From Roman Spa to Contemporary Cultural Center – Aix-en-Provence

From Roman Spa to Contemporary Cultural Center – Aix-en-Provence

Aix-en-Provence is a remarkable center of European history that has managed to preserve the integrity of its rich architectural and cultural heritage while evolving into a thriving, highly livable contemporary city.

Always the Romans!

FR-Aix Fountains.

The many fountains of Aix are fed by thermal springs. The mineral content of the water spurs the growth moss and ferns.

When contemplating the development of the Mediterranean basin around the time the tide of history turns from B.C. to A.D., it’s usually the Romans that get the credit, or the blame depending how you look at it. And Aix-en-Provence is a vivid illustration of Julius Ceasar’s “veni, vidi, vici,” doctrine, although not quite in that order.

Roman Consul Sextius Calvinius comes in 122 B.C., promptly lays waste to Entremont, the iron-age capital of the Celtic-Ligurian Confederation (now an archeological site three kilometers north of the city), and decimates its population. Back on lower grounds, abundant thermal springs bubbling out of the earth catch his eye and Aquae Sextiae (Waters of Sextius) is born.

FR - Aix cathedral baptismal fond.

The baptismal fond is surrounded by Roman columns.

As the first Roman city founded in the newly conquered Roman colony of Provincia, it quickly grows as a thriving urban center and spa. Then, with the spread of Christianity after it is declared the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D., Aix-en-Provence becomes the seat of the ecclesiastical province, making it the de facto capital of the region.

 

The Dark Ages

FR - Aix Saint Sauveur Cloister.

The early medieval cloister of the Saint Sauveur cathedral.

A cathedral rises from the Roman forum. Soaring columns that once graced a Roman temple now define the octagonal baptistery, and the baptismal pool is fed from the nearby baths. However, while full immersion is an accepted rite of early Christian baptism, the Catholic Church takes of a dim view of public baths. The vast pools and the sources that feed them all but disappear under new monasteries. Stripped of its antique luster, Aix morphs into a typical medieval city constrained within its protective fortifications.

Unfortunately, these are not sufficient to deter the successive waves of the invading Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Saracens and other “barbarians.” Provence remains a highly contested province through most of the medieval period, and Aix continues to deteriorate. It is not until the twelfth century that it begins to shine again.

The Reign of the Counts

FR - Aix Clock Tower.

A clock tower tops the medieval belfry of the town hall.

In 1182, the Counts of Provence who, through judicious moves in the great chess game of history, are by now issued from the Aragon (Spanish) and Anjou (French) royal houses, make Aix their permanent residence. An era of development ensues that will shape the future city, starting from three key areas that are now the core of the historic district: the Saint Sauveur Cathedral, the Counts’ Palace and the thriving artisans and merchants district. Soon Aix spills out of its ramparts with the southward construction of several large monastic institutions. The most important, the Prieuré des Chevaliers de Saint Jean de Malte (Priory of the Knights of Saint John of Malta) becomes the burying place of the Counts. New walls are erected to encompass the expanding city

The Age of Mansions

The Fountain of the Four Dolphins is a landmark of the Mazarin Quarter.

The Fountain of the Four Dolphins is the Mazarin Quarter.

The last phase of Aix’s growth comes in the seventeenth century, during the reign of Louis XIV (1638 – 1715, the Sun King of Versailles fame). By now, Provence has been annexed to the kingdom of France for over two centuries. Louis takes a shine to the judiciary and religious capital of Provence. He mandates Archbishop Michel Mazarin (who happens to be the brother of his prime minister) to oversee the further southward expansion of Aix.

The crumbling twelfth century ramparts are dismantled and replaced by the tree-shaded boulevard dotted with fountains that we enjoy today as the Cours Mirabeau.

FR=Aix Mansion.

Seventeenth century mansions are a common sight in Aix.

To the south and west of it, the Mazarin Quarter flourishes. The cream of local society vies for land along the neatly laid out grid pattern of streets to build their elegant mansions of ocher-colored stone. One last time, the ramparts are expanded to include the “new town,” only to be replaced in 1848 by the wide boulevard that now encircles the city.

