It was a clear, sunny day in Pau – perfect for a languid stroll along the Boulevard des Pyrénées. This is one of the more unusual urban appendages in provincial France, being 2km long and lined with palm trees, elegant 19th-century mansions, hotels and cafés. It also provides a startling view.
Although the name Boulevard des Pyrénées is something of a giveaway, it still comes as a shock to see the astonishing panorama of snow-covered peaks in a jagged wall along the horizon, 50km to the south.
Plaques attached to the railing discreetly point out the key mountains, with the distinctive double peak of the Pic du Midi d'Ossau (2,884 metres) the most easily identifiable.
Closer at hand, sub-tropical gardens cascade down the steep slope from the boulevard towards Pau's river, the Gave du Pau, which meanders through a marshy valley after a precipitous plunge from its source in the high Pyrénées.
The name Pau (which rhymes with snow) is thought to derive from an ancient word describing its position at the foot of the mountains. This important strategic location as a gateway to the Pyrenees led to Pau becoming the capital of the ancient French region of Béarn (the area that gave steak a Béarnaise sauce). Five centuries ago it was elevated to become the joint capital of the kingdom of Navarre, which stretched across the Pyrenees into Spain and the other capital, Pamplona.
But another natural advantage, Pau's balmy climate, has also helped shape the history and the look of this attractive and dynamic little city, poised between the mountains and the sea – the Atlantic coast is just an hour's drive away, to the west.
From Saturday, a new flight route from London City to Pau's tiny airport will make the town more accessible to British travellers. But tourism came early to Pau. A couple of centuries before city-breakers searching for low-cost flights, even before railways made the journey across France relatively comfortable, wealthy Victorians from the UK visited here. They came to enjoy the mild winters and for the supposed benefits to their health from the air and the Pyrenean waters.
Being British, they imported their games and pastimes, which is why Pau boasts continental Europe's first 18-hole golf course. The Brits also brought their love of horticulture and green spaces. The city is still dotted with impressive villas set in lavish gardens, while public areas – such as the Beaumont Palace Park, at the eastern end of the Boulevard des Pyrénées – are resplendently wooded. Even the mansions of the Place Royale, just off the boulevard, play second fiddle to the square's magnificent array of lime trees.
Pau's dominant and emblematic building, at the western end of the boulevard, is its castle. As I walked around its exterior, through the ornamental gardens, I was struck by its intriguing medley of architectural styles: the square brick tower is a reminder of its medieval origins as a fortified stronghold of the Viscounts of Béarn, although most of the building (in cream-coloured stone) dates from the 16th century, when it was transformed into a palace.
In 1553 it was the birthplace of Pau's most famous son, who was to become Henri IV of France. He reigned from 1589 to 1610 and gained the title of The Good King, alongside a rather contrasting reputation as an epic philanderer. He is also remembered for the (possibly mythical) pronouncement that it should be the right of every French peasant to be able to eat poule au pot (a casserole of chicken and vegetables) on a Sunday.
His castle – in which Napoleon holidayed – has now become a museum, worth visiting for its collection of tapestries, though my own favourite exhibit is the turtle shell which was the future King Henry's cradle during the first few days of his life.
Pau is a place where you can quite happily forget about the car, even about public transport, and let your feet take the strain. A wander round the district immediately surrounding the castle, le quartier du château, will reveal the charms of old Pau. In the hilly cobbled streets you'll find small restaurants, cafés and bars, as well as shops selling antiques, for which the city is well-known. Although very few of the original medieval houses are still standing, there are plenty of distinctive buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries.
One of the latter, in the rue Bernadotte, has been turned into a small museum and gives a good idea of the austere lifestyle of a typical Béarnaise family of that period. More bizarrely, it was originally the home of a young man named Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. He became an officer in Napoleon's army, where his military prowess and various twists of fate led to him becoming, in 1818, the King of Sweden.
In the area just north of the Boulevard des Pyrénées I found the best of the city-centre shops. Although no great fan of shopping malls, I couldn't help but be impressed by the super-modern Palais de Pyrénées located in the pedestrianised street, rue de Tassigny. But to find the local products – rather than international boutiques and national brands – you need to explore some of the other streets that radiate out from the airy Place de Clémenceau, with its playful Art Deco fountain.
Pau is particularly well known for its confectionery; I made for la Féerie Gourmande, at 48 rue du Maréchal Joffre, the owner of which, Francis Miot, has won national awards for his jam and sweet-making. You'd find it hard to resist the coucougnettes, an extravagant creation involving grilled almonds and dark chocolate with a strawberry-flavoured coating of sugar – I certainly couldn't.
For a relaxing weekend break, there's no need to stray beyond the city. But if you have more time, the surrounding countryside harbours some great places to visit: Lescar, 10km away, is home to the Cathédrale de Nôtre-Dame, one of the region's most beautiful Romanesque churches. Started in the 12th century, it is where the last kings of Navarre are buried.
This is also fine walking country, with the most interesting trail being the 70km Chemin Henri IV, which links Pau with the pilgrimage destination of Lourdes. It starts by the Château de Franqueville in Bizanos, on the eastern edge of Pau, and can be done by bike or on horseback, as well as on foot.
Pau is also a good base for more adventurous sorties into the Pyrenees, in particular climbing and white-water sports. At the city's stade d'eaux vives there's a chance to try out kayaking and rafting on a mild outdoor course and discover if watery adventures are for you before venturing off to try out the real thing.
But a visit to Pau is almost certainly thrilling enough without attempting "hydrospeed", where you hurtle down a mountain torrent clinging to a small board. After all, 200 years' worth of tourists can't be wrong.
The Hotel Bristol (00 33 5 59 27 72 98; www.hotelbristol-pau.com) at 3 rue Gambetta, is a small three-star hotel a short walk from the Boulevard des Pyrénées. Double rooms from €80.
Musée du Château (00 33 5 59 82 38 07; www.musee-chateau-pau.fr) is at 2 rue du Château. Open 9.30am-11.45am and 2pm-5pm; admission free.
Musée Bernadotte (00 33 5 59 27 48 42) is at 8 rue Tran. Open daily, except Mondays, from 10am to midday and from 2pm-6pm. Admission €3.
Stade des Eaux Vives (00 33 5 59 40 85 44; www.paupyrenees-stadeeauxvives.com) is at Avenue Léon Heïd. Open 10am-noon and 2pm-5pm daily (October to May), 10am-7pm (June to September).
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