We were expecting to take today’s trip two years ago and I was going to call the blog post “Walking to Spain”. We would have gotten off the train at the last station in France, Hendaye, walked across the La Bidassoa river bridge to take a photo of the Bienvenido a España sign and then returned to France to continue our journey. The arrival of Covid and all of its associated travel restrictions forced a postponement and a rearrangement of our schedule but it all worked out fine. We still took a southbound train from Bayonne but exited 2 stops before the border (featured photo above) to spend the afternoon where Louis XIV, the Sun King, married his Spanish bride and future Queen of France. The next morning it was time to discover where the Sun King’s grandfather had been born 100 km (62 miles) to the east in the city of Pau.
When a tourist brochure talks about the most significant event in a town’s 600-year history you definitely want to see where that took place. On an exterior wall of the church St. John the Baptist in St.-Jean-de-Luz a plaque commemorates the wedding there in 1660 of France’s King Louis XIV and mentions that the door through which the bride and groom exited the church was soon bricked over, perhaps leaving you to assume that no one could ever cross that threshold again. In reality, a much grander doorway was completed 3 years later so this smaller exit was no longer needed and therefore closed. It still makes for a charming legend.
Further down the same street as the church but still related to the marriage is a “sweeter” significant event in the history of St.-Jean-de-Luz at Maison Adam, a patisserie that sells macarons that the new Queen of France offered to her King. It has remained a family business over the centuries and they still follow the original recipe for these delicious treats.
The cliffs around St.-Jean-de-Luz form a natural harbor that has provided shelter for fishing boats for centuries and in the 17th century for pirates who pillaged Spanish and English ships sailing nearby. In reference to all of this stolen wealth, the phrase “hidden in plain sight” came to mind since many of the mansions we walked by were paid for from these pirate raids. Two of these opulent buildings that we especially wanted to see are connected to that “most significant event” mentioned above. The aptly named Maison Louis XIV was where the King lived for the month prior to his wedding while the bride, Maria Teresa of Spain, awaited the ceremony in the Maison de l’Enfante, built in 1640 inspired by palaces in Venice.
Since this latter mansion is at the port, this was the ideal time to walk along the water’s edge looking at more grand homes and wandering in the streets behind, such as rue de la République, in the more modest surroundings where fishing families lived. To finish out our day we left the relatively calm waters of the harbor for the choppy Atlantic Oceanfront to see the Grand Hôtel, a magnificent 5-star hotel built in Art Déco style in 1909.
When we were first trying to decide where in France to settle, the city of Pau was suggested because of its large community of international residents. That influx of people from outside the country got a boost in 1838 when Scottish doctor Alexander Taylor, attracted by the climate, opened his practice here and began treating wealthy British patients. The racecourse, golf club, and elegant mansions from that age that are still in use today are an indication of how successful his recruitment efforts were. On our visit, however, we were in search of evidence of an event 300 years earlier: the birth of King Henri IV in 1553.
Built no later than during the 10th century, the Château de Pau is both a national monument and a museum. During the required guided tour (1 hour, 7 €) we went through numerous bedrooms, reception areas, family rooms, and hallways, most enhanced with gold fillets, coffered ceilings and tapestries from the Gobelins factory in Paris that started supplying French royal households in 1662. Works of art line the walls and in the dining room the table can seat 100 guests. In Henri IV’s bedroom there is an ornate turtle shell said to have cradled him as a baby and was then later saved from destruction during the Revolution. After getting just a glimpse at the Panorama des Collections—paintings, sculptures, graphic arts, rare books, manuscripts, medallions, furniture, and tapestries—we fully understood how this castle had transformed into a museum.
Leaving the château put us on Boulevard des Pyrénées a wide avenue that reminded me of a miniature La Promenade des Anglais in Nice where 19th century ladies and gentlemen in their finest attire could stroll along the sea. In Pau, the Mediterranean has been replaced by an unobstructed view of the mountains but even here there are palm trees to help with the illusion. Conveniently from there a funicular runs 103 meters (338 feet) down the side of the cliff depositing you across the street from the train station.
If you go: The guided tour of the Château was well worth the time and cost. It’s only offered in French but we had familiarized ourselves with the building’s history by reading their website (link below) and we had the bonus of being the only two people on their first tour of the day, a benefit of a wintertime visit.
Château de Pau: https://chateau-pau.fr/