 

A Tradition of Culture

FR-Aix Musee Granet.

The former priory of the Knights of Saint John of Malta is home to the prestigious Musée Granet.

Along with prosperity the Counts introduce culture and refinement to their court. In 1409 the founding the university opens the door to a Golden Age that firmly establishes Aix as a center of artistic and intellectual creativity that will flourish until the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789). In the aftermath of the political chaos it unleashes, Aix loses its administrative powers, and is mainly bypassed by the great nineteenth century industrial revolution. But it remains a center of learning, art and culture. In the latter part of the century, its native son the great post-impressionist artist Paul Cezanne elevates the city’s artistic prestige to new heights.

FR - Aix Warriors Heads.

Sculptures of severed heads from the Celtic-Ligurian settlement of Entremont  on display at the Musee Granet.

An earlier Aixois artist, Francois Marius Granet (1775-1849), has already made a significant contribution to the artistic standing of Aix-en-Provence. A pupil of David and friend of Ingres, Granet is himself a Neoclassical painter and water-colorist. However posterity remembers him best for the bequest of his fortune and art collection to the city of his birth. It forms the basis for the original permanent collection of the city’s art museum, housed since 1838 in the seventeenth century Priory of the Knight of Malta. It will eventually be renamed Musée Granet in honor of its benefactor.

Picasso works from the Planque Collection

Picasso works from the Planque Collection.

In 2010 the status of the Musée Granet rises further when it becomes the beneficiary of the long-term loan of some 300 paintings, drawing and sculptures from impressionists, post-impressionists and leading twentieth century artists, from Renoir, Monet and Van Gogh to Picasso, Braque, Duffy, Klee and Dubuffet from the Jean and Suzanne Planque Foundation (the estate of Swiss art dealer and collector Jean Planque). A new space is created to house the collection in a stunningly renovated seventeenth century chapel just minutes away from the main museum.

A City of Music

FR - Aix Archbishop Palace.

The International Festival of Vocal Arts holds performances at the Palace of the Archbishops.

But in Aix, visual arts are only half the story. Created in 1948, the Festival International d’Art Lyrique (International Festival of Vocal Arts), is now a mainstay of the annual international classical music calendar. Devoted mainly to opera and vocal music, this three-week July event also includes orchestral, chamber and solo instrumental concerts. Performances take place in several of the great classic mansions around the city, including the Archbishop’s Palace, the eighteenth century Italian-style Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, and the new Grand Theatre de Provence (built in 2007).

However, music in Aix is not limited to The Festival. It begins in early spring with the Easter Festival, and continues through August, first with the Nuits Pianistiqiues (Piano Nights) at the new music academy building of the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud (also a native son). Then, to close out the summer in style, the Conservatoire offers Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Street) in late August with dozens of free open-air concerts from Baroque to classical to Jazz, presented all around town in the early evening hours.

The Waters of Sextius

Fr - Aix Thermes of Sextius.

A vast modern spa facility now sits atop the baths dear to Sextius Calvinius.

After days filled with art and music and taking in the fascinating history written in the ocher stones of the great mansions that line the tree-shaded avenues and squares, it’s time to return where it all started. A vast modern spa facility now sits atop the old baths, still visible through the glassed walls of the lobby. But the hot mineral Waters of Sextius still gurgle from their underground springs to be used in treatments throughout the spa. And they seem to have maintained their restorative powers so prized by the Romans.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Aix-en-Provence is easily reached by train, with several direct TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours). The Aix TGV station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the central bus terminal. The MarseilleProvence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle bus as the TVG station.
  • Getting Around – To explore the historic city, walking is definitely the way to go. Road signs at the approaches to Aix direct motorists to large facilities where they can park their vehicles for a nominal daily fee that also includes free round trip bus tickets to the center of town for all their passengers.
  • What to do – With so much to see and do in Aix, it is a good idea to start with a visit to the Office de Tourisme (Tourism Information Center), 300 Avenue Guiseppe Verdi. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 16 11 61. Located just a few steps away from the Cours Mirabeau Rotonde (Rotary) , it is open daily from 8:30 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. The staff is knowledgeable and multilingual.
  • Visiting – Cezanne fans may want to plan a pilgrimage to the Lauves Studio, 9 Avenue Paul Cezanne, where he lived and worked for the past four years of his life. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 21 06 53. It’s a 30-minute walk to the northern outskirts of town, or a short ride on Bus No. 5 (Cezanne stop). Opening days and times vary throughout the year. Check with their website or the Tourism Information Center.
  • Relaxing Thermes Sextius, 55 avenue des Thermes, is a vast state-of-the-art facility offering a full range of hydrotherapy and spa treatments. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 23 81 82. Appointments a must.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Aix-en-Provence

