This was the incredulous question that greeted us during a recent trip to Metz, a city in north-eastern France. The Messin (as the city’s residents are known) are very friendly, polite and considerate. They just find it surprising that someone might want to visit a 3,000 year old city steeped in history and nominated for UNESCO world heritage status. They are a modest people.
Metz sits at the confluence of the Moselle and Seille rivers, and is the capital of the Lorraine region and Moselle Department. For tourists, the city has two alluring attributes. Firstly, the historic centre has one of the largest pedestrianized centres in France. Secondly, its nickname is La Ville Verte, the Green City, because it has acres of gardens and green spaces. This makes it an enchanting autumn destination.
A day in France can only ever start with a coffee and pastry. Patisserie Jean, on Place d’Armes, is the perfect starting point. As we enjoyed our breakfast a steady stream of patrons dropped in for loaves of bread or boxes of delicate pastries – a slice of everyday life.
Opposite the patisserie stands the magnificent Saint Etienne Cathedral, which must be one of the most enchanting cathedrals in all of France. The sheer scale of the building takes your breath away. Built in the Rayonnant Gothic style using the local Jaumont limestone, it glows a golden yellow in the mellow autumn sun. The vast flying buttresses, hideous gargoyles and intricate detailing seem to morph constantly throughout the day so that every time you look, you see something new.
The most striking aspect of the building, however, lies inside. At a little over 41m high, the nave is one of the highest in the world. The aisles have a height of over 14m. This combination gives the cathedral a sense of magnificence and wonder. The ceiling soars way over your head.
The height allowed the architects to install vast panels of stained glass. St Etienne has the largest expanse of stained glass in the world. The 6,496m² of panes include works by master craftsmen of the 14th and 16th century, and modernist artist, Marc Chagall. The glass filters the sweet autumn sunlight into sparkling pools of colour.
Leaving the cathedral, we strolled across the road to the Marche Couvert. The building was once a Bishop’s Palace but today houses a fresh produce market. Approach with caution because you will be tempted by the counters of fresh cheese, breads, fruit, vegetables, meats and fish. A cheese monger helped us buy some moreish local cheese. A fresh baguette from the baker next door, a couple of juicy tomatoes from the greengrocer and we were set. What more does anyone need!
From the Marche Couvert, we strolled along En Fournirue towards Place St Louis. At the end of the street, we found the Maison des Têtes. Built in the 16th century by a goldsmith, the building has a row of five sculpted heads along the window. It’s a little peculiar.
Place St Louis was far more interesting. The square’s medieval arcades are remarkably well preserved, indeed standing in the square you can imagine yourself in medieval Metz. Today, the square is the city’s social heart. Bars, pubs and restaurants edge the square. It’s a good spot for a coffee and a little people watching.
Leaving Place St Louis we mooched through the heart of the city past high street shops and cute independents. Our destination was the Esplanade, a beautiful park that leads down to the river. Before reaching the river, we stopped by the Eglise Saint-Pierre-aux Nonnains, one of the oldest buildings in Metz. It was built in the 4th century as a Roman gymnasium, before becoming a church and nunnery, a hospital and storehouse. After years of neglect it was renovated into a cultural centre. You can still see the Roman foundations.
Nearby is the Chapelle des Templiers, built by the Knights Templar between 1180 and 1220. The octagonal building looked so pretty against the golden autumn leaves. Today, it is part of the nearby Arsenal cultural complex.
From the chapel we headed down to the river and strolled past the swans and ducks competing for bread from giggling children. The protestant Temple Neuf sits in the Garden of Love, on an island that projects out into the river like the prow of a ship. It is one of the most picturesque views in the city.
So why Metz? We picked Metz because it is off the usual tourist trail – something that is likely to change with the arrival of a branch of the Pompidou. It makes a great weekend destination. You can have great food in the company of warm and welcoming people, take life at a more gentle pace strolling through this car-free city and yet there is enough life and activity to keep you entertained. Why not Metz?
For more images of the city see our Pinterest page.
This is the route described. All the city’s main sights are in easy walking distance of the city – except the Pompidou which is a longer walk or short bus ride away. Alternatively, click on the link below.