Sandwiched between Alsace and Champagne, Lorraine often misses out on much of the press it deserves in favour of its more famous French neighbours. Steeped in history (for example, did you know that Louis XVI was captured in a church here? Or that the bicycle was invented here? Or that it was here that the Americans came to join the battles of WWI?), there’s oodles of history to learn about, and even more culture to discover. Here’s how to spend three days in Lorraine:
From Paris, Lorraine is incredibly easy to reach thanks to the high-speed TGV trains running on a regular basis, straight from the city centre. A trip to the capital of Lorraine, Metz, takes around an hour and a half via TGV, while Meuse station is just an hour from Paris’ Gare de l’Est. If you’re looking to visit Lorraine from a little further afield, then Luxembourg airport is under an hour’s drive from the ancient city of Metz.
Friday morning: A visit to the Centre Pompidou Metz, 1 Parvis des Droits de l’Homme, 57020 Metz, France
We pulled up in our train at the Gare de Metz-Ville, only to be greeted with bucket loads of rain. No matter, we were headed straight for the warmth (and very indoor) cover of Centre Pompidou-Metz, a newly opened art space in the heart of the city.
This museum of modern art and design was inaugurated in 2010, after a few years on cutting-edge construction. Ever since, the Metz exhibition spaces have hosted a whole array of modern art, design and architecture displays. While, you’re visiting the Centre-Pompidou Metz, you might also want to head up to the top floor to experience the fully-immersive light room installation by Yayoi Kusama– a really illuminating experience (ha!).
Friday lunch: Eating at Romarin Restaurant, 18 Rue des Augustins, 57000 Metz, France
Lorraine is often referred to as the ‘garden of France’ owing to its rich abundance of produce grown in the region. Even most of the French brie ‘Brie de Meaux’ is actually produced here, rather than in its origin city of Meaux, just outside of central Paris.
My first taste of Lorraine food came in the form of a beautifully presented set of vegetarian dishes at the Romarin Restaurant in the very centre of Metz. Just across from the train station, and overlooking a particularly beautiful château d’eau (water tower), ‘Romarin’ is translated as ‘rosemary’ in English and it’s true that the food had plenty of flavours…
Friday afternoon: Tour of Metz
Following a filling lunch, we embarked on a brief tour of the city, where we discovered oodles of history, as well as plenty pertaining to the complicated past of Metz. I was particularly interested to see the city as my parents lived there just before I was born and have raved about what a historical, fascinating and beautiful place Metz is ever since…
Particular points of interest in Metz and must-see Metz locations include seeing:
Train Station (pictured below): If you’ve travelled to Metz via high speed train from Paris, then you’ll have already stepped inside the historic Gare de Metz-Ville. Opened in the early 1900s, the station was built under the instruction of Kaiser Wilhelm II who wanted to ‘Germanify’ the city. Lots of the architecture in the centre of the city dates back to this period.
Porte des Allemands (pictured below): Literally translated s the ‘Germans’ Gate’, this impressive set of buildings spans a bridge over the river Seille (a tributary of the Moselle) and was built between the 13th and 15th-Centuries. The first structure on site dates all the way back to the 1200s and when it was constructed by the Teutonic Knights.
Cute little streets: Metz is often referred to as one of the prettiest cities in the region of Grand-Est and after a visit here, it’s easy to see why! Wander around the city on a sunny day, and the yellow buildings glow with the rays of sunshine- perfect for photography so make sure to bring your camera!
Friday afternoon: A visit to Metz Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Etienne), Place d’Armes, 57000 Metz, France
Impressive and mighty, the Cathedrale Saint-Etienne is also known as the ‘lantern of God’ thanks to its impressive stained glass windows and high vaulted ceiling. Its nave is one of the tallest in Europe, reaching up an impressive 42 metres, and making the cathedral the third highest in all of France.
Wander insider its lofty interior and you’ll find graffiti dating back centuries, a reminder that people have been visiting this place of worship for well over seven hundred years. Another particular point of interest in the cathedral are the numerous stained glass windows, some of which are designed by acclaimed artist Marc Chagall in the mid 1900s.
Friday night: A stay at Les Jardins du Mess, 22 Quai de la Republique, 55100 Verdun, France
The beautiful hotel of Les Jardins du Mess is situated in the very heart of Verdun, right along the banks of the river. In fact, from my wide windows, I could see plenty of Verdun attractions; the Châtel gate, Verdun Cathedral and, of course, the river Meuse to name but a view.
As well as having a beautiful bar, piano room and restaurant, the four-star hotel comes with all the fittings and amenities you’d expect from such an establishment; a bathroom fully stocked with goodies, a comfortable bed and fluffy bathrobes you’ll want to stay in all day.
Apart from relaxing in the giant King-sized bed and sipping on a tea while overlooking the beautiful city from my top floor window (as well as editing photos for this article at the desk!), I could easily have spent all evening bathing in the giant tub, lying under the colour changing lights and soaking up the suds.
