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Pau
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From humble beginnings as a crossing on the Gave de Pau ("Gave" roughly translates as valley) for flocks en route to and from the mountains, PAU became the capital of the ancient viscountcy of Béarn in 1464, and of the French part of the kingdom of Navarre in 1512. In 1567 its sovereign, Henri d'Albret, married the sister of the king of France, Marguerite d'Angoulême, friend and protector of artists and intellectuals and herself the author of a celebrated Boccaccio-like tale (the Heptameron), who transformed the town into a centre of the arts and nonconformist thinking. For a stay in a Pau hotel, have a search on this website.

Their daughter was Jeanne d'Albret, an ardent Protestant, whose zeal offended her own subjects as well as attracting the wrath of the Catholic king of France, Charles X, thus embroiling Béarn in the Wars of Religion – whose resolution, albeit only temporary, had to await the accession to the French throne of her own son, Henri IV, in 1589. An adroit politician, he renounced his faith to facilitate this transition, quipping that "Paris is worth a Mass" and then appeasing the regional sensibilities of his Béarnais subjects by announcing that he was giving France to Béarn rather than Béarn to France. He did not incorporate Béarn into the French state; that was left to his son and successor, Louis XIII, in 1620. As Pau's most famous son, Henri acquired a suitably colourful reputation. He was baptized in traditional Béarnais style with the local Juraçon wine, and his infant lips were rubbed with garlic. In his adult life he was known as the vert-galant for his prowess as a lover. He also gave France one of its more famous recipes, poule au pot – chicken stuffed and boiled with vegetables: he is reputed to have said that he did not want anyone in his realm to be so poor as not to be able to afford a poule in the pot once a week.

The least-expected thing about Pau is its English connection, which dates from the arrival of Wellington and his troops after the defeat of Marshal Soult at Orthez in 1814. Seduced by its climate and persuaded of its curative powers by the Scottish doctor Alexander Taylor, the English flocked to Pau throughout the nineteenth century, bringing along their peculiar cultural obsessions – fox-hunting, horse-racing, polo, croquet, cricket, golf (the first eighteen-hole course in continental Europe in 1860 and the first in the world to admit women), tearooms and parks. When the rail line arrived here in 1866, the French came, too: writers and artists like Victor Hugo, Stendhal and Lamartine, as well as the socialites. The first French rugby club opened here in 1902, after which the sport spread throughout the southwest. During the 1950s, natural gas was discovered at nearby Lacq, bringing new jobs and subsidiary industries, as well as massive production of sulphur-dioxide-based pollution, now reduced by filtration but still substantial. In addition, there's a well-respected university, founded in 1972, whose eight thousand or so students give the town a youthful buzz.

Pau lies within easy reach of numerous small, picturesque villages in northwest Béarn, as well as the GR65 footpath that runs some 60km down to the Spanish border.


Pages in section ‘Pau’: The Town, Arrival, information and accommodation, Restaurants, Around Pau.

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