Escape to the countryside of South Western France

Chateau Montfort

Pau, the secret gem of South Western France.

Pau, France


This is an extract from an article I wrote recently for Air Astana’s in-flight magazine Tengri.

There’s an almost ethereal quality to the morning light in Pau as the sun illuminates the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees and washes down over the emerald green hills of the Jurancon to the mighty Gave de Pau below. The view from Pau’s Boulevard des Pyrenees is so beautiful in fact, it’s been officially protected since 1944 under the title Horizons Palois. The French writer, poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine was so inspired by the city’s beauty he went so far as to say “Pau has the world’s most beautiful view of the earth, just as Naples has the most beautiful view of the sea.”

Situated 100 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean and 50 kilometres from the Spanish border, Pau’s mild climate seems to ensure there’s just enough sunshine to provide a blue sky to silhouette the panorama of the Pyrenees and just enough rainfall to maintain a perpetual green glow. Magnolias and many other exotic species flourish in more than 750 acres of green space, thermal springs abound and the clean mountain air seems to invigorate both body and soul. It’s no surprise then, that Pau’s health-enhancing climate and vistas have been attracting tourists since the late 19th century, and like its neighbour Bordeaux, the ancient city centre has recently undergone significant works to capitalise on this rare beauty.


Pau, France

Pau’s magnificent architecture is largely the result of the period known as the Belle Époque; the period dating from the end of the Franco-Prussian war to just before the first World War. It was a time of optimism, regional peace and economic prosperity and with it came a massive influx of foreign aristocrats from England, Spain, Russia and America. They came to take advantage of Pau’s warm oceanic climate and idly amuse themselves. To the great benefit of Pau, this resulted in the construction of majestic parks, grand villas, thermal baths, casinos and luxurious hotels such as the Hotel Gassion, which welcomed the likes of Princess Tatiana Konstantinovna of Russia, Prince Oscar of Sweden, and Queen Amelie of Portugal. To cater for the burgeoning elite, grand balls became the order of the day, along with English hunting parties, complete with red velvet jackets, trays of fruit cake and a traditional pack of hounds.

Some of the Duke of Wellington’s soldiers like it so much, they stayed on after the Napoleonic wars and developed Pau’s golf course; the oldest in Europe, established in 1856. Both the Golf and hunting clubs are still in operation today, which, combined with the classically English grand villas, has resulted in an enduring Anglo influence. To view some of these magnificent villas, take a walk down Avenue de Stade Nautique, where Villa San Carlos, Villa Beith Rahat and Villa Nitot still stand. The magnificent Hotel Gassion (now apartments) is situated on the corner of Rue de Gontaut-Biron and the Boulevard des Pyrénées and is just as imposing today as it was then. Pau Golf club is a short taxi ride from the city centre at Rue du Golf, Billère.

Pau can be dated as far back as the Gallo-Roman era, but it’s perhaps best known as a city of royalty. It was the seat of the Kings of Navarre, and birthplace of Henry of Bourbon, who went on to become King Henry IV of France. The infant King famously slept in a giant turtle shell; a symbol of strength and longevity; two qualities that have been attributed to the monarch’s quest for putting an end to the long-running Wars of Religion. Later, in the 18th century, Pau became the birthplace of another King; Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who went on to be King of Sweden and Norway in 1818. The Chateau de Pau, where King Henry IV’s famous turtle shell crib is on display, is centrally located in the old town at 2 Rue du Château, a 7 min walk from Musee Bernadotte, located on 8 Rue Tran, Pau.

Pau, France

A town as synonymous with prestige and frivolity as Pau, clearly needed a Grand Prix, and the first one was held in 1930. It was such a success, the annual Pau Grand Prix was inaugurated in 1933, and with the exception of the years during the Second World War, has been running ever since. The International race takes place in May around the centre of the city, where public roads are closed to form an undulating street circuit for races comprising: Formula One, Two and Three as well as a Vintage car race featuring the likes of Bugattis, Alfa Romeos and Minis.

