May 22, Pau

Another Day in Pau. What a way to spend a vacation.

Breakfast: see above. Really, this doesn’t change much, but they have an interesting espresso machine. You feed a little plastic packet into a slot, push a button, and a trickle of espresso comes out into your cup. Top it off with hot milk, and, as Andy in Bayonne would say, “Bob’s your uncle.” As the French say, “Il marche.” It works.

We had some time before the lecture, with a strong recommendation to visit the farmers’ market in the Les Halles area early. (Les Halles was the name for the centuries-long Market area of  Paris, and has become a more generic term indicating a market place, methinks.) So we went down there. I really couldn’t think of anything to buy, but loved looking at things. Many strawberries, though I heard reports they looked better than they tasted. Lots of fresh cherries—I wonder how they can get so many fruits to early in the year. But I found I spent the most time watching the French being French—carrying their cloth sacs, baguettes protruding, doing some of their most important work—absorbed and unselfconscious, choosing what to eat for the next few days. It was delightful.

Then I slithered off a little before ten and headed to the Bernadotte museum. Gabrielle told us about the famous Bearn umbrellas that the shepherds use—all wood, no metal parts, huge, indestructible in all weather conditions, and expensive. I found myself at the shop the sold the umbrellas, and peered in the window, too shy to go inside and ask questions, while NOT buying an umbrella. Certainly an impressive artifact.

I waited around at the museum, and at 10:05, with no signs of life from inside, rang the bell. A very agreeable young woman with no English at all came to greet me, and I had the place to myself the entire time. All I know about Bernadotte is from the novel Desirée, which all the women I had dinner with last night knew about as well, so I enjoyed getting a rounder view of the situation. He was a very handsome man, with lots of curly hair. His nickname was something like “beaujambs” because he had wonderful legs, though it seems a little strange today. His nose was truly impressive, and seems not to have been handed down in the family. He was a soldier in the French army, but couldn’t become an officer because he was of lowly birth. That all changed in the Revolution, and he became a top general, a marshal, under Napoleon. And, during that time, he married Desirée, the Marseille silk merchant’s daughter who had been Napoleon’s erstwhile fiancée until he met the sexy widow Josephine. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, as a political move to appease Napoleon, was appointed/elected the crown prince of Sweden, and became king a few years later, when he changed his name to Carl Johan. This refocused his attentions, and he declined the invitation to join Napoleon when he invaded Russia in 1812, definitely a good idea. Desirée, alas, never took to Sweden, and stayed there while her son was young, and returned for his wedding, but chose to live in France. I can see her point. Had a nice gossip about the current Swedish royal family with the docent, including see a photo of the Crown Princess (crown goes to oldest child, regardless of gender) who will be married next month.

Then back to the hotel for a lecture on the history of Pau, and many exclamations of the marvelousness of King Henri IV. Well, I’m a fan of Henri, too, but I think things were a little overboard. Very interesting to hear about the rich Americans and Brits who came for the “season” in Pau for many years in the 19th Century. They had foxhunting, horseracing, a casino, built huge mansions, and even the Wright Brothers made their first European flight in Pau. All that faded away when Biarritz supplanted Pau as the In Spot, and vanished entirely at the beginning of World War I.

Then a refreshing lunch at the hotel—a delicious quiche starter—quiches sure taste different if not made with Velveeta, a couple delicious slices of pork roasted with a raisin sauce and potatoes, and a (thankfully!) simple bowl of fresh fruit for dessert.

Then we’re off to visit Henri IV’s palace. We’d had quite a bit of information about this from Gabrielle’s fan-girl lecture, but the fabulous tapestries, rounded up from elsewhere for the museum, and other pieces of period furniture were just fascinating. There were only three artifacts connected directly with Henri in the museum, a jewel box, backgammon or other board game box, and the huge turtle shell that was his cradle. The last is suspect, as an admirer of Henri stole the shell at the beginning of the Revolution to keep it safe, and returned it afterwards, so its provenance isn’t proven.

Then we had the treat of seeing a special exhibition about Henri, from the Medici side of the family (his second wife’s family.) There was some wonderful artwork. My favorite were a series of huge studies, perhaps for paintings?—all in shades of gray. They were illustrations of scenes from Henry’s life—before an important battle, accepting (yet again) Catholicism as his religion, greeting his new wife. Because the canvases were so large, they could be filled—people, horses, events—each was a fascinating story. My very favorite piece of the exhibit, which wouldn’t fit into my backpack, was a life-sized statue of a prisoner, naked, with just a drape, one foot on his helmet, the other in front of the type of gloves that knights wore, his hands chained behind his back, his face twisted away in misery. Alas, I can’t remember the title or the artist, or I’d look for a view of it for you.

After being museumed-up, three of us wandered away looking for something cool to drink. This is where—ta-da!—I finally had a bottle of cidre, the delicious mildly-alcoholic Breton cider, and it certainly hit the spot. Yum.

After collapsing a bit in the hotel, we climbed into another bus, and drove through the French gloaming to a winery, Bellegarde, for wine tasting and dinner. The entire estate was just beautiful, gorgeously landscaped, with just enough fuss with the flowers to look absolutely perfect. We were struck dumb, an amazing development among such an articulate bunch, though that might have been the white wines we were tasting–apparently, red wine grapes do not grow in the Jurancon.

And we were fed, a delicious simple vegetable soup, cured ham slices with a marvelous tomato side dish, would have been wonderful on couscous, and a slice of excellent cheese to finish things off. They provided a very nice red from another winery for the meal, as I presume they deemed a red rather than a white was needed. When asked about the current market, including the economic downturn as well as the decreased wine consumption in France, they said they were weathering it okay, as it meant that the cheaper wines were being consumed less, but if someone was going to drink just a little wine, then he would choose a better wine, not the cheap stuff. The vintner showed us a room of special bottles, for high-end restaurants and special orders, not just to stock shelves in the store. That one room alone must have held thousands of dollars worth of wine. And I looked at the huge steel vats, which must cost thousands of dollars each. I’ve become a bit of a fan of  the oak barrels. Here they hold wine in a barrel for about four years, then sell it, rather than reuse it. Figure the costs there. wow.

The driver joined us for the dinner, once the rugby game he was listening to was over. He drankonly water, but was a perfect host, serving all of us at his table. He didn’t speak English, but I think he understood quite a bit. He was a very charming person, and I was glad we had him the next day to drive us to Toulouse.

It wasn’t completely dark when we left to come home, and the French countryside was perhaps even more beautiful as evening approached.  It’s amazing to think of the thousands of years that France has been occupied by humans, and how wonderfully it’s been cherished all that time.

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