Thursday, December 31, 2009

La Place des Charrons

Not far from some large modern buildings, we stumbled across the Place des Charrons, one of the human-scale places in Metz. At the place's south entrance stands a famous renaissance house, the Hotel de Burtaigne. Built at the start of the 16th Century, the Hotel de Burtaigne (a corruption of Bretagne, the name of an 18th-Century owner), served in 1552 as the headquarters of the Duc de Guise in his successful defense of siege of Metz. The square, enlarged to its present dimensions in the middle of the 18th Century, feels particularly neighborhoody. To my eyes, it's so picturesque that it could have served as the set for "An American in Paris." I half expected to see Jerry Mulligan skipping across the square carrying a loaf of bread.

Faces of Metz

An interested observer, on the warm and dry side of the window, looks out at the passing scene.

Culture Wars

Following up on my posts about architecture, I note that the changes in Metz's architecture, particularly in the early 20th Century, represented a sort of culture war, in which people with control of the "look" of the city expressed either German or French values. Metz, officially part of France since 1766, was part of Germany from 1870 to 1918. The border ran just south of Metz, so its neighbor and rival Nancy remained French.The Kaiser, particularly from about 1900 on, gave special attention to solidifying a German identity for Metz, while also increasing military readiness. For example, a key motivation for the new central train station in 1909 was that it would be capable of transporting 20,000 troops in 24 hours. Similarly, the Guide Michelin reports that the removal of the cathedral's neoclassical facade in 1903 was undertaken by Germans. I interpret this as meaning that, rather than being concerned with the facade's incongruity, they were trying to remove Frenchness.

After 1918, new buildings abandoned the Rhenish Romanesque. By the 1930s, buildings took on art deco and moderne styles, such as this building from 1933.

With its wild profusion of styles, Metz manages to integrate all of them in a way that all now look in place, especially in contrast to the huge metal-and-glass blocks of construction after World War II, plunked down like alien invaders, which drive the visitor away from their unwelcoming bulk toward the more human scale of the older streets and buildings. Metz's melange of Germanic and Latin traces reminds me of Trieste, which also changed identities as it passed back and forth between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy.

Metz has always been changing. For example, until the the end of the 19th Century the central city was still encircled by fortified walls and moats. But, like Toulouse and many other European cities, these were removed to make way for the grand boulevards that now define the cities' core. Metz retains few remnants of its old city walls. One now marooned part of the walls, the Tour Camoufle, was built in the 15th Century. The city's southern gate, the Porte Serpenoise, stands abandoned by the walls through which it once provided entry. This street was a Roman road. The present gate was built in 1852, originally more a tunnel through the fortifications, and reworked in 1903 to shorten the gate into its current form of a triumphal arch.

La Tour Camoufle, Metz

La Porte Serpenoise, Metz

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Public Art from 1394 to 2009

Metz's cathedral, Saint-Etienne de Metz, stands at the highest point of the old city. The site has supported religious buildings from at least the 4th Century. The current Gothic structure dates mostly from the 13th to the 16th Centuries. Its exterior walls glow with golden stone, and its flying buttresses make possible a luminous interior lit by the largest expanse of stained glass in France.

The cathedral's facade, although in the Gothic style, actually dates from the early 20th Century. It replaced a neoclassical facade, built in 1764, intended to harmonize the cathedral, at least at street level, with the nearby buildings of the Place des Armes and the bishop's palace. The side of the cathedral along the place was flanked by a low arcaded gallery. The 18th Century facade can be understood as part of an effort to create a cohesive, monumental district, especially as part of a long-standing competition with nearby city of Nancy. But to modern eyes, the "harmonious" facade is awkward and jarring, especially with the flanking arcade gone.

The west front's large rose window, built in 1394 by Hermann de Munster stands opposite the more color saturated windows of the choir, all the way at the east end of the cathedral. The newest windows feature designs by Marc Chagall on Old Testament themes.

The current city hall, the Hotel de Ville, was completed in 1788. Its relatively austere neoclassical facade must have seemed refreshingly modern at the time. The building currently sports a piece of art both whimsical and grand--"Five Ellipses" by the contemporary artist Felice Varini . This installation, anticipating the opening in mid-2010 of Metz's Pompidou Center, consists of stripes painted on the Hotel de Ville and other nearby buildings that create the illusion of enormous black ellipses hanging in space. Moving elsewhere in the square shows how the parts are created. And it's funny to see from side streets bits of the ellipses on buildings out of context.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Metz Comes Back to Life

Now that the Christmas weekend is over, most everyone who was absent in the past few days is now out promenading on the streets. Their purpose is not to shop Boxing Day sales, because France doesn't have this tradition. Indeed, stores are closed on December 26. France's official winter sale does not begin until Wednesday, January 6 at 8 a.m.; it ends Tuesday, February 9 at midnight.

It is clear that the residents of Metz (the Messins) overwhelmingly favor black winter outerwear. Some 80 to 90 percent of the people in the crowds on the street were dressed in black. With my bright yellow ski parka I stood out like a beacon. Susie noted that at least this made me easy to find.

