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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lorraine


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Lorraine is another region of France that lost its political identity with the territorial reform of 2016 that merged it with the culturally disparate areas of Champagne and Alsace to form Grand-Est. This might not be as tragic as it first appears because Lorraine was never homogeneous. Most of the region is firmly aligned with French culture but the northwestern area was often controlled by Germany and only became a permanent part of France after Germany lost it at the end of World War I. Many denizens of the department of Moselle still speak German and German dialects and their cuisine is more Germanic than French.
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We would be travelling longitudinally through Lorraine affording us the opportunity to see both sides of this interesting region. It was still a substantial drive from Dijon and I wanted to be sure we weren't missing anything on the way. It was rather difficult to find anything worthy of a stop in this relatively untraveled part of France but I eventually settled on the town of Langres. This walled city sits on a limestone plateau in an area without strong regional identity in the far southeastern corner of the region of Champagne. Langres is far closer to Dijon and Nancy in location and character than it is to the epicenter of Champagne culture around Reims and Épernay, yet is not considered part of either Bourgogne or Lorraine. Couple this with the city's remoteness from any points of interest to international travelers and it was unsurprising that we had the town's antiquated center entirely to ourselves on an overcast Wednesday morning.
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We walked through one of the seven gates under the ramparts into a stunning network of antiquated streets and squares that surpassed anything we had seen in Bourgogne. It was as though we had walked into a parallel universe where tourism did not exist yet all the atmospheric cafes and quirky boutiques that go along with tourism were still there. The businesses were modern but the stone buildings which housed them looked like they hadn't changed in hundreds of years.
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We soon came upon Rue Diderot which opens into a wide cobblestone square watched over by a bronze statue of the city's most famous native son. The writer and philosopher Denis Diderot was born in Langres in 1713 and received his early education there although he spent most of his life in Paris. The square is fronted by some of the most majestic buildings in the city. A couple of blocks further down Rue Diderot was the Romanesque and Gothic Cathedral of Saint Mammes, once the center of a major regional diocese.
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We were stunned by the unexpected magnificence of Langres. Perhaps the surprising beauty and vitality of the old town was due to the fact that the walled area is still the dominant portion of the city with only a few scattered modern communities built around it. The businesses are viable due to the patronage of the townspeople who live in a high concentration in the center and don't need to rely on outsiders who will never return. Another interesting feature of Langres is that the entire town can be circled by walking the ramparts of the ancient walls. We only walked for a short segment but it was enough to provide another fascinating perspective on this remarkable city.
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Our final stop in Langres was the Mill Gate, the entrance to the old town that one sees upon arriving from the southern direction. The elaborate stonework above the double arch celebrates France's victory over Spain in the Thirty Years War in the early seventeenth century. A steady drizzle had begun falling but I decided to check my Geocache app again and got a hit on the other side of the traffic rotary, at the northern end of a narrow park called Promenade de Blanchefontaine. Once again we were completely unsuccessful in locating the cache but the tree-lined promenade was quite beautiful. It would have been nice to have followed the path through those stately trees but the rain was coming down harder and it was clear our time in Langres was coming to an end. As annoying as the rain was, it marked the end of the unpleasant heat wave we had been suffering through for the last week.
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Langres was a great reminder that even the best guidebooks can't be relied on to catch every city worth visiting. Sometimes a town's invisibility on the tourist radar is the precise reason it's such a worthwhile destination. The extra work I had done studying everything on our route had certainly paid off in this instance. My research had turned up nothing else between Langres and Nancy so we drove the remaining two hours uneventfully. We had an immediate positive impression of Nancy, a sophisticated-appearing city with remarkable classical buildings. Our block was lined with these beautiful rectangular buildings with narrow balconies and ornate masonry. Because of city traffic we were a little late to meet the person who was there to let us in to the Airbnb apartment. She was very flustered and I tried to tell her to just give us the key and go but she insisted on showing me every last detail of the apartment, albeit in a very rushed and stressful way. The apartment was partially renovated with relatively modern kitchen and bathroom, but it still had the classic Victorian high ceilings and squeaky wooden floors, along with second floor views of that magnificent row of apartment buildings across the street.
