Metz – Spanning Two Millennia of European History

Metz – Spanning Two Millennia of European History

It’s just a little more than one hour’s ride by TGV (Train a Grand Vitesse) from Paris to Metz, the historic capital of Lorraine, the province tucked in the northeastern corner of France. When I heard of the new Pompidou Art Center, a satellite of the famous Paris Modern Art institution, a quick side trip seemed in order. I wanted a look at the innovative building designed by noted Japanese Architect Shigeru Ban and inaugurated in 2010. What I discovered is a city of beautifully preserved architectural and artistic treasures spanning two millennia of European history.

The Gallo-Roman Era

France - Metz, Gallo-Roman Anguipede Column

Third century A.D. Gallo-Roman column representing the slaying of the Anguipède by Gallic god Taranis.

Located a stone’s throw away from Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany, Metz was an important European city from the start. It was a prosperous Celtic center of trade for iron and terracotta a few centuries before Julius Caesar’s land grab in 52 B.C. turned it into the western hub of the Roman trading route to Mainz, Germany.

Although few traces of this Gallo-Roman history remains above ground, extensive vestiges are readily visible in the basement labyrinth of the Musées de la Cour d’Or (Golden Courtyard Museums) located on the site of the palace of the Merovingian Frankish kings that ruled over the area from the sixth to eighth centuries.

France - Metz, La Cour d'Or Museum Funerary Monument

This well-preserved Gallo-Roman tombstone shows the interaction of a shopkeeper and his client.

Nineteenth century excavations in the foundations of the museums revealed extensive thermae (roman baths complex) as well as remains of a burying site and an industrial-size kiln for the production of the local terracotta that can now be admired here. There is also a surprisingly rich collection of decorative and funeral statuary, artisan tools, jewelry and artifacts of everyday life. The collection is all the more interesting that it is entirely constituted of artifacts from digs in and around Metz.

The Medieval City

France - Metz, Place Saint Louis

The Place Saint Louis fourteenth century arcade is reminiscent of the Northern Italian Republics of the era.

Place Saint Louis. Metz has an exceptionally large historic town center that has maintained its medieval atmosphere of winding narrow cobbled streets and ancient homes. The Place Saint Louis (St. Louis Square) with its long fourteenth century arcade anchored to the foundations of the roman wall is a notable gem from the Middle Ages. Built by the thriving community of currency changers, many of them originally from Lombardy, the elongated square is reminiscent of the Northern Italian Republics of the period.

 

France - Metz, Porte des Allemands

The Porte des Allemands guards Metz’s eastern flank.

Porte des Allemands. At the eastern corner of the old town, the Porte des Allemands (Germans’ Gate) is a major vestige of medieval military architecture. Built from the thirteenth to fifteenth century the gate is in fact a small fortress, both city gate and fortified bridge that straddles the River Seille and guards Metz’s eastern flank.

 

 

France - Metz, Cathedrale Saint Etienne

The Cathedrale Saint Etienne is a flamboyant gothic masterpiece.

Cathédrale St. Etienne. Even by the lofty standard of the grand European gothic churches of Europe, the Cathédrale Saint Etienne (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), built from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries is a flamboyant example religious architecture of the era. Its 123-meter (404-foot) long interior soars to a breathtaking 47 meters (154 feet) at the height of its transept.

France - Metz, Marc Chagall Stained Glass Windows

Twentieth century Marc Chagall stained glass windows

Light streams in through three tiers of stained glass windows, the largest expanse of ancient stain glass in a single building anywhere (6,500 square meters or 70,000 square feet). The stained glass creations range from the fourteenth to twentieth century and include three contemporary windows by Marc Chagall.

 

 

 

 

The cloister surrounds a garden of medicinal plants.

The cloister surrounds a garden of medicinal plants.

Cloître des Récollets. Founded in the fourteenth century by a Franciscan monastic order on the Saint Croix Hill in the center of the medieval city, the cloister is notable for the funeral stones embedded into the walls. It surrounds a large garden of medicinal plants. Today it houses the municipal archives and is home to the European Institute of Ecology founded in 1972 by noted biologist and urban ecologist Jean Marie Pelt.