Another highly anticipated international sporting event held in Pau is the famous Les 4 Etoiles de Pau; an equestrian series that comprises one of the six 4-star competitions on the elite international eventing circuit. Held at the end of October, this high adrenalin event draws huge crowds of equestrian enthusiasts, as well as their accomplished International horses and riders.

Pau, France


Of course, the Tour de France would not be complete without the gruelling climbs through the Pyrenees and although it changes its route each year, it never fails to go through Pau. To the delight of locals and tour supporters alike, the riders have a day in the city of Pau, before they begin the infamous mountain climbs such as Col du Tourmalet, which at 2,115 m, is the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees. To celebrate Pau’s history with the Tour de France, the city has erected an open-air museum called Tour des Geants which celebrates each winner in a series of totems, and a two-metre high sculpture in aluminium and glass. The display forms a yellow spiral, with each totem displaying details of every winner via a QR code. By scanning it with a smartphone, you can listen to the story in English, Spanish, or Italian.

Further afield:
The valleys d’Aspe and d’Ossau are just 40 mins from Pau and home to some of the most picturesque hiking and skiing in the Pyrenees. In the warmer months, hikers can picnic to the chorus of tinkling sheep bells in fields of wild cyclamens, daffodils and Iris. It’s also possible to hike a portion of the famous GR10; an 866km hike that runs the length of the Pyrenees from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean. In winter there are several ski resorts all within an easy day trip of Pau.

My top tips for visiting Pau:

Coffee and cake. Owned by the wives of 2 Pau Section Paloise rugby players, Aussie, Ben Mowan and New Zealander, Colin Slade, this popular Pau coffee shop is not only known to have the best coffee in town, it also has an excellent assortment of antipodean cakes. If you’re a rugby fan it’s a great place for spotting your favourite International and local Rugby stars! Open Tuesday to Saturday 10:30 to 5:30 (6:30 on Saturday)
Beanz Café 7 Impasse la Foi, 64000 Pau. PH 09 62 50 43 34

Ice Cream. If you see the long cue of people waiting to buy an ice-cream in Place de la Liberation, you’ve found the best ice-cream in town. All natural and artisan-made, a refreshing scoop of mint and bergamot does wonders on a hot summers day. Open 7 days a week from the 1st of March to the 4th of November. Georgio Master Craftsman Pau Glacier. Monday to Saturday 1-3 Place de la Libération, Pau. Sunday and Public holidays, Square Aragon (Boulevard des Pyrénées) PH 06 75 92 17 70

Bistro food. If you’re after a classic French Bistro, head to Place de Clemenceau. The quintessential black and white tiled restaurant, Le Berry, has been serving locals since 1934 and is still a popular favourite. It’s Steak tartare is rather famous. Lunch from 12:30 till 2:00pm, dinner from 7:30pm, Monday to Sunday. Le Berry, 5 Place Georges Clemenceau, Pau. PH 05 59 27 42 95

Another great local bistro favourite is Le café du passage, serving a contemporary twist on local traditional favourites. Overlooking the ancient fountain on Place Marguerite, it’s a picturesque location to dine in the sun surrounded by the cities ancient facades.Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Le Cafe du Passage, 5 Place Reine Marguerite, Pau. PH 05 59 06 29 17

Cocktails. Snug bar is a new face in town with a contemporary seasonal spin on cocktails.It’s right outside the Chateau gates, so it’s perfect for concluding a day’s sightseeing. Settle into a leather chair and imagine the passers-by that once walked this ancient street as you sip on a French 75 or Kir Royale. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 3:30pm. Snug Bar,1 Rue du Château, Pau. PH 09 83 25 90 31

Dining.This is a much loved local haunt, specialising in French wine and a masterful melange of local seasonal ingredients. The food is classic French, with a light touch, so the flavours shine— as does the friendly service. Open Wednesday to Saturday, lunch and dinner. Les Papilles Insolites 5 Rue Alexander Taylor, Pau. PH 05 59 71 43 79

