Looming through the mist, the majestic, snow-capped peaks of the Pyrénées took on a sharper definition as we approached. The morning sun touched the crests with pink and gold, like cherubim in some Baroque painting. We were on our way to the small town of Nay (pronounced “Nigh”) in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques Département, to see the only béret museum in the world.
This is the second of the 10 things I have set out to do in southwest France this year (see my post here). Unfortunately, I can’t say too much about the béret museum, because it is the subject of an article I have been commissioned to write. I can give you the odd snippet, though, further on.
I’ve already recounted our stop at Montauban in my previous post. Enough said. We sped on, past Toulouse, along the motorway known as La Pyrénéenne. It runs parallel to the mountains, affording a glorious view of them on a fine day. The motorway is straight as an arrow for much of the way, but the tedium of driving it is relieved by a stretch where you have to climb up to a plateau and then down the other side.
We stopped for an indifferent and over-priced lunch at a L’Arche service station. We had the misfortune to arrive at the same time as a coach-load of troisième âge-ers, which considerable lengthened the cafeteria queue. However, the view of the mountains more than made up for it. We were also rewarded with the sight of two red kites wheeling around over a ploughed field. Two others joined them and they performed a slow-motion, aerial ballet as they caught the thermal currents.
We got to Nay, between Pau and Lourdes, in the early afternoon. It’s a small bastide town with a picturesque centre. As well as the béret museum, there is also a 16th-century cloth merchant’s house built in the Italian Renaissance style, called La Maison Carrée (the square house). The merchant obviously wanted to display his wealth in a more sophisticated architectural style than that of the region. It is now open all year round as a museum focusing on the local industrial heritage, notably textiles and woodwork.
The béret museum is on the site of the former factory, which has now moved to another site in the town. The visit starts with a video showing the people of the Béarn waxing lyrical about the béret and its status as a badge of local identity. A very pleasant lady then showed us around and explained the 20 different stages through which a béret goes before it is deemed suitable as headgear. The museum contains the old machines used to make the bérets and pictures of famous béret-wearers. Go here for their website.
Taking a different route back, via Lourdes, we had an unfortunate incident with one of our tyres. We limped through Lourdes till we found a tyre workshop, but the cocky manager seemed to rejoice that they didn’t have the right make for our car. Lourdes is not a place I am in a hurry to revisit (the traffic is appalling, even in February), but maybe my views are coloured by the circumstances.
Thank goodness for GPS. It enabled us to find an Audi garage at Tarbes, about 15 km away, where they very obligingly fixed it for us, despite the fact that we turned up unannounced at 17h00. The man at the acceuil is in the running for my customer service of the year award. Tarbes is said to be a nice place, but we saw only the industrial outskirts, which are indistinguishable from those of any other French town.
On the way home, several hours later than planned, we agreed that we must go back when we have the time to spend a few days. The Béarnais countryside is rolling and green, set against the backdrop of the mountains. I didn’t take any photos of the mountains (the one above is a stock image). Landscape shots are always disappointing and fail to do justice to the reality. I’d like to see Tarbes and Pau. I think I will avoid Lourdes, though.
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