The Best-Kept Secret Of French Country Life

“Imagine a corner of France so tucked away that even the French find it hard to place on the map,” writes France Correspondent Lucy Culpepper in her feature piece for this month’s issue of the Overseas Retirement Letter.

“From the Romans to the Renaissance and from the Belle Époque to Art Deco, there’s history to be enjoyed at every turn. Gorgeous scenery, rolling wooded countryside, friendly people, and delicious wines and food, too.

“More hints? This is the birthplace of a great French king, was the seasonal favorite of royalty of all nations, was once named as the ‘center of the sporting world,’ and is home to the first-ever Grand Prix as well as the Wright Brothers’ flying school.

“It’s where Napoleon founded the first national stud farm and the British designed beautiful gardens and parks. Rightly proud of its past, this area has also embraced the present with impressive 21st-century architecture, technology parks, sporting facilities, and a trail-blazing communications infrastructure. The majestic Pyrenees Mountains dominate the views and beautiful beaches are just a short drive away.

“I’m talking about the Béarn (pronounced ‘bay-arn’), a region of 350,000 located in the northwestern corner of the Pyrenees-Atlantic departement in the Aquitaine region of southwest France. The Pyrenees-Atlantiques departement is further divided into the Basque Coast (regional capital: Biarritz), Béarn (regional capital: Pau), the Basque Country (regional capital: St. Jean Pied de Port), and Béarn Pyrenees (regional capital: Oloron Ste. Marie).

“Bordered by the Landes, the Gers, the High-Pyrenees (Hautes-Pyrenées), the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and Spain to the south, the Béarn has been influenced by many cultures, yet strongly holds on to its own. There’s 3,000 meters between the highest point in the Pyrenees and the lowest on the Plein de Nay, but, despite all this variation in geography, the Béarn has a doux (or gentle) climate.

“The even precipitation combined with regular sunshine makes this a beautifully verdant region and is the main reason behind its success in agriculture (predominantly maize grown for seed) and wine-growing. There’s the added benefit of an amazingly wide variation of plant life. I still find it surprising to see palm trees swaying alongside pines, with the snow-capped Pyrenees rising up behind.

“The city of Pau (population 84,000 by its 2006 census), also known as the ‘Green City’ or ‘Garden City,’ has one of the highest ratios of greenery per square meter per person of any European city. And not only is there a wealth of greenery, but as well staggering variation. There are trees from Japan and the Caribbean and plants from Mexico, the Lebanon, the Mediterranean, Chile, and California. This huge variety is in part thanks to the English settlers who came here after the Napoleonic wars and brought their love of gardening with them.

“The geography of the Béarn is dominated by two rivers, the Gave d’Ossau and the Gave de Pau, running diagonally across the area and parallel to each other from northwest to southeast. The two gaves (gave is the local name for a river) feed from the High-Pyrenees and make for, in their lower reaches, some of Europe’s best salmon fishing.

“Between the two gaves, on the Nay Plain and the Pau Plain, are the main areas of population, agriculture (mainly maize and wine), light industry, and retail outlets. Yet, despite the higher level of human activity, the area is not over-populated or congested. It’s a landscape of beautiful, accessible woodlands, the steep slopes of Jurançon wine country, the history-packed Plaine de Nay and its main town of Nay, and the pretty rolling countryside and ancient towns of the Gaves de Béarn.

“The upturn in the French economy seems to be reflected in the everyday activities in the Béarn. New buildings are sprouting up around the countryside, construction of new roads continues, people are skiing in great numbers, and eating out continues apace. France never reached the depths of recession that other Eurozone countries have experienced or, as in the case of neighboring Spain, continue to experience. French people are more cautious, sticking typically to debit rather than credit cards.

“The Lourdes-Tarbes airport (25 minutes from Pau center, over in the next departement) has recently been taken over by a new company. Though not in the Béarn, the airport is important for tourism and business development in the area. In a community conference, the new company promised to open the airport to more low-cost airlines. Currently Ryanair flies in from Stansted (UK), Air France from Paris, and Jetair from Brussels.

“In addition, at a cost of 1.15 million euro, a new autoroute from Pau to Bordeaux is under construction. This new highway will reduce the drive time from two hours and 30 minutes (longer at peak times) to one hour and 30 minutes. This will open up the countryside between Aquitaine’s two principal towns, Bordeaux and Pau, and will certainly have an effect on new building plans in the area.”

Kathleen Peddicord

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