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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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