The High Life
CITY BREAK:Traditionally overlooked because it had been relatively inaccessible, Pau in France is a confident regional city that provides a gateway to the beauty of the Pyrénées, writes SEÁN MAC CONNELL
HORSERACING, GOLF, mountain walking, fishing, sightseeing, wine tasting, fine dining, rugby, and even penance and prayer – the Pau and Béarn country in the southwest of France has it all. This is the “hidden France”, a region which up until recently was hard to access and had to take a back seat to the better-known destinations, mainly because of the difficulties getting there.
Now with CitJet flying direct from Dublin during the holiday period to the capital of the area, the region is opening up and it has a huge amount to offer Irish holiday makers. The extension of the motorway network there and the high-speed French trains have added to this, but a word of caution to anyone wanting to drive by motorway from Paris; the toll charges will mount up to €150.
Pau, which is the capital of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques département in the Aquitaine region, is a stylish city. It has no hang-ups, like one often finds in regional France, about being inferior to Paris. Here the people have their own relaxed style of living and even have a smart but casual dress sense different to anywhere else I have visited in regional France. They also have a wonderful sense of place and self-confidence. We can thank the Duke of Wellington, who used the area as a base camp during his campaigns in France and Spain, for the very strong links between this region and Britain and Ireland dating back to the early 1800s.
In the 1820s, some British officers retired to the area lured by the temperate climate and the good fox hunting, and when a Scottish doctor, GW Leferve, survived tuberculosis and attributed this to the fresh air in the area, British people started to come for the cure.
From the 1840s to the 1890s, when going to the seaside became more popular than going to the mountains, there was a huge influx of British and American tourists and, of course, the Irish were there too and delivered a mayor of the city called O’Quinn. He was involved in setting up the Pau Golf Club in 1856, which can claim to be the oldest golf course on the European mainland with a 49-hectare site on the edge of the city.
There is a warm welcome for visiting golfers and its director, Pierre-Emmanuel Dreyfus, told me over lunch any golfer from the land of McDowell, McIlroy or Harrington was welcome to play as long as their handicap was under 44.
Englishman Tim Robinson manages the local racetrack, the Pau Hippodrome and Equestrian Centre, which has become the hot spot for not only the top French trainers but many British trainers too. It runs like clockwork.
The site, with its modern setup, heated main hall and training facilities, is a magnificent centre where at least 800 horses are in training, and the climate there has meant it has become a major attraction for trainers and bloodstock agents seeking out the next generation of jumping stock. If you go there, be prepared to be questioned about Ireland’s huge reputation in the racing world.