Clarified butter, egg yolk, tarragon vinegar and shallots, and voilà — you have the golden Béarnaise sauce, which goes down neatly with a juicy steak and a full-bodied Jurançon wine. It sounds simple enough, but as any exacting chef will tell you (and one did), you cannot be complacent about it. “It takes years of practice for the result to be perfect.”
This is telling, for the region of Béarn in the southwest of France ought to knock complacence out of the most blasé tourist. The attractions of this hitherto neglected destination in much-visited France are many. To the uninitiated, it unfurls like a closely guarded secret. As it well may have been. The British — clever at seeking clement climes for rest and recuperation — discovered the joys of Béarn and settled there in droves on the heels of a military encampment in the early 1800s. This colonisation has left its mark on the architectural façade of the city of Pau, with its tea and dancing halls in the Beaumont Palace and the 18-hole golf course. This last is the oldest in the continent and the French themselves were allowed entry several decades after it was established. I don’t know if dogs were allowed.
It was also a land dear to kings and emperors. The good king Henri IV was born in the Château of Pau, and is said to have bade it very a reluctant farewell when he left to wear his crown. Napoleon and Marie-Antoinette too spent their summer getaways in Henri IV’s castle.
Tempted as I was, I couldn’t dwell on Pau alone. I was on a whirlwind week-long tour, where there was way too much to be seen and sampled. I’ll give you my circuit here, but I suggest you don’t follow this pace. Linger on a couple of destinations, if you only have a week.
Our itinerary was arranged like this: days 1 and 2, arrival and stay in Pau; day 3, Bétharram, St Savin, Lourdes; day 4, Gèdre and the Cirques of Troumouze and Gavarnie, night at Oloron Sainte-Marie; day 5, Oloron-Sainte-Marie, Salies de Béarn; day 6, Biarritz, St Jean de Luz; day 7, vineyards of Château Jolys, Arnos racing circuit, back to Pau. Yes, we packed in a lot.
Up high The Pyrénées dominate every place as an imposing backdrop, if you aren’t right in the midst of them. Some of us mistook the visit to the ‘cirques’ as an event that would involve top-hatted ringmasters and creatures jumping through hoops. The impression was swiftly corrected, though spectators we were, with ringside seats for a marvel in the mountains. These World Natural Heritage Sites reminded me more than anything else of giant Wonderland teacups. The Cirque de Gavarnie, for instance, is 800m wide at its deepest point and about 3,000m wide at the rim. Toss in a slow sunset on an autumnal evening, when the striations dip from blue-and-white to deep greens and flames of russet-and-ash, and you’d be mesmerised into inaction. At a remove, you have the Cirque of Troumouze, a stark, dark, craggy bowl, rimmed by white swathes of snow.
The Gavarnie is the originating source for the water that feeds the various ‘Gave’ rivers that run through most of the towns we visit, a fairly silent but strong player in its histories. To supplement your education or open your eyes to what you may have missed is the museum at Gèdre, a showcase to the heritage of the mountains it nestles in.
And low Bétharram has the dubious distinction of being linked to a threat used on reprobate kids: ‘if you don’t behave, off with you to the Bétharram boarding school’. But we skipped this stern institution in favour of the Bétharram caves.
Many years ago, an intrepid explorer bought a mountain on a shrewd assumption. As he expected, within the mountain was an incredible labyrinth of stalactites and stalagmites that had been forming for centuries—and continues to form—slowly shaped by the steady drip of a perennial stream. In line with the stream’s own path, walkways were hewn through the five-floor caves and Bétharram was then opened to the public. We walked through narrow accesses and large halls suffused with gentle lighting that drew attention to the gothic promise of the smooth, cold, damp walls. When you have completed a good part of the easy tour on foot, you cross a stream on a pulley barge to a little train that chugs you up a steep incline and back overground.
Miracles of the spirit The region of Béarn is considered miraculous in more ways than one, with several important pilgrimage centres. The town Oloron-Sainte-Marie has the oldest Romanesque church in the region, the Église Sainte-Croix, as well as the Cathedral of Sainte-Marie, a large gothic world heritage structure. It is also on one of the ancient routes of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, which culminates in Spain at (they say) St James’s remains. But the most famous and favoured of holy sites in the region is undoubtedly Lourdes, where Virgin Mary apparently appeared to young Bernadette and set her a series of tasks that included tapping holy, healing water in a cave. At first encounter, Lourdes has all the messy bustle that you would associate with a pilgrimage town anywhere in the world—loud busloads, rows and rows of shops selling trinkets, talismans and over-priced tacky plastic bottles for holy water, salvation for sale and so on. But within the Sanctuary, despite the sheer number of people, there is an awe and worshipful hush in the many churches built around the miracle sites. At the end of the pilgrimage season (March to October), there is a candlelight procession, where songs are delivered in a multitude of languages by Catholic priests from varying congregations and far-flung places. Here too, there is an order and softness that belies the numbers.