If you're walking about, one of things you can see is the river as it flows through the city center. South of downtown the area is park-like. At downtown, the riverside takes on a more urban-alpine (if that's possible) color. A mix of old and new buildings stand as the river's east bank, with balconies hanging over the water.

Things That Do Not Translate Well

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Spires in Snow

Amid snow flurries, we walked this afternoon south of the city center. The snowfall came and went, sometimes obscuring landmarks such as the spire of St. Martin's Catholic Presbytery, whose chimes ring through our apartment a couple of blocks away.

A canal, frozen from the winter cold, forms the western edge of the "Imperial Quarter," a district with buildings intended by Kaiser Wilhelm II to "Germanize" Metz after the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. In particular, the main railway station (1907) and the main post office (1911) stand out as, well, large examples. The station, built in a "Rhenish Romanesque" style out of yellow sandstone, features rounded arches, medieval-revival intricate borders reminiscent of some art-nouveau motifs, statues of medieval knights, and weighty proportions. The post office, built in a similar style out of red sandstone, stands even more massively, again with intricate borders on the arches but a simpler overall appearance. Here's more on the Imperial Quarter, the central station, and the post office.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

An Excursion in the Moselle

December 26th arrived with clear blue skies. Susie and I set out for an afternoon's drive to begin to understand the area. We headed east and north, eventually reaching Creutzwald, a French city right on the border with Germany. On the way, we passed through the agricultural landscape of the Moselle countryside. Although most interesting sites are not open in the winter, we stopped to look from the outside at the Chateau de Pange, built in 1720 on the site of older fortifications. Still owned by the Pange family, the chateau abuts the village one side and looks across meadows and river on the other. See

Creutzwald, despite its park and lake, reminded me of a Pennsylvania mining town, laid out in a small valley between ridges. Local signs tend to feature both French and German. For example, the Leclerc "hypermarche" (perhaps analogous to Walmart) welcomed drivers with both "Bienvenue" and "Wilcommen." Much of the area around town, and especially along the border, was still forested. See

On the way back to Metz we drove past and then stopped at Jewish cemetery just outside the village of Blouzonville. The cemetery, terraced up a slope above a river valley, faces east. It holds the remains of people from the local Jewish community, which dates back to the end of the 17th Century. The village's present synagogue was built in the 19th Century, restored in 1907, destroyed by the Germans in World War II, and rebuilt in 1960. Most of the village's Jews, with the rest of the town, were evacuated in 1939 to Chauvigny and survived the war. Although the cemetery is still used, Blouzonville's Jewish population declined steeply after the war. Older people have died, and younger people, like much of the rural population all across France, have moved to bigger cities. The village's Web site has an interesting page on the history of Blouzonville's Jewish community. See

Things That Do Not Translate Well

Christmas in Metz

Holiday lights festoon most of the streets in Metz's central pedestrian zone. Christmas Eve we walked under the lights to dinner at nearby restaurant, Le Bouchon, which offered special holiday menus. We had a table to ourselves for the evening. The restaurant has the atmosphere of and serves the food of a traditional brasserie--straightforward cuisine.

The bustle in the restaurant contrasted with the increasing stillness of the city's streets. By nightfall the crowds at noon had diminished to a hardy few. And by Christmas Day the streets were deserted. One bakery was open in the morning, but that was it. In the afternoon, Susie and I, with perhaps a dozen other people, attended a seasonal organ concert at a nearby 17th-Century church, Notre-Dame de l'Assomption. The church, with its interior now mostly dark and gray, is undergoing badly needed renovation. Its instrument is a famous organ built by Cavaille-Coll in 1845 and restored by Mutin in 1903 (see The restored organ's inaugural concert was performed by Charles-Marie Widor. Our concert, with pieces by Bach and Widor among others, was performed by the church's current organist, Philippe Delacour, who noted that the concert would be relatively short on account of the cold temperature. Indeed, everyone at the concert was bundled up. By the time the concert ended, the sun had set and we were just about the only people out.

The day after Christmas, things began to liven up again by evening. The carousels turned, the Christmas fair booths reopened, and the restaurants again hosted guests. Before dinner we went for a long walk. We bordered the River Meuse as it passed downtown, sweeping alongside key buildings--the cathedral, the "new" temple, and the opera house--all lit monumentally.