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We were just a short walk from Grand Rue, the central road of the old town center. On the way we passed through two ancient gates, the seventeenth century Porte de la Citadelle and the renovated Porte de la Craffe, originally built in the fourteenth century. Rue Grande was filled with energy and lined with intriguing buildings from different eras. The shades of beige were somewhat reminiscent of Dijon but the style of architecture was quite different and most buildings had typical French plaster facades instead of stone. An ornate spire towered above the other buildings and we followed it to discover the Gothic revival Basilica of Saint Epvre which had spires, windows, and stone carvings packed into every square inch of its exterior.
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The restaurant we had chosen was all the way at the far end of the old town so it was quite a relief to find that they had a table available for us. We had chosen Le Bouche à Oreille because they offered typical food of Lorraine and we would only be spending one night in the region. The interior was intentionally kitschy with paintings and kitchen equipment covering every inch of the walls and ceiling. It was kind of like eating at your crazy grandmother's house. The food was reasonably good with the star attraction being chunks of beef attached to a spiked metal ball suspended from a post. I assumed it was a local specialty but afterwards I tried to look it up and found no reference to it anywhere. The kids were entertained and I was glad we had found ourselves a French dinner after eating ethnic food on our two nights in Dijon.
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According to my research the main sight in Nancy was Place Stanislas, the only UNESCO World Heritage site in northeastern France. I was expecting a nice square surrounded by distinguished buildings but once we passed through the gilded gate at the southwest corner my jaw dropped at the opulence around us. Aside from the elaborate gilded wrought-iron gates at each corner there was a breathtaking arch at the northern face called Arc Héré that honors Louis XV, the reigning monarch at the time of the square's construction. The square was originally built by the Polish Duke of Lorraine, Stanisław Leszczyński, to honor Louis XV and was named Plaza Royale. It's an interesting story how a deposed Polish king became a popular and influential Duke of Lorraine. In the early nineteenth century the anti-monarchal sentiment engendered by the French Revolution ultimately resulted in the renaming of the square after its original architect. The statue of Louis XV that originally graced the marble pedestal at the center of the square was also replaced by one of Stanislas. The buildings surrounding the square have a pleasingly uniform and distinguished appearance and include an opera house, an art museum, and several hotels.
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I was truly amazed to come across such a magnificent place in Lorraine that I had never heard of. I can't think of a single other square in France that approaches its extravagance, although I've seen some that are similar in Germany and Austria. Place Stanislas would be much better known if it was in Paris or Lyon but I was glad to experience it without being crushed by tourists. We walked back towards the Airbnb through Parc de la Pépinière, a well-manicured city park with a large variety of impressively tall trees. The park is another creation of Duke Stanislas who clearly left an outsized mark on Nancy over his thirty years in office.
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We felt satisfied that we had made the most of our limited time in the old town. After a pleasant night in our Victorian apartment we made a beeline for the Marché Central at Place Charles III not far from where we had eaten dinner the previous night. This was a passable market although it was relatively empty and there were a lot of resellers. There was a decent little restaurant inside where we combined a few hot dishes with some food we had bought at the market. We didn't linger long because we had a couple of other markets to get to that morning, or so we thought. Place Charles III was not anywhere near the same league as Place Stanislas but it did have the beautiful baroque facade of the Saint Sebastien Church on the western side as well as a cool book exchange in a shady spot.
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A short walk from Place Charles III was an even larger baroque church, the Nancy Cathedral. The cathedral was constructed by the Dukes of Lorraine in the early eighteenth century in the hopes of competing for regional status with the enlarging Kingdom of France which was steadily absorbing neighboring states. The central third stage was originally supposed to have been a majestic dome but cost considerations interfered.
