Capital of the historic Béarn in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques department, elegant Pau stands beneath the Pyrenees. Every major city has its iconic street. The boutique-lined boulevard. The monumental avenue. Or perhaps the quaint quarter fringed with historic houses. But few can boast anything to match the elegant city of Pau…
Pau’s must-do walkway is the Boulevard des Pyrenees, bordered on one side by imposing Belle Epoque apartment blocks and, on the other – yes, you guessed it – by the distant jagged peaks of the Pyrenees. But don’t hold your breath. You do need a modicum of luck to enjoy the spectacular backdrop to this wonderful high-level boulevard. Gillian Thornton discovers what to see and do in Pau…
Belle Epoque Boulevards
I’ve been to Pau twice before and on both occasions have found this rugged mountain frontier stubbornly hidden in cloud, so I’m delighted third-time round to see the mountains towering into the evening sky. I can even identify them, each one neatly labelled on the iron railings that fringe the south side of the Boulevard. Just line up the notch on the balustrade with the tall chimney on the old tramway factory below.
The Boulevard begins just a short walk from my stylish overnight accommodation at the Hôtel Parc Beaumont, which overlooks a glorious green space broken up by magnificent trees and tranquil lakes. Stay here during the legendary car races in May and you’ll have a front row seat on the action as the drivers race past. The rest of the year, this modern hotel is a tranquil base for exploring the town on foot.
Pau owes much of its success to the British. First came Wellington’s soldiers who passed through in 1856 after the Napoleonic wars and liked what they saw. Many of them never left, settling down and establishing France’s very first golf course. Scottish doctor Alexander Taylor extolled the virtues of the town’s clean air, and soon Europe’s well-to-do were arriving to enjoy the dance evenings, hunting parties, and buzzing social scene.
Their Belle Epoque villas still dot the town and fringe the Boulevard des Pyrénées, brainchild of engineer Jean Charles Alphand. In 1891, Alphand declared that ‘Pau should have its Promenade des Anglais of Nice’ and so he set about creating one.
Today this marvel of 19th century engineering is a must-do amble with its mountain panorama and direct access into historic squares such as Place Royale, hub of the city since the 18th century, and Square Georges V, created in the 1920s and ‘30s. Hang over that famous balustrade to see a reminder of the French cyclists who have passed through Pau on the Tour de France; their names and dates are painted on the tarmac of Avenue Napoléon Bonaparte beneath.
The upper and lower levels are linked in places by steps or a lift. But the most unusual transit is on board the free funicular. It was installed in 1908 to link the town centre with the railway station on the banks of the Pau de Gave. It runs every three minutes from early morning to mid-evening, afternoons only on Sundays.
At the foot of the Funicular near what was once the city’s cycle race track, 104 bronze totems tell the story of the Tour de France with anecdotes and archive photos. Pau hosted the event for the 71st time in 2019. Every year, a new totem is added to Le Tour des Géants to celebrate the winner.
Castles, Towers and Legends
The Boulevard des Pyrénées comes to an end beneath Pau’s most emblematic monument, the gleaming white Château de Pau with its turrets, towers and balustrades. Significantly altered across the centuries, the castle saw the addition of a defensive brick keep by Gaston Fébus in the 14th century. But its current appearance is largely due to significant 19th-century restoration under Louis-Philippe.
Look out for the Tour de la Monnaie, set slightly apart, and home to a royal mint until the French Revolution. And look down onto the geometric patterns of the Renaissance Gardens. Then head across the deep ditch via the Pont d’Honneur to the courtyard and main entrance. Inside, the birthplace of Henri de Bourbon – later Henri III of Navarre and Henri IV of France – houses rich collections of drawings, paintings and sculptures. And there’s an important collection of Louis XIV and Louis XV tapestries.
Opposite the castle entrance, the Hotel Sully is one of several aristocratic mansions in the Quartier du Château. Legends has it that brushing the Basset Hound door-knocker will mend a broken heart. More imposing buildings line Rue Joffre, formerly named simply Grande Rue, and now one of an increasing number of pedestrianised streets in the town centre.
City of suprises
But head down the steps behind the castle to discover the Hédas district. It’s one of the oldest parts of the city and recently given an urban makeover. Women once came here to fetch water from the Hédas brook, which now flows underground. Today, a pleasant walkway links play areas and tiny parks, nestled beneath the backs of multi-storied properties facing the mountains.
Pau is full of surprises and I discovered one of its best on Rue Tran, which runs parallel with Rue du Hédas. Just take a right up Rue des Cordeliers. Here the Musée Bernadotte recalls the extraordinary life of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. A humble solider born in Pau in 1870 he rose to become a Brigadier General under Napoleon Bonaparte. Such was his reputation that when Swedish king Charles XIII died without an heir in 1818, Bernadotte was invited to take the royal job. To this day, his descendants still reign in Stockholm. Quite some career path!
Wandering deeper into the town, my back to the Pyrenees, I stopped off to savour the sights and smells of Les Halles. This gastronomic hub has been completely renovated since 2017. It’s now clearly a popular venue with its wine bars, food stalls and escalators.
This ultra-modern market hall is an essential stop for anyone who, like me, has bought a Pass Gourmand. It’s a brilliant initiative that enables visitors to taste their way round the city in bite-sized pieces. More than 22 shops and food stalls throughout the city centre and within Les Halles serve some kind of iconic local flavour in return for a ticket. A sweet macaron, here. A date stuffed with foie gras there. And maybe a glass of Jurançon to wash it all down. Eat in, take away, or pack up your goodies for a gourmet picnic, perhaps with a view of the Pyrenees.
The famous umbrellas of Pau
Weather not to your liking? Not a problem if you drop by my last port of call. The unique Fabrique de Parapluies is a block away from Les Halles on the corner of Rue Montpensier and Rue Nogué. At the turn of the last century, shepherds would stop in Pau. Their sheep would graze on the current Place de Verdun, en route to and from the mountain pastures for summer grazing.
And here in Pau, they would catch up on repairs to their traditional umbrellas. Each one a lifelong companion which sheltered them from rain, sun and even lightning. Twenty years ago, Hervé Pando opened an umbrella workshop in Pau. And today his son Christophe is the last craftsman to hand-make traditional parapluies de bergers.
Fashioned from double-thickness proofed cotton with nine robust ribs, the umbrellas are guaranteed not to turn inside out. They can be held aloft hands-free, thanks to a round beech-wood handle that sits neatly in the shepherd’s pocket. The perfect accessory for any picnic – rain or shine – along the Boulevard des Pyrénées!
Getting there: By train: Daily TGV services to Paris, Toulouse and Bordeaux. The SNCF station is in the lower town with funicular access to the town centre. By air: Pau airport is 13km from the town centre. Fly to Pau from London-Heathrow with Air France. Or to Toulouse (195km) or Biarritz (125km)
Where to stay and eat: Gillian stayed at the Hotel Parc Beaumont which has 75 rooms, a spa, gourmet restaurant, café, and private parking www.hotel-parc-beaumont.com. She ate at Le Poulet à 3 Pattes, 26 Boulevard des Pyrénées – outside terrace or inside tables. For the loftiest view of all, book a stay at Le Belvédère AirBnB, a micro-maison with just one double bed, tiny kitchen and shower room in a glazed turret several storeys up www.airbnb.com
Tourist Information: Visit www.tourismepau.com
Gillian Thornton is an award-winning travel writer specialising in French destinations and lifestyle and a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers.