Pau was probably built in the 10th or 12th century to control a ford of the stream that shepherds used while guiding their flocks between Ossau and the pastures on Pont-Long plain. A castle was built halfway from Lescar, seat of the bishops of Moralaâs and the viscounts of Béarn. Pau officially became Béarn’s capital in 1450. In 1592, it became the capital of the kings of Navarre. In 1527, Henri d’Albret of Navarre, lord of Béarn, married Margueritte of Angoulême, Francis I’s sister, who had the castle turned into a Renaissance château and splendid gardens laid out. In 1553, 400 years before Louison Bobet’s first consecration in the Tour, Jeanne d’Albret gave birth to Henry of Navarre while singing in Béarnais so that the little genius coming into the world would be “neither fearful nor anxious”. The future Henry IV was immediately baptised with Jurançon on his lips and garlic!
Between 1830 and 1914, Pau became a health and sports resort. In 1856, when the population was 28,908, it became home to continental Europe’s first golf course, which attracted the English, who also enjoyed fox hunting and horseracing at the Pont-Long racecourse.
A century later, in 1957, natural gas was discovered in Lacq, setting Pau on the path to prosperity. The petrochemical, chemical, food, mechanical engineering and aeronautical industries made Pau southwest France’s third-leading economic hub.
Henry IV’s hometown has grown so much he would barely recognise it today. Pau has a new technologies centre, an expanded airport with regular flights to Amsterdam and London, the TotalFina centre and the Turbomeca aircraft engine plant.
In the horseracing world, Pau is known as the birthplace of the Anglo-Arab breed. The Pau stud farm is in Gelos.
Pau-Orthez is to basketball what Coarraze-Nay is to rugby. The two towns are closely connected to the success of the club, one of the most important in France. Although the “Elan béarnaise” was founded in 1908, it did not create its basketball section until 1931. The club reached the first division, today Pro A, in 1973. Since then, Pau-Orthez has been champion of France nine times, with great players such as Mathieu Bissini, Alain Larrouquin, Fédéric Hufganel, Konrad mac Rae, Orlando Philipps, Didier Gadou, Gheorghe Muresan, etc.
Raymond Mastrotto, who was born in Auch (Gers) in 1934 and was killed riding his bicycle in Béarn in 1984, never left the Pau region, and more exactly the village of Nay where he lived. He was nicknamed the “Béarn bull” because of his strength and rugby player’s physique. In 1967 he won the Tour’s Luchon-Pau stage wearing the France B team’s jersey. As he was getting off his bicycle Mastrotto, who always had a colourful word for journalists, told them, “I was sweating so much that I oiled the chain!”
Béarn is also the native region of Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle, who was born in Lembeyre in 1954. A two-time winner of the Paris-Roubaix race, he was a model of longevity and an example of courage for his son Hervé, today racing professionally for Cofidis.
Morlàas, just outside Pau, is located right after the actual departure. It was the capital of Béarn from 1080 to 1260 and the fief of Guillaume Snacho, duke of Gascony, who defeated the Normans in 848. He is said to have ordered Loup Fort, one of his vassals, to make Viscount Centulle II listen to reason. Loup Fort went even further: he stabbed the viscount to death, shedding blood on the césarée, as the road that Caesar took, and that connected Lescar and Auch, was called. That bloody crime is what gave its name to Morlàas, which means “died there”.
Founded in 1151, Vic-en-Bigorre was a large town because it had 2,000 inhabitants around 1300, whereas Tarbes had just 1,500.
Rugby player Jean Dupuy was born in Vic-en-Bigorre in 1934. The former Stadoceste Tarbais member was an excellent international in the 1960s. With Michel Crauste, Jacky Bouquet, Michel Rancoule and Alfred Roques, he won the Five Nations Tournament four times and the South Africa Tournament in 1964, and played excellently in Australia and New Zealand. Rugby is not all Dupuy played: he was a decent clarinettist in the Vic municipal orchestra. He also used to sing during memorable half-times as the rugby ball was being pumped back up!
As the caravan cross this little town they’ll think of Yvette Horner, the Tour de France’s great accordionist in the days of Robic and Coppi. This village is where the accordion champion born in Tarbes in 1922 came to rest.
