The classical and the contemporary meet in Metz

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A 16th century display of stained glass filling the southern transept of the Metz Cathedral.
A 16th century display of stained glass filling the southern transept of the Metz Cathedral. Photo Credit: Nadine Godwin

Travel Weekly contributor Nadine Godwin visited Metz and other French cities in December 2019, not long before tourist travel to France shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Looking forward to the post-Covid era, her report follows:

METZ, France -- Tourist attractions here run the gamut from ancient Gallo-Roman baths to modern art, from quaint cobblestone streets to a Michelin-starred restaurant.

The 800-year-old Metz Cathedral and the 10-year-old Centre Pompidou-Metz, tops on almost any itinerary, are prime examples of the range.

They topped my group's list, too  along with a surprise third contender for our affections: the railroad station.

I arrived at that station, Metz-Ville, with a group of travel agents on a Rail Europe fam centered on French Christmas markets. France routinely offers lots of markets (although not this year) and, given the whirlwind nature of fams, we ran up a record number of sightings in a week.

During our six hours in Metz, we managed sightseeing in several districts plus phenomenal amounts of shopping, tastings of mulled wine and hot chocolate and even a few turns on the Ferris wheel in the market next to the cathedral.

Metz-Ville

The train station was designed to serve the military. Metz is in the Lorraine region abutting Germany but was part of Germany from 1871 through World War I.

Kaiser Wilhelm II commissioned the 1908 station to accommodate large and efficient movements of troops and their horses, to prepare for possible war with his neighbors.

Bas-relief on a capital in the Metz-Ville railroad station illustrating a couple returning from their honeymoon -- with their new baby.
Bas-relief on a capital in the Metz-Ville railroad station illustrating a couple returning from their honeymoon -- with their new baby. Photo Credit: Nadine Godwin

But, Metz-Ville's 107,500 square feet don't add up to a barn. The station's halls are intentionally palatial in design as well as scale, a propaganda device meant to justify Germany's imperial sway over Alsace-Lorraine. Further, the royal family had private apartments at the station; they are now offices for SNCF, France's national railway company.

Our guide emphasized the size, saying the station is "as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall," while pointing out smaller details.

Sculpted capitals outside former dining halls revealed where ticket holders were to eat. For passengers in first class, the capital showed a server carrying wine, but for the hoi polloi, the server offered beer. The latter dining space is now a very big bookstore.

Another capital presents a honeymooning couple, set to leave town by train; on the capital's other side, they have returned with a baby. Apparently, it was a long honeymoon.

The 984-foot-long station, with 130-foot clock tower, was positioned as the centerpiece of Metz's Imperial district created by German planners. From here, broad boulevards radiated outward, making it easy for soldiers to find barracks and others to find hotels.

Metz Cathedral

It was a quick walk from the station for us, too, as we sought out holiday markets, including one beside the cathedral.

It is now 800 years since the project to build Metz Cathedral was launched.

More than 200 anniversary events were scheduled for 2020 and into mid-February 2021. Events included concerts, conferences, exhibitions, spectacles and the like. Pastry makers created commemorative goodies, and Moselle vintners bottled limited-edition red and white wines.

Planners drastically revised these schedules, postponing many events. The anniversary year is now defined as running through July of next year, with a few events even later, according to Vivienne Rudd, press spokesperson at Visit Metz.

The cathedral boasts size (the nave is about 137 feet tall), the airiness and delicacy of the Gothic style and a yellow limestone exterior, all of which add up to a dreamy piece of work, especially under late-afternoon sun.

But the cathedral is best known for its nearly 70,000 square feet of stained-glass windows, giving it the nickname, "God's Lantern."

The Metz Cathedral, plus the Ferris wheel that featured in the 2019 Christmas market abutting the cathedral. Although its markets were canceled this year, Metz expects to see them -- and the Ferris wheel -- in action next year.
The Metz Cathedral, plus the Ferris wheel that featured in the 2019 Christmas market abutting the cathedral. Although its markets were canceled this year, Metz expects to see them -- and the Ferris wheel -- in action next year. Photo Credit: Nadine Godwin

Most of the windows date from the 13th to 16th centuries. But not all medieval windows survived World War II, so there are modern pieces, including five reflecting the distinct style of their creator Marc Chagall.

Many of the cathedral's anniversary events focus on the windows, and the French government, which owns the cathedral, commissioned a new window, originally meant to be installed last spring. The jury selected a design by U.S.-based Korean artist, Kimsooja. Her work will be installed in advance of an unveiling event, currently scheduled for Sept. 18.

There are no plans to broadcast any of the commemorative events on the Web, but that could change, Rudd said. Check for event dates at 800-cathedrale.metz.fr/en/dates/.

Centre Pompidou-Metz

From 2010, Metz has been home to a sister institution to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It is a modern art museum and cultural center hosting concerts, films, workshops and other events. It draws on the older institution's art collections and know-how.

It's also a dramatic piece of architecture planted front and center in Metz's new (21st century) Amphitheatre district, near the train station. The mixed-use Amphitheatre district is meant to encourage urban diversity and promote sustainable development.

Metz won the bid to host the newer Centre Pompidou partly because it could accommodate the museum near the station and because the city has TGV service.

Architecturally, the museum's most striking feature is a roof that looks like a large, undulating white tent. It's actually an 86,000-square-foot, hexagonal membrane of fiberglass and Teflon. The membrane sits on a wooden mesh reminiscent of cane-work. The architects were inspired by a woven Chinese hat.

Inside, three galleries weave through the building at different levels, ending with picture windows offering sweeping views of the city.

The Centre Pompidou-Metz was an important addition to Metz's tourism product; it counted 304,000 visitors in 2019.

Our guide emphasized the museum's accessibility from Paris, 82 minutes on the TGV. Metz makes the same point for the entire city.

As long as there is no lockdown, Rudd said, trains continue operating on normal schedules but with limited capacity to allow for social distancing.

And, as it happened, our December visit last year wrapped up with the TGV ride, to Paris. I'd love to return on that train soon. Metz stands by, charms intact.

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