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An unmistakable air of Englishness hovers over this elegant town in the foothills of southwest France’s Pyrénées. Wellington and his troops were among the first Britons to fall for the mild climate of the Béarn region’s ancient capital, swiftly followed by countless others. At times you feel you’re in a Victorian seaside town – but with snow-capped mountains as an enchanting backdrop. Pau is also the birthplace of one of France’s most popular kings, Henri IV, who steadied the country through the Wars of Religion in the 16th century. It’s at once lively and laid back, helped by its large student population.
Our top five sights
Chateau de Pau
There are nine centuries of history to explore in this imposing castle and birthplace of Henri IV set in beautiful Renaissance gardens.
Boulevard des Pyrénées
Cafés and hundreds of palm trees line this sweeping boulevard on the escarpment overlooking the Gave de Pau River. Helpful markers on the guardrail show which majestic Pyrenean peak is in the distance.
This 1900 former winter palace is now the town’s casino and conference centre, surrounded by Parc Beaumont’s large expanse of inviting gardens.
English villas circuit
Those 19th-century English visitors who fell in love with Pau left behind their sumptuous villas and elaborate gardens, both of which make for an atmospheric walk through the town.
Musée des Beaux Arts
Pau’s premier art collection is housed in this handsome 1930s building, where works spanning five centuries include paintings by Degas, Rubens and El Greco.
Our top five activities
Pau is home to the first golf course in continental Europe, and has been attracting golfers since 1856 to its agreeable surroundings.
Relax in warm waters at the Calicéo complex, where Jacuzzis and water jets ease tired muscles and water bikes get you moving again.Boulevard du Cami SaliéMore
Henri IV was baptised with a few golden drops of Jurançon wine, one of the first in France to receive an appellation d’origine contrôlée. Try either the crisp dry white or the sweet dessert wine.
Head to the riverside Stade d’Eaux Vives, where you can go white-water rafting in the man-made rapids or kayaking in the gentler waters of the sports complex.
The ski resorts and cross-country ski trails of the Pyrénées National Park are just 50km from Pau, the nearest one being Gourette in the Ossau valley.
Our top five events
February: Carnaval Béarnais
The Palois really let their hair down during their February pre-Lent carnival, with seven days of wild spectacles, dancing, quite a bit of cross-dressing and street parades.
May: Grand Prix de Pau
Every May, the city is deafened by the roar of racing cars zooming through its streets. Vintage racing cars have their own event the weekend before.
June: Urban Session
This festival celebrates street culture, hip-hop and dance, with gigs, breakdance sessions and a chance to show off your DJing skills.
August: Festival Hestiv’Oc
Pau’s Occitan heritage is highlighted in this lively festival of all things southern French. The streets fill with musician, dancers and performers, and the cinemas host an Occitan film festival.
December: La Poule au Pot est Reine!
Henri IV’s birthday is celebrated every year with a sound-and-light show at the chateau. Chefs then spend a week trying to perfect the chicken dish the king declared no family should be without.
Fashion and interiors boutiques line rue Louis Barthou, which turns into rue Henri IV. You’re certain to see a wide selection of berets, which, although they epitomise neighbouring Basque region, were first commercially produced in Béarn. The dozens of food stalls at Les Halles, the immense indoor market in Place de la République, offer irresistible charcuterie and Pyrenean cheeses; its adjacent Carreau is the place to buy seasonal produce from local farmers. Pop into Boutique Francis Miot (48 rue Joffre, 05 5927 6951) and try a Paloise sweet speciality, coucougnette, a delicious combination of chocolate, almonds and marzipan.
Food & Drink
Not surprisingly, given Pau’s location in the southwest, duck features prominently, as do the sheep’s milk cheeses of the Pyrénées. Refined dishes are served in Le Jeu de Paume at the Parc Beaumont hotel (1 avenue Edouard VII, 05 5911 8400), including flash-fried foie gras and fish fresh from the market. The convivial Le Bistrot d’à Côté (1 place Gramont, 05 5927 9808) does exquisite things with beef cheeks and keeps it simple with the catch of the day. Have a sweet Jurançon for an aperitif on one of the café terraces on the boulevard des Pyrénées.
Head to the bars in Le Triangle, where rue Lespy and rue Emile Garet converge south of rue Castelnau. Le Garage (47 rue Emile Garet, 05 5983 7517) has been enticing people with its live music and friendly atmosphere since 1993. There’s a buzzing Mexican ambience at La Fiesta Latina (6 rue Etigny, 05 5983 7008), near the chateau. Some of the bars along the boulevard des Pyrénées open late on the weekend, including The Galway (No 20, 05 5982 9466). Zénith (20 boulevard du Cami Salié, 05 5980 7744) is the place for concerts, theatre and dance, featuring everything from Swan Lake to French rocker Johnny Hallyday.
Accommodation in Pau
Pau’s most luxurious hotel is the sleek five-star Parc Beaumont (1 avenue Edouard VI, 05 5911 8400), whose airy contemporary rooms have balconies overlooking the park. The other five-star option, Villa Navarre (59 avenue Trespoey, 05 5914 6565), is in unattractive 19th-century building about 20 minutes’ walk from the town centre. Budget options include the three-star Hotel de Gramont (3 place Gramont, 05 5927 8404), near the chateau, and the two-star Hotel le Bourbon (12 place Georges Clemenceau, 05 5927 5312) in the centre.
Pau airport is only 7km north of the city. Hourly shuttle buses take 30 minutes to reach the central railway station for €1 each way. If time is short, take a taxi to the centre for about €25. A free funicular takes you up the steep hill from the SNCF railway station to the Boulevard des Pyrénées.
Pau Airport Information
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