Historic town and British outpost
www.pau-pyrenees.com. A Gallo-Roman town which became the medieval seat of the Lords of Béarn, Pau was the birthplace of Henri IV. Bought up a Protestant, Henri proved a consummate politician, converting to Catholicism to enable his accession with the famous quip “Paris is worth a mass”. He then pacified the Protestant Béarnais by assuring them that France was being added to Bearn rather than vice versa. Bearn was not annexed to France until Louis XIII’s reign.
Pau has an unusual English connection started by soldiers from Wellington’s army. After the defeat of the French at Orthez in 1814, many opted to stay on. Later, the bracing yet sheltered climate was endorsed by one Doctor Alexander Taylor, and a steady stream of invalid British journeyed south to take the air. To mitigate the boredom, they introduced the natives to croquet, golf, cricket and fox hunting. After Queen Victoria opted for Biarritz in 1889, the fashion declined.
A stroll along the Boulevard des Pyrénées not only bears out the wisdom of Doctor Taylor’s theory, but affords the most stupendous view over the Gave de Pau to the mountains. An orientation table identifies all the peaks gathered around the massive Pic du Midi du Bigorre, including the great Pyrenean mountain, Vignemale (3,298m).
The main sight in town is the Château de Pau, rue du Château, heavily restored in the l9thC. A redbrick keep, built by Gaston Fébus around 1370, survives in marked contrast to the ornate Renaissance courtyard with its much-repeated H and M motif representing Henri d’Albret and Marguerite d’Angoulême (sister of Fran√ç¬µcois I of France), Henri IV’s grandparents. Guided tours trail through the grandiose l9thC apartments decorated with some fine tapestries and period furniture; also what is believed to be Henri IV’s cradle, a giant tortoise shell (for longevity), is now on show festooned with standards and an elaborate helmet. The kitchens feature some rather engaging carvings of boars, cows, deer and other roasts on the hoof. Across the courtyard, the Musée Béarnais provides an overview of local culture, crafts and natural history and archaeology.
Military buffs might fancy a quick pilgrimage to the Musée Bernadotte, birthplace of one of Napoleon’s finest commanders. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (1763-1844) later became the King of Sweden. The ugly modern Musée des Beaux-Arts, rue Mathieu-Lalanne, is worth a stop for its collection of fine Pyrenean scenes and works by Rubens, El Greco and Degas amongst others.
Villa holidays: Pau, its surroundings, plus the south-west coast and Pyrenees-Aquitaine, offer many holiday rental properties.
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