Pau is a simple town with a simple name. Pronounced "po" this Pyrenean mountain-fringed town was the birthplace of France's king Henry the 4th which, along with being a stop on the Tour de France, is its claim to fame. A quick glance at Pau reveals nothing to tantalize the senses or send anyone home shrieking praise or pooh-pooing. It is not full of high class bars or cultural centers, the museums are lackluster, the old town is too small to be awe-inspiring, and much of the architecture recalls the 1960's and 70's – some of which is in disrepair. For those tourists out there looking for the ideal stop on their jaunt across France, it will be as easy to pass up as the small name is to miss on the map. But there's something about this place – a certain comfort found in its young population – a small friendly city with surprises up its sleeve.
Though it may not be a hot spot on many travelers' agendas, Pau is one of the best places to stay as a young foreign student or language teacher in France. It's the kind of town that's livable in size and has enough character to beckon a stay of a year or more. Its "Boulevard des Pyrenees" mountain tops peek up on a long, zig-zagging horizon, white in the winter with fresh snow. On sunny days the cafes along the Boulevard set their chairs out to face the mountains where young twenty somethings in sunglasses sip tiny coffees and smoke cigarettes all afternoon.
The city's pulse is largely dictated by its college population, with a significant university sprawling on its outskirts. Bars and nightclubs are regularly filled to the brim with shining, smiling, easygoing students who are accustomed to foreign exchanges, looking forward to mingling with Asians, Americans or other Europeans of the opposite (or same) sex. But nightlife is easy to come across in most towns, especially those housing a large university. A nightclub is a nightclub, whether in Paris, Nice or Toulouse, but Pau offers something more to anyone who likes to go outside and breathe in a little fresh air from time to time.
Perched on a hill facing the Atlantic Pyrenees, Pau is about an hour's car ride from six or so modern and varied ski resorts that will please any level skier for about a quarter the cost of the Alps. With high quality snow, challenging terrain, modern lifts and gondolas, and great deals for students, the Pyrenees put skiing at home to shame. It's so affordable. A student can ski all day for 15 euros at Luz Ardiden, one of the closer resorts to town. Also, for 15 euros, the "carte n-py" is available to students, foreign or French. With an electronic chip inside, you leave it in your ski jacket and skip the ticket lines. It automatically charges your checking account when you get close to the lifts, and gives you up to 40% off each time, at five different ski resorts in the French Pyrenees.
Spring and summer in the Pyrenees are equally as sweet for hikers and rock climbers. When the snow melts away, the jagged grey rock cliffs are met by the short, velvety grass that grows in upper elevations. It carpets valleys that stretch from peak to peak with little brooks meandering down between. Anyone willing to spend a day venturing up past the peaks will be rewarded by clear silent lakes and more vistas of mountaintops. Don't forget to stop on your way back to town for some brebis, the regional sheep cheese, which is mildly salty and best sampled with a dab of black cherry jam on top. Farmers sell their handmade cheeses along the roadside or in small towns in the mountain shadows.
Besides ski resorts and mountain tops, Pau is close to excellent surf and beach towns, Spain and the Basque country, rivers known for their rapids, and little villages the likes of which are found in glossy romantic calendars of French countrysides. It's also near two major French metropolitan cities – Bordeaux and Toulouse and beach towns with names like Biarritz, which ring familiar in foreign ears though seem pleasantly devoid of hoards of American tourists.
Maybe that's the thing about southwest France that enchants young Americans like me. It's not a known American tourist destination and because of that, the culture is unspoiled by tourists. The language is undiluted by English, as it is in Paris or other large cities. The bistros and bakeries are nothing but authentic, just like everyday life.