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Though technically a mountain town in the Pyrenees, Pau evokes a decidedly French Rivera feel — its palm-fringed avenues and elegant villas give the impression that it’s just a stone’s throw from the shore. But a quick glance in any direction gives way to sweeping panoramas of snowcapped peaks and winding slopes, which serve as an immediate reminder that it’s all about elevation in this southern French city.
Pau is what you imagine when you close your eyes and think of picturesque French villages. Narrow, cobblestone alleys wind their way through centuries-old homes and shops, while steeples peek out above black, turreted roofs.
In addition to its quaint charm, Pau feels glamorous thanks to expansive boulevards lined with shopping, public parks and promenades, all overlooking the mountains. The city was once a favorite winter-only spot for British and American expats; today, it is a year-round tourist destination. Just 45 minutes from the famous ski resorts of the Pyrenees, Pau offers access to hiking, climbing and skiing, and it’s also a just an hourlong drive from the border of Spain.
For First-Time VisitorsA first trip to Pau should include a short list of top sites to give a sense of place. First is the Boulevard des Pyrenees, a mile-long promenade.
For a dash of culture, the Museum of Fine Arts of Pau is one of the region’s largest, home to works of art spanning from the 15th to 20th centuries. Be sure to stop at the National Museum of the Castle of Pau, as well, which is the birthplace of King Henri IV and a former Renaissance palace and royal residence. Today, it is one of France’s most popular museums.
The best way to take in Pau’s beauty is to wander the streets behind the boulevard, from Gave de Pau (“river of Pau”) to Pau Castle to Palais Beaumont. The meandering streets between the castle and the ravine are peppered with cafes, restaurants, bars and boutiques. For a lively Saturday market, pop by Les Halles on Place de la Republique.
For SkiersPau presents a wealth of ski-related opportunities. The nearest slopes to Pau are at Gourette, a winter resort that has 30 marked trails for skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers. Come summer, the destination is prime for hiking, biking, rock climbing and mountaineering. Skilled climbers will want to attempt the Pic du Midi d’Ossau, which has an elevation of nearly 9,500 feet.
Another option is hitting the slopes at Artouste, which offers terrain that range between 4,500 and 7,000 feet in altitude. Much of this resort area is reserved for snowboarders, as well.
For a taste of both France and Spain, visit Somport, a cross-border resort with nine cross-country tracks on 21 miles, including 15 miles in France and 6 miles in Spain. There is also a track for snowshoers.
For FoodiesWith its many quaint restaurants and markets, Pau is celebrated for its culinary scene. Travelers to the destination can experience a smattering of the offerings with Pass Gourmand.
This one- or two-day walking tour introduces clients to the local dishes of Pau, from sheep and cow cheeses to marinated salmon and the famous Bayonne ham. Visit local restaurants for a sampling of true Pau flavor. Passes start at about $14. Those with a sweet tooth should consider the Sweet Gourmet Pass, which is an hourlong tour of the best confections in the city.