Once the medieval capital of ancient Bearn province, Pau grew from a simple crossing point on the mountain river Gave de Pau, used by shepherds and their flocks.
The town has surprising links with England from the early nineteenth century when Wellington’s troops, garrisoned here during the Peninsular Wars with Napoleon, took home news of its beautiful surroundings and mild climate.
English tourists began arriving in the 1800s and were responsible for the development of Pau’s hotels, parks and gardens, including the Boulevard des Pyrenees with its stunning views of the Pyrenees high peaks.
Early tourists also brought their culture, including the very English sports of horse-racing, cricket - even fox hunting. France’s first golf course was established here in 1856 and the first French Rugby club in 1902.
Today, Pau is an important location on the Tour de France and Formula 3 racing takes place on 13 - 15 May 2011. The magnificent castle, Chateau de Pau, in the centre of town was the birthplace of Henry IV of France in 1553 and has a wonderful display of Flanders and Goblin tapestries.
A fishing village made fashionable by Napoleon III, Queen Victoria and other European royalty in the nineteenth century, Biarritz is now a trendsetting spot for young and stylish surfers, about half an hour from the Spanish border.
Enjoy great beaches - fashionable sunbathing on the Grande Plage and pounding Atlantic breakers on Plage de la Cote des Basques. Visit designer shops, fine restaurants and lively cafes. Take a cliff top promenade. Admire the art deco Casino and Museum of Chocolate. Find relaxing thalassotherapy at Les Thermes Marins.
Situated 5km from the coast, where the Rivers Adour and Nive converge, Bayonne is the capital of France’s Basque country. Despite 300 years of English rule from 1150 – 1452, Bayonne’s heritage is evident everywhere from the brightly painted red and green half-timbered houses to the Musee Basque in Petit Bayonne.
The town, which built its prosperity on shipbuilding and arms manufacture (Bayonne gave its name to the Bayonet) during various wars and struggles up to the nineteenth century, is now the favourite place for tourists to buy espadrilles, the famous Basque berets, and Bayonne chocolate from the rue Pont-Neuf.
Visit the Gothic Cathedrale Sainte-Marie and excellent Bonnat Museum full of wonderful paintings by Goya, El Greco and Ingres and a whole gallery of work by artist Leon Bonnat (born in Bayonne in 1833) whose private collection began the museum.
Vauban’s seventeenth century town ramparts form part of Bayonne’s Botanical Gardens and at one point the plants seem to float above the town. Flowers are grouped by colour and perfume rather than family.
Open mid-April - mid Oct, including weekends. Entrance free. An Easter fair, celebrating the winner of best Bayonne Ham, has been held in the market place since 1462 and the whole town erupts again for 5 days at the beginning of August, for Bayonne’s Fetes de Bayonne which includes parades, dance, fireworks and bullfights.
Developed in the nineteenth century as a spa town for those suffering from tuberculosis, Cambo-les-Bains, in the Nive Valley, has a gentle micro climate making the treatment centres high above the river still popular today. The old town, close to the river, displays typical Basque whitewashed houses. Look for the outlandishly decorated Villa Arnaga, one-time home of Edmond Rostand - author of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’.
Largely known for its fine collection of furniture, artworks - incuding Aubusson tapestries and paintings by Breugel, Rubens and Fragonard - and musical events, Chateau de Laas is situated in 12 hectares of park with distant views of the Pyrenees and includes both formal and rose gardens. Botanical visits each Wed (must pre-book), plus the Musee du Mais, a museum devoted to maize-growing which was established in the Basque country in the seventeenth century. Open July - Aug. Tues 1000 - 1200 and 1400 - 1900.
This little village south of Cambo-les-Bains set amongst wooded hills is where legend has it, Charlemagne’s nephew Roland cut a passage through the rocks with his magical sword ‘Durandel’ during wars against the Basques in the eighth century.
A great starting point for walking in the Basque countryside towards the Mondarrain and col des Veaux. Enjoy hundreds of cherry trees in blossom in late March or time your visit to include la Fete des Cerises (cherries) during the first weekend in June.
The famous cerises d’Itxassou are made into jam traditionally eaten with local blue Brebis cheese. The seventeenth century church of St-Fructueux, 1km from the village, has tiered wooden galleries and a huge cemetery displaying many unusual keyhole-shaped gravestones.