The Gem of the Vermillion Coast – Collioure

The Gem of the Vermillion Coast – Collioure

The Côte Vermeille (Vermilion Coast) is the southernmost corner of France, its last stretch of Mediterranean coastline before the Spanish border. It’s where the rugged, vineyard-covered foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains tumble into the sea. And where Collioure, the sundrenched fishing village clustered around its massive medieval fortress rising from aquamarine waters, wears its history on its sleeve.

The Bay of Collioure has been attracting visitors since Antiquity.

The Bay of Collioure has been attracting visitors since antiquity.

It seems that since antiquity, every new wave of civilization to come upon its shores has wanted to settle there. This rich and often bellicose past has endowed Collioure with a spectacular architectural heritage and a unique culture that reflects the traditions of its successive invaders.

 

 

Ancient History

France - Collioure Foothills.

The Phoenicians introduced vineyards to the Vermillion Coast.

First came the Celts, in the sixth century B.C., who settled the area now known at the Roussillon, then the great ancient sea traders, the Phoenicians. They sailed into this quiet inlet and declared it ideal for a trading port. In return, they introduced wine-growing to its rocky hillsides, the ancestors of the strong sweet Vins de Collioure we enjoy today.

France - Collioure Château Royal.

The origins of the Château Royal reach back to the earliest medieval times.

The Romans came in 120 B.C., followed by the Visigoths some six centuries later, then the Moors, once they conquered the Iberian Peninsula. It was finally Charlemagne who decisively tossed the latter back behind the Pyrenees in 811. He asserted his authority over the Roussillon region, which he set up as a buffer territory against future Moorish ambitions. He also established the feudal system of government that would three centuries later deliver the area to Spain. And sow the seeds of the Catalan culture that flourishes to this day.

Medieval Times

France - Collioure Castle Fortifications.

Fortificaton details of the fortress.

Fast forward through three centuries of frequent border conflicts between Spain and France. By the twelfth century, Collioure has acquired a fortified enclave in the center of the harbor, to protect its small seaside castle and dungeon. When in 1172, the last Count of Roussillon bequeaths his domain to his ally Alfonso II, King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona, Collioure becomes a royal residence. The new ruler invites Knight Templars back from crusading in the Holly Land to build their own castle within the protective walls. This is the beginning of the mighty Château Royal.

France - Collioure Fortress Courtyards.

Interior courtyards of the fortress.

The tug-of-war for control the region continues with each successive dynasty. Collioure gains in strategic importance. The Kings of Majorca expend the castle. Then the Spanish Hapsburgs, Charles V and his son Philip II, turn it into a modern fortress capable to withstand sixteenth century advances in artillery. This doesn’t prevent the French to capture it one century later and hang on to it for good this time. Whereupon Vauban, the foremost French military architect of all times, reinforces the castle once more, into the colossal citadel rising from the sea that we now know.

Notre Dame des Anges

France - Collioure Church

The medieval beacon tower is repurposed as church steeple.

Another iconic landmark of the waterfront influenced by Vauban is the village church, Our Lady of the Angels. It is built in 1684 at the far end of the beach after the original one is torn down to accommodate the expansion of the fortress. It is located on a strip of land already occupied by a tall beacon tower that guides ships into the harbor with smoke by day and fire by night.

France - Collioure Altarpiece.