The Imperial District

France - Metz, Moselle Riverbank

Over the centuries Metz developed along the Moselle River.

Under French rule since 1552, Metz was part of territories of Alsace-Lorraine that were absorbed into the German Empire at the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 before being returned to France at the end of the First World War.

 

 

 

France - Metz, Water Tower

The water tower shows a notable germanic influence.

However, in the intervening half century Emperor Wilhelm II engaged in a frenetic construction program of a new Imperial District to “germanise” the city.

He imposed a neo-Romanesque style to public buildings such at the cavernous 350-meter (1,150 foot) long railway station built between 1905 and 1908, the nearby water tower intended to supply water to the steam engines (1908) and the Reformed Protestant temple known at the New Temple (1901- 1904).

Centre Pompidou-Metz

France - Metz, Picasso stage curtain

Stage curtain for the ballet Mercure, created by Picasso in 1924.

This new museum is an offshoot of the Pompidou Art Center in Paris, an institution with one of the richest modern and contemporary arts collection in Europe. The structure was especially created to house expositions of rarely seen large-scale modern works.

 

 

 

France - Metz, Centre Pompidou

This new Pompidou Center for modern and contemporary arts.

Located in the Quartier de l’Amphitheatre, a nod to the large Gallo-Roman amphitheater that once covered the neighborhood, just a short walk from the train station, it is the largest (5,000 square meters or 54,000 square feet) temporary exhibition space in France outside of Paris.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Where to sleep? There is an abundance of hotels and bed and breakfasts at all levels of luxury and price throughout the city. I focused on the Hotel Le Mondon for the convenience of its location and was glad I did. This simple, squeaky clean, 38-room three-star hotel fully renovated in January 2015 welcomed us with spacious rooms, excellent bedding and superior soundproofing. The complimentary WiFi was reliable, the staff attentive and the prices friendly. Hotel Le Mondon is located a 10-minute walk from the train station, 15 minutes from the center of town, the cathedral and the Pompidou center, hotel-le-mondon-metz.fr, 8 Avenue Foch, Metz, 57000 France. Contact: Email contact@lemondon.fr. Tel: +33 (0) 3 87 74 40 75.
  • The Musée de la Cour d’Or is divided in three distinct collections of local treasures: Gallo-Romain, Medieval and Fine Arts. The abundance of riches is such that the Museum tickets are valid for 24 hours to permit visitors who run out of time or steam to return the next day and complete the visit.
  • Foodies – See Fun Fast Food – Lorraine Style

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Metz, France

The capital of the Alsacian Wine Road

The capital of the Alsacian Wine Road

On my first visit to Alsace several decades ago, I commented to my local host about the warm welcome I had experienced everywhere I went. “We have had plenty of practice with visitors over the past couple of millennia,” he quipped. Quite. First came the Romans in the first century B.C., who are credited with covering the undulating hills of this wedge of alluvial plain on the west side of the Rhine with the vineyards that are to this day the pride of the region. After the Roman Empire fell apart came the Allemans, who gave the region its language, then the Franks. That marked the start of a one thousand year tug-of-war that saw Alsace change hands multiple times between France and Germany; and develop a unique culture that, while remaining definitely French, has maintained strong German influences in its architecture, cuisine, arts and traditions.

Vineyards, geraniums and foie gras

Alsace - Colmar window boxes.

Window boxes overflowing with geranium are an Alsacian tradition.

La Route des Vins, the 170 kilometer (106 mile) itinerary that meanders north to south from Marlenheim to Thann through the legendary Alsatian Vineyard abound with villages and towns filled with picture-perfect half-timbered facades and window-boxes of cascading red geraniums. Along the way, a proliferation of noted eateries dish out the succulent specialties for which Alsace is renowned, such as choucroute garnie (sauerkraut simmered in white wine with smoked pork and sausages), paté de foie gras (goose liver paté, which originated here in the eighteenth century), a wide variety of local charcuteries and smoked fish, and the pungent Munster cheese.

