Metz is a city with an extraordinary history, which can be traced back over 3,000 years. There was a Celtic settlement here before it was dislodged by the Romans, who in turn were displaced by the Franks, from where France gets its modern name. Most famous of all though, this was the birthplace of the Carolingian dynasty. The unfortunately, but amusingly, named Pepin the Short was the first of the Carolingian’s to be crowned King of the Franks in 751. He was the great, great grandson of Bishop, later Saint, Arnulf of Metz. More importantly, he was the father of Charlemagne.
While it might be something of an overstatement, Charlemagne is often thought of as the “Father of Europe”, reflecting his role in unifying much of Western Europe, and for converting his subjects to Christianity – whether they wanted to or not. He ordered the execution of over 4,500 Saxons who refused to convert. The history of Metz during this period is entwined with the Carolingians, becoming an important religious, cultural and economic centre at the heart of an expanding dynastic empire.
It’s a period known as the Carolingian Renaissance, a flourishing of the arts, literature, architecture and legal reform. Charlemagne gathered around him Europe’s leading scholars, who played a critical role in the renaissance. One of whom was Alcuin of York, a scholar from the northern English city – who also has a college named after him at the University of York, where I studied history. Alcuin was based in Tours, and would have been very familiar with Metz thanks to its role as a centre for theological learning and innovation.
Waves of history have washed over Metz in the 1,200 years since the Carolingians. Much of it is still displayed in the wealth of centuries-old buildings liberally scattered across the city. Like many other places I’ve visited, the many glories of Metz seem to have been overlooked by mass tourism, although there is no denying that the addition of the Pompidou Centre has definitely attracted more visitors. That said, because the Pompidou is next the train station you could visit from Paris without ever seeing Metz.
That would be a big mistake. Despite a debilitating hangover acquired during France’s World Cup heroics, I set off to explore the city before making a modern art pilgrimage. I made my way to the Porte des Allemands, a huge medieval defensive gateway into the town. I walked through the Imperial Quarter, the area of Metz constructed during the post-1870 German occupation, before arriving in Place Saint Louis. This 14th century square lined with arcaded buildings was the scene of many festivities the previous day.
Just around the corner from here is La Maison des Têtes, a 16th century building that appears on the tourism literature of the town with great regularity. I wandered the quiet, pleasant streets nearby en route to the Pompidou Centre. I’d saved this for last as I thought it would be spectacular. In the end, it turned out to be perfectly enjoyable, but not the groundbreaking, hugely engaging gallery about which I had read so much. From outside, the Pompidou is an extraordinary sight, like a giant white sun hat draped across a wide open space.
The galleries inside contained interesting and fun exhibitions but, on a searingly hot day for someone with a hangover, it was the air conditioning that really won me over. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it’s not meant to. Afterwards I made my way into town in search of a late lunch and some shade. I found both in the narrow streets clustered just south of the cathedral. Delicious local bistro food and some Burgundian wine restored me to full health, and I went off to explore more of this relaxed, fun city.
In the morning I’d be off again in the direction of Bourges, another under-appreciated city with a big history. For now I sat by the Moselle drinking in the views of the Temple Neuf and watching the sun set.