The building traffic noise in awakening Pamolona arrived swiftly, shaking us early from our slumber. The rain had died down to a soft drizzle and a murky grey smudge of sky filled our view. We serviced quickly and, after a brief hiccup attempting to exit the aire, we became just another slowly rolling box in the wet morning rush through the city.
It didn’t take long to escape and reach roads of quiet isolation, rising higher into the mountains. Suddenly we were in an area of deep forest on high hills, exposed rock faces set in an otherwise carpet of green, looking like the Lost World. We were the only vehicle for miles on an empty sliver of grey twisting itself upwards through the rocky autumnal landscape. Rich explosions of yellow, like fireworks, created a fleeting, speckled beauty as we drove past. It was a sublime drive. We had chosen to follow the shortest route back into France, first east from Pamplona then north east via the Puerto de Larrau pass, dropping directly into France and on to Pau. Or so we thought, at least.
Patches of snow between the trees and ferns became more numerous as we rose higher. Later, light snow, almost horizontal in the wind, fell across our path as we cautiously approached the col. Right at the top, the country border, we discovered that the French had not cleared their side and that thick drifts had already obscured the road ahead. The steep drop-off sides of the narrow road were indistinguishable from the surface, the layer of snow uniforming everything. No way we were chancing driving down that, even if only for a few kilometres, so we had to delicately turn and retrace our way back down the Spanish side and follow a lower road east, to Isaba. This was the crossroads point for another mountain col we could attempt, so we stopped for lunch to consider our options.
Rather than return over the mountain on another narrow pass that may also be shut or uncleared, we decided to turn south, deeper into Spain. We tracked back to the main road, a trip a few hours longer but much easier and safer driving. As a reward for our prudence, the road back was lined with even more impressive, colourful trees, a glimmering fire-burst of yellows, reds and oranges. Over four hours after leaving Pamplona we rejoined the main road only 40km east of the city, a lengthy but beautiful detour behind us. From here it was all decent motorway back up into the mountains, through a long tunnel rather than a col into France, then a drop down to the city of Pau.
We headed first to a large car-park with free parking for up to seven days. From here we crossed to a leafy park, heading for a signed funicular to carry us to the raised city streets, but found it closed. On the way we discovered a bright Tour de France spiral installation, with illuminated information tableaux celebrating each year’s winner. We learned that Pau has hosted the Tour seventy times in the last eighty-one editions of the race – acting as a key entry point to the challenging Pyrénees stages. We stood in the rain and read a few select years, noting the black tableaux for uncontested (war) years and that all of Lance Armstrong ‘wins’ were still included in the display; all very interesting.
We climbed up the hill to reach a paved boulevard that looked more like an elegant sea-front. It offered incredible views out to the valley below and the mountains behind. We wandered to the Place Royale, with its avenue of squared trees, that led to the Hôtel de Ville. The town was quiet, everything closed, and it was only now that we remembered it was a bank holiday. The quiet emptiness added a grandeur as the architecture of the buildings, rather than the commerce they normally housed, became our main focus. Pau had grand Parisian-like streets, wide and elegant, with lively touches of Art Deco curves.
We walked through and around the Castle gardens, taking in the view over the western portion of the city. There were very few other visitors braving the rain and we enjoyed the calming peace of our directionless stroll. We doubled back through more grand streets to see the tall spires of Relais Saint Jacques and the adjacent courthouse set in a large square hosting several statues. From here we reached a large shopping plaza, glitzy and new, contrasting with the surrounding architecture, but definitely working as a modern public meeting space. Even in the dull rains Pau continued to impress us.
We returned to the raised boulevard walkway that spanned the length of the centre and again took in the wonderful views south, then we walked east to the far edge of the centre. A welcome blue sky made a brief appearance as we approached the Palais Beaumont, before the familiar grey descended once more. We walked around Parc Beaumont, passing empty play areas and lakes, before the returning rain decided for us that our walking tour should come to an end. We carefully headed down several flights of steep, slippy, leaf-strewn steps to return to Benny for our last miles north.