Pau, the fourth capital of the Béarn, is the most elegant of the towns and cities that overlook the Pyrénées from their vantage point on the high bluffs that run parallel with the mountains.
Originally it was just a village fortified by a pallisade (`pau’ in the old language of the Oc) guarding a bridge across the river. In the 15th century Gaston Fébus built the main fortifications and started the chateau.
It owes its importance initially to Henri IV, France’s first Protestant king, who was born there, a proud Béarnais. When he was born it is said they cried: “Here is a lion borne by the Sheep of Navarre”, a riposte to the insult when his mother was born – “A miracle – the cow has given birth to a sheep” (The cow is the symbol of the Béarn.)
Still very much a hero of the area, Henri IV’s accession to the throne four hundred years earlier was celebrated vigorously by the Palois in 1989, while the rest of France was celebrating the bicentenary of the Revolution when they finally disposed of Royalty.
In the 19th century Pau became very popular with the British when a Scottish doctor proclaimed the curative powers of its mild climate, and their influence led to the city’s soubriquet – “La ville Anglaise”. The first mainland golf course, steeple-chasing, fox-hunting and very many fine English-style villas as well as the spectacular Boulevarde des Pyrénées all bear testament to their influence.
British society transferred their affections to Biarritz when Queen Victoria went there for a summer, but it grew in importance again this century with the discovery nearby of large supplies of natural gas. As well as being the capital of the department it is an important centre of the French oil industry.