October 3-6, 2015: I went to Pau because of a book. Not a particularly good book, I suppose, nor is the author, Dornford Yates, much read these days. His descriptions are too elaborate, and his attitudes too Edwardian, for current taste. But in his day he was quite popular, both for romantic comedies, which I read, and light adventure, which I did not. Pau is also, perhaps, not so popular these days, but in the early 20th century it was a favored winter destination for the English, who rented, bought or built villas there.
While I was interested to see the villas, a number of which remain, what drew me was Yates’ description of the Pyrenees as seen from the town. Pau is built on two levels. At river level you find the train station, the town swimming pool and a number of houses. But take the old-fashioned funicular up from the station, and the rest of the town spreads back from the edge of an almost sheer drop, with a kilometer long promenade between a chateau and a casino, facing the mountains. The boulevard, lined with palm trees, even has a balustrade.
Back in 2004 I visited Pau on a day trip from Bayonne, traveling by train. The chateau was impressive, although the tour was in French and Henri IV’s crib ostentatiously decorated with plumed spears. The park by the casino made for a pretty walk. But the mountains were shrouded in cloud. I promised myself I would return, but for more than a few hours, to improve the odds of actually seeing the Pyrenees.
None of Pau’s hotels were particularly enticing, so I booked an AirBnB apartment with a balcony that promised mountain views. With no good route by train from northern Italy to southwestern France, I was glad to find a cheap flight from Lyon and the mountain train route from Turin. While I booked into the NH airport hotel in Lyon I had thought to go into town for dinner, and even solicited suggestions on the Fodor’s discussion board. But I had been eating rather well in Italy, and needed a break from rich food. In the end I spent the afternoon catching up on sleep, and dined off the hotel’s buffet – lots of salad, meats and cheeses.
For some reason the T-Mobile plan on my smart phone doesn’t work well in the south of France, and I had a little difficulty connecting with my host. But the apartment matched the photos, the terrace looked towards the mountains, and adjacent windows gave me a grandstand view of the Place Clemenceau, which was hosting events for Breast Cancer Awareness. My host also gave me directions to a couple of open grocery stores, which was a relief since I had arrived on a Saturday afternoon.
This was my third AirBnB rental. The first taught me to make sure there was an elevator if the apartment was above the (European) second floor. This one reinforced the lesson from the second: don’t rent from bachelors. True, this time there was plenty of closet space, and even a power point next to a mirror, but only one towel (another was delivered next day) and the sheets and towels were too dark for me to be entirely sure about how clean they were.
I didn’t revisit the interior of the Chateau, although I did stop by the modest house where Marshal Bernadotte had been born. He had a truly remarkable rise, from total obscurity, by way of Napoleon’s army, to King of Sweden. The current Swedish royals are his descendants. The museum, however, is probably only of interest to Swedes. I also had a nice time checking out more of the villas, but aside from the Chateau and the mountains, there really isn’t a lot of sightseeing interest in Pau, it’s more a place for flaneurs. The changing scene in Place Clemenceau enlivened the weekend, but would be tamer during the week. Saturday included couples dancing the tango in one corner of the expansive square and four children’s trampolines in another, with a parade of motor bikes towards the end of the afternoon. Sunday morning was quiet, but a series of marathons started and ended right below my windows later on. A myriad pink umbrellas were suspended over the middle of the square, although almost all were closed.
And the mountains? Yes, I did get to see them, and I enjoyed them very much. Only with real clarity at dawn and dusk though, and I did wonder whether the persistent haze was less a function of the weather than of pollution. The book that sent me to Pau was published nearly a century ago, and in that time Pau has been a center of the aviation industry, after hosting the world’s first pilot school, and later of the petrochemical industry.
Monday afternoon I found a free ebook version of “Jonah and Co.” on the Project Gutenberg website, and enjoyed rereading it.