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I still had several markets on the itinerary that morning. The first was a large organic produce market in the southern suburb of Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy. My research had indicated that it was a daily market but when we arrived the site was deserted. I could no longer find my source that advised a daily market and it now appeared that it was only a thing on Friday evenings and Sunday mornings. That was a little frustrating but there was still plenty for us on the itinerary that morning. We headed east to the weekly market at Dombasle-sur-Meurthe. These weekly markets in small towns are highly unpredictable and this one turned out to be rather unimpressive. Fortunately we hadn't had to drive far out of our way and it was just an hour to our next stop in Metz.
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As we drove into Metz we had our first encounter of the trip with the Moselle, an important Rhine tributary that is important to the history of northeastern France and is legendary among connoisseurs of Riesling wine. Within the city the Moselle splits numerous times, forming several large river islands that contain historic sections of the city.
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The area of immediate interest to us was the daily covered market which is adjacent to the city's revered cathedral. We parked in the convenient garage adjacent to the market and got inside the U-shaped building right around lunch time. It was an unexceptional mid-sized covered market but the small Spanish-themed restaurant inside was quite good.
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The Cathedral of Saint Étienne appears vast but it isn't even one of the ten tallest cathedrals in France. Part of the reason for its imposing appearance is the way that the edifice is situated such that while the immediate surrounding area is clear, it can still be seen to tower over nearby buildings from whatever perspective it is viewed from. The most unique feature of the cathedral is its vividly ochre coloration due to the use of local Jaumont limestone in its construction. This stone has been used to construct buildings throughout Metz giving the city as distinct an appearance as Burgundy stone confers on Dijon.
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Although I'm not disposed to spend time inside churches and cathedrals I let the kids convince me to walk through the interior. Although the cathedral itself is not particularly tall the nave is unusually high and well-illuminated via 6500 square meters of stained glass, the largest display of any church in France. The French poet Verlaine described the nave as the Lantern of God in the nineteenth century and the nickname has stuck. The windows have continued to be updated over the centuries with an important addition by renowned artist Marc Chagall in the 1960's.
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From the cathedral we worked our way south into the commercial center of the old town. This area was quite crowded which surprised me as I hadn't thought Metz would be a particularly touristic city. Many of the buildings had a similar ochre color to the cathedral although for most it seemed to be a coloration applied to the facades rather than from Jaumont stone. The ground floors of the buildings were occupied by expensive designer boutiques and upscale restaurants.
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A turn to the west brough us to Quai Paul Vautrin on the bank of the Moselle. Across from us was Île du Petit-Saulcy, the smallest of the inhabited river islands within the city. At the southern end of the island was the Protestant church Temple Neuf which appears medieval but was actually constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century. The church's construction in Romanesque Revival style was quite controversial at the time. Between the church and the wedge-shaped edge of the island is the Jardin d'Amour which contains beautiful tall trees in various shades of green. It only took a couple of minutes to cross over the island to its much larger brother Île du Grand-Saulcy. The buildings on either side of this narrow branch of the river between the islands appeared to rise straight out of the water in a manner reminiscent of Venice.
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We were tempted to continue our exploration onto Île du Grand-Saulcy but we knew time was running short if we wanted to be settled in Luxembourg before dinner. We regretfully turned back to the center but I couldn't resist another shot of the cathedral rising above the buildings lining the bank of the Moselle.
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We decided to sit down for sorbet instead of walking up to the old Colline Sainte-Croix neighborhood north of the cathedral. We retrieved the car before driving through the last area of interest for us in Metz, the Quartier Impérial. During the final years of German possession of Lorraine the authorities decided to develop this district south of the center in an effort to make Metz more German in character. The most remarkable examples of turn-of-the-century architecture were on Avenue Foch where it was impossible to find a place to pull over, but we did get to admire a few buildings up close on one of the side streets.
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It was somewhat disappointing that we didn't have more time to walk around Metz since it was unexpectedly one of the most interesting and attractive cities we had visited in France. Had I known I would have spent a night there but it's hard to construct a perfect itinerary in unfamiliar regions. It wasn't something that we needed to dwell on because in an hour we would be in Luxembourg, a mysterious little country that I was quite curious to learn more about.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:59 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family lorraine family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog langres

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