Sitting at the confluence of the Moselle and Seille rivers, Metz is a fascinating, historic and attractive city. It comes complete with an array of cultural attractions, of which the town’s Pompidou Centre is only the most famous. I arrived in the early evening on a Saturday and went for a stroll through Les Îles, the larger of Metz’s central islands and the compact smaller island where the Temple Neuf sits picturesquely in the middle of the Moselle. A charming introduction to a town with many charms to recommend it.
Crossing the river, I reached the winding cobbled streets of the town’s ancient centre, which on a Saturday evening the night before the World Cup final were buzzing with life. Tables spilled out onto the largely pedestrianised streets, with friends and families enjoying dinner and drinks. The whole atmosphere was carnival-like. The centre of the town is dominated by the massive Saint Stephen’s cathedral, and I arrived beneath its hulking mass just as the sun was setting, and setting it aglow in golden light.
The cathedral is famed for having the largest expanse of stained glass, some 6,496 m2, in the world. I’d have to wait for the cathedral to reopen the next day to get a look at the windows though. It was getting late and so I walked through the streets looking for a place to eat, ideally somewhere that served local specialities. Everywhere was pretty packed, but I eventually found a small brasserie with tables lining a cobbled street that was open late. Hanging over the street, and my head, was a large dragon.
This is a city that comes with a dramatic foundation story involving dragons, the fire-breathing mythical beasts of medieval imaginings. The story goes that the first Bishop of Metz, canonised as Saint Clement, arrived in a town plagued not only by a dragon, but by a population of heathens. The breath of the dragon, known as the Graoully, is said to have poisoned the air and trapped the good folk of Metz inside the walls of their town. For added effect, the dragon lived in the old Roman amphitheatre.
Clement got rid of the Graoully, but the incredibly ungrateful people refused to convert to Christianity, forcing Clement to bring someone, possibly the king’s daughter, back from the dead to prove his power. Once he’d resurrected her everyone toed the line. Metz went on to become a significant religious centre over the following centuries – it’s here that the Gregorian chant is said to have been invented – but in a nod to its earlier, heathen days, it adopted the dragon as its symbol.
The next morning I set off to explore Metz before World Cup hysteria fully took hold, although there were a significant number of fireworks exploding around the town, and plenty of people were draped in French flags and wearing cockerels on their heads. I headed across the islands and through the city to the formal gardens of the Jardin de l’Esplanade close to the Arsenal concert hall. Except for a few runners and dog walkers the area was deserted, and I wandered around the pleasant parks unearthing various artworks until I reached the Palais du Gouverneur.
This grand building was built at the beginning of the 20th century and is a symbol of Metz’s troubled history. It served as an Imperial residence for the German Emperor, William II, during the period after France’s defeat in the war with Prussia in 1870. The city, like much of the Alsace and Lorraine region, was controlled by Germany until the end of the First World War. As I admired the building, in the distance I could hear what sounded like military grade fireworks exploding in imitation of that conflict. Watch the videos for proof!
Preparations for the football seemed to be reaching a peak. I made my way towards the centre and joined the increasing numbers of excited people looking for a place to watch the match. La Marseillaise was ringing around the streets and an awful lot of alcohol was being consumed. The rest, as they say is history, but it will take quite some time for me to forget the scenes before, during and after France’s victory – it also took me a while to recover the next day.