Gers has 172,335 inhabitants, making it one of France’s least-populated departments. It is located in the former province of Gascony. Surrounded by the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Hautes-Pyrénées, Tarn-et-Garonne and Lot-et-Garonne, it has three districts – Auch, the capital, Condom and Mirande – 31 cantons and 463 towns.
Gers is famous for its ducks and geese.
Mielan, which lies between Auch and Tarbes, boasts a 1284 bastide that the seneschal of King Eustache of Beaumarchés had built. Like many other towns with Gascon bastides, its name comes from Italian (Milan). The village was in ruins by the 18th century, but the royal Auch-Tarbes road gave it a new lease of life. Mielan is the birthplace of Jean-Paul David, who founded the anticommunist movement “Paix et Liberté” (“Peace and Freedom”) and served as secretary-general of the Rassemblement des Gauches Républicaines party before creating the European Liberal Party.
This charming village has a Gascon-style post office in a Henry IV building, a 19th-century town hall and a 14th-century covered market. It is so beautiful, they say, that “the sky is the same as in Tuscany.”
Roger Couderc, who was born in Souillac in 1918 and died in 1984, lies buried in the municipal cemetery. A sportscaster in French television’s early days, he popularised rugby in France with his unique, extraordinary broadcasts of the Five Nations Tournament and the first test matches.
He will always be known for saying “Go, little ones!” at the start of every sportscast.
After leaving French television with Robert Chapatte and others, Couderc covered rugby for Europe 1. One day he started a live broadcast with a sentence that has become famous: “The English are to the left of the transistor, the French to the right!”
Tarn-et-Garonne is in the Midi-Pyrénées region. Historians say that Napoleon drew up the department’s boundaries by laying his open hand on a map of France. Indeed, Tarn et Garonne does vaguely resemble a right hand with the index finger in the air!
Tarn-et-Garonne, which borders the Aveyron, Tarn, Lot, Lot-et-Garonne, Haute-Garonne and Gers departments, has 206,034 inhabitants in two districts – Montauban and Castelsarrasin – 30 cantons, 14 intermunicipalities and 195 towns.
It would be inconceivable not to mention Beaumont’s Borde–Vieille racecourse a few kilometres from Castelsarrasin.
The best thoroughbreds raised in the region train, run and win on this track.
Beaumont is also the birthplace of the mathematician Pierre de Fermat and produces excellent garlic.
Castelsarrasin was the theatre of many wars with the English until the late 12th century and of the Albigensian crusade during the first half of the 13th century.
At the end of the 18th century, the king sent Antoine Launet, also known as Lamothe Cadillac, who was born near here in Saint-Nicolas de la Gave, to America, where he founded Detroit. An energetic builder, he was not forgotten by the world’s car capital because the Cadillac was named after him. Every other year, a big Cadillac meeting takes place in Castelsarrasin in his honour.
Today Castelssarasin is the second-leading economic centre in the Tarn-et-Garonne.
Castelsarrasin has several beautiful religious buildings, including the brick Gothic Saint-Sauveur church on Place de la Raison, which has a two-story, eight-sided tower-oven and 17th-and 18th-century furniture that has been declared a historic monument.
Castelsarrasin is the birthplace of Pierre Perret, a singer-songwriter and excellent cook.
The town has 37 sports associations with 2,000 members. Cycling is very present with Didier Rous, Christophe Rinero, who has had a race named after him, and the many-times world women’s indoor track cycling champion Marion Clignet.
Castelsarrasin is the home town Gaston Benac, who was born there in 1881, the year of the very visible law of 29 July 1881 prohibiting the posting of bills on public buildings but that also enshrines freedom of the press in article 1, which states: “Bookshops and publishing are free”. For a future reporter, that was already a sign!
The young Benac studied law before joining the staff of a small local paper, La Petite Gironde Bordelaise, where he learned the ropes.
Then he moved to Paris and worked at L’Auto, the newspaper owned by Henri Desgrange, the Tour’s founder. He also wrote for L’Intransigeant and Paris Midi and became the sports editor at Paris Soir in the days when that paper was incredibly popular.
In 1930, he and Albert Baker d’Isy founded the Critérium National and the Grand Prix des Nations.