Centuries of Splendour

For two centuries British travellers have been enjoying the elegant town of Pau, Eleanor O’Kane finds out what has drawn them

 

Those who trawl around the Cotswolds, Oxford and other tourist-traps seeking the definitive English experience might want to head instead for Pau, gateway to the Pyrenees in south-west France. It might sound odd but for those who fancy a weekend indulging in golf, horse racing, visits to some fine public gardens and a spot of afternoon tea it’s up there with the very best. Not what you’d expect from a French town, of course, but all these are local traditions here and have been so for nearly 200 years.

The British influence on this elegant town dates back to the scores of Victorian A-listers who came to winter here in the early 19th century, following the publication of a widely-read report by a Scottish doctor who praised the Palois air for its restorative qualities. They established an exclusive expat set that introduced the first golf course in mainland Europe, fox hunting and horse racing.

Of course, those in search of a French experience will be equally delighted, as Pau offers fantastic shopping, historic architecture and fabulous food and wine. Before the British arrived, Pau was already firmly on the map as the birthplace of popular king, Henri VI who was born at the ch�teau. Legend goes that the baby’s lips were moistened with the local Juran�on wine.

The climate that first attracted Brits makes it an ideal destination for year-round visits: the average winter temperature is 10�C, while in summer it’s a pleasant 24�C. The airport, just outside the town, makes it’s an easy hop from Stansted. To visit today is to take a tour of the past, starting with the Ch�teau de Pau, birthplace in 1553 of Henri of Navarre, who was to go on to become the king of France. This elegant pale, stone ch�teau has undergone several transformations: built in the 14th century, it was transformed into a Renaissance masterpiece in the 16th century and extensively renovated 300 years later. Situated right in the town and overlooking the Gave de Pau, it has been recently restored to its 19th-century glory and displays precious Gobelin tapestries, S�vres porcelain and an astonishing dining table that seats 100. Popular during his lifetime for implementing improvements in daily life without raising taxes le bon roi Henri, as his subjects called him, is enjoying something of a renaissance in the French media. Entrance to the museum is €5 and visitors to the ch�teau can take a guided tour (in French only) to see the splendours on show or visit without a guide during the summer months only, for more information visit www.musee-chateau-pau.fr

The area east the castle makes for a pleasant stroll, with its old buildings, interesting shops and restaurants. We dined at the friendly family restaurant Le Saint Jacques on rue de Parlement, which as its name suggests, specialises in fish but has a good selection of other dishes.

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At one point during the 19th century, up to 15% of the population was British and those at the very top of the social ladder built around 300 stunning villas in the centre of town, adding ever more extravagant gardens to make their neighbours green with envy. Today the tourist office produces a leaflet of three excellent itineraries that take in the high-end holiday homes as well as public gardens. Many of the new residents ambitiously established foreign plants that were cradled by Pau’s microclimate, lending quarters such as the Trespoey district a luscious look. With one of the highest ratios of green zones per capita (80m�), these days everyone can enjoy Pau’s verdant side. One of the most well-loved green spaces is the Parc Beaumont near the casino. With rocks and streams it’s a taste of the mountain landscape beyond Pau and also contains fine and rare trees.

Pau will be welcoming the Tour de France and all the festivities that come with it for three days from 20-22 July this year. Join in the festivities that follow the Tour then relax over afternoon tea as the riders head into the mountains to tackle the Col de Tourmalet.

SHOP...like a shepherd

The Boulevard des Pyr�n�es lines the southern edge of the town and provides another opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the Victorian expats, who loved to stroll along it, gazing to the vineyards of Juran�on and beyond to the peaks of the Pyrenees. These majestic mountains are a reminder that beyond the poshness of Pau lies the former independent state of B�arn where shepherds accompany their cattle up to high pastures during the summers and return in autumn in the age-old tradition known as transhumance.

At La Parapluie des Pyr�n�es on Rue Montpensier, father and son Herv� and Christophe Pando have been hand making the traditional umbrellas used by B�arn shepherds for over 30 years. The huge canopies are made of treated cotton that repels both sun and rain while wooden ribs are used so there is little risk of being hit by lightning. Designed to not turn inside out on gusty mountain pastures, they are used throughout the B�arn and are a reminder of Pau’s proximity to a traditional mountain culture. www.parapluiedeberger.com

RELAX...at the spa

Set in one of the former English Villas, the Spa Terra Nostra carries on the tradition of Pau as a centre of wellbeing. Owner and practitioner Laurence Rey has transformed the classic villa with authentic furniture from around the globe to reflect the traditional massage techniques from five continents that are used here. Passionate about authenticity and with a respect for the traditions of other cultures, she has established a unique spa in a town famous for its tradition of promoting good health and relaxation. www.spa-terranostra.com

For more information on Pau visit www.tourismepau.com