And of the flesh While gluttony might be a sin, surely gastronomy is a good reason to commit it? There is, you see, a great deal more to Béarn than Béarnaise sauce. We are there at an auspicious time for truffles: the tender and rare fungi that foragers hunt down like gold-diggers. We are also in the country of the fatted goose liver and, with many abject apologies to that beleaguered creature, I must admit there’s no such thing as too much foie gras. While the vegetarians were well provided with crisp, tasty salads and cheeses, the non-vegetarians also had a mind-boggling variety of exquisitely prepared meats, fish and shellfish to choose from. Naturally, there were also delectable desserts to round off every meal. Speaking of desserts, a taste of Pyrénéens chocolates, which originated in Oloron, is absolutely essential. Or you could make greedy purchases at the Lindt factory. Even better, wait for a warm summer night when the air itself is perfumed with that chocolate.
The overly generous portions of food we consumed washed down well with glasses of red Madiron and the sweet and dry Jurançon whites of the region. We also demurely went through the paces at not just one but two wine-tasting sessions: at the Château Jolys vineyard and at our farewell dinner hosted at the charming English manor house of Villa Navarre in Pau. While every meal—whether at a bistro, inn, café, hotel or restaurant—had much to recommend it, the famed Le Viscos in St Savins was well worth the detour as a destination by itself. It wouldn’t surprise me to know that it was Paulo Coelho’s reason for choosing to set up residence in this sleepy, charming hamlet next to a fountain where an Alchemist dreamt.
Salt of the earth If your gastronomical adventures are weighing heavy on you, Béarn is just the place for a cure. Thermal spas abound. But in the dainty little town of Salies-de-Béarn, natural salt springs add a new level of piquancy to your wellness treatments. A dip in the warm gush of the salt pool could quite restore your faith in a benign world. The spa in Salies-de-Béarn was initially conceived as a centre for female infertility and rumour has it that the treatment was so effective that even the prolonged absence of a spouse did not deter its success rate! Don’t forget to carry away more than a pinch of the local salt—it honourably earns its reputation as being one of the finest. And you thought salt was just salty?
And of the sea We have an Indian Summer in France. In an unexpected burst of abandon, the sun is out and warm at the end of October. So is the entire population of the area and everyone within hailing distance. Or so it seems on the packed and happy Biarritz beach—a sandy jewel, where the hordes are getting warm tans, cold beers and some surf. Tourism also thrives in the adjoining quaint coastal town of St Jean de Luz, which was once a busy shipping and fishing port. It was then a prime zone of conflict between France and neighbouring Spain, but lapsed into sleepy charm after the wedding of king Louis XIV with Marie Thérèse of Spain in 1660. The decline of their sea-faring business could only have helped the calm.
Of horses The Béarn coat of arms sports two cows, but we had little enough to do with the bovine, except when we were eating. But the equine is another matter altogether. We arrived on the penultimate day of the concluding annual Étoiles de Pau equestrian event. I saw the horses being elegantly put through their paces and applauded them all enthusiastically, wondering just how the judges awarded their exacting points. The final day was a cross-country competition, which even a grossly ignorant soul like me could understand and cheer, as dashing jockeys rode their elegant steeds over dangerous hurdles.
We were also given a teaser demonstration later that week of a fox hunt. Before the animal lovers get upset, let me say that no fox perishes in these hunts (though undoubtedly they did when the British first set up the club). Now, while the riders practise their riding and do their run and chase at full tilt in ‘season’, the baying hounds would probably not know a fox if they ran into one, unless it was smeared with the pine resin scent that serves as a false trail.
And horsepower: We did not go skiing, cycling, river rafting, canoeing, trekking, surfing or sailing in the region. Our sporting activities were restricted to the strictly sedentary spectatorship. But at one remove of participation, we visited the Arnos racing circuit, 25km from Pau. To watch the Formula 3 and Legend cars zip around its sharp curves is exciting enough, but to be actually strapped into one of them (obviously, with a capable speed maniac at the wheel) and careening around the edges at 100 miles an hour is an unimaginable high. You can even take a spin yourself, with minimal training, on Formula 3, Legends or Supercars—Ferrari, Lamborghini, et al—at the GTRO Circuit de Pau Arnos.