A GUIDE TO THE BEARN
Geographically the Béarn consists roughly of the Eastern half of the Pyrenees Atlantique – 64. It is an area rich in culture and diversity and offers a different and embracing experience.
First mentioned as a Viscounty in the 9th Century, it is thought that Béarn owes its origins to the Roman town of Beneharnum, a city destroyed by Vikings in 840. The name Béarn first appeared after the year 1000, and is thought to have Scandinavian origins, derived from Björn or Bjarni the Viking chief who conquered Gascony and was anxious to take control over the pyrenean passes.
Now Lescar just north of Pau sits on the site, and is a flourishing commercial estate which offers every conceivable brand opportunity for the household consumer. A more fitting legacy to the Roman occupancy is the impact that they had on the methods of farming across the Béarn, in particular the extensive cultivation of Vines which make an important contribution to the region today.
The Madiran, Pacherenc and Jurancon wines are very much part of the culture of the region with numerous independent vineyards such as Montus, Lafitte-Teston and Laplace enjoying an international reputation. Vineyards cover most of the south facing slopes across the region. Madiran has a growing reputation for its red wine strong in tannin from the "terroir". Throughout the summer these wines can be tasted at village fetes and the vineyards extend a warm welcome all year round. The sweet Pacherenc du Vic Bihl is the perfect accompaniment to fois gras and chocolate gateau.
With the decline of the Empire the marauding Visigoths ravaged the region after the departure of the Romans in the 5th and 6th which marked the beginning of a turbulent period marked by successive invasions. It was only in the 11the century that the Bearn began to take on its own identity and grow in importance. Gaston IV Centulle began to organise the pilgrim routs through the region marked by religious edifices. These routes are regaining popularity with pilgrims and hikers and have an important tourist impact on the region.
The Béarnaise lords were traditionally loyal to the English court, but in the mid 13th century the incumbent ruler, Gaston VII de Moncada was wary of the English intentions and was responsible for building numerous fortifications to protect the Bearn from invasion by the English. Many of the fine defences which typify the Bearnaise villages were built at this time, notably the fortified bridge at Orthez, and the Bastides of Bellocq and Sauveterre de Béarn His concerns proved to be well founded and after some patchy resistance the Bearn was annexed by the Henry III in 1276.
Gaston Fébus is one of the most celebrated characters in Béarnaise history, famed for his hunting exploits, military and writing skills. He reclaimed sovereignty of the Bearn from the English and French courts and built the impressive fortresses of Sauveterre, Morlanne, Orthez, Pau, Montaner, Mauvezin, Mazeres, Foix and Bellocq. The region flourished economically and Orthez was a cultural capital of Europe at the time.
Charles de Batz-Castelmore was the inspiration for the Alexandre Dumas character Artagnan, of Musketeer fame and his home was the Chateau D'Arricau Bordes, today in private ownership and attached to the Madiran vineyard of the same name. Portos and Athos were also of Béarnaise origin.
In 1909 Wilbur first flew their ‘Wright Flyer’ into Pau airport and established the world's first flight school in the town, closely followed by Bleriot. The first military flight school followed and then the world's first acrobatic flight school. The region is still a hub for the aeronautic industry with Daher-Socata, Dassault-Aviation, Messier-Dowty and Turbomeca all based in the region.
The British presence in Pau, which remains today, dates back to a large residue of Napoleonic soldiers settling there after the battles of 1814 and boasts the first golf course built in mainland Europe, and brand name shopping combined with charming architecture and cultural ambience. In 1906 it was reputed by the Herald Tribune to be the ‘hub of the sporting world’. The region continues to offer immense interest and activity with Pau hosting international 3 day eventing, vintage car street racing, and the Pelote Basque world championships in 2010.
The English left their stamp on Pau in this period building many fine homes in the suburbs in and around around Pau and the French still refer to Pau as "la ville Anglaise". There are many communities north of Pau one being Conchez-de-Bearn a delightful hilltop village in the environs of Lembeye which offers homes of typical Bearn architecture with the high pitched roofs covered with flat clay tiles or slates.
‘Béarnaise’ sauce was first created by the chef Collinet, and made in a restaurant named after King Henry IV, a gourmet himself, who was born in the Béarn and like Gaston Febus was a passionate hunter. One of his hunting lodges, Chateau Lou, was sold in recent years just near to Lembeye.
Perhaps it was made especially for eating with the meat of the Charelais and Blonde Acquitaine cows who still calmly chew the grass of Bearn today. Quality of life in the Bearn is good, calm and uncluttered with excellent food and wine and plenty of activities on hand. For those looking for the quiet life on the other hand, the clean air and peaceful countryside provide the perfect environment for contemplation and indulgence.
The terrain of the region, from the north to the coast and to the mountains consists of rolling hills and valleys. The area benefits from magnificent views from the hills of the surrounding countryside and of the Pyrenees Mountains, and of course, the closer you get to the mountains to the south, the foot-hills get higher and the valleys deeper - up to a point where spectacular gorges appear. This offers skiing in the winter months and walking throughout the summer with numerous thalassic spas scattered through the Pyrenees.
Throughout this rolling countryside homes with their high pitched roofs and chateaux of distinction together with the rural Maison de Maitre nestle in peaceful tranquility away from the bustle but near enough to join it at ones leisure - the Bearn is a gem.
Moving west towards the coast on the road to Biarritz and certainly of interest is Salies de Béarn, fascinating and known as the Venice of the Béarn because of the unusual architectural feature in the way the houses overhang the river on stilts.
The town has developed because of salt, - legend has it that this was discovered when an injured boar fell into a swamp and was discovered later covered in salt and perfectly preserved. - The salt is thought to be essential to the taste of renowned Bayonne hams originating nearby. Indeed salt was an important part of the economy of Salies during the Middle Ages, and is still celebrated by its annual Fête de Sel. The waters are ten times more salty than the sea.
All this combined makes for a most desirous region to spend time. The climate is temperate and affords many months of pleasant warmth and sunny skies. The Southern part of the Béarn has a moist climate influenced by the Pyrenees and the Atlantic, but as you move north the climate is noticeably dryer and free of the high prevailing winds that affect some parts of France. The motorway running between Orthez and Tarbes is a good indicator of the extent of the watershed from the Pyrenees.
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