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The Place Royale, once small and closed off, perfectly reflects—through its gradual expansion to the south and its opening up onto the Pyrenees—the transformation that Pau underwent in the 19th century. From a walled city focused around its centre, it gradually transformed into a landscape city.
The main changes were linked to the romantic trend of the “trip to the Pyrenees” and the new-found infatuation with spas and health resorts. The mountains, once seen as hostile, became a synonym for health and an object of contemplation. From the 1830s, these two phenomena attracted European, American, Russian and Prussian high society, which descended on Pau to enjoy the fresh mountain air and the mild winter temperatures. This was the start of climate tourism. The arrival of the Bordeaux railway line in 1863 intensified the trend.
Throughout the century, many hotels, cafés and restaurants opened all around the square. The square became the hub of Pau’s high-society life, and this is where the theatre and the bandstand were built. It was fashionable to be seen wandering along one of its many terraces. The Hôtel de France, a former hotel for travellers, is the most imposing of the structures that still border the Place Royale today.
Closer to the castle, the Hôtel Gassion was the first of Pau’s high-end establishments. As soon as it opened in 1872, it became renowned for being the most modern in Europe. It was also the first to break the mould and open up onto the mountains.
The whole city underwent a transformation between 1860 and 1910 as roads were widened, hotels and leisure facilities were built, and villas facing the Pyrenees were erected.