Pau, it’s such a British city!

By | Category: Travel destinations
Queen Victoria's Cup

Queen Victoria’s Cup

In 1814, at the end of the Napoleonic Peninsular wars, when Wellington crossed the Pyrenees and invaded Southwest France, no one would have known that this event would change the face of the little city of Pau. Standing 50 miles as the crow flies from the huge Pyrenees mountain range and built with its old castle 200 metres above the Gave de Pau, the mountain river that comes down straight from the Pyrenees, Pau was a place of strategic importance. The decision taken by Wellington to station a British garrison in Pau changed the future of the city.

Pau, and the British invasion

The British found that the flat plain at the foot of the castle and which was along the river bank at the foot of the castle was not only perfect for army training, but was great for horse riding and fox hunting.  A few Scottish officers even managed to practise their golf swing as the fields were quite similar to the links of Scotland! They enjoyed pau so much that, a few years later, they brought their golf clubs back but this time with friends who brought theirs.  More and more British travellers came to Pau attracted by the persistent rumours spreading through the high society about the beauty of the scenery and the delicate climate of Pau. The Pau average temperature in winter goes from 2 to 10°C (36 to 50F) and in summer from 17 to 28°C (63 to 83°F).

In1833, Dr Alexander Taylor went to Pau to recover from typhus and dysentery. Being back on his feet in less than a few weeks, he realised that the climate in Pau was his saviour and he decided to open his own medical practice in town. Soon after he began to work on what will be the masterpiece of his life, his book “On the Curative Influence of the Climate of Pau” which was finally published in 1842. Immediately the book became a best-seller amongst British society and Pau began to receive a large influx of the aristocracy who came with their families and friends.

the castle in Pau

the castle in Pau

Each year, from mid-September to the beginning of spring a British colony used to invade. The inhabitants, surprised by the habits and customs of their new visitors from abroad, realised that it was like manna from heaven. They opened their city to both their new residents and their habits leaving their guests able to recreate a sort of little British world which included the best of the regions local food and wines.

With the seasonal arrival of British visitors, an economic boom shook Pau especially in housing and construction. The demand for valets, domestic servants, cooks, gardeners and stable-lads exploded. From 1850, the look of the outskirts of the city began to change. More and more British guests who saw that life in Pau was less expensive than in London, chose to built magnificent villas surrounded by beautiful gardens. Pau changed quickly from a quiet provincial place to a modern city with an up-to-date theatre, an elegant Winter Palace, many parks and gardens and the ‘Boulevard des Pyrénées’  which offers an amazing view across more than 15O km of snow-covered Pyrenees peaks.

During this golden period, the British colony developed all kind of sports and leisure activities. Golf matches, horse races, river and mountain activities were growing so fast that even the New York Herald Tribune used to regularly report and comment on Pau’s sports events. In 1887 one of its journalist wrote that Pau was “the hub of the sporting world“.

The Pau Golf Club

The year 1856 saw the opening of the ‘Pau Golf Club‘, or PGC, the first ever European golf club created outside Great Britain. And for nearly half a century, PGC members were only British and the only French who were accepted on the greens were young caddies and gardeners. A part of the original clubhouse, designed like an English cottage, is now dedicated to the historical museum of the PGC. On its walls old winners’ boards and captains’ boards provide a long list of British names. For the year 1907, the captain, Baron de Longueuil, has a French name and title, but don’t be fooled! He was a Canadian aristocrat of French origin with a very old family title that had been officially recognised by Queen Victoria.

Among the historical treasures of the small PGC museum, one stands over the others: the tall silver cup offered to the Pau Golf Club by Queen Victoria herself on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 for the very first golf challenge “Scotland versus the World.” Surely that must have been the most exciting golf event of that year and maybe the first international golf competition outside the United Kingdom.

When a second golf club opened in Biarritz, a special stagecoach bearing the strange name of “The Rocket“, linked the two golf courses in eight hours.

the race horse training centre

the race horse training centre

Gradually the pleasure of golfing spread in the local gentry, and nowadays the Pau Golf Club has about 700 members, but honour is safe! About thirty are still British!