The main alterpiece is by seventeenth century Catalan artist Joseph Sunyer.

The interior of the church is in the Southern French Gothic design with a single nave surrounded by multiple altars of lavishly gold-leafed wood. The tower is now connected to the church and serves double duty as its steeple. By the nineteenth century, its services as a beacon non longer needed, the steeple is capped with a Tuscan-style dome (that has the unintended effect of giving it a rather phallic appearance).

The Birth of Fauvism

France - Collioure Matisse,

Seen through the lense of medieval glass from the fortress, the harbor takes on the appearance of a Matisse painting.

The summer of 1905 marks a turning point in the artistic life of Collioure. It is customary then, once the Paris spring exhibition season is over, for artists to work on the Côte d’Azure for the summer. That year, however, thirty-five-year-old father of three Henri Matisse, still an emerging artist full of creative uncertainties and short on cash, transports his family to the modest fishing village where his sister-in-law lives. Dazzled by the luminosity of the vivid Mediterranean scenery, Matisse summons his friend André Derain to join him. In one manic summer, they unleash the new, simplistic vision of a style based on the bold use of primary colors that earns them the moniker of Les Fauves (the Wild Beasts).

France-Collioure Alleyway.

The flower-filled alleyways that inspired Fauvism.

Others will follow, among them Braque, Chagall and Dufy, drawn by the now famous interplay of scorching sunlight on terra cotta roofs and aquamarine sea. But it’s the two pioneers that the city adopts as its own with the Chemin du Fauvisme (Fauvist Trail). The mapped walk through the old town is punctuated by 19 reproductions of their famous works, right on the spot where they were painted.

The Catalan Soul

France-Collioures Barques.

The Barques Catalanes are still moored along the quay.

The magic of Collioure goes far beyond its dramatic backdrop of medieval architecture and artistic landmarks. I find it in the maze of bougainvillea-filled alleyways lined with pastel-washed houses of the old town. It’s on the three small beaches right in the center of town, scalloped around the church and the castle. And in the brightly painted barques Catalanes moored at the quay. They may be museum pieces these days, their single triangular lateen sail raised only on holidays to give visitors a tour around the bay, but they are a reminder that for all its warring history the village is above all a Catalan fishing port.

France - Collioure Catalan.

The red and yellow Catalan flag flies next to the French atop the Chateau Royal.

This rich Catalan tradition permeates everyday life. It’s in the yellow and red flags that flap in the sea breeze. I taste it in the food, the sardines and squid grilled à la planxa and the generous assortments of tapas where the famed Collioure anchovies (still locally fished and hand-processed as they have been for centuries) always find a place of honor. I hear it under gnarled plane trees of the Place du General Leclerc, on market days in the lilting accent of the local farmers and artisans who sell their products there. And I feel it most of all when on summer Saturdays and holidays the music of the cobla (traditional Catalonian wind and brass music ensemble) fills the square and espadrille-footed dancers gather in circles for the Sardana.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The closest TGV (Express train) station is in Perpignan, located 25 kilometers (16 miles) north of Collioure. There are several trains a day from Paris (5 hours’ ride) and Barcelona (90 minutes). From there a local train follows the coastline to the deliciously retro train station in the center of the village (30 minutes). There is also small airport in Perpignan that accommodates daily local flights from Paris, London, Brussels and Madrid.
  • Getting around – Within the historic village, walking is definitely the way to go. But for a tour of the vineyards, a close-up view of the mountain-top Fort St-Elme and a glorious bird-eye perspective of the bay, the Petit Train Touristique is the local version of an open-top tourist bus.
  • Where to Stay – With tourism now the main industry of Collioure, Bed and Breakfast have become a primary local activity, offering accommodations to suit all tastes and budgets. For a great view of the old town, there are also two hotels wedged into the hills on the south side of the bay, the four-star Hôtel Relais des Trois Mas. relaisdestroismas.com. Tel +33 (0) 4 68 82 05 07, is notable for its direct access to the farthest of the Collioure beaches and its own plunge pool with a view. A bit higher on the hill, the two-star Hôtel Les Caranques. www.les-caranques.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 68 82 06 68, offers simpler accommodations, but equally spectacular views.
  • What to do – Head for the Collioure Tourist Office, 18 Place du 18 Juin. http://www.collioure.com/en/. Tel: +33 (4) 68 82 15 47. It’s a few steps away from the castle. They dole out all necessary maps and directions to all the points of interest, including the map of the Fauvist Trail, and the schedule for the Sardane dances.
  • Visiting – The Château Royal is open every day from 9:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. during July and August and 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. in June and September and 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. the remainder of the year. It is a fine exemple of medieval architecture and the dungeon and ramparts offer a spectacular view of the village and the coastline. It also hosts temporary art exhibits and occasional scheduled concerts in its courtyards . There are no provisions for mobility-impaired visitors. Notre Dame des Anges is open daily from 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. Drop one Euro in the box on the side of the altar to turn on the lights and appreciate its gilded altars in all their glory .
  • Touring Petit train touristique – petit-train-touristique.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 68 98 02 06. The 45 minute round trip itinerary runs several times daily from April to November. Tickets may be purchased at the staring point, in front of the castle.
  • Wine Tasting Cellier des Dominicains, Place Orphila, dominicain.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 68 82 05 63. Located in the church of a former fourteenth century Dominican monastery, the cellar is open for a visit, an introduction to local wine-making in Collioure and Banyuls, followed by a tasting, every Thursday at 4:00 P.M. from June to September. There is a nominal entry fee.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Collioures

