Pau: An unlikely holiday in France
PA U (France), Aug 13 — It is early April in France, and spring is stretching out its arms while giving a a wide yawn and slowly getting to work sprinkling colour back into the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department of the South of France.
For the fortunate inhabitants of this part of the country, waking up to the sight of snow-capped mountains, green pastures and ponies grazing next door are not out of the ordinary.
Spring is a sleepy period for tourism, unlike skiing season which usually sees Pau receiving visitors arriving by train, air and road from the European region and the northern parts of France to trek up the mountains and revel in the snow. Tourists are a welcome sight economically but one gets the impression that locals aren’t so keen on the seasonal invasion of “northerners.”
In the city centre, the medieval Château de Pau stands tall, the birthplace of Henry the IV King of France and Navarre and one-time holiday residence of Napoleon. It is now home to a collection of beautiful tapestries and historical artifacts, including the peculiar and legendary turtle’s shell which cradled the baby King Henry upon his birth.
The castle also runs an exhibition displaying the intricately illustrated “Book of Hunting” which conveys the passion and knowledge of hunting of the valiant Gaston Fébus. A 14th-century warlord and son of Bearn, Fébus contributed significantly to the castle that stands today, fortifying it against enemies and establishing independence for the region of Bearn, its flag still displayed proudly at full mast along the boulevard Beaumont.
Perhaps it is not the most renowned of the many castles in France but it is still charming and boasts a magnificent view of the Pyrénées from the boulevard.
The old part of the city retains its medieval charm and you get the feeling that life is generally unrushed here. The weekend seems to roll in without much fuss and a typical Saturday in the city of Pau feels calm and languid.
It is the best chance to stock up on the week’s supply of fresh foods at the market and to mull over the difficult task of choosing from an impossibly delectable range of cheeses on display.
A privileged guest in Pau would probably be treated to homemade pate and the easily available foie gras, the heralded crown jewel of French cuisine for which the South of France is particularly known (warning: may come with an aftertaste of guilt).
As dusk descends and the sun casts a golden glow on the horizon in Pau, one might chance upon some underground entertainment as some tuck their daytime professions into bed and pick up their instruments and music hats. Small gigs and music festivals crop up now and again, providing a venue for friends and acquaintances to congregate over music, laughter and plenty of rolled tobacco.
It’s all sounding possibly a bit sleepy, but I suppose that is the whole point of a place like Pau. You don’t go to the South of France for the nightlife, or museums and fancy architecture.
You go for the peace and to be reminded what it feels like to be in awe of nature. In places like Pau, one is given the time to discover, observe and learn the little things you might miss when you speed through all the monuments in Paris; like the joy of using sugar cubes, the simple appreciation of the flavour of goat’s cheese and good ham (which absolutely does not go together like a lowly ham and cheese sandwich) and how similar yet different we can be.
After all, you never really stop at one destination anyhow, and Pau is a classic example of a path to more experiences, not only to the parks and mountains of the Pyrénées, but also to the unique provincial landscape of the south where the people are hardy, Occitan is spoken, “Basque pelota” is played and little villages are dotted with sturdy houses built with real smoking chimneys and small wooden doors that say “adieu” as a greeting rather than a farewell.
It is an opportunity perhaps to see where fairytales may have come from and imagine a magical land where flowers grow along the snowy mountainside, little gnomes roam the countryside and roads are made of cheese and wine.