A place of wide-open skies and broad horizons, the Landes de Gascogne Regional Natural Park is a protected area of pine forest, wetland and sandy beaches located in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of southwestern France, just south of Bordeaux. It remained uninhabited for centuries. Today, it’s a haven for wildlife.
The park meets the coast at the Bay of Arcachon where long, sandy beaches line the bay’s tranquil waters.
Alongside the beaches, extensive saltwater marshes and reedbeds provide the ideal habitat for birds. The Teich Reserve is among the most famous in France for spotting rare and varied species. White Storks, Black-winged Stilts, Little Ringed Plovers and Black Kites all nest and breed at the site, while over 300,000 migratory birds take refuge in its wetlands every year.
In the bay you can take a boat to the Île aux Oiseaux (Bird Island). Here you’ll see the famous cabanes tchanquées – huts on stilts – built to sit above the high tides. Today, the island is surrounded by oyster beds, but in earlier times it was home to grazing cattle.
This atmospheric landscape was painted by Théodore Rousseau, who visited the Landes in 1844. At that time, the region was in the process of being drained and the land reclaimed for pasture. By 1850 there were about a million sheep in the region. Shepherds wore stilts to keep an eye on their vast flocks dispersed across the heathland.
Rousseau’s view beautifully evokes this flat, watery landscape as he notes the herd of cattle on the right and the sails of the boats on the sea beneath a vast sky.
A Swamp in the Landes (after 1844) by Théodore Rousseau (French, 1812-1867)The Walters Art Museum
Gradually, grazing cattle were replaced with tree-growing for timber. And across the park, wherever you go, you’ll find plantations of pines on the horizon.
Trees also line the park’s many peaceful lakes, now used for swimming and boating, such as here at Lac d’Hostens.
The Lande’s pine forests and sparsely-populated landscapes have inspired many writers over the centuries including the 20th-century Nobel Prize-winning author, François Mauriac. His most famous novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux (1927), is set in the region. Mauriac’s home, now the Centre François Mauriac de Malagar, lies just outside the park at Saint-Maixant.
The Landes and the Gascony region, with its medieval bastides (fortified villages) such as this one at Larissingle, have also provided France with a number of much-loved literary heroes. Alexandre Dumas fictionalised the real-life Gascon Musketeer, Count d’Artagnan, for several novels including his famous The Three Musketeers (1844).
The playwright Edmond Rostand also borrowed the identity of a 17th-century playwright and swordsman, to create his drama Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). Although the arcades of the medieval bastides such as this one at Fourcès, provide the perfect imaginary setting for Cyrano, the real-life man was not Gascon at all, but a native of Paris. His portrait, however, does suggest he had a very large nose.
It is not surprising that this remote and simple landscape, with its vast skies and endless horizons, has been a source of such inspiration. Today, if nothing else, the Landes de Gascogne Regional Natural Park might inspire you to grab your binoculars or a swimsuit and stride out into the fresh air.