differences. Of course, human ingenuity is also essential to the wine-making process!

We visited three chateaux in Médoc. It’s important to know that they aren’t called wineries here; in France, chateaux refer to the places (which indeed do usually include large house-type structures) where the grapes are grown and the wine is made and bottled. The wines are then labeled with the name of the chateau and the region. If produced in The Médoc region, although it will not say so on the label, we will know that most of the wine is made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, with a large proportion of Merlot +/- Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The terroir of The Médoc is defined by the Quarternaire (Quaternary) soils that are very gravelly. The gravel was eroded from the Pyrennes during glacial periods (past 2 million years) and carried north by rivers. The gravel soils are thick and bedrock is not much of an influence. Check out all of the gravel in the soil where I am picking the grapes at Chateau Le Crock (St Estéphe subappelation).


We are fortunate to be here during the harvest, and some of the grapes still hang in full, beautiful clusters on the vines. At Chateau Le Crock, we were able to accompany the workers into the field (although we only picked enough grapes for the photo) and to have lunch with the workers, including the wine maker and the vineyard manager.


In the Médoc we also visited Chateau Lèoville Poyferré (St Julien subappelation) and Chateau Prieuré Lichine (Margaux subappelation). The Médoc is almost 100% about wine, and the countryside is covered with vineyards and exquisite chateaux. Here is a photo of Chateau Margaux, that produces one of the most famous, and most expensive, wines in the world.


Climbing Mount McLoughlin—one of the lesser known Cascade volcanoes

Mount McLoughlin is located 63 kilometers (38 miles) east of Ashland, Oregon, where I now live. As shown on this map by the U.S. Geological Survey, Mount McLoughlin is located between the volcanoes of Mount Shasta and Crater Lake, which is the remnant of Mount Mazama that exploded to become a caldera 7,700 years ago. All of the Cascade Range volcanoes have been formed as a result of the Juan de Fuca plate (offshore oceanic crust) subducting beneath the North American continental plate.

Mount McLoughlin is a volcano with primarily basaltic andesite lava that has been built within the past 200,000 years or so; the most recent flows occurred within the past 20,000 years. Glacial action during late Pleistocene glaciations (last one 18,000 years ago) left an imprint on the north side of the mountain, which is eroded and very steep.


The mountain is most impressive in the winter when it is capped by snow. Here is a photo from the 2015-16 winter, when Jay and I were cross-country skiing along the Buck Prairie trails that have excellent views of Mount McLoughlin to the east.

IMG_3067.JPGAt any time of year, though, the volcano is a prominent feature on the landscape. This photo is a view to the north from the Indian Memorial Highway. Note the smooth, symmetrical sides of the volcano on the south flank.

P1070924.jpgAnita, a friend who has accompanied me on previous adventures (see January and February 2012 posts of our explorations in Argentina), accompanied me on a climb to the top of Mount McLoughlin on 22 August 2016. At 2894 meters (9495 feet), Mount McLoughlin is one of the lowest Cascade peaks and one of the most accessible, although it’s still a grueling climb, with an elevation gain of nearly 4000 feet (12oo meters) from the parking lot trail head to the peak’s summit. On the photo above, the trail extends up the right (east) side of the cone.

P1070883.jpgThe path is clearly visible through the pine trees and lava boulders up to an elevation of about 2400 meters (8000 feet). At this point, the hiker is above tree line and the summit is visible. This is a good psychological boost, because the trail gets harder to follow and rougher. But the views keep getting better and better…

P1070903.jpgMount Shasta is visible along most of the upper part of the climb. It is at the right side of this photo (looking southwest), although haze obscures the view. Fish Lake, where we camped, is in the foreground; Howard Prairie Lake is a thin sliver in the photo’s center. Pilot Rock is also visible, if you know where to look.

P1070910.jpgOnce at the top, there is a stunning 360-degree view of surrounding mountain ranges. This view, at the summit, is toward the west, with the northern part of the Rogue Valley visible in the upper left part of the photo.

IMG_1553.jpgAnother view from the summit looks eastward, toward Klamath Lake in the distance; the smaller lakes are Lake of the Woods (right side) and Fourmile Lake (left side).

P1070914.jpgHeading east, looking down from the summit, it’s possible to see the contrast between the south side of the volcano, which is less steep and forested, and the north side, which is very steep and eroded from glacial scouring. The upper part of the trail parallels this prominent east–west-trending ridge.

P1070921.jpgAnother view of the steep, eroded north flank gives a sense of how much of the volcano’s mass has been removed by glaciers. Mount McLoughlin is within the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area that includes these ranges north of the peak. With binoculars we could see in the far distance the Two Sisters and Mount Bachelor volcanoes that are located west of Bend.

P1070916.jpgSome hikers speed hike the peak, making it up and down in less than 6 hours. We took our time, pausing to rest and savor the views, taking 9.5 hours in total. It was satisfying to “bag” this peak that is such a distinctive part of the local landscape.

Andalusian follow-up

On the way back to the U.S., I began reading a book that pulls together most of the historical events explored during this trip. If you are interested in learning more about the Islamic period in southern Spain, you may wish to check out this book:

Ornament of the world: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in Medieval Spain, 2002, by María Rosa Menocal, Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University.

Prior to the trip I read another book that is a fictionalized story of the fall of Granada in 1492, from the perspective of a Muslim family who had been living in Andalusia for many generations. It is an engrossing read and is part of a sequence of five books called “The Islam Quintet”. I’ll now have to find the other four!