Thermal baths Calicéo Pau : Relax like an aristocrat of the belle époque in the thermal waters of Calicéo. Hot and cold pools, massage jets, hammams and saunas. Open 7 days a week from 10:00 till 8:30pm (beauty spa from 10am till 7pm) 2 Rue des Tiredous, Pau.PH 08 26 30 36 64

Don’t leave Pau without:

A Shepherd’s umbrella. There’s something every shepherd in the Pyrenees doesn’t leave home without— a handmade shepherds umbrella. Pau’s mayor, François Bayrou wouldn’t be caught out in a storm without one, and generally, gives one to visiting dignitaries. It’s also the umbrella of choice for French football star Zinedine Zidane and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. Handmade in Pau since 1896.
Parapluie de Berger. 12, rue Montpensier, PAU. PH 05 59 27 53 66

A pinch of salt. The Fleur de Sel from Salies-de-Béarn is highly prized by gastronomes and top chefs. It’s also a required ingredient in the prized French ham, Jambon de Bayonne. Luckily, it’s widely available in local supermarkets and souvenir shops.

A wedge of local Brebis Cheese. The local cheese is really something special. It’s one of only two sheep’s milk cheeses to be granted the esteemed status of French AOC appellation d’origine contrôlée (the other is Roquefort) Ossau-Iraty is produced in the Ossau Valley in the Béarn and the Irati Forest in the Basque Country. Available in local supermarkets and speciality cheese shops such as La Crèmerie d’Ossau. Complexe République, Halles de Pau PH 05 59 27 86 52

A Beret. You can’t come to the Béarn, home of the classic French beret and go home without one. Laulhère have been hand making their berets in the same shop since 1840. Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in a town called Oloron-St-Marie, it’s a quality brand well known to French and foreigners alike.

Local Wine: If you’ve enjoyed the local Jurancon wine during your stay, you can sample another vintage or two and purchase a bottle for your suitcase at the cooperative of the Jurancon wine producers.Cave des Producteurs, Jurançon 53 Avenue Henri IV, 64290 Gan. PH 05 59 21 57 03

Getting there

By plane : the Pau-Pyrenees airport flies to Paris-Orly, Roissy CDG, Marseille, Lyon, Bastia, and Ajaccio.  Pau Pyrenees Airport Route de l’Aéroport,Uzein PH 05 59 33 33 00

By train : the SNCF station in Pau has direct connections with: Bordeaux – Paris, Toulouse – Vintimille and Genève; Bayonne – Hendaye and Spain, as well as access to the Aspe Valley via its liaison with Oloron-Sainte-Marie. SNCF

By car: A64 motorway : Toulouse – Tarbes – Pau – Orthez – Bayonne – Spain A65 motorway : Gascony motorway linked to Langon-Bordeaux Main road 117 : Toulouse – Tarbes – Pau – Orthez – Bayonne – Spain Main road 134 : Bordeaux – Langon – Aire-sur-Adour – Pau – Oloron – Sainte-Marie – Somport

Other Contacts:

Pau Pyrénées Tourisme Place Royale, 64000 Pau PH 05 59 27 27 08

Pau Golf Club Rue du Golf, BillèrePH 05 59 13 18 56

Musee Bernadotte, 8 Rue Tran, Pau 05 59 27 48 42

Chateau De Pau. 2 Rue du Château PH 05 59 82 38 00

Pau Grand Prix. Tickets from ASAC Basco-Béarnais 1 Blvd Aragon PAU PH 05 59 27 31 89

Le Tour des Géants. Place Royale, Pau. PH 05 59 27 27 08

Tourist office of the Aspe Valley. Place François Sarraille, Bedous PH 05 59 34 57 57

Tourist Office of Valley Osseu Place de l’Hôtel de ville, Arudy. PH 05 59 05 77 11

Ski pass and accommodation: PH 05 62 97 71 00





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