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Salies-de-Béarn, my Béarnais favourite

Salies-de-Béarn, a small town in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques is not a million miles from Bordeaux, and at the end of the journey there is the discovery of an unanticipated setting, the discreet charm of a spa town and an atmosphere all its own.

My association with Salies-de-Béarn goes back many years, I had to make a report in the area and I passed through this Pyrénées-Atlantiques village in my car without stopping. Those few minutes were enough for Salies-de-Béarn to leave an impact on me and I told myself I would return. Since then, I have returned on various occasions and it has always charmed me.

I was initially touched by the Belle Epoque atmosphere of Salies-de-Béarn, with the bandstand in the central square on which stand buildings from the end of the 19th century: the Thermes and the Chalet which have a slight Moorish feel. On one side of this square is the Hôtel du Parc. This beautiful building dating from 1892 was the last hotel erected in the era when the thermal baths were the focus point of Salies-de Béarn. Its beautiful aspect is enhanced by its ceramic decorated facade. It has a stunning interior with a huge 54 m long and 18 m high hall and glass roof. I am very proud to be able to say that I went up on the roof with the mayor at the time and was able to see the famous canopy close up.

The first time I visited, it was managed by an association that leased rooms to its members, at low prices, that had not been refurbished for decades and were in pitiful condition. But my heart was set on staying there at any cost and they did me the honour of accepting me. One small problem, a then very well known band, the Négresses Vertes, was to give a concert the next day and I could not sleep because the team was installing sound and connections in the hall and stairs. The blows of the hammer and conversations between the technicians resonated throughout the night. No matter, I was at the Hôtel du Parc. Since then, the establishment that still bears the name has been bought, renovated and restored to its former glory. The last time I stayed there I had a very comfortable room.

Starting out from this central square, in front of the old station I found the Hameau de Bellevue, a magnificent group of hotel villas built in 1885, spread around a large park with stables and swimming pool. I asked for permission to enter and was allowed to walk along its paths but, unfortunately, I could not visit the buildings that are now occupied by a medico-social institution. Salies was so well known at one time that Marcel Proust came with his family and Francis and Zelda Scott Fitzgerald lived there. On the hillsides around the town I was also able to admire some of the beautiful properties of the Hameau de Paris.

In the town centre, the Saleys stream adds a romantic touch, into the bed of which the ancient houses that border it are anchored. But the history of Salies-de-Béarn rests on the ages old discovery of salt carried by its underground waters and from which it takes its name. According to legend, a wounded boar escaped the shoemakers, who later found it well preserved and covered with salt crystals. This would be the beginning of the tale of Salies. The exploitation of salt, a scarce and precious commodity, was divided between the Salesians of the time, who in 1587 formed an association of shareholders with very special rules which still exist today and whose rights are transferable. The salt museum is a must for anyone interested in these traditions.

The original village with its small cobbled and flowered streets and its period houses are still very authentic. I like to wander through it and look at the construction dates which are often engraved above the doors. It is also this salt rich water, ten times saltier than sea water, that is used by the thermal baths for its healing properties. And this salt is so particular that it has been recognized by a PGI and is used in the production of Bayonne Ham. I always leave with a few bags of salt. Finally, what I learned later and which especially impacts me is that a Hungarian architect whom I admire, Jozsef Vago, spent the last days before his death in Salies-de-Bearn. I searched for and found his grave in the cemetery to pay him homage.

Location: Salies-de-Béarn See on Google

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