Saturday, March 27, 2010


Bar-le-Duc, the home of the powerful Ducs du Bar and once the residence of the Ducs de Lorraine, today is a scenic small city that serves as the capital of the Meuse, one of the departments of the Lorraine region. At its economic and cultural height in the 16th Century, Bar-le-Duc was a prestigious and prosperous city of weavers, merchants, and, particularly, nobility. Although they ruled a duchy independent of France, the Counts of Bar-le-Duc had close relations with France, and some members of the French royal family were born in Bar-le-Duc. Marie de Guise, wife of James V of Scotland, mother of Mary Queen of Scots, and grandmother of James I of Scotland was born in Bar-le-Duc, too. The wealthy and powerful nobles surrounding the courts of the dukes of Bar and Lorraine built many sumptuous mansions in the new style of the Renaissance.

By the mid-17th Century, though, the city began to decline. The dukes of Lorraine had moved to Nancy, the region suffered through the Thirty Years War, and the city's chateau and fortifications were dismantled in 1670 on the orders of Louis XVI. The textile industry, which had long sustained the city's economy, was in decline in the 19th Century. Most of the city was left behind by the economic progress that so significantly reshaped other cities in the region such as Metz. But this neglect proved salutary--the Renaissance mansions survived the industrial revolution--and today Bar-le-Duc is one of France's most remarkably well-preserved treasures.

The chateau and most of the mansions were built in the upper city. Little of the once-mighty fortifications remain; the clock tower is the only remaining castle tower, spared because its clock and bells still still had an important role to play in daily life. Today the tower, with the upper city, stands far above the valley floor.

To get from the lower city to the upper city on foot, you climb a series of staircases like this one.

When you get to the top, next to the clock tower, it's a short, and more horizontal, walk to the upper city's Place Saint-Pierre, where the Saint-Etienne church, built mostly between 1440 and 1537, faces rows of elegant mansions of the period.

The mansions are called hotels, but these were private residences. The Hotel de Florainville, at the far right in the photograph, was built in the 16th Century and boasts a harmonious Renaissance facade, to which ironwork, created in the 18th Century by Jean Lamour, the artisan of elaborate ironwork of the great squares in Nancy.

The houses of the upper city have varied styles and ornamentation but, taken together, form a wonderfully harmonious ensemble.

Against the neutral-warm stone facades, the Bar-le-Duc's shutters stand out in a palette of striking colors.

From the upper city's belvedere, you can look out at the lower city and the contemporary buildings on the slopes on the opposite side of the Ornain river. You can see the tower of the Notre-Dame church toward the left. The top of the Synagogue is also visible as an angled roof just over the right shoulder of the large light-colored building in the center of the photograph.

The lower city, although more the home of merchants than nobles, also retains many superb Renaissance houses. The Maison des Deux Barbeaux, for example, was built in 1618.

Bar-le-Duc's main shopping street, the Boulevard de la Rochelle, parallels the river, one block away. As a result, the quais have an almost bucolic calm.

The Notre-Dame church, whose foundations date from the Gallo-Roman era, is mostly a Renaissance structure that has long served as the city's parish church.

The train ride from Metz to Bar-le-Duc and back takes you through the valley of the Rupt du Mad. (Rupt is a local word for stream or river.) Susie and I had driven down the valley the other day on our way back from Prény. The countryside is just beautiful, with the Mad running past fields and villages.

Toward the middle of the trip, as the railway climbs toward the source of the Rupt du Mad, villages cling to hillsides.

Closer to Bar-le-Duc, the landscape is somewhat flatter, and the fields can take on the appearance of a landscape painting from the era of Bar-le-Duc's glory.

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