Pau and horses, a permanent love story

The Pau Hunt created in 1840 is still very active, organising during winter a few fox hunting drags that allow the best scrambling. These fox hunting drags are also open to non-members who can rent horses for the occasion.

In the year 1842 the race-course was opened and horse races began to be the most attractive sport events in Pau. This gave birth to the main sports activity in Pau. The modern Domaine de Sers on the outskirts of Pau is the second French Training Centre for racehorses and covers more than 70 hectares. It’s also the location of the only French 4-star horse trials (only six such events worldwide) “Les Etoiles de Pau”  which draws more than 50,000 visitors including 20,000 who come from the UK. Always scheduled for the last weekend in October, the 2014 Stars of Pau will take place from October 22 to 26. This love story between Pau and horses is maybe the biggest British legacy in terms of economy and business. Another kind of legacy is the “Cercle Anglais” that still keeps the British traditions of a high-end club including a strict rule that limits its membership to 100.

Pau, also a stunning French town

castle gardens

castle gardens

Pau was for centuries the capital of Bearn and was protected by a huge castle. In 1553 Henri III of Navarre, future Henri IV king of France, was born here. Neglected since the French Revolution, the castle was restored by King Louis-Philippe and then by the Napoleon III, whose wife Eugénie used to stay for a while on her way to Biarritz, which – as it became the new society resort – resulted in the beginning of Pau’s slow decline.

Everything in Pau is within walking distance so the best way to discover the city is to wander around its charming streets. Why not begin your visit with the Castle of Henri IV?  The beautiful castle stands at the western end of the old town on the rocky outcrop that dominates the river. And don’t forget to go for a short walk through the gardens that surrounded the castle. It provides the best view of the castle. Passing through the elegant renaissance style arcades that face the old town, you will find the ticket office in the castle courtyard. During your visit you will see Empress Eugenie’s  private apartment which, in the nursery, still has the turtle shell used as Henri IV’s crib and the impressive “Salle des Cents” a huge dining room with a giant table that can accommodate I00 guests and whose walls are decorated by a set of large Gobelins tapestries. More Gobelins tapestries, part of the 2d finest collection in France, are displayed in the castle rooms.

Ze Bistrot

Ze Bistrot

Walking out of the castle, the small streets await you. Here will find many charming restaurants, shops and cafés settled on the ground floor of very old houses. Less than fifty yards from the castle entrance, Thierry Lassala, the chef of Ze Bistrot  offers a delicious gourmet cuisine, tasty and authentic, assisted by his wife Laurence and her smiling service. A block away, Bord de Gave, rue Jeanne d’Albret, is the delicatessen-souvenirs shop not to be missed. The owner, Samuel, has a wide choice of local products including the sauce béarnaise de Pau the only one produced in Béarn. For gourmets, the Boutique Francis Miot is the place to buy the local jams as on three different occasions they have been awarded  the title of  world best jam-maker. A personal recommendation. Do try the Coucougnettes du Vert-Galant

Coucougnettes du Vert-Galant

Coucougnettes du Vert-Galant

(translated as “Henri IV’s balls!”) his most famous sweet.

After a five minute walk, you will find the Place Royale with its cafés and shady terraces which are hidden under the dark-green lines of trees. The Pau Tourism Office is on the entrance side of the square, while on the opposite side stands an elegant nineteenth century bandstand where “God Save the Queen” has been regularly played for years.

Just behind the bandstand, is the astonishing Boulevard des Pyrénées, a one mile long avenue with an incredible view over 90 miles of mountain peaks. From there a little cable-car goes up and down the hill, giving direct access to the railways station down by the river side. The Boulevard des Pyrénées ends at the Parc Beaumont in front of the Palais Beaumont, the former British Winter Palace and still home to the casino.

the bandstand. Could it be more British?

the bandstand. Could it be more British?

Beyond the park, is an area with large mansions and where beautiful private gardens wind around the amazing houses built by the British colony. Among the 500 or so villas that were built many still exist. One of them, the famous Villa Navarre, is now a luxury 5 star hotel and a gourmet restaurant but which, in spite of its name, keeps alive a British atmosphere.

So a French city became an outpost in France of the British.

For more information about Pau, click here.

Texts and images © Frederic de Poligny


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