Underrated Lorraine Offers Charming Towns and Glorious Gardens

Shirin Sojitrawalla, DPA, November 8, 2011

Somehow it sounds more attractive in French: Lorraine is the name of the French region known as Lothringen in German. It does not rank as high on the tourist must-see list as neighbouring Alsace (Elsass), which is a shame since Lorraine is certainly more French.

This becomes quickly apparent to anyone arriving in Metz, a charming and lively city on the banks of the River Moselle. Metz hit the headlines in recent times with the 2010 opening of a spectacular new branch of the Pompidou centre in France. Art lovers will not want to miss it. Only a short distance from the main train station, the blockbuster shows at the largest temporary exhibition space outside Paris have pulled in the crowds and continue to attract much publicity.

The hexagon-shaped structure around a central spire looks a bit like a circus tent. It is the work of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and his French colleague Jean de Gastines. Exploring the actual building and its environs is an interesting experience in itself. Close by is the Parc de la Seille, an urban park with innovative ecological concepts. These include a planned garden, meadows, a hop plantation, a vineyard, various playgrounds and a roller-skate path.

Glorious gardens are a feature of Lorraine. One of the most attractive parklands can be found in Ban de Sept, a village of just 400 souls. The three hectares of groomed landscape, the Park Jardins de Callunes, were laid out in the English style. Roaming the paths is a fine way to while away a few hours. There are more than 250 varieties of Erica moorland heather as well as countless other plant species to be admired.

Many of the former industrial sites in Lorraine have long since closed down. Manufacturing capacity has been transferred to low-wage countries and a journey takes visitors through tracts of countryside which appear to be deserted. One way of countering the downside of this globalization trend is to stress the touristic attractions of the region and create new destinations for visitors and that is what has been done here.

Revitalized Metz and its elegant sandstone cathedral are a good example but there are plenty of other striking places to visit. One of the best views for miles across the rolling woodlands of the Vosges mountains is from the Dagsburg crags. The St. Leo Chapel perches on the red sandstone like a delectable praline, 664 metres above sea level.

Of the all the regions in France, Lorraine is one of the most extensively forested which makes an autumn stay a particular delight. The leaves turn to hues of red, yellow and orange in dazzling array. At this time of year hikers are in their element and there is plenty of scope for outside leisure pursuits since temperatures are still moderate with no extremes of cold or heat.

Sainte Croix nature park in Rhodes offers an excellent compromise between total immersion in nature and entertainment which casts its spell over young and old alike. The park boasts more than 100 different species of animals from all over Europe, including wolves, raccoons, bison, foxes, lynx, vultures and even bears. The rutting season in autumn is a good time to pay a visit and watching the mighty stags perform their courtship is impressive. Their roars reverberate around the landscape and guides are happy to answer all questions about the mating season.

Located between the park and Dabo, which lies some 500 metres aloft, is the unprepossessing little town of Sarrebourg. There is not a great deal to see yet art aficionados should definitely stop over here and not just because of the pretty Franciscan Chapel des Cordeliers on a former monastery site. The structure is unremarkable but visitors should be aware that artist Marc Chagall installed here his largest work of stained-glass, a symphony in blue known as the "Peace Window".

More spectacular is the museum in Bitche, a quiet town dominate by a large sandstone outcrop which is crowned by the ramparts of a citadel. The imposing building, which is not far from the German border, became a symbol of resistance in 1870/71 during the Franco-German War. Its defenders held out for 230 days against besieging Bavarian forces.

The museum brings together archive pictures, weapons and uniforms but the most interesting aspect of the collection is beneath the walls of the citadel. With the help of a lively audio-visual package visitors can see and hear events unfold by touring a sequence of listening stations. The experience includes the showing of scenes from the film "The Besieged Fortress" in which filmmakers skillfully capture the atmosphere of what must have been a gruesome military encounter.