Imperial Metz, a city of the ancient and the modern

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.

Temple Neuf, Moselle River, Metz, France

Temple Neuf, Moselle River, Metz, France

Centre Pompidou, Metz, France

Centre Pompidou, Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Temple de Garnison, Metz, France

Temple de Garnison, Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

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.

Saint Stephen's cathedral, Metz, France

Saint Stephen’s cathedral, Metz, France

Covered market, Metz, France

Covered market, Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

La Maison des Têtes, Metz, France

La Maison des Têtes, Metz, France

Porte des Allemands, Metz, France

Porte des Allemands, Metz, France

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.

Magical Metz, where dragons once roamed

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.

Temple Neuf, Moselle River, Metz, France

Temple Neuf, Moselle River, Metz, France

There be dragons, the Graoully, Metz, France

There be dragons, the Graoully, Metz, France

Jardin de l'Esplanade, Metz, France

Jardin de l’Esplanade, Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Saint Stephen's cathedral, Metz, France

Saint Stephen’s cathedral, Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

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.

Temple Neuf, Metz, France

Temple Neuf, Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Metz, France

Jardin de l'Esplanade, Metz, France

Jardin de l’Esplanade, Metz, France

Jardin de l'Esplanade, Metz, France

Jardin de l’Esplanade, Metz, France

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.