Outside of July when the taut, glistening muscles and shimmering shorts of riders are pedalling through the switchback roads during the Tour de France, the Hautes-Pyrenees is largely forgotten by everyone not training for the next race. Ask anyone without a bicycle about the Pyrenees and you’ll get, “It’s the mountain range that divides France and Spain.” Now ask where to stay and what to do. The answer is invariably, “I don’t know, I’ve never been.” What a miss. Striking mountains, blooming meadows, icy-green rivers and fresh, clean air, it’s just what one would imagine. You’ll be sharing the hairpin turns with cyclists, and in summer you’ll also be sharing the road with motor homes on their way to Spain. Forget passing. Take your time and enjoy the scenery. But there’s something else to enjoy as well. The refined cuisine served in picturesque villages and small, family hotels is an unexpected treat of the delectable kind. Local specialties of France’s southwest include the Noir de Bigorre pig, Barèges-Gavarnie sheep, Tarbais bean, Basque cheeses and Madiran wines; and the chefs and vintners are being unabashedly creative with tradition. The Hautes-Pyrenees is a dazzling feast for the eyes and a twirling waltz for the taste buds.
1st stop: Pau
Daily flights from Paris (CDG and ORY) and Lyon (LYS) to Aéroport Pau (PUF)
122 kilometers/ 76 miles from Biarritz Anglet Bayonne Airport (BIQ)
200 kilometers/ 124 miles from Toulouse Blagnac Airport (TLS)
222 kilometers/ 138 miles from Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport (BOD)
259 kilometers/ 160 miles and from Bilbao Airport (BIO)
Pau makes an ideal home base from which to explore the Hautes-Pyrenees (despite that it is the capital of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques region next door), and is worth exploring for a few days. A strategically located market town, Roman soldiers marched these streets long before Henri IV of France (1553-1610) was born in the castle downtown, but it was the year-round pleasant climate that caught the attention of British soldiers in the early 1800s (during the Napoleonic wars), which turned Pau into a destination for Victorian high society and home to gentry when the wars ended.Take a walk through Beaumont Park with unexpected flora. In addition to pine, maple, magnolia and birch trees, the microclimate also allows for palm, banana and sequoia trees. Free concerts take place in the park at Le Théâtre de Verdure from mid-July into August. The nearby palace, now used as a conference center, is a fine example of Belle Epoque architecture that primes visitors for a stroll along the kilometer-long Boulevard des Pyrénées at the end of the park. From the Boulevard, look to your left for panoramic views of the mountains in the distance, and a bird’s eye view of the villas and the 1860 train station meters below. On your right you’ll see elegant Belle Epoque apartment buildings and cafes specifically built to take in this vista. At the end of the street is where the funicular railway stops, letting out passengers coming up from the train station.
Just beyond that is “Good King Henri’s” castle, home to the National Museum of the Chateau of Pau, with royally furnished apartments and tapestries. In the cobbled streets of this Chateau quarter of the old town are many shops and restaurants selling local products and specialties.
If you’re visiting in September, ask Pau Tourism about its “Heritage days” for unique activities. Pau Tourism also sells gourmand passes for a gastronomic taste from a range of shops, boutiques, cafes and markets around town, including Les Halles, where vendors sell delicious local products (look for the official Red Tag, the mark of quality and origin). In summer, Pau Tourism also offers guests tours of the English villa quarter by bicycle and the castle grounds and promenade by horse and carriage. If you find yourself in Le Triangle quarter, Show Case Time offers live jazz, soul, funk, rock, salsa and more for less than 10 euro (2014). Created by Napoleon I, the oldest stud farm in France, Haras de Gelos Stud Farm, is in Pau. A tour includes a master blacksmith and master saddler at work. Visitors can also go to the oldest golf club in continental Europe, the Pau Golf Club, go wine tasting at the surrounding Jurançon wineries, Domaine.email@example.com, and for something more vigorous, go canoing and white water rafting with Pau-Pyrenees White Water Stadium.
Easy daytrips in Pyrénées-Atlantiques from Pau could include:
Sauveterre-de-Béarn: a mediaeval town that may have been used as a refuge (Sauve Terre = Safe Ground) even before it appeared in record books in the 11th century. Its gate and drawbridge (now only the stone structures remain) were on the Way of Saint James pilgrimage route. An intact church, the Viscount’s Castle, other buildings in original condition, and the legend of Queen Sancie’s trial by God live on.
Salies-de-Béarn: Wander around this village’s 16th-century streets, visit the Napoleonic town hall from 1810 and the churches and museums. Then make your way to the Jardin Public and thermal bath house. Bring your bathing suit and indulge in a saltwater cure – the town’s natural supply of saline water is ten times saltier than seawater.
