This elegant town on the fringe of the Pyrénées has been a resort destination since the 1830s, when it was embraced by the English, who eventually formed a large colony here, introducing steeplechase, fox-hunting, and, in 1856, the continent’s first golf course. Queen Victoria summered here for a while, but when she decided to try Biarritz one year, Pau started to decline.
But its more distant past was also quite glorious. It was the site of the home of Henri, King of Navarre, in the eary 1500’s. Their daughter’s son, born in Pau, became Henri IV of France, and is quite the local hero. His castle did not have very accommodating tour hours, but we did enjoy the view of the exterior.
Wonderful views can be had from the Boulevard des Pyrénées, a terrace overlooking the value and a funicular which connects the Place Royale to the railway station. It is clear from the view that Pau is preparing for its own Grand Prix, to be held in two weeks.
One famous resident who must have strolled the boulevard often was Mary Todd Lincoln. She lived in Pau for several years, in exile from her son, who seemed to believe that she needed to be institutionalized. There is an interesting story concerning U.S. Grant and his wife, who visited Pau in 1878 as part of a world tour, the year following his presidency. The Grants gave a dinner party – in the same hotel where Mrs. Lincoln was living. Everyone in Pau knew she was there, except the Grants, evidently, who did not invite her. They claimed later to be totally unaware of her presence. Hmmm. History indicates that MTL was very successful at making her presence felt. Understandably, she felt quite snubbed and corresponded about it with great vigor. Good thing they didn’t all meet in the lobby. Her hotel faces the promenade and is still a going concern.
One other note of royalty associated with Pau concerns the current ruling family of Sweden. In 1763, a relatively modest family in Pau welcomed the birth of a son, Jean-Baptist Bernadotte, who went off a youth to be soldier. He was teased about having good legs, and they took him far. He caught the attention of Napoleon, and was a very trusted officer through many of his campaigns. Eventually, they fell out, but not before Jean-Baptist had made a very favorable impression on members of the Swedish army. Thinking to gain some leverage with Napoleon, the Swedes invited Jean-Baptist to run their country, basically, and he took on the job with gusto. On such fluke are dynasties founded, and his descendants in still ruling Sweden in the seventh generation of his line. And we thought you had to be born into the job. Oh well. We visited his very modest birthplace, as does the royal family of Sweden on occasion. Never discount the power of nicely turned legs.
The town was as lovely as so many we have seen. The food is a bit different now that we are in Basque country – lots of duck and magnificent foie gras. All in all, a wonderful town and a wonderful day.