From humble beginnings as a crossing on the Gave de Pau (gave is “mountain river” in Gascon dialect), Pau became the capital of the ancient viscountcy of Béarn in 1464, and of the French part of the kingdom of Navarre in 1512. In 1567 its sovereign, Henri d’Albret, married the sister of French King François I, Marguerite d’Angoulême, who transformed the town into a centre of the arts and nonconformist thinking.
The least-expected thing about Pau is its English connection: seduced by its climate and persuaded (mistakenly) of its curative powers by Scottish doctor Alexander Taylor, the English flocked to Pau throughout the nineteenth century, bringing along their cultural idiosyncrasies – fox-hunting, horse racing, polo, croquet, cricket, golf (the first eighteen-hole course in continental Europe in 1860, and the first to admit women), tea salons and parks. When the railway arrived here in 1866, the French came, too: writers like Victor Hugo, Stendhal and Lamartine, as well as socialites. The first French rugby club opened here in 1902, after which the sport spread throughout the southwest.
Pau has few must-see sights or museums, so you can enjoy its relaxed elegance without any sense of guilt. The parts to wander in are the streets behind the boulevard des Pyrénées, especially the western end, which stretches along the escarpment above the Gave de Pau, from the castle to the Palais Beaumont, now a convention centre, in the English-style Parc Beaumont. On a clear day, the view from the boulevard encompasses a broad sweep of the highest Pyrenean peaks, with the distinctive Pic du Midi d’Ossau slap in front of you. In the narrow streets between the castle and ravine-bed chemin du Hédas are numerous cafés, restaurants, bars and boutiques, with the main Saturday market in the halles just northeast on place de la République.