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