We decided to pop into Pau for the weekend on our way to Toulouse. Pau is a university town and is a favoured spot by the English for autumn and winter holidays because of its mild climate. We stayed at the Ronceveaux Hotel in the centre of town while we explored the streets, sites (lots of belle epoque architecture) and the C14th Chateau de Pau.
It is famous to the French because Henry IV of France was born there. That’s all, he didn’t live there or die there or win any great battles there. Several other famous people spent time there though, like Napoleon – for holidays (and us too of course for the weekend). But besides Gaston Phoebus, Comte of Foix-Béarn establishing the chateau on the site of the keep, Henry II of Navarre and his wife Marguerite d’Angoulême, (sister of François I) lived there. The letters H and M feature in the decorative elements of the architecture. They seem to have been quite a mutually supportive couple in spite of marriages for such people being arranged for political ends. Marguerite d’Angoulême in particular is very interesting, being a patron of the arts and scholarship, a writer, a patron of the poor, and influential in trying to promote dialogue and tolerance between the catholic and protestant factions. She probably even influenced the English reformation to some degree. Had she been alive today she probably would have been awarded a Nobel Prize for various things… We Baronnesses have certainly awarded her a gold star (or several) for attitude, tenacity and achievement.
The chateau itself underwent several transformations over the centuries. Several huge C16th Gobelin tapestries in excellent condition can still be seen in the chateau as well as numerous other objets d’art, and outside there are stunning views back to the Pyrenees.
An exhibition of fruit and vegetable carving was also being held in the chateau gardens when we visited alongside with the medieval vegetable garden plots.
After touring the Chateau we sat on a bench outside the walls to take in the scenery and decide where we’d go next. Suddenly a rhythmic hooting and drumming could be heard, accompanied by a whistle. Craning our necks over the wall we noticed a small group of protestors (we liked to think they were from the university). They were obviously demonstrating about something but in a totally inoffensive way. There was much good humour. They were on their way to the chateau where they were met by gates being closed in their faces. There was much discourse going on between the gate keepers and the protesters. I think they were being told that the King was no longer there, and to take their grievances elsewhere. For some reason a few were let through and all seemed to have quietened down. Then the other half hooted and thumped and chanted their way around to the main entrance where those already inside joined in on the other side of the gates in haranguing of the gatekeepers now at the top gates. What their issue was we’re not sure of, something about indigines of Pau wanting equality, but their behaviour luckily didn’t warrant the appearance of the police. It did, however, provide a slightly different visual spectacle for tourists.
An outdoor market was in full swing on the promenade overlooking the river so we wandered down coming across a large pod of gendarmes who looked very tough. We wondered later if they had heard there was going to be a demonstration but were in the wrong place at the time. It’s fun making up your own scenarios for what you see. We ended up in a park, watching the model boat club in action, and queues lined up for icecreams in the hot afternoon.
The next day we visited Pau’s Musee des Beaux-Arts (seems every town or city has one) and were very impressed with the quality of the works there – including a couple of Degas that had travelled to Australia for the exhibition in Canberra. It is strange seeing them back in their usual habitat without the masses at the exhibition at home. There were certainly visitors at the gallery, but it didn’t have that frantic craziness so often associated with exhibitions at home. Perhaps it is just more of the same here.
Tina and Heather