Janine Marsh explores Metz, the historic city of light where a dragon once lived…
“Anyone been to Metz?” I asked in my local bar in the Seven Valleys, Pas de Calais. There was silence. Even in France, Metz is not well known and if you’re from outside of France you might not even have heard of it.
Metz is in the northeast of France, in the Moselle department. It is the capital of the region formerly known as Lorraine, now joined up with Champagne, Ardennes and Alsace and called Grand Est.
Metz is one of France’s oldest cities with a history going back some 3,000 years and the fact that it is rather under the tourism radar is astonishing. Close to Luxembourg and Germany, it is a superbly gastronomic city. It is historic, architecturally glorious, home to arguably France’s oldest church – the basilica of Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains which began life in the 4th century, and a Cathedral which has the largest expanse of stained glass windows in the world. There are magnificent museums including a branch of the Pompidou, the city is surrounded by glorious, mountainous countryside – and yet, it’s less than an hour and a half from Paris.
48 hours in Metz
Metz is steeped in history and character. It’s a city of architectural contrasts, with a medieval district, classical 18th century architecture in the Place d’Armes and Palais de Justice, the enormous neo-Romanesque train station built by the Germans at the start of the 20th century, and a modern side too including the extraordinary Pompidou centre behind the station.
It’s a compact city that’s easy to discover on foot, but if you want to take it easy there a free hop-on-hop off navette bus, and there are loads of cosy cafés and funky bars to tempt you to stop awhile.
The must-sees in Metz
The great Gothic cathedral of Metz
In medieval days, Metz was a mecca for artists and the Cathedral St Etienne, the third highest in France, beautifully illustrates the skill of stone masons and artisans of the day. Made from golden local Jaumont stone it has stood for more than 800 years (built between 1220-1522). The vast stained glass windows (69,920 sq ft) have earned it the nickname ‘God’s Lantern’. The windows here range from medieval masterpieces by Hermann de Münster and Thiébauld de Lixheim to striking modern panes by Jacques Villon and Marc Chagall. During WWII the windows were removed and stored in crates, sent to Château de Dissay, near Poitiers. This didn’t save them however, they were discovered and sent to Germany. Miraculously they were found in a salt mine and returned to their home after the war.
At night the cathedral is illuminated and is one of the reasons the city is known as the Ville Lumières.
Museums of Metz
Housed in an old Carmelite convent, Les Musées de la Cour d’Or contains three museums. The Musée Archaeologique has one of the most important collections of Gallo-Romain archaeology in France including preserved ancient baths preserved. The Musée d’Architecture showcases Romanesque and Gothic pieces. And the Musée des Beaux Arts includes works by a range of prominent artists including Delacroix, Corot and Sargent.
A regional branch of Paris’s Pompidou Centre opened in Metz in 2010. The avante-garde building, which is highlighted by an undulating roof, houses an extensive collection of modern art. The 77-meter high spire is a nod to the year 1977, when the Paris Center Pompidou opened. Modern and contemporary art exhibitions are regularly updated. The centre has a café and a very nice restaurant with a terraced area.
The Imperial Quarter
Between 1902 and 1914, the Imperial Quarter around the train station was built to strict Germanic town planning principals. Originally called Neue Stadt (new city) the area has some of the best preserved examples of German Empire urbanism, especially the luxurious villas on Avenue Foch and the remarkable train station.
The Graoully – Metz’s dragon
The legend goes that a terrible dragon named the Graoully terrorised the people of Metz until the city’s first Bishop, Saint Clement, drowned it. It’s said that the Bishop led the dragon from its lair, along a narrow road to the River Seille, warning onlookers “Taisons-nous/keep quiet, don’t wake the monster.’ Stroll along the pretty cobbled street of what is now called rue Taison, and if you look up, away from the many boutiques and cafés, you’ll spot the Graoully, hanging above you!
Porte des Allemands and the ramparts. The old city gate (Gate of the Germans) and a miniature fortified medieval castle spans the river Seille. The ramparts once formed a 7km enclosure punctuated by 18 gates and 38 towers. You can follow the ramparts path along the river Moselle.
Head to the Quai des Régates and take an electric boat tour. You can even combine it with wine tasting or aperitifs. And take a break in the park at Metz Marina, Port de Plaisance.
Les Halles: The U-shaped covered market on Place de la Cathédrale has a superb range of food including a shop selling local Mirabelle (plum) brandy. Take a break at the market bistro L’Assiette du Marché. Or pick up something delicious like fuseau lorrain, a soft garlic sausage that’s a regional specialty from Chez Mauricette opposite.
The squares: In the heart of Metz, renovated squares are a great place to relax. Try the Place de Chambre (nicknamed the gourmet square of Metz), the Place d’Armes (the medieval Place Saint-Louis, and the Place de la République. Place Jeanne d’Arc is just perfect for summer drinks and dining
Where to eat
El Theatris in Place de la Comédie on the Petit Saulcy island in the centre of Metz. Here they serve gastronomic food with an emphasis on local, seasonal products. One of the dining rooms is the former office of the Marquis de Lafayette, French aristocrat and American Revolution War hero. He was appointed commander of the French army at Metz in 1791.
Head out of the city to Sarreguemines (around an hour by car). Once there, indulge in a Michelin starred feast created by Chef Stephan Schneider at the gorgeous 4* hotel Auberge Saint-Walfrid: www.stwalfrid.fr
Where to stay
4* MGallery La Citadelle Hotel in a former 16th century military building. Superb décor and fabulous views over the cathedral from some rooms. 5 Av. Ney, 57000 Metz
Did you know?
Metz is pronounced Mess which is not a grammar thing – it’s unique to Metz. In fact, says Vivienne Rudd from Metz tourist office, even most Messins (people of Metz) don’t know why it’s pronounced this way. Metz was called Divodorum Médiomatricorum in Gallo-Roman – a bit of a mouthful and horrendous for inscribers of the day. In the 5th century, it was shortened to Mettis then to Mets, Mèz, Mès, Metz and Mess in the 14th century. A recent article suggests that 17th century French printers wanted to use the German “ß” symbol to represent the double “s”. However they didn’t have a key. So they replaced it with something that looked (a bit) like it: “tz”, but the old pronunciation stuck… Why? Because it’s easier to say!
Trains to Metz run from Gare de l’Est, Paris and take from 83 minutes.