Chinese New Year Celebrations – Paris-style

Chinese New Year Celebrations – Paris-style

While several European cities have been famous for centuries for livening up the dark winter months with grand Carnival parades (Venice, Cologne and Nice come to mind), Paris was never one of them. However, since the late 1970’s, the Chinese community has stepped into the breach with exuberant New Year celebrations.

The Largest Chinatown in Europe

France - Paris CNY Dragon Dance.

The Chinese New Year dragon dance.

 

Over the past century, Paris has gradually developed a thriving Franco-Chinese community whose cultural influence is centered on three areas of the city: the historic right bank Marais district, the northeast Belleville neighborhood, and on the southeast side of the left bank ‘s thirteenth arrondissement, the original Quartier Asiatique (Chinatown).

 

France - Paris CNY banners.

Ornate banners dominate the parade.

Although it didn’t acquire its current character until the 1970-1980’s, it is by now considered the largest Chinatown in Europe. And it has become home to a massive New Year’s parade that brings together  some 2,000 participants representing 40 social, artistic and business groups.

France - Paris CNY marchers.

Marchers follow the traditional furry dragons.

Over 200,000 onlookers line the broad streets of the neighborhood decorated with crimson banners and lantern, to cheer the procession of grinning dragon and lions, shimmering fish and endless serpents. Ornately attired dancing groups and martial arts teams march to the rhythm drums and cymbals. The omnipresent pop of small firecrackers leaves a faint scent of smoke in the air. This is Asian street exotism on a grand scale.

After three hours of elbowing to maintain a good viewing space in this boisterous and a tad chaotic affair, I am ready to work my way to the southern edge of the district to Tricotin for a dim sum fix.

A Rainy Day Alternative

France - Paris Guimet

The Musee Guimet and its nineteenth century cupola dominate the Place d’Iéna.

Alas not every parade day is blessed with propitious weather. This year not being one of them, an indoor alternative is in order. I head for one of my favorite Paris museum, Le Musée des Arts Asiatiques (Museum of Asian Arts). All the artistically rich cultures of Asia are represented here. Better known as Musée Guimet, after his nineteenth founder Emile Etienne Guimet, it is home to one of the largest collection of Asian art outside Asia.

 

France - Paris CNY Guimet

Traditional dragons welcome visitors during the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Its Chinese section alone includes some 20 000 objects spanning seven millennia, from the earliest times to the eighteenth century. Additionally today, in honor of Chinese New Year, the instructors and pupils of the local LWS Pak Mei Kung Fu School are performing traditional dragon dances and martial arts demonstrations.