Navarrenx: Henri II of Albret, King of Bearn and Navarre, had this fortified town built between 1538 and 1547 with a thick outer wall, rampart walk, watchtowers and a fortified gate.
Hotel Parc Beaumont
You might think the hotel was modeled after a French colonial cruise ship, but it was actually fashioned after Le Palais Beaumont, the former palace in the park that this hotel overlooks. The hotel offers exceptional service and is well located near the park, shopping, the old town and promenade, and to the spa in the hotel’s lower level. Don’t pass up a gourmet meal at the hotel’s restaurant, Le Jeu de Paume, whose chef moved here from a Michelin-starred restaurant. If the weather is good, as it usually is, enjoy your delicious dinner and excellent wine outside on the terrace.
Le Bistro d’ à Côté
If you’re exploring the downtown on a week day, this place is an excellent option for lunch. Settle in on the square under the sun shade, and begin with a sweet white Jurançon wine from the region to wash down your starter: a slice of foie gras over wedges of leek, tomato, melon and smoked duck. Follow that with axoa: Basque pork meatballs with garlic, onion, pimento and other secret ingredients that the young chef is keeping to himself, and finish with a mousse of oven-cooked rhubarb with honey and sugar and topped with a raspberry and biscuits. Some Fridays throughout the year, live jazz and blues bands play here.
2nd stop: Lourdes
41 kilometers/ 25 miles from Pau
If you’ve ever wondered what a pilgrimage was like without having to actually do one, Lourdes should be your next stop. It’s close enough to Pau to be a day trip if you don’t want to stay overnight. Lourdes is where, in 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous 18 times over five months. Naturally, this is a place that attracts the ailing looking for a miracle. Six million pilgrims visit Lourdes between Easter and October; the only city in France with more hotels than Lourdes is Paris. In addition to shrines and basilicas, the grotto where the apparition appeared to Bernadette is where visitors flock (there is now a statue of Our Lady to mark the spot). Mass is offered in 22 languages; the crippled are immersed into the Massablielle Spring waters, praying to be healed (of the 7,000 healings that have been recorded since 1858, the church officially recognizes 67 of them as miraculous); visitors follow 15 stations on the Way of the Cross (the 15th was added in 1885 to symbolize the resurrection); and each night at 21:00, a procession of hundreds of volunteers pushing wheelchairs leaves the grotto, the invalids carrying candles to light the way and singing Ave Maria of Lourdes, the song that describes the story of the apparitions. June is a good month to be here when the crowds are not yet overwhelming. The Sanctuary fills with pilgrims early in the day, but over lunchtime it becomes empty.
Also worth a visit is Chateau Fort, an unconquered fortress from the 11th century. Today it is a museum representing the area’s regional history, flora and fauna, as well as 19th and 20th-century domestic life in the Pyrenees. Rooms display domestic scenes, 18th-century furniture, tools, instruments and artwork. The fortress has its own botanical garden with models of villages demonstrating their strategic layout of homes and fortifications. Climb the narrow, spiral stairway with worn stone steps to the top of the 14th-century keep for a view over the Sanctuary, the town and the mountains.
Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres
The Gallia & Londres hotel was built by Benoite Soubirous and her husband Jean, a cousin of Bernadette, when they found that their small boarding house was not enough to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. By 1900, Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres was unique in Lourdes due to its size and luxuriousness. Today, although the suites on the sixth floor do not have balconies, they are in the best condition and the most spacious. Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres provides the ideal location with its own gated parking lot, a view over the garden and river, and only a five-minute walk (past shops selling religious trinkets) to the Sanctuary where the shrines and basilicas are. It’s also only a few minutes’ walk in the other direction to restaurants, shops, more souvenirs and to the Chateau Fort museum. The hotel closes after October and reopens for Easter. In April 2015, Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres plans to reopen as a 5-star hotel.
A 10-minute walk from Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres, this restaurant serves hearty local cuisine and delicious desserts. Service is great if you don’t have a lot of questions, especially about the wine selection. Try Alexandra’s cassoulet, a slow-cooked casserole of southwestern France. It contains white beans, confit (normally duck or goose, but cassoulet can also use pork, garlic sausages, pork sausages and mutton), and is often served in a round, earthenware pot.
A 20-minute walk from Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres, Le Magret is worth the stroll. Its chic, colourful interior is fun and playful, including the fish bowls. Excellent, friendly service is augmented by good knowledge of the menu and suggestions for wine pairing. True to the region, Le Magret has specialties that you would expect, like veal, duck and lamb, but it has many fish options as well. Try their tasty Pyrenees trout.