South-western France in 4.5 days, 2 planes, 6 trains, 3 and a bit bottles of wine!
Biarritz > Pau > Toulouse > Carcassonne
Biarritz is a coastal town in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques region in the south-western corner of France. Being on the Atlantic coast, the town is a popular surfing destination, although the majority of the people I see walking around town on this January afternoon are very well-dressed elderly ladies. Yes, they may well surf, though I suspect not!
This is the Basque Country, of which two of the five regions lie in France, and as you move away from the central shopping, dining and hotel quarters, into the residential backstreets, Basque architecture is abundant, and teams of Spanish construction workers work on winter maintenance and renovation projects. Through squinted eyes, if you add 200,000 people and a glug of French-ness, Biarritz could be described as the Brighton of Biscay. I had never heard of the town until I realised it was a closer airport than Toulouse for visiting Pau, where my friend Melisa has been living for almost 3 years.
I arrive on a grey afternoon in mid-January and have 2 hours to roam the centre before my train to Pau at 4.18pm. The first impressions I gather from a new place take the form of a mental swatch card of colour. Biarritz is very cream (buildings) and green (gardens & urban landscaping) and the sandy beach has a warm sunshine glow. Even in mid-winter the place has a definite holiday vibe. Palm trees, banana and yucca adorn most gardens, and magnolia and another unidentified knobbly tree line the streets. The knobbly trees become a running feature over the week, it appears heavy pollarding is favoured in the Basque region.
My 2 hours in Biarritz are spent dusting off my bonjours, s'il vous plaits and mercis, having my first glass of vin rouge (a colour that is firmly on the swatch for all of France!), gazing at the Atlantic, buying a pot of pate, and starting my internal debate as to whether or not I like basque architecture. I walk to the station for my train to Pau, stopping near the gare to buy a bottle of wine. The guy in front of me is also buying his daily essentials. A bottle of red and a baguette, nothing more, nothing less. I love France.
It’s dark when my train pulls into Pau station. Across from the station, huge, magnificent buildings sit well-lit, 80 metres up on a steep hill, one of them being the Château de Pau. The town being situated on a steep hill means that when the clouds clear, spectacular views of the Pyrenees can be found, especially when walking along the Boulevard des Pyrénées. The challenging gradient the town sits on also means the municipality runs a couple of funicular trains, and they are free of charge.
My first day in Pau is spent mostly walking. Subtle shop signage and an absence of garish outdoor advertising makes you feel like time has stood still here. I find the halle (indoor artisan market) and buy wine, cheese, bread and 'un romanesco brocolli' (not 'une', the stall owner kindly corrected me!) . Then in true Taurean style, I go back to Melisa’s, have a hearty lunch of wine, cheese and bread, then take a 2 hour nap.
Following my wine and cheese induced slumber, my friends decide to give me another authentic taste of life in Pau… Tuesday evening's swimming session at La Stade Nautique, by far the best public swimming pool I have ever visited (and I’ve lived in Australia). It has two indoor pools, one with a huge jacuzzi area. The large pool for lane swimming is outdoors but accessed through a tunnel from inside. The water is a little colder than I was expecting, but I needed a wake-up jolt to get me ready for the pressures of lane swimming. The pool was très busy and I haven’t swum in this kind of environment for almost a decade. We get pizza on the way home. The French are very good at making pizza, albeit the topping choices are very… French. A lot of cheese and meat in various combinations, so if you like cheese and meat, you’re good.
On Wednesday I take another stroll around town, buying some French savon (soap) along the way, then I meet Melisa for lunch at Le Berry, an extremely popular eatery with a simple, visually lacklustre menu that turns out to serve delicious French cuisine. We opt to embark on a life first for both of us, and order a small portion of snails, for which a bowl of dissection instruments are presented before us. The internet tells us we ‘simply need to hold the shells with the tongues’. This task is far from simple. It's a struggle to get the metal grabbers to clasp onto the rounded shells. We decide the glass screens surrounding booths are to prevent flying snail shells from amateur snail pluckers. Melisa perseveres with the tongues. I use my hands. Refined I am not, but thankfully the napkins are of very good quality. I eat three snails and declare the taste to be gardeny and the texture to be like chewy calamari. Calamari of the garden. For mains I have croque-monsieur that comes in a terracotta pot and is drowning in a sea of cheese juice. It is, dare I admit it, perhaps a little too cheesy.
Lunch at Le Berry is the perfect fuel for a visit to Pau Château which is where I head next. Pau Château can only be explored by joining a guided tour. The tour is in French, and I speak almost no French, but it’s starting in ten minutes so I decide to join in. From listening really, really hard and doing a bit of google research, I come away with the following information to share with you about Henry IV and his colourful life.
Pau chateaux was first built as a military structure in the 12th Century, and over the following few centuries was modified and reinforced with stone structures. Henry of Navarre, who went on to become Henry the IV, Good King Henry, Henry the Great, was born on December 13, 1553 in Pau Château and immediately placed in an enormous turtle shell, an act thought to be the key to longevity. He was assassinated in Paris by a catholic fanatic at the age of 56. This was the thirteenth assassination attempt, so perhaps the turtle shell did aid in prolonging his survival. Come to think of it, turtle shell armour may have deflected that fatal dagger thrust.
