The High Life

Sat, Jun 23, 2012, 01:00

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.

Later we visited a horse-breeding institute, Gelos, established by Napoleon, where some of France’s top stallions stand and where major work is going on regarding artificial insemination and other artificial breeding methods.

A visit to the the castle in Pau, where Henri IV of France (1553-1610) was born and where tradition has it he was placed in a turtle shell because the baggage train with his cot had not arrived, is mandatory.

The castle was badly damaged during the French Revolution but was restored in the early 19th century and is home to a rich collection of tapestries from a period spanning the 16th century to the 1800s. The dining room table can seat 100 people, giving you some idea of the grandeur of the place in its time.

The highlight of the visit to the region was the excursion to le train d’Artouste, a 50-minute drive from Pau, where the highest railway line in Europe has been operating for the past 80 years. The train came into being as part of the construction of a huge hydro-electric scheme and became a tourist attraction. To reach the train, 2,000m above sea level, you have to take a cable car and then there is a 50-minute train ride along the side of the Ossau valley.

If you are lucky enough to get there, make sure to wear heavy clothing because it can be very cold at those heights, but the views are stunning, the wildlife – marmots and vultures – are plentiful, and it provides access for walkers to some of the best peaks in the Pyrénées.

The train was filled with walkers who were able to explore adjoining valleys, like the Tena valley in Spain and the Valley Soussoueou, or climb the Pic du Midi d’Ossau, which towers above the terminal.

This is an experience not to be missed and shows the mountain region at its very best. Just remember, though, the sides of the small train are open and it’s no place for anyone who suffers from vertigo or altitude sickness.

Of course, we found another interesting Irish angle up here because it was an Irishman, Henry Russell, who first brought the Pyrénées to world attention by his writings and his conquering of a number of the peaks in the mid-19th century.

He also dynamited a number of caves high in the mountains to make places of refuge for climbers and walkers. One of the great heroes of the area, Russell is buried in the cemetery in Pau.

Visitors to the area should not leave without visiting the 16th-century church in the beautiful village of Monein, about a 30-minute journey from Pau. The construction of the roof is astonishing; a total of 1,000 mature oak trees were used to build the structure, making the church a unique building of its time. It was constructed using a series of triangle shapes and the local tourism board sponsors a special lighting show to highlight its unique features.

Interestingly, in the mid-1500s, under a local law, people had to plant one oak tree each year on their own land and one every second year on public land. Now that is sustainability.

It would be downright rude to visit France and not mention wine. The area has it own vino, Jurançon, which is white and sweet – almost like a dessert wine – and much beloved by locals.

Because tradition has it that Henry IV was baptised using this wine, to this day people put a drop of it on their children as they are christened, a tradition totally acceptable, I was told, to the local clergy.

We were taken to the village of La Commande, which is in the heart of the Jurançon wine region, where the association of local producers have their headquarters.

The wine is allowed to practically wither on the vine, ensuring the sugar level increases for the product, which has a strong reputation for quality. And speaking of penance, the village of La Commande is a stop on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrim route and we were assured pilgrims staying over there are guaranteed a warm welcome.

While the Compostela pilgrimage has been growing in popularity in recent years, Lourdes, which is only a 35-minute drive from the airport in Pau, is visited by over six million pilgrims annually. An astonishing 93,293 Irish pilgrims arrive by charter flights each year. Only the Italians, with 282,275 pilgrims, make more visits by charter flights than ourselves.

Airport officials in Pau stressed just how close the pilgrim site is and said hire cars are readily available, as is public transport to Lourdes.

And, of course, as on all French trips, there was plenty of fine food to be eaten. Duck is a speciality of the region and one travelling companion ate so much of it, he decided he might be able to fly home without an aircraft.

How to . . .

How to get there:Our party travelled to Pau directly from Dublin where return fares start from €207, including all taxes and charges. Flight time was just over two hours and the daily service continues until late autumn. See cityjet.com

Where to stay:We stayed at the three-star Hotel Ronceveaux in the centre of Pau, where rooms can be had from €82 per night. See hotel-roncevaux.com. The two-star Ferme de Candeloup Hotel in Monein has rooms from €40. See bruton.fr/candeloup. We had dinner in the Les Terrasses de Beaumont and the Rivers Blue Stadium, both in Pau, and lunched at Pau Golf Club. We also ate at the Creperie de L’Ours in Fabrèges and all can be highly recommended. Our hosts were the local tourism organisation, Atout France, which will provide all the necessary information on rendezvousenfrance.com, or follow them on Twitter @AtoutFranceIEpr.

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