The Pays Béarn cap­i­tal has a stun­ning Pyrenean back­drop and echoes of Vic­to­rian Bri­tain, as Mark Samp­son ex­plains

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The cap­i­tal of the Pays Béarn is well worth ex­plor­ing on a short break.

Iknew that Pau was once the cap­i­tal of the Pays Béarn re­gion and now has the same role in the Pyrénées-at­lan­tiques dé­parte­ment. I had not re­alised that a per­son from Pau is a Palois – and that a petit(e) Palois(e) tra­di­tion­ally had a Béar­nese bap­tism: gar­lic rubbed on the lips, washed down with a slug of the local sweet Ju­rançon wine. That would surely make any baby cry, but it was good enough for the city’s re­sid­ing spirit, Henri Qu­a­tre, King of Navarre and of France, at his bap­tism in 1553, so who were the bud­ding ci­ti­zens to grum­ble?

My wife and I dis­cov­ered all this and more on our trip to Pau, a city of 82,000 souls set against the breath­tak­ing back­drop of the Pyrénées. One might add ‘na­ture’ to its of­fi­cial la­bel as a ‘ville d’art et d’his­toire’ be­cause Pau has more green space per in­hab­i­tant (80m2) than any other city in Europe, and the poet Alphonse de La­mar­tine de­scribed the view from the Boulevard des Pyrénées as the most beau­ti­ful on Earth.

The area’s mild cli­mate, fresh moun­tain air and ther­mal wa­ters at­tracted wealthy Vic­to­ri­ans and gave the place its ‘so Bri­tish’ ap­pel­la­tion. Re­minders of that era abound: Pau Golf Club (in­au­gu­rated in 1856 and the old­est in con­ti­nen­tal Europe), the pub­lic gar­dens, the 300 or so lux­u­ri­ous vil­las built in an Angli­cised French ar­chi­tec­tural style, and the Hip­po­drome du Pont-long, the race course that once made Pau ‘la cap­i­tale du cheval’.

To­day, the city is in the process of re-in­vent­ing it­self. Just like our ho­tel, in fact: still redo­lent of the Belle Époque for all its mod­ernised bed­rooms and whis­pered lift an­nounce­ments. The same is true of

the cen­tral mar­ket, our first Satur­day-morn­ing port of call, housed for now un­der can­vas while await­ing new ac­com­mo­da­tion.

All those ewe’s milk cheeses and other sump­tu­ous local pro­duce made me peck­ish. A Pass Gour­mand from the tourist of­fice al­lowed me to dip into some of the spe­cial­ist food shops for sam­ples of cheese, choco­late, mac­arons and other del­i­ca­cies. In­dica­tive, per­haps, of a city caught be­tween eras, Pau boasts quite a few vin­tage cloth­ing shops. But prices were just as eye-wa­ter­ing in these places as in the many de­signer bou­tiques.

Af­ter hav­ing a quick salad in the shade of a para­sol, we hopped on the petit train touris­tique to see how Pau is be­ing trans­formed into a city of cul­ture, cut­ting-edge light in­dus­try and sport. The train’s ha­bit­ual cir­cuit was dis­rupted by the crowds watch­ing a gi­ant screen show­ing the local rugby team in cup ac­tion. Our ge­nial driver pointed out the el­e­gant tree-lined Place Royale, the Real Ten­nis court, the grand Palais des Con­grès set in the even gran­der Parc Beau­mont, and a se­lec­tion of those ex­traor­di­nary 19th-cen­tury vil­las. Judg­ing by his jaunty dis­po­si­tion as he de­posited us in the square sep­a­rat­ing the Château de Pau from the beau­ti­ful Navarre par­lia­ment build­ing, I thought that La Sec­tion Paloise had won; they had lost.

A stroll along the Boulevard des Pyrénées took us to the minia­ture fu­nic­u­lar rail­way, which has been tak­ing pas­sen­gers to and from the train sta­tion in the val­ley be­low since 1908. Pau has long been associated with the Pyrenean stages of the Tour de France and in the park be­neath the boulevard, an open-air mu­seum tells the history of the tour in 104 yel­low in­for­ma­tion posts. In def­er­ence to my sport-neu­tral wife, I curbed my urge to read them all. Be­sides, we had to get to the Musée des Beaux-arts be­fore it shut at 6pm. For all its cel­e­brated Edgar De­gas can­vas of a cot­ton ex­change in New Or­leans, it was the dis­cov­ery of a pas­tel trip­tych by my favourite French artist, Édouard Vuil­lard, that de­lighted both my wife and I.

That evening, we went down through the old­est part of the city and across the bridge that leads to Ju­rançon, to reach a tiny res­tau­rant that served some of the best Viet­namese cui­sine ei­ther of us have tasted. On the way back, the faces of Henri IV and other dig­ni­taries pro­jected on to the great wall of the Château de Pau were a spec­tral fore­taste of next morn­ing’s treat.

Sun­day morn­ing in Pau is quite a con­trast to Satur­day night. Walk­ing to the château, it seemed that the only peo­ple abroad were win­dow clean­ers and street sweep­ers. Keen to prac­tise her ex­cel­lent English, our tour guide gave us the best French history les­son I have had since A-level. She traced the château’s evo­lu­tion from a me­dieval fort whose wooden stock­ade – pau in Béar­nese – gave the city its name, to a Re­nais­sance palace fit for a king

of Navarre to the cur­rent ed­i­fice, which was em­bel­lished af­ter the down­fall of Napoléon by Louis Philippe in hon­our of Henri IV, the first of the Bour­bon kings.

Later, we mar­velled at the col­lec­tion of 96 tapestries, gasped at the monumental state rooms, gaped at the gi­ant tor­toise shell that sup­pos­edly served as Henri’s cra­dle and dis­cov­ered why the monarch is still so revered. Aside from his rep­u­ta­tion as a gal­lant lover and brave war­rior, his prag­ma­tism brought France a tem­po­rary peace and pros­per­ity. An in­nate con­cern for his sub­jects, ap­par­ent in the wish that ev­ery sub­ject should at least have a chicken in the pot on Sun­days, gave rise to the dish syn­ony­mous with his birth­place: ‘La poule au pot’.

Next up, we moved from the old to the new with a visit to the Stade d’eaux Vives. A gave is the word for a Pyrenean moun­tain stream or river, and the new cen­tre chan­nels the Gave de Pau as it rushes sea­ward from the lime­stone gran­deur of the Cirque de Gavarnie. Af­ter strolling around the course that staged the ca­noe­ing and kayak­ing world cham­pi­onships in 2017, we lunched on the res­tau­rant bal­cony, look­ing over the sporty aquatic types and the fam­i­lies pic­nick­ing un­der river­side trees. It set us up for a favourite Sun­day pas­time in these parts: a tour of the Ju­rançon vine­yards, which of­fered fur­ther breath­tak­ing views for­ti­fied by plen­ti­ful dé­gus­ta­tions of ‘the wine of the king and the king of wines’.

We took a cou­ple of bot­tles home the fol­low­ing day, but it is rather the riv­et­ing cou­ple of hours spent in the Château de Pau that will stay with me from the trip. They il­lu­mi­nated French history to re­veal the beat­ing heart of a small city with a big past, that even to­day punches above its weight.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT:The pop­u­lar Place Ge­orges Cle­menceau; The eclec­tic build­ing of the Château de Pau; The rue du Maréchal Jof­fre runs at the heart of Pau

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