May 21, Pau

Breakfast: see above. Actually, I’m trying to write this the next day, Saturday, with many fine meals and interesting encounters and enchanting sights between me and my memory of yesterday, so things might be considerably abbreviated. Except lunch. Lunch on Friday deserves the most assiduous of attentions. But I’ve also found some Breton cidre, and drank an excellent small bottle of it, while sitting in the sunshine with some tour members, and cidre, I’ve found, is not an aid to memory.

So we left Bayonne on a bus considerably bigger than the Sardine Box we had yesterday. I snagged a good seat, another tour member joined me, and we realized later we indeed did have the “cheap seats.” They were the only ones that didn’t have the little fresh air knobs above them, so in the stillness and warmth, we dozed.

It was interesting to watch the landscape gradually change from Bayonne, from close to the beach, into more mountainous and very rural countryside. I gave up counting flocks of sheep, or exclaiming over the placid cattle, or admiring the soaring birds. We headed inland, the day got longer, I dozed, and we emerged in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, a little town just 20 miles north of the border with Spain. Our first cultural enrichment activity was figuring out how to work the high tech public toilets. Then we met with our guide, Gabrielle, and the definitely low-tech but very beautiful Saint Marie Cathedral in the town. Gabrielle told the story that the organ in the cathedral had just been renovated before the French Revolution. The townsfolks, terrified to think of the destruction of the organ, carefully cut it into 100 pieces (perhaps the pipes? A little lost in translation here?) and gave one piece to each of 100 families in the town. After things quieted down a bit, the pieces were all returned, and the organ reassembled. I’d been discussing with Teddy the beautiful depictions in France of Joseph and Jesus, just as loving father and adorable son, with no Diety involved. She found a particularly lovely statue, so we both had to take photos of it.  The cathedral was perhaps more interesting on the outside than the inside, though I admit to having become a little bit jaded with anything newer than the 14th century. They did have some really interesting old sarcophagi, dating back to the 4th Century, and Gabrille provided appalling but valuable stories about the Cagots.

Then back into the bus for the Piece de Resistance of the day–lunch at the posh modern hotel, Hotel Alysson, perhaps my best meal on the trip so far. holy moses. We started with the best gazpacho in the world, bowls of pure rich red smooth tomatoes, slick with olive oil, with a short spear of baby tomatoes and little mozzarella-type cheeses suspended across the top, and a tiny bit of cracker with a smear of tapenade on it. OMG. Then, on to the main dish, a delicious roll of chicken breast, with some beautiful pasta and perfectly cooked assorted bits of veggie, sauced with a creamy mushroom sauce that Campbells could never dream of.

Then followed the “enrichment activity” promised in the flyer. It was indeed very rich, and though plural cheeses were mentioned, the one offered was more than enough. We each received a cold, sharp slab of slate, and on it was a slice of perfect ewe cheese and a tiny bowl of dark jam. There was bread to be had, and combining the bread, the tangy, salty cheese with the sweet jam, washed down with a swallow of wine, was absolutely perfect. Really. We were all blown away. We begged to meet the chef, several times, so we could drool our appreciation and tug our forelocks in respect. There were reports he would show up, but, alas, we never did get to meet him.

We then staggered out to sit in the shade and watch the swimming pool, and were given our five part dessert of caramel lines, lacy cookie, bit of ice cream, dollop of sweet whipped cream, and a sandwich cookie, for whom the adjective “delicious” pales ineffectually. wow. I skipped coffee, and had some tea, rather than introduce another strong taste. So we watched the pool some more, then were prodded into a dark, warm room to listen to Gabrielle’s lecture about the history of the Bearn area, and all promptly fell asleep. When awakened, we protested loudly that we wanted to stay at this hotel, not in Pau, but were loaded back on the bus, and fell asleep again.

Finally made it to Pau, a lovely old city, not as quaintly old as Bayonne or Chartres, but in the middle of a very lively, busy Friday afternoon. Our hotel is in the middle of things. Some of the travelers disliked the distinct funk factor, but I liked it. I have double doors to both my closet and the bathroom, and frequently miss the little door that leads to the hallway. The bathroom boasts a wonderfully long bathtub, double sinks, and a bidet somehow plumbed to the tub, I’m on the third floor, with a little balcony and iron grillwork.  All of which was the perfect for a large amount of hand laundry, and having it actually dry quickly. I now have enough clean-enough clothing to get through the rest of my vacation.

After wrestling with the wi-fi, I forced myself out to look around. I found two churches. One was St. Martin’s, old and dark and somber and beautiful, and the other was St. Jacques, very 19th Century Neo-Gothic, without the beautiful textures of the old churches, and too many sentimental statues and windows. I had a quick visit with a sweet kitty in between churches, who pointed out the best places she wanted scratched. On the way back to the hotel, I passed an old house with a plaque proclaiming it as the birthplace of Jean-Baptist Bernadotte, a local boy from a poor family, who had a very successful career in Napoleon’s army, and then ended up, of all things, as King of Sweden. More about him, later.

Dinner was at the hotel, a valiant attempt after our stupendous lunch. We clubbed together for a bottle of wine, and had a veggie starter, salmon with rice pilaf, grilled tomato, and a caramel ice-cream thing for dessert. After dinner, Tom and Teddy and I wandered around the deserted, darkening town some more, and ended up on a walkway near a cliff, with a wonderful view of the snow-clad Pyrenees in the distance.  A lovely way to make the acquaintance of a new place.

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