Lorraine tends to be off the beaten track for the international tourist in France, but I found it to be quite an interesting destination.
It is fair to say that the huge, flat plain of Lorraine is not the most picturesque landscape. If fields of corn don’t depress you as much as they do me, the military cemeteries, regularly dotted in the landscape, will. Each participant nation of World War I has its own cemetery: Italians, Americans, British, and of course French and Germans.
In Verdun, all the remains from all the war dead have been gathered into a huge ossuary. The take away message is that we share the same fate in death, driving home the sheer absurdity and scale of that industrial slaughter. But in the Lorraine countryside, the dead remain nationals. Most nations commemorate them with white crosses, but in the British cemeteries they used stelas.
I studiously avoided visiting Verdun – one school trip as a teenager has marked me enough. And I didn’t stop at the cemeteries either. But I couldn’t avoid the sight of the villages of Lorraine, devastated by World War I, rebuilt hastily and cheaply afterwards. The contrast with the gorgeous Alsatian villages could not be starker (read more here).
But don’t think Lorraine is not worth going to. Metz (pronounce “mess”), its religious and commercial centre, has an attractive city centre. Its cathedral is grandiose, surrounded by narrow streets displaying medieval, Renaissance and classical architecture, all in the beautiful local golden stone. And on the outskirt, the beautiful desert-tent-cum-spider building of the Georges Pompidou museum is a centre for contemporary arts.
Metz’s immemorial rival, Nancy, 60 km to the south, has a very different feel. More recent, spread out across a neat grid plan, the city was the political and industrial capital of Lorraine. In the eighteenth century, the duke Stanislas, ex-king of Poland and father-in-law to the king Louis XV, gifted it an absolute gem of classic French architecture, the place Stanislas.
Regularly voted the most beautiful in France, the square consists of the Hotel de Ville (town hall), Opera House, Museum of Fine Arts, the Jacquet Pavillion and the Grand Hotel. Each building shows harmony and grace the eye never tires of. At the centre of the square, a bronze statue of the duke Stanislas; in two corners, fountains, to the north of the triumphal arch Héré, leading to the place de la Carrière and its gilded gates. I’m not usually one for gold and glitter, but this is truly spectacular.
Usually an all-mineral landscape, the square hosted a “Jardin éphèmère”, a temporary garden, with an art exhibition on the theme of water, when I visited. Trees and plants in pots and the noise of trickling water brought life and a welcome cooling effect on this hot sunny afternoon. At first, I was disappointed to be deprived of the “pure” Place Stanislas experience. But, surrounded by all these works of art, I felt my soul resourced.
In 1870, Nancy benefitted from Metz’s annexation by Germany. Already a centre of expertise and industry – Baccarat is not far – the influx of skilled refugees turned Nancy into a centre of creativity and excellence, formalised in the Ecole de Nancy. Glassmakers, architects, furniture creators gathered and produced exquisite Art Nouveau works. Besides the villa Majorelle and the museum of the Ecole, the city is dotted with beautiful Art Nouveau or Art Déco buildings. Never have I seen a more glamorous HSBC branch.
That’s the kind of happy surprises you find in Lorraine.