Meanderings through France ~ Pau: In your ancestors’ footsteps
The British were seduced by Pau in the 19th century but this love story came to an end with WW1. Today Pau is not quite the same as it was 150 years ago but there are still countless reasons to fall in love with this appealing city.
Located in Southwest France, at the foot of the Pyrenees, Pau is the capital city of Béarn. It’s only a one-hour drive to get to the beaches of Tarnos or Capbreton on the Atlantic Ocean or to the ski runs of the Pyrenees in Gourette, a well-known French ski resort. Through the Somport pass you can get to Spain in less than 2 hours and Bordeaux is easily reached by car. So, Pau is accessible for a city break or as starting point to visit almost all of Southwest France. There are daily directs flights from London to Pau Airport, linking the two cities in less than 2 hours.
In 1842, Scottish doctor Alexander Taylor wrote a book describing the benefits of a winter stay in Pau. The book was very popular with the British and Pau became very fashionable among rich idle people.
Pau golf course was one of the very first golf courses in the world, created after the British ones. In 1814, during the Napoleonic wars, two Scottish officers – who, bizarrely, went to war with their golf clubs and balls – found an ideal place along the river close to Pau to play their favourite game. The local people were amazed to see two young men in kilts smacking a little white ball with their clubs! The actual golf course was built in 1856 and British golfers flocked in. A stagecoach — called “The Rocket” — allowed golf lovers to reach the Biarritz golf course in a mere 8 hours!
The golf course survived the two World Wars and was recently restored. The clubhouse, built in 1880 in Victorian style, now houses a restaurant and a museum, gathering all kinds of artefacts from the British period.
During the 19th century, European nobility built beautiful houses hidden in large gardens. Many remain. A 5 star hotel was created in one of the most remarkable ones. Hotel Villa Navarre is a 5 minutes drive from the city centre but its huge four-acre grounds will make you feel as if you are deep in the countryside. Dining on the terrace facing the Pyrenees is a relaxing and tasty experience: the chef has created a blend of French and local gastronomy that combines perfectly with the local wines from the Jurançon, Madiran or Pacherenc vineyards. And, even if you’re not staying at the hotel, don’t miss the bar and its British ambience.
Henri IV was born in Pau Castle in 1553. This French king is loved by French people because he reconciled Catholics with protestants allowing the country to live a long period of prosperity. The Castle still holds many artefacts from this time among which a turtle shell that is said to have been used as a crib for the baby king. After being partly destroyed during the French Revolution, the castle was restored and embellished by Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III during the 19th century and it now looks much more elegant than the simple fortress it once was. You will be able to visit the “Salle des Cents” and its huge oak table that was meant to hold 100 guests surrounded by walls covered by rare tapestries. Eugenie de Montijo, wife of Napoleon III often stayed in the castle on her way to Biarritz or to the health resorts of the Pyrenees. Her private apartments remain unaltered and visiting them is like having rare glimpse of her private life.
Overlooked by the castle the “Boulevard des Pyrénées” is a one-mile long road offering a spectacular view-point on the Pyrenees. It’s the perfect place for a walk in the shade of the palm trees: on one side the amazing view over 90 miles of Pyrenean peaks and on the other side beautiful buildings from the 19th century. Bars and restaurant terraces beckon you for lunch or for a drink.
Another famous king was born in Pau was General Bernadotte, a comrade in arms to Napoleon 1st who became king of Sweden in 1818. The house where he was born is a prime example of the architecture from the 18th century in Béarn. It’s an opportunity to learn more about Bernadotte’s unusual life and how his descendants manage to rule Sweden until today.
Walking through the streets you will see plenty of shops selling local products: Bearn cured jam, cheese from the Ossau Valley, black cherry jam from Itxassou, honey from the Jurançon Hillside. Don’t miss the “Coucougnettes du Vert Galant” literally meaning the “Balls of Henri IV”! They won the prize of best French sweet in 2000 and are made of hazelnut, chocolate and almond paste. Absolutely delicious!
You might also be able to taste the “Gateau à la Broche”. This is a spit-roasted cake cooked over a log fire. The confectioner pours one layer after another of cake batter. When ready it looks like a big pyramid spiked with golden sprockets. A real treat traditionally served for weddings. Located in the heart of the city the “Parc Beaumont Hotel” is a contemporary building with a direct access to the quiet Beaumont Park. Everything is intended to make you feel comfortable: the large and elegant rooms, the classy restaurant “Le Jeu de Paume”, the large spa with an indoor heated swimming pool and the kindness of its staff. You will quickly feel at home. From here you won’t need a car to visit Pau.
Life in Pau seems to be quiet and sweet but it also provides a lot to keep you busy, a great blend!
www.pau.fr: the Tourist Information website