|Centre Pompidou-Metz is the first outpost of this French cultural institution and an architectural landmark in its own right.|
Long overlooked as a tourist destination, Lorraine—just over one hour from Paris by TGV—drew the world’s gaze when the Centre Pompidou-Metz opened in May 2010. The museum is the first outpost of the French cultural institution, and an architectural landmark in its own right, capped by an undulating roof made from approximately 9.9 miles of timber covered in a fiberglass and Teflon membrane that’s self-cleaning (thanks to the friendly bacteria inside). Suddenly Metz, oft perceived as a mining and military stronghold on France’s eastern edge, was in the spotlight. The droves of visitors (1.4 million) who’ve since flocked to the museum have fallen under the spell of this welcoming region.
On the occasion of a spectacular new art exhibit showcasing the world’s largest Picasso creation, Travel Agent hopped on the train for a quick getaway from Paris. “1917” examines the concept of artistic creation during wartime; one devastating year is portrayed through 1,500 diverse objects: from Matisse canvases and the vivid battlefield paintings by documentary war artists to Duchamp’s famous readymade (Fountain) and the artillery shells carved into artwork by soldiers in the trenches.
|Chateau des Monthairons is a restaurant-hotel that warmly welcomes overnight guests.|
“1917” concludes with the enormous stage curtain painted by Picasso for the ballet Parade that was controversially performed in Paris in 1917. On loan from the Pompidou flagship, this work has not been seen in 20 years; the Paris museum simply doesn’t have a big enough exhibition space to display it. “The inspiration for the entire exhibit came from this monumental work,” explained Curator Claire Garnier. Tip: Book a guided tour with art historian Deborah Stamm ([email protected], 011-33-0-3-87-32-62-29).
Ambitious and thoughtfully executed, the exhibit is the first of a series of events in France to mark the centennial of World War I. Since “1917” runs only through September 24, we highly recommend a sojourn in the lovely Lorraine for summer travelers to Paris.
|The Verdun Memorial commemorates the battle of Verdun, fought as part of World War I.|
When it first opened, the Centre Pompidou-Metz was likened to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in the project’s goal to revitalize the urban economy. But the comparison stops there. Built with unique gold-colored limestone, Metz is a pretty and lively town at the very heart of Europe. First a Celtic settlement, Metz became a crossroads in the ancient Roman Empire, and today attracts visitors from neighboring Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg.
To get the lay of the land, hop on the Open Tours bus ($11.30 per adult). On the 45-minute circuit, you’ll pass cobblestoned streets lined with medieval merchants’ houses, alluring terrace cafés on the Place Saint-Louis, and the Imperial Quarter, which recently applied for UNESCO World Heritage List status. Don’t miss the soaring Saint-Etienne Cathedral, one of the tallest in France. Its 69,965 square feet of stained glass windows represent a chronology of the art form starting from the 13th century and concluding with Marc Chagall’s colorful Old Testament representations.
|The Pennsylvania Monument at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial.|
For lunch, head to the atmospheric covered market for local fare at Chez Mauricette, a Metz institution. Of course a trip to Lorraine is not complete without a taste of the region’s namesake quiche lorraine, itself a symbol of French cuisine. At Le Magasin aux Vivres, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in town, Chef Christophe Dufossé whips up a creative deconstruction of this famous dish using the quiche’s original ingredients. After dinner, you can hit the hay upstairs in one of the 79 four-star guest rooms. Managed by the chef and his wife Delphine, La Citadelle occupies a 16th-century historic monument, once the supply center for the military garrison. Now it’s a bastion of gourmet cuisine, complete with a boutique that sells a variety of homemade chocolates, jams and spirits.
‘The War to End All Wars’
Pair a visit to the Pompidou’s “1917” exhibit with a tour of Lorraine’s WWI battlefields. The carnage of the first industrialized war defined the modern era and catapulted the U.S. onto the world stage. (Prior to the American declaration of war in 1917, the U.S. Army numbered less than 100,000 men, making it just the 19th largest military in the world.)
It’s a moving experience to see the landscape scarred by trenches and crater-sized shell holes—once a wasteland and now green with life. Start with a stop at the Verdun Memorial. Forever immortalized in prose and poetry, the battle of Verdun led to 700,000 deaths in 300 days of fighting. Nearby the Fort Douaumont provides a glimpse of wartime horrors. (Tip: Bring warm clothing and good walking shoes, as it’s cold and damp in the tunnels.) The Douaumont Ossuary is home to the remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers retrieved from the battlefield.
In the summer months, a large-scale sound and light show called “Des Flammes… à la Lumière” (www.spectacle-verdun.com) tells the story of the battle of Verdun. Staged in an old quarry, the historic reenactment features 250 actors and dramatic special lighting effects, including a fireworks display at the end.
South near Saint-Mihiel, visitors can actually walk through the labyrinth of trenches under a pine forest planted after the war. We highly recommend guide Florence Lamousse ([email protected]), a war history specialist, for tours in the area. Stop for lunch at Au Rendez-vous de Saint Benoit, a charming roadside bistro situated near the Lac de Madine. Out back, the herb and vegetable garden provides the ingredients for the delicious meals, artfully decorated with flower petals and sprigs of lavender. Even the aperitifs, like basil wine and geranium leaf punch, are made onsite.
|La Citadelle is the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Metz and also has 79 four-star guest rooms.|
Another important stop in the Meuse department is the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial. In the summer of 1918, U.S. and Allied forces stopped the German advances on the Western Front. More than 1.2 million U.S. troops fought during the 47 days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and 117,000 were killed or wounded. In fact, this was the largest battle in U.S. history. Beautifully landscaped, the largest American cemetery in Europe contains more than 14,000 headstones, which are cleaned each day by the staff. Guided visits can be arranged free of charge by reaching out to the American Battle Monuments Commission.
An excellent base for exploring the region is Chateau des Monthairons. Straight out of a fairytale, the turreted castle is set on a vast green park where dozens of herons come to nest.
The restaurant is packed with local foodies, and the Thouvenin family, owners of the property, warmly welcome overnight guests as well. Just a short drive from the Meuse TGV station (one hour from Paris), the chateau-hotel has launched a special package whereby guests arriving by TGV will have an electric car at their disposal, its GPS pre-programmed with directions to the department’s important sites.
Food and Drink
Even before the days of “Good King Stanislas,” the hedonistic ruler of Lorraine under Louis XV, the region perfected the art of wining and dining. The world’s leading producer of Mirabelle plums is also the birthplace of the famous Madeleine cake, the rum baba, and the sugared almond confections called dragées.
Just outside Metz, the Moselle vineyards blanket the hillsides. These wines were awarded Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) certification in November 2010, and they keep nabbing medals at national competitions. Don’t miss a tasting at the Chateau de Vaux, where the hospitable Molozay family pours their organic, biodynamic wines in a firelit tasting room, underneath the watchful eye of a stuffed boar.
The nearby village of Plappeville is the picturesque setting for La Vigne d’Adam, a wine shop and restaurant that takes its vintages very seriously.