Sunday, December 6, 2015

Day Trip to Metz

Samschdeg, 5 Dezember.

One of the great things about being a Fulbright E.T.A. is having a relatively flexible schedule. After having to work on my birthday (#grownupproblems), I decided to take advantage of a free day on Wednesday and hopped across the border to check out my neighbor, Metz!

Closer to the Luxembourg border than Strasbourg or Brussels but not quiiite as close as Trier, Metz is an ancient French city with a fascinating history. The city is stunning (check out this YouTube video for proof) -- full of everything from Roman ruins to modern art museums, from classically French cathedrals to undeniably German houses. And a seriously fancy train station.

A shot of the Moselle River, which flows through Metz.

The Porte Serpenoise in downtown Metz.

My first impression of Metz? Wow, this city has a lot of churches. And buildings that look like churches, but aren't. And buildings that don't look quite like churches, but are. And ... well, you get it.

After getting significantly lost after leaving the train station and winding up at a department store, my first real stop in Metz was Saint-Étienne de Metz, a building that both looks a whole lot like a church and very much is one.

The Metz Cathedral, as it's called in English, is a typically Gothic cathedral built over a span of three centuries between 1220 and 1552. The current cathedral was built on a site that was historic, even eight hundred years ago. According to legend, the site had been dedicated to Saint Stephen and was the only building spared when the Huns sacked the city of Metz in the fifth century.

When I visited, the cathedral was almost empty. I followed the suggested parcours spirituel in a circuit around the dark church; however, both the church and the city tourist office offer themed tours for a small fee.


One of the cathedral's major claims to fame, in addition to boasting one of the world's highest naves, is its vitraux, or stained glass windows. (Is it somehow telling that the French have a completely separate noun for these works of art? My friends were surprised to learn that we Anglophones lump them together with "windows.")

The cathedral has almost 6500 square meters, or nearly 70,000 square feet, of stained glass -- the largest expanse of stained glass in the entire world! For this reason, the cathedral is often known by its nickname, la Lanterne du Bon Dieu, or "the Good Lord's Lantern." The stained glass was stunning, but the resulting darkness of the cathedral provided an interesting contrast to the light-filled space we found at the cathedral in Amiens. (Click here to revisit the Amiens Cathedral.)

In addition to the Gothic and Renaissance panes that decorate most of the cathedral, there are also three perhaps surprisingly modern additions: vitraux created in the late 1950s by modernist Marc Chagall. (Remember his mural on the ceiling of the Opera Garnier? Click here to check out that post.) Chagall's additions, one of which is featured below on the right, are the most recent; the oldest stained glass in the cathedral dates back to the thirteenth century.

One of my first stops after visiting the cathedral was another church, the Temple neuf de Metz, a Protestant church built in the early twentieth century. It is a striking building and I was tickled pink to notice that all the doors, window frames, and even the metal railing around the property were painted a dark shade of purple!

I also stumbled upon the Eglise Sainte-Ségolène, an older Catholic church in the center of historic Metz. Although a church has stood on this spot since the ninth century, the current Gothic structure originated in the mid-thirteenth century and underwent a major renovation in the 1890s. Nifty!

The Hotel de Region can be classified as one of those buildings that, despite its church-like appearance and very church-y history, is in fact not a church. Over the past several hundred years, the Abbaye Saint-Clément has served the Benedictine monks, the French military (in the years following the French Revolution), the Jesuits, and -- finally -- the regional government. Today, it is the seat of the administration of the Lorraine Region.

Even more historic is Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains, which at over 1700 years old is one of the oldest churches in Europe. Well, sort of.

Now a basilica, Saint-Pierre actually began as a Gallo-Roman gymnasium, built in the fourth century as part of a larger spa complex. It was transformed into a church during the seventh century and became the burial place of two of Charlemagne's sons. (Yes, that Charlemagne. Apparently he was really fond of Metz and nearly chose the city as the capital of his empire.) Although the remains of its original Roman architecture can still be seen today, much of the basilica has been destroyed and rebuilt over the course of a millennium and a half. After serving as a warehouse for several centuries, the church was classified as a historic monument in 1909 and underwent a large-scale restoration in the late 20th century.

Not impressed? Consider this ringing endorsement of Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains by The Complete Pilgrim: "One of the only fully intact Roman-era buildings in Europe still standing, the basilica has served as a spa, a Benedictine chapel, a royal mausoleum, a church, a warehouse and a concert hall. It is also considered to be the birthplace of Christian music. The basilica has witnessed, and survived, the ravages of dozens of major wars, from the Germanic and Hun invasions of the 5th century to the World Wars of the 20th century. If there is any church in the world which has truly experienced the entirety of French history, it is probably this one."


Highway signs can be misleading: Paris is to the west, Luxembourg to the north, and Nancy to the south.

Two of my first and most important sights: the train station and the Christmas market map.

Apart from all the neat and historic churches, my favorite part of Metz was exploring the Avenue Foch. At just over half a kilometer long, the street is one of the most striking examples of the long and complicated history of Metz.

The Avenue Foch marks the divide between historic Metz and the city's quartier impérial, a neighborhood built during the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. It features buildings constructed in decidedly German styles -- including one home that seems to have popped right out of a fairy tale -- as well as a few defiantly and undeniably French structures.

I couldn't handle any more churches and my legs were not up for much more outdoor exploring. But before leaving Metz, I had one last stop to make.

The Centre Pompidou-Metz, a branch of Paris' famous Centre Pompidou opened in 2013 and has been a huge hit, receiving approximately half a million visitors per year. (In other words, the equivalent of an annual pilgrimage of the entire population of Luxembourg.) The building was designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and ... well ... it's definitely not like anything else in Metz.

Isn't that crazy?! Like the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the museum is as much as work of art as the paintings it holds.

I am not, to put it diplomatically, the most enthusiastic fan of modern art ... but given the museum's popularity, proximity to the train station, and -- um -- free admission for students, I couldn't really say no. I spent about an hour exploring the museum's permanent and temporary exhibits, which stretch across several floors, and becoming increasingly aware of exactly how much my boots have begun to squeak.

I didn't do a lot before going to Metz. Aside from a quick visit to the city's tourism website (on my phone) (on the train) (on the way to Metz), I didn't bother to learn much about the city or what there was to do there, figuring instead that I would just visit the tourist office and figure it out. I'd like to pretend that this is part of my new strategy to be a cool, go-with-the-flow kind of person ... but in reality, I was just running short on time. Unfortunately, even the best-laid plans go awry ... and mine was far from being well-laid. I had already seen half of the city of Metz by the time I stumbled across the tourist office and although I had a wonderful day poking around the city, I can't help but think that a little planning -- or at least a little bit of Googling -- would have made the trip even better.

Want to go to Metz? First, do your research. (Or just reread this blog post because I have now done the research for you out of sheer guilt.) If you are coming from Luxembourg, it truly could not be simpler to get to Metz! A billet aller/retour set me back just fourteen euros (although it may run a little more expensive for those without an in-country transit pass) and I was able to get to the city in under an hour.

Or just come visit me and I'll take you there!

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