For me, however, the ultimate destination of any visit to Alsace is Colmar, the self-appointed capital of La Route des Vins. Mainly spared the destructions of the French revolution and two world wars, it has an exceptionally large and well-preserved historic center for a city of its size (population 65,000). Its cobblestone streets lined with architectural treasures that span eight centuries of combined French and German evolution welcome visitors with the laidback cheerfulness of a small town. At the edge of the historic center, the especially picturesque La Petite Venise (Little Venice) neighborhood is clustered around a network of canals from the river Lauch, where tanners and fishmongers were once located. Farmers also used these waterways to ferry their products to the town market in small pole-propelled wooden barges. Similar barges are in operation today with silent electric motors, to allow visitors a close look at the ancient and still inhabited riverside homes.

Alsace - Colmar fine dining.

The dining room of l’Echevin overlooks the Lauch River.

La Petite Venise is also home to the romantic Hostellerie Le Maréchal, created from four adjoining sixteenth century homes overlooking the river. Under the traditional steep tiled roofs, neat rows of windows are underscored by flowerboxes overflowing with the ubiquitous red geraniums. Inside, passageways have been opened through the common walls to link the various public areas, forming a maze of cozy nooks filled with antiques. At the rear of the property, the intimate dining room of L’Echevin (French for high ranking medieval magistrate) overhangs the river. In addition to its inviting setting the restaurant is a recognized destination for Alsatian gastronomy with two toques from Gault et Millau and three forks from Michelin to its credit.

Beyond La Petite Venise

Alsace - Colmar medieval center.

Ancient wrought iron signs still advertise local businesses.

Alsace - Colmar Insenheim Altarpiece.

Center panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar.

The opportunity to roam at leisure through entire neighborhoods of meticulously maintained medieval houses and the prospect of a couple of superb dinners at L’Echevin would be reason enough for a weekend break in Colmar, especially now that several daily TGVs (short for Train à Grande Vitesse or high speed train) make it an easy three hour trip from Paris. But on this recent visit, the lure was the town’s foremost artistic treasure: the striking Isenheim Altarpiece, considered Matthias Grünewald’s greatest masterpiece, originally painted in 1512-1516 for a monastery in nearby Isenheim. After undergoing extensive restorations in anticipation its five hundredth anniversary, it had been recently returned on display at the Underlinden Museum. Housed in a former thirteenth century convent for Dominican sisters, the museum also holds a major collection of Upper-Rhenish medieval and early renaissance sculptures and paintings, including several altarpieces by native son Martin Schongauer as well as works by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Dürer.

Alsace - Riquewihr vineyards.

Riquewihr is surrounded by some of the most prized winegrowing land in Alsace.

Alsace - Riquewihr architectural details.

Riquewihr is classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France.

For me, no visit to Colmar is complete without a side trip to Riquewihr, the walled village classified as one of the most beautiful in France, a mere 12 kilometers (seven miles) away. Nestled in the middle of some of the most prized winegrowing land in the region, it is still home to families who trace their uninterrupted winemaking tradition back to the early seventeenth century. There I looked forward to a visit to my favorite vintner, Hugel and Sons, and a walk up the hill beyond the city walls to their venerable Schoenenbourg vineyards, reputed since the Middle Ages for producing some of the finest Riesling in the world. But it was raining on the day of my visit, hard enough to postpone the Schoenenbourg until next time. Instead, Etienne Hugel, the current head for the vinery took a few of us under the historic sixteenth century building of the Hugel headquarters for an extensive tour of the cellars. We set off through a succession of vaulted halls that reach deep under the old town. Wines are maturing there in rows upon impressive rows of giant oak casks, including the famous Sainte Catherine dating back to 1715, still in use and a Guinness World Record holder, before ending our tour in the tasting room. A warm welcome indeed!

Visits of the Hugel cellars are by prior appointment only.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Colmar, Alsace, France