The Great Dune of Pyla (or Pilat) is the tallest sand dune in Europe. It is located in La Teste-de-Buch in the Arcachon Bay area, France, 60 km from Bordeaux. Pilat is sometimes spelled Pyla, hence the alternative name “dune of Pyla”. More accurately, Pyla is the name of the closest town, Pyla-sur-Mer, which is part of La Teste-de-Buch municipality in the Gironde department. The correct and original name of the dune is the Dune of Pilat, but because of the confusion that occurred, both are now considered correct.
The dune has a volume of about 60,000,000 m³, measuring around 500 m wide from east to west and 3 km in length from north to south. Its height is 107 metres above sea level. The dune is a famous tourist destination with more than one million visitors per year.
The dune is considered a foredune, meaning a dune that runs parallel to a shoreline, behind the high tide line of a beach. The dune has been observed to move landward, slowly pushing the forest back to cover houses, roads and even portions of the Atlantic Wall. To back this evidence of coastal movement, maps from 1708 and 1786 both place areas with the name Pilat to the south and off-shore of the current dune’s location. The area where the dune currently stands was referred to “Les Sabloneys” or the “New Sands” until the 1930′s when it was renamed by real estate developers as the Dune of Pilat. The Dune of Pyla is a recent modernization of the term. Pilat originates from the Gascon word Pilhar, which refers to a heap or mound.
Perhaps many will be surprised to find out that the dune is quite recent, being formed between the 17th and the 19th century, the sand from several other dunes being blown in this location by the strong winds coming from the Atlantic. The entire phenomenon was generated by the sand in the Arcachon Gulf and by the migration of the southern canal, which produced a sever erosion of the eastern shore. Based on historical evidence, between 1826 and 1922 the entire coast around the Pyla dune has been eroded by 1,650 feet and all the plants and trees covering the western side of the La Grave dune has been destroyed. Without any plants to hold the soil in place, the sands were moved by the wind towards the Pyla dune and stored around the pine trees surrounding the dune.