 

 

 

The Treasures of the Musee Guimet

France - Paris Guimet Neolithic Unr.

This large Neolithic funeral urn is the oldest ceramic vessel in the collection.

In deference to the millennia of human evolution that brought us these mythical dancing beasts, I head for the Chinese archeology area. It begins with jades and ceramics from the Neolithic period before continuing on with bronze works for the Shang and Zhou dynasties (thirteenth to eighth centuries B.C.).

 

 

 

France - Paris Guimet Mingqi

Seventh century Tang Dynasty polychrome terra cotta mingqi.

In the statuary section, I lose myself in an extraordinarily varied collection of exquisite mingqi (tomb figures) from the Han (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) and Tang (618 to 907 A.D.) dynasties. These are statuettes of fashionably dressed ladies, fine horses and camels that were buried with the defunct in the tombs of the highborn to ease their passage into the next world. Today, they bear witness to the luxury and sophistication of the lifestyle of their age.

 

France - Paris Guimet cloisonne.

Silver and gold-incrusted bronze vessel from the third century B.C.

There are also rich collections of harness equipment, bronze mirrors, coinage, and bronze vessels incrusted with gold and silver. The decorative arts section outlines a comprehensive history of Chinese ceramics covering the major centers of production and the evolution of taste. The furniture collection includes major lacquer works and rosewood pieces. Painting is represented by hundreds of works spanning well over a millennium from the Tang to Qing dynasties.

 

Like any major museum, the Guimet is best savored in measured bites. Mercifully, it is opened year-round and seldom crowded. It is always a wonderful place to revisit. Or for any tourist with a bit of time on their hands, it is a unique treasure trove to discover.

Good to Know

  • When? Unlike its Western counterpart which always falls on the same day, the Chinese New year changes each year, following the lunisolar calendar. The first day of the new year always falls on the new moon, between January 21 and February 20. The date of the Thirteenth Arrondissement parade varies accordingly. It is published several months ahead on the various Paris tourism information websites. It is usually held on a Sunday.
  • Where? The parade traditionally starts at 44 Avenue d’Ivry, at the métro station Les Gobelins (Line 7). From there it meanders along the Avenue de Choisy to Place d’Italie, Rue de Tolbiac and Boulevard Massena before returning to Avenue d’Ivry. One day earlier, on Saturday, the Marais and Belleville also hold their own neighborhood parades and celebrations.
  • Foodie Alert – After the parade or any time, my favorite drop-in for Dim Sum is Tricotin, 15 Avenue de Choisy, Paris 75013. Tel: 01-45-84-74-44. This is canteen-like, high decibel place but the service is quick, the prices friendly and the freshly made dim sum varied and delicious. Service is non-stop from 9:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. A few steps up the street the Impérial Choisy, 32, Avenue de Choisy. Tel: 01-45-86-42-40, is a local institution with an endless menu of traditional Cantonese dishes. It is open from 12:00 noon to 11:00 P.M. Make a reservation or expect to stand in line. For a bit more decorum and delectable offerings seldom found on  menus in western cities, head for the other end of Chinatown to La Mer de Chine, 159, Rue du Château-des-Rentiers. Tel: 01-45-84-22-49 between the métro stations Place d’Italie and Nationale (Line 4). Open every day for lunch from 12:00 noon to 2:30 P.M. and dinner from 7:00 to 11:00 P.M. Reservations recommended.
  • Meanwhile back the Guimet – Founded and constructed by nineteenth century industrialist Emile Etienne Guimet, the museum was inaugurated in 1889. Starting in 1996 it went through an extensive five-year renovation to reopen in 2001 with 5,500 square meters (60,000 square feet) of permanent exhibit space. The flow of the space now enables visitors to better appreciate the relationships and differences between the various artistic Asian traditions.
  • Getting there and getting in – The Musée Guimet is located at 6, Avenue d’Iéna, Paris 75016. http://www.guimet.fr/en/. Tel: +33 1 56 52 53 00. Metro station Iéna (Line 9). It is opened daily from 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. except Tuesday, May 1, December 25 and January 1.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Paris Chinatown

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