Between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic ocean lies Béarn, a historical region. It’s in the department of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques in the furthest corner of southwest France. The region is often a surprise to visitors with glorious countryside, historic towns and a rich culture. This is a lush land of rolling emerald-green hills on which honey coloured cattle called La Blonde d’Aquitaine graze. From the top of the hills which dot the land, you’ll find spectacular views of the mountain chain of the Pyrénées. The region is blessed with a mild, temperate climate. A healthy rainfall supports a thriving agricultural industry while the farmers take intense care and pride in maintaining the countryside.
Pau, capital of Bearn
Pau is the capital of Béarn. It can trace its roots to the settlement of the Romans at the beginning of the first century. It is the birthplace of one of France’s most famous kings, Henry IV (1553-1610), father of Louis XIII (1601-1643).
The Pyrénées mountains dominate the views from Pau with the Pic du Midi the tallest at 2877m. It stands out with its jagged edges like a chipped tooth. The region offers a wide choice of activities ranging from skiing in the winter to summer hiking and mountain biking. The area often plays host to the gruelling climbs of the Tour de France.
For motor racing enthusiasts the Grand Prix takes place annually in the streets of Pau. It is the oldest town race in France and offers a challenging circuit that has been driven by top Formula one drivers including Lewis Hamilton.
The river Le Gave de Pau which runs down from the mountains towards the mouth of the Atlantic, is great for canoeing and rafting.
The Way of St James, Camino de Santiago pilgrim route runs through Béarn and a very small part of it goes through the national forest of Pau, the Forêt de Bastard. The most important village for the Pilgrim Route is the medieval town of Lescar, former capital of Béarn. It’s a 10-minute drive from Pau. Here you will find a charming Romanesque Cathedral and shelter for pilgrims.
Wine and castles
South of Pau is the wine-growing region of Jurançon. Here dry and sweet white wines are produced, cultivated from the Manseng grape. There is a local legend that the baby Prince Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV) was fed a tablespoon of this wine to give him the best start in life and the strength to one day rule!
The Chateau du Pau, built in 1370, evolved from a fortress to become the residence of the rulers of Navarre. The façade is decorated with the monograms of Henry IV and his wife Marguerite of Valois. Famous guests include Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie Antoinette who is said to have helped to cultivate the chateau’s gardens during her summer stays. The castle is open to the public and has a large collection of tapestries and furnishings including a memorable table that can seat 100 guests. There is also a famous turtle shell brought from the Americas. It is said to have served as a cradle for the baby Prince Henry.
Pau is surrounded by beautiful villages and small towns between the rolling countryside and the Pyrenees. Orthez for instance, with its medieval Pont Vieux bridge keep over the Gave de Pau. The battle of Orthez (1814), was fought here during the Peninsular War resulting in a victory for the Duke of Wellington. It is marked by the Monument du General Foy on the outskirts of the town.
Salies–de-Béarn is also worth a visit. This Spa town is noted for its discovery of famous salt crystals in the nearby marshes and has a museum dedicated to the tradition of salt making. Close by is Sauveterre-de-Béarn, a very pretty fortified medieval town.
Navarrenx is a very well preserved fortified town with a magnificently intact wall. It was the first bastioned city in France. Today it’s a a listed Plus Beaux Village de France (prettiest villages of France). The Three Musketeers, Athos, Porthos and Aramis (who was named after his small town in Béarn), all came from Béarn and spent time in Navarrenx. From here it is easy to head towards the Pyrenees via Oloron-Saint-Marie where you can visit the UNESCO listed Cathedral Saint-Marie with its Romanesque doorway. And don’t miss the historic and elevated Quartier Saint-Croix which sits on the original Roman settlement. The town is also home to the last beret maker left in France.
Mountains and grottoes
The beauty of this region is enhanced by the Ossau Valley, carpeted in every shade of green. From here you can wind your way towards the resort town of d’Artouse and ogle the Pic du Midi on its doorstep. A cable car will bring you to the top of the mountain. And, from there, hop on a train to meander through breath-taking scenery before ending your journey at the lake d’Artouste. The ride takes about 50 minutes. Or, you can hike it which takes around three hours.
Last but by no means least on the list of places to visit is the Grottes de Betharram. It is a pristine example of what lays beneath the stunning countryside. Discovered in 1810, it was formed by tiny droplets of water over tens and thousands of years. The constant dripping forms stalagmites, creating astounding illusions of grand halls, human like figures and ceilings draped by nature’s graphic designs. It’s a good idea to bring a jumper because it’s nippy down there!
The region is around an hour from the Atlantic Ocean and borders Spain. Two motorways run through the region, the A64 and the A65 and there is an international airport in Pau. The French regional train service and TGV stops at Orthez and Pau connecting Béarn with Toulouse, Bordeaux and Paris.
The only problem when visiting this beautiful, sublime region – you may be tempted never to leave!
Katie Disken grew up in Dublin, Ireland and now lives in southwest France where she writes short stories and poetry, and is a fan of the unique wines of Jurancon.