The chateaux is widely branded with the initials H & M (Henri & Marguerite), but let’s not be fooled by set-in-stone proclamations of a solid partnership. Their marriage (they were cousins) was forced by Margaret's brother to ease tensions between Catholics and Protestants, and after it became evident that Margaret was infertile, and political tensions only worsened, the marriage was annulled. Fortunately Henry’s proceeding wife was named Marie de Medici, so there was no need to rebrand the chateaux. In fact, Marguerite played an active role in helping to raise the children born to Henry and Marie.
Wandering around the castle, and having grown up in a fire-warmed English farmhouse, part of which was constructed around the time of King Henry’s life, I immediately question how much heat the huge and incredibly ornate stone-carved fireplaces could generate in rooms over 4 metres high. The spectacular tapestries adorning the walls of most rooms surely only provided minimal insulation. When you discover that King Henry had over 50 mistresses, you wonder if perhaps he was forced to generate body heat in other ways. My sordid imagination pictures mistresses hidden within the huge velvet curtains, a mistress hidden in every room for when he got a bit chilly.
Purported to be his most favoured mistress, Gabrielle D’Esteese bore Henry 3 (illegitimate) children. She died aged 26 and is remembered at the castle by way of a beautiful portrait where she sits with her nipples on show beneath a very sheer blouse. One can only presume she sat for the portrait in the warmer months! The same room of the castle contains a vibrant portrait of King Henry wearing a fetching deep pink outfit, which my friend surmises would be his social media profile photo if he were around nowadays.
Plumbing systems were not around at the time the great castle was constructed, and our tour revealed no bathrooms, nor toilets. We are, however, shown a display cabinet housing a range of decoratively painted and glazed chamber pots and a few bourdaloues (think gravy-boat shaped piss pot for a female) and our enigmatic tour guide explained (and this is one of the only full sentences in the hour-long tour that I understood) that there was a role in the castle of ‘valet de pisse’.... a piss porter!
So basically life in the château was one big orgy with some poor chap dashing around literally taking the piss out of everybody. Happy days!
Bedous - up into the Pyrenees
I’ve spent the past two days itching to get closer to the jagged snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees that form the natural border between France and Spain. I do love a mountain range. A few times a day, the clouds on the horizon have broken apart and the sun has illuminated the spectacular peaks, which are clearly visible from the hilltop of Pau centre. So, I decide to take a train ride up to the foothills of the Pyrenees, to Bedous, the final stop on the single track train line from Pau. Years ago the train continued to Canfranc, Spain. Now Canfranc’s mammoth 1920s constructed station has been transformed into a fancy hotel, and there’s a public bus service from Bedous to complete the route (a trip for the future).
The day’s adventure starts with a cancelled 9.20am train due to a fallen tree on the tracks outside Pau. The previous night's wind had woken me at 4am and I subsequently worried for hours about Melisa’s potted olive tree outside the window. Perhaps this was an omen! I spend over an hour waiting for the promised replacement bus due at 10am, during which time I eat my second pastry of the day, but after 25 minutes the replacement transport still doesn't turn up. Determined to not miss the opportunity of spending time in the Pyrenees on a glorious January afternoon, and having 2 pastries to burn off, I finally catch the third train of the day at noon, meaning my planned day hiking is reduced to less than 3 hours.
Perhaps the replacement bus had decided not to pick me up so I didn’t miss the spectacular journey. The two carriage train meandered the single track up through impressively steep valleys, through a couple of lengthy old tunnels and alongside gushing glacier blue rivers. This is the kind of route that train drivers across the world dream of driving, and it’s the kind of journey you don’t mind waiting 3 hours and eating two pastries to make!
I spend a couple of hours exploring Bedous and the neighbouring village of Accous on foot. The weather is wonderful, but as I head back to the station to get my return train, the snow clouds begin rolling in over the surrounding sharp peaks. The temperature is set to drop dramatically tomorrow. I feel lucky to have enjoyed perfect walking conditions during my first taste of the Pyrenees.
Back to a rainy Pau for one last evening with friends before I catch the 6am train to Toulouse in the morning.
Toulouse & Carcassonne
Toulouse is a student hive. Bustling mostly with under 30s, it is a maze of quirky, independent shops, bars and restaurants. Basically a student’s dream. I get tastes of Beyoğlu, (Istanbul) and hints of Manchester and Manhattan, but I don’t like cities. I am also traveling on a budget, and my bag is full of soap and cheese with no room to spare for more shopping, so an hour or two in Toulouse either side of a trip to Carcassonne is quite enough.
After breakfast of my final croissant in France, I take the train over to Carcassonne to check out the marvellous Unesco mediaeval walled city. Perhaps it’s because it’s a gloomy day and the temperature has dropped to a little over zero, but even Carcassonne fails to impress me like Pau has. I would have loved to have seen it decades ago when the walled city still contained elements of real life. Now the fortress features laneways bursting with fancy restaurants, cafes, souvenirs shops, and chocolatiers, and I can only imagine the army of consumers pouring into the narrow streets when the springtime comes.
I left my heart in Pau.
Whys? And Wows! of France
I leave south France with a couple of ‘whys’ and a lot of ‘wows’. Why are French pillows square? Why are French village name signs upside down? Why do the French leave their Christmas decorations up until late-January? Wows include Pau, it’s fabulous chateau, mountain backdrop and nighttime swimming at La Stade Nautique, discovering Morbier cheese, taking the single track train ride up to Beddous, experiencing France's double decker trains, and all the pretty wall & shutter colour combinations.
Time to comb the croissant crumbs out of my hair and save all the warm ‘bonjours’ in my heart for another time in life. Thanks to M & G for giving me an excuse to be a traveller once again.