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (The Islam Quintet), 1993, by Tariq Ali, British-Pakistani writer, journalist and filmmaker.

We arrived back in Ashland, Oregon in time to catch the end of the beautiful fall season. Lithia Park, in particular, is adorned in its finery of reds, oranges, and yellows—a treat for two people who’ve been away from this seasonal display for 30-plus years! By the way, the building reflected in the pond is the Elizabethan theater that is part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s trio of stages. Ashland’s worth a visit any time of year!


Thanks for joining me on this fascinating trip, and thanks to all who provided comments along the way—the feedback is very helpful. I promise to revive the blog again soon.

Seville—the crown of Andalusia

Seville (Sevilla in Spanish) has been the dominant city in southern Spain for most of the past millennium. Located in the lower part of the Guadalquivir river valley just 60 km (40 miles) from the sea, it was a Roman city that grew greatly in size during the Islamic period after the caliphate (central governance) in Córdoba weakened and individual city states (called taifas) became the centers of power. Seville fell to the Catholic kings in the early 13th century, when the Islamic emirates lost a large part of their territory in Andalusia. It has remained a favorite of kings, who rebuilt the Alcázar through many reigns. In fact, the modern Spanish kings have still resided here when they are in town. Seville is the capital of Andalusia, which is one of the regions in Spain that has been given more autonomy in its own governance.

Here is a view looking north across the city from the cathedral tower. The modern-style bridge across the Gualalquivir should look familiar to anyone who has seen the bridge across the Sacramento River in Reading, CA—it was designed by the same architect! This city, more than any other we’ve visited, juxtaposes old and new at every level. One example in the photo is the steeples of ancient cathedrals (all built on former mosque sites) next to the Metropol parasol (also referred to as “the mushroom”—it’s the beige oval at lower right from the bridge) that is a thoroughly modern structure floating over a large plaza.


But it is the old monuments that attract large hordes of tourists. The Alcázar is here better preserved than at other cities. The vast walled area encloses immense gardens and a stunning palace that is where the current kings still reside when in town; their part of the palace has limited entry and is called the Cuarto Real—royal quarters. Here is a view across one of the gardens to the palace, with the cathedral steeple in the background.


The palace was built and expanded during the Islamic period; the Catholic kings who acquired it in the early 13th century continued to modify and expand it, particularly during the 14th century reign of Pedro I, for whom the palace is named (Palacio de Don Pedro). It is also referred to as the Mudéjar Palace—mudéjar meaning the style of so-called “Moorist” architecture that continued to be used even after Islamic governance was ended. (Mudéjar also refers to the Muslims who remained in Andalusia after the reconquest, but who did not convert to Christianity.) In the 14th century, Pedro had an allegiance with the emir of Granada, which was still under Islamic control. He apparently invited artisans from Granada to work on the palace, and the decoration is similar to that seen in the Alhambra. It’s wonderful to see the stucco work with colors still intact, helping to better imagine what the Alhambra must have looked like during its “heyday”. This view is of the archway and ceiling in one part of the palace.


The main cathedral is another big tourist draw—it’s the largest cathedral, by volume, in the world! It was built on the site of the great 12th century Islamic mosque (as almost all cathedrals in Andalusia are); the only thing that survives from the mosque is the tower that was originally the minaret (called the “Giralda”). It looks particularly impressive with the night-time lighting. The very top part was added later by the Catholics.


There are many attractions inside the cathedral—one is the tomb of Christopher Columbus, topped with an enormous bronze sculpture (below). In 1503, after Columbus’ initial voyages, Seville was awarded official monopoly on trade with the Americas; it quickly became one of the richest cities in the world. Two hundred years later, trade office was transferred to Cádiz and Seville’s importance declined. As the provincial capital, it is now an economic center, as well as a tourist “must visit”.


Riches from the “glory” period abound within the cathedral; in fact, we wondered why the Catholic church would not be embarrassed to display so much wealth (but that has never seemed to be an issue for them). One room is called “the treasury” and the intricate objects of gold and silver (acquired from New World mines, of course) and precious jewels nearly blind the eye. Here is a crown that seemed an appropriate photo choice, given the collaboration of church and state that has defined most of Spanish history.


The mudéjar style can be seen throughout Seville, in constructions even into the 20th century. The building in the photo below, now the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares (arts and popular culture), was built in 1914 on the Plaza of the Americas for the Spanish-American Exposition in 1929. Other interesting buildings that remain from this exposition include pabellones (pavilions) for countries such as Morocco, Columbia, and Uruguay.


We visited one palace that a condesa remodeled in the early 20th century. It contained a rather jarring juxtaposition of styles. The photo below shows several different styles of tile work. On the right is a style that attempts to copy the intricate mosaic work developed in Medieval Islamic Andalusia and still practiced today in Morocco. But rather than being individual hand-carved pieces grouted together, these tiles are made as a single piece using a mold—much faster and cheaper. On the left is the painted tile work style so prevalent during the Renaissance period. Seville is an incredible place to view all types of tile-work styles.


No blog about Spain can ignore the bulls! There remain active “Plaza de Toros” (bull rings) in every town we visited. Here in Seville we had lunch in an old-style restaurant that had a stuffed bull sitting on the bar right in the middle of the restaurant (with blogger for scale)! With that, we leave Andalusia, with its incredible richness of culture and history. It will be worth another future visit….