If you follow me on this blog or on my social media accounts, you already know that I recently had the chance to go to France on a very mysterious and very fun Festive France press trip to celebrate France’s 2015 Fête de la Gastronomie. I had no idea which of the four pre-selected regions of France I was headed to until the very last minute when Air France revealed that Mawoui, my travelling companion and I, were headed to Pau and Bayonne in France’s south west region. I was secretly wishing for that exact location for the sunshine, food, southern hospitality, wine, Espelette pepper, Bayonne ham, beaches and because I have Basque friends who have been telling me about it for years. I had also only packed summer clothes and it would’ve been really awkward had I been heading to somewhere cooler.
Pau is a small town and the capital of France’s Béarn province (yes, this is where sauce Béarnaise was invented). It’s located at the foot of the Pyrénées mountains, about 50 kilometers from the Spanish border. The great mountain range is omnipresent and visible from almost everywhere in and around Pau. The different peaks are easily recognizable from far and act as a compass for city life as well as agriculture. The 2 kilometer long Boulevard des Pyrénées with its pretty hotels, cafés and bars is the ideal walk to discover the city’s beautiful architecture and get a great view of its palm trees and sub-tropical plants with the Pyrénées in the background. You get the feeling you are walking along a seaside boardwalk. If you arrive by train, do hop on the gorgeous (and free!), century-old and recently renovated funicular which will bring you up the hill to Boulevard des Pyrénées. We spent two days eating and drinking our way through Pau, a really accessible town with a car-free zone center.
Château de Pau (Pau’s Castle)
A visit to Pau’s Castle is a must. Founded in the Middle Ages and located in the center of town on a hill overlooking the Gave, the château was used as a summer residence by Napoleon III and is the birth place of Henri IV. It has undergone several architectural renovations and additions by subsequent kings and rulers and is now a national museum. Take a guided tour of the castle and its grounds and admire the gorgeous tapestry collection and beautiful gardens. You will learn all about naughty King Henri IV and his many mistresses. Did you know his grandfather “baptized” him by rubbing his lips with a garlic clove to protect him from evil and giving him some Jurançon wine? This béarn baptism tradition is still practised today! Head to the château at sunset and stay a bit longer to admire the beautiful light show on the château’s façade.
This was definitely one of my favourite parts of the trip! Discovering Pau’s Les Halles market was so much fun! We entered the inconspicuous looking building not knowing what to expect and our jaws dropped when we discovered a treasure trove of local products! On one side of Les Halles, you’ll find local fruit and vegetable stands while on the other, you’ll discover butchers, cheese and fish mongers, bread and dessert makers and more. You will absolutely have to purchase the Pass Gourmand, which for 12 euros will give you 10 coupons which you can then exchange at local purveyors in the market and around town for specialties. We exchanged our coupons for cheese, boudin, charcuteries, and many more specialties and built ourselves a little picnic basket.
Once our picnic basket filled, we headed to the Jurançon wine region and the Clos Lapeyre winery. It was an absolutely magical afternoon, first spent breaking bread (and wine!) with winemaker Jean-Bernard Larrieu and several harvesters since it was the beginning of harvest season. We then spent the afternoon picking some of the early harvest grapes. There’s a saying in the Jurançon that in order to make good wine, the vines have to see the mountains, and in particular the Midi d’Ossau peak. You can only imagine the kind of breathtaking views we were surrounded with as we were harvesting. There are 64 independent winemakers spread out over 30 kilometers in the Jurançon. Close Lapeyre has been making biodynamic wine since 2005. Jean-Bernard showed us around the different grape varietals and explained that in the Jurançon, the vines are planted in a semi-circular, amphitheater shape to help with draining and machining. He plants barley and fava beans between the vines to help with aeration and nitrogen production. We then proceeded to Clos Lapeyre’s cellar for a tasting of their 7 wines. I highly recommend a tour of this lovely estate to experience its breathtaking beauty and the winemaker’s hospitality.
People in the south are generous. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed with open arms and felt as if we were reconnecting with old friends. We tried two restaurants while we were there and I highly recommend them both. They’re both located in the pedestrian part of city center and easily accessible.
Our first dinner was at Ze Bistrot where we started with housemade foie gras au torchon and a glass of sweet Jurançon wine. Dinner also included a memorable wild porcini tart, a local fish with eggplant caviar, sun dried tomatoes and olive paste and ended on a sweet note with a delicious and very fine fig tart. The best part of dinner was chatting with the gregarious chef/owner and his lovely wife about the local food scene and the time he spent in Montreal and the Jean Talon Market.
Our second night there we had dinner at restaurant Henri IV, a cozy and romantic restaurant offering classic Béarn food. We started with more housemade foie gras, this time flavoured with cocoa and piment d’Espelette. I got to taste the gâteau à la broche for dessert, a traditional cake recipe cooked on a spit over open fire. The crepe-like dough is added layer by layer while the spit turns over an open flame. The result is a flaky, conical cake that’s then cooled and sliced.
Yes, rafting! Pau’s Stade d’eaux vives welcomes rafting champions and Olympians who train in its state of the art facilities. If you’re a fan of more extreme sports, you can go kayaking, canoeing or rafting in the complex’ artificial rough water river. If you’re more into calmer activities, the stadium will equip you with everything you need to take a leisurely stroll down Pau’s Gave and admire the surrounding views.
I didn’t get to do this but if I ever go back to Pau, then I will definitely time my trip in order to be there for the transhumance, or the seasonal migration of the sheep herders to the Pyrénées mountains where they spend the summer with their herd, their dogs and sometimes even, their families. The herd grazes on fresh mountain grass and the sheepherders make cheese all summer long while up in the mountains. Come fall, everyone is transported back down, including the wheels of cheese which will then be sold. We met with a cheese monger from Pau’s Les Halles market who had participated in that summer’s transhumance and had made cheese with the herders, cheese that he had then reserved to sell at his store. Full circle.
WIN A TRIP FOR TWO TO FRANCE!
While in Pau, we stayed at the oldest hotel in the city, Hotel Continental, located right in the heart of the historic center of town. The rooms are spacious, comfortable and have great views.
A special mention to My WebSpot, a great pocket WiFi device that allows you to be connected at all times while in France or anywhere in Europe. Book yours online before leaving home and it will be waiting for you at your hotel when you arrive. Use it while travelling, then just drop it off in a mailbox before leaving using the prepaid envelope. I was astounded at how fast and reliable the connection was at all time, which allowed me to post so many photos on my Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
For more photos of my trip, head over to my Facebook album, and check back soon for my post on Bayonne in France’s Basque Country!