The cathedral, one of France's largest, consecrated in 1040 and built mostly between 1250 an 1522, features France's largest expanse of stained glass, ranging from the 13th to the 20th Century. Marc Chagall created the two most recent windows. See and

The New Temple, a Protestant church built in the early years of the 20th Century by Kaiser Wilhem II, who, coincidentally, was Queen Victoria's first grandchild. The church did not meet with the popular approval of the citizens of Metz because its neoclassical Rhenish style clashed with the gothic and classical styles of Metz's other churches. At the time it was built, the new temple symbolized a struggle between French and German cultures during the period of German annexation between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. In 21st-Century eyes, the New Temple's austere dark stone now looks better, especially at night with its lights reflected in the river. See and

Near the north end of the old city center, we stopped to observe Metz's main synagogue, also well lit. Although Jews were probably present in Metz as early as the Roman era, the modern Jewish presence dates at least back to the 9th Century and then consistently from 1565 on. By 1842, 2400 Jews lived in Metz. The present synagogue, built between 1848 and 1850, replaced a number of smaller and older synagogues. It has a romanesque facade--a more conservative style than the "Oriental" (i.e., Middle-Eastern) style originally proposed by the architects. The building is large--40 meters long by 20 meters wide. During the occupation the synagogue became dilapidated but survived to be restored and listed as a historic monument. See and

Thursday, December 24, 2009

First Impressions

Susie and I arrived on December 23, in time to see Metz and its citizens finish up preparations for Christmas. The streets in the city center are decorated with lights, the squares have carousels and Christmas market booths, and people are hurrying to buy provisions before all the shops shut down for a couple of days. Today before noon there were long lines at the bakeries, the charcuteries, and the confiseurs. At one upscale patissier-chocolatier, the line stretched around the corner, guided by a velvet rope. The store windows boast elaborate and correspondingly expensive holiday cakes.

The Christmas market, regionally famous and distributed across three squares, consists of colorful booths that sell gifts, trinkets, candy, food, drink, and all sorts of specialty items. As you walk by, vendors offer tastes of products like rustic ham and spice bread.

You can see and smell crepes on the griddle, waffles being sugared. Children walk by with their faces smeared with chocolate. One booth sold items from Quebec, such as beer and maple syrup. Cups of vin chaud--mulled wine--pass across counters to waiting hands.

The streets in the center of town mostly exclude vehicles and are lined with shops and restaurants. The Place de la Republic features a carnival ride in the form of a giant Christmas tree. The place looks thriving, and people, for example waiting in line with you at the baker's, are warm and friendly. When we mentioned that we'd just arrived from the USA, the supermarket grocery checker told us that one of her sisters lived in Florida and another in Montreal.

Decent wines are deliriously inexpensive. We bought a bottle of Gaillac for 2.99 euros and a Fronton for 3.15; at home these would have been $15-18. Restaurants meals cost a lot more than in the US, though. We could save a lot of money by dining at home on a wine diet.

Our Apartment

Our apartment is in the traditional city center, a block south of where the pedestrian zone of narrow cobbled streets begins. The building formerly housed the Metz police department, and there's still a small police station housed in a ground-floor corner. Our apartment must be the grandest in the building, with its fifteen-foot ceilings, elaborate paneling and moldings, and tall windows.

The only downside has been, I think, remediated. No one had lived there for a month, so the heat was off, the place was chillingly cold, and getting the heaters going kept triggering the apartment's main circuit breaker. We'd sit there on a couch, and suddenly everything would go black. Nicolas figured things out, and by this afternoon the apartment was warm without unexpectedly plunging us into darkness. An electrician came by and verified that everything's working properly. Susie and I feel much more comfortable now, and have unpacked.

Arriving in Metz

We took the newest and fastest of the French TGVs, the TGV Est, which goes from Paris to Strasbourg. We--and all our bags--got on the train at the Paris CDG airport rail terminal. The train quickly accelerated out of the station; cruising speed, so to speak, is about 200 mph. As we headed into the countryside east of Paris, the landscape developed into a rural patchwork of green and brown fields that followed the contours of rolling hills occasionally topped by an old windmill. Evidence of recent snowfalls edged the fields and glinted between furrows. In 80 minutes, traversing Champagne and Moselle regions, we arrived at the Lorraine TGV station.

A smallish shuttle bus carried us and the luggage to the Metz central train station. We passed the Metz-Nancy regional airport, which is not the largest in the world. Planes go to places like Lyon and Toulouse; if you go to Paris you take the train.The bus drivers suggested that the airport existed mainly as a subsidized point of regional pride. When we reached the Metz central station we met Nicolas, our hugely helpful GTL staff person, and rented a car. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at our home in Metz.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Scramble

We're in the scramble of getting ready to go. As the time to departure grows shorter the lists of things to do seems to grow longer. We've completed a trial run at packing, arranged for train tickets in France, and are hoping to dodge any strikes while we travel.

Although I lived in France on and off for six years, I never visited Lorraine. Susie and I have learned a little about Metz, including--remarkably enough--that there's a restaurant called "Le Tex Mex." We're looking forward to catching our breaths and and learning about life in la region Messine through time and exploration.

Welcome to the Dispatch

My wife Susie and I will be spending much of the spring of 2010 in Metz, France. This blog will report my experiences and observations, much in same way that my "Dispatch from Toulouse" covered my years in the south of France.

Susie is blogging about our adventure, too, at Susie In France.

We expect to start our stay in mid-February. In the meantime, we'll have a short visit to Metz starting December 23 to get to set things up and start to get to know people.