Wednesday, September 18, 2013

On the Road to Pau

Back before the GPS, when those newfangled cars were just setting out from Paris on mostly-unpaved roads to explore the sights and restaurants of the countryside (i.e. anything not Paris), the Michelin brothers created their first automobile travel guides, listing places to stay, roadside bistros worth the journey, ways to fix your own flat tire, and names of mechanics who could help you if you got into worse trouble. According to the Michelin website, there were only 600 mechanics in France in 1900 - although since they also say there were only about 3,000 cars at the time, that's a pretty good ratio. In looking through some googled images of pages from that original guide, there don't seem to be many real directions given to get between towns - no dulcet tones coming from the small device clamped to your dashboard calmly stating that you need to turn right in 1.7 kilometres, or even more calmly recalculating and patiently getting you back on track. Although after some of our circuits and backtracks in May, I think even the GPS lady was getting a little short-tempered with me.

Instead, there were panneaux put up around the country starting in 1910 or so, at useful turnings leading into towns, or at crossroads in the country showing where and how far away those towns were. Since even a modern map of French roads looks as if it marks the trails of a million inebriated ants, any direction would have been helpful.

But back before les frères Michelin, way back as a matter of fact, it was carriages that carried people to the château in Pau to mark the birth of Henri III de Navarre, who became Henri IV, "Good King Henry" of the many mistresses and apocryphal originator of the "chicken in every pot" quote which, as with so many things the United States likes to proudly claim were born in its democratic cradle, actually come from the singes capitulards mangeurs de fromage over here. Though I have to admit that until I got here, I assumed from my general American education that it was an original phrase when used by the Republican Party and Herbert Hoover in 1928 (and oh, how far the Republican Party has fallen from its beneficent goals since that day!) instead of one that the agriculturally-minded Henri IV is credited with: "Si Dieu me donne encore de la vie je ferai qu’il n’y aura point de laboureur en mon Royaume qui n’ait moyen d’avoir une poule dans son pot." Another more verifiable story is that Henri's father rubbed the newborn's lips with a clove of garlic and some of the local Jurançon wine, and this explains in part his intense interest in getting France's farming communities back after 40-some years of religious wars that only ended when he converted to Catholicism just to get everyone to shut up and stop fighting.

Henri IV didn't end up spending much time in Pau between his birth in 1553 and his assassination in Paris, in 1610. He had married Marie de' Medici just ten years earlier, and she took over as regent for their son Louis XIII until Louis banished her in 1617; her marriage, reign, banishment, and later reconciliation were the basis for a series of immense paintings by Peter Paul Rubens that we admired at the Louvre earlier this year.

The château was actually built in the 11th century, and some of the furnishings date back to the early 1400s. I didn't go inside when I walked around that area of town a week or two ago, but I plan on going back, maybe after my next scheduled visit to the prefecture officials to plead for my new visa and shower them with paperwork. I did finally get the official "welcome to the program" letter on Monday, which (though the secretary had asked for, and I had provided, in August, my new address here) made the thousand-kilometre round trip through the postal system up from Montardon (the suburb of Pau where the school is) to Tours and then back again before traveling the 20 kilometres to this house. But never mind, it arrived, and in time for me to check the box that says yes YES I am still planning on enrolling, sheesh, how many times do I have to tell you, and to send it back, this afternoon, with another cover letter outlining the many reasons why I am a wonderful person and a hard worker who really needs and deserves the 600-euro monthly supplement (though I didn't state it that baldly) and look, French competency level C1! And I've already spent a day cutting the crunchy bits off of pig hearts!

Since it's September, there aren't as many tourists around; everyone has settled back to their routines after la rentrée, except for people like me whose school programs don't start until the end of the month, and all the other people who were enjoying a leisurely lunch in one of the cafés along the Place Royale, where the tables are set out under the trees on either side of the grassy promenade, and pigeons land on the wooden boards piled with baguettes waiting to be sliced to peck up the breadcrumbs, making me - just for a minute - glad that I don't eat gluten.

There are more places to walk below the château, which is built on a rather steep outcropping; the gardens are designed to be viewed from the balconies and terraces above, laid out in the Italian Renaissance style, with many plantings commemorating Marguerite d’Angoulème and Henri II de Navarre, Henri IV's grandparents.

Henri IV was not only King of Navarre, but also of Béarn, and these two regions along with Aragon and Bigorre straddled today's French-Spanish border to form their own royal realm. The traditional arms of the Béarn area have two cows on them, possibly due to the influence of the turn-of-the-millennium (the one separating BCE and CE, that is) Celtic peoples known as the Vaccaei who lived in Northern Spain, and who were linked to herding and wheat-farming, although one of the sites I'm googling through (you learn so many interesting [and potentially useless, but still interesting] things when blogging like this) claims that they were actually a set of warrior clans, and the name came from vacos, an old Celtic word for "killer." On the other hand there's a Béarnais authority that says the French word for cow, vache, traces its roots back to these tribes, so perhaps they were cow-herders as much as, or instead of, soldiers. Whatever the origin, the people in Béarn are proud of their cows, and you see them on many flags and banners.

Another thing the people around here are proud of is their vulture population, as I mentioned in my last post. There must have been a healthy bunch of the birds back at the end of the 19th century when Jean-Théodore Lanne, a local artist and sculptor, made this monument to grace a fountain at Place Saint-Louis de Gonzague in one of the older areas of downtown Pau. I must admit it's a refreshing change from the usual nobleman-on-horseback one generally sees (or the tipsy merbabies and busty women commonly decorating fountains in Paris), if a bit grim.

From the terrace off the Boulevard des Pyrénées, between the shaded lawn of the Place Royale and the white-stoned building where the royal baby was born, you can look out to the south where the vultures live, over the rock-solid but previously politically fluid border between two countries, populated by a people who still retain their local customs and language, the béarnais dialect of the ancient langue d'oc, or occitan, and their pride in their history.

"Je ne tiens mon pays de Béarn que de Dieu et de mon épée." - Gaston Fébus in 1347, defying both French and English kings

"Je donne la France au Béarn, et non le Béarn à la France." - Henri IV in 1589, uniting the realm with the rest of the country


  1. PAU! I had got "Gau" in my head, and was rahther surprised with how small it was. For some reason, I was looking at maps of Lourdes the other day -- not sure why -- and now I feel I was rude not to stop by.

  2. Indeed, I am quite miffed. You'll have to send your Avatar running by in recompense.

    And I was at Pont de Gau, but in May, with Mom and John:

    I'd like to go to Lourdes - it's not that far away and there's a train that runs there. I might go the weekend of November 17th to celebrate my saint's day.