Saturday morning: Sampling Dragées de Verdun, Dragées Braquier, 50 Rue du Fort de Vaux, 55100 Verdun, France
For those who enjoy the sweeter side of life, you need to look no further than the factory of Dragées Braquier. Verdun is famous for its sweet treat dragées (a confectionery with a core consisting of almond or other fillings, and covered with a crunchy sugar coating). In fact, although Dragées are now popular throughout France, they were actually invented here, in Verdun, in an apothecary during the 13th-century.
It is traditional to consume the iconic sweets at French weddings, births and confirmations, and so they are incredibly special and make a lovely gift. While these sweets do cost a pretty penny, the most expensive dragées of all are those dragées covered in the precious metals of silver and gold.
If you want to see the sweets made, sample some dragées for yourself (highly recommended!) or purchase some from a verified store, then you can visit the Dragées Braquier factory throughout the week. The factory is open on a daily basis and free tours of the factory take place throughout the day. Further details on visiting the factory can be found on their website here.
Saturday morning: A visit to the German Trenches at Butte de Vauquois, 1 Rue d’Orleans, 55270 Vauquois, France
Late Saturday morning saw the beginning of the WWI portion of our three days in Lorraine trip. Although I’ve been learning about the horrors of the Great War since I was aged ten at school, nothing compares with the experience of seeing the trenches, battlefields and cemeteries in person.
While it’s simply impossible for us to imagine what life in the trenches must have been like (the constant noise, stress, dirt and danger must have all been unbearable), our tour guide informed us that the ‘best’ time to visit the trenches- if indeed there even can be a ‘best’ time– is when it’s cold and wet outside. In the summer months, when the sun is shining and there is brilliant sunlight illuminating everything, it’s even harder to contemplate what life must have been like for the soldiers fighting, living and dying along the Western front.
Although many people believe that WWI was fought in just the trenches, this is simply not true. Instead, World War One was fought in many different ways; over land, sea and air- and even underground. The German trenches and tunnels at Butte de Vauquois can be visited today and the tunnels reach deep underground, though you’ll need a tour guide to access them for safety reasons, as well as for fully understanding the nature and impact of this type of warfare.
Saturday morning: A visit to the Pennsylvania Memorial at Varennes, Varennes-en-Argonne, France
American troops joined WWI in 1917, after a long period of the USA attempting to remain neutral. In the end, the combined Franco-American allied offensives went a great deal in finally putting an end to WWI- without the Americans, it’s not certain that the war would have ended when it did.
As a result, throughout the French countryside, there are now many memorials and plaques dedicating the bravery of these American soldiers, who came to a land that wasn’t their home, to fight for people they had never met- all in the name of freedom- ‘liberté’ in French. Pictured below is the Pennsylvania Memorial at Varennes-en-Argonne on the Southern side of the Aire River.
Saturday lunch: Learning in the Romagne 14-18 Museum, 2 Rue de l’Andon, 55110 Romagne-Sous-Montfaucon, France
The museum of Romagne 14-18 is truly one of the most moving and astonishing spaces I’ve ever visited. Plus, here, the rules of visiting the museum are different to that which you might expect from a normal museum. After all, in how many museums can you can pick up artefacts, touch old objects and quite literally feel the history in your hands?
Run by French local Jean-Paul de Vries, the museum contains a collection of over 200,000 artefacts, many of which de Vries estimates to have collected himself. The majority of objects are sourced within a five-kilometre radius of his hometown of Romagne. He has been collecting items from the former battlefields since he was a small boy, and as the collection has grown, so has Jean-Paul’s knowledge of the subject- I’ve honestly never met anyone who knows so much about the day-to-day activities of the soldier’s on the front, as well as their families back at home.
The nominal entrance fee of €5 is worth every penny if only to support a carefully curated collection in which the humanity of war really shows (even in otherwise random objects like shoes, helmets, food containers, and the like.) Further details on how to find the museum, and how to visit can be found on the Romagne 14-18 museum website here.
Saturday afternoon: A visit to the Montfaucon American Memorial and Ruins, Romagne-Sous-Montfaucon, France
Pictured below are the ruins of the Collegiate Church Saint-Germain which are located behind the Montfaucon American Monument. The walls of this ancient place of worship are all that remains of Montfaucon. During World War One, many towns and villages were completely destroyed, particularly during the time of the Battle of Verdun in 1916.
Standing in the quiet ruins today, it’s incomprehensible to imagine the tragedy and human loss that took place in and around Verdun during the war. In total, over 700,000 men died during the Battle of Verdun, resulting in a loss of human life on an unimaginable scale. Following the war, the decision was taken not to rebuild the villages as they had ‘died for France’.
The entire scarred landscape (which is still covered in zig-zag trench remains and lunar-like craters that are a result of repeated artillery fire) was instead planted with conifer trees, which were to serve as a permanent memorial and a reminder that the horrors of World War One should never be repeated. The lost towns and villages still exist on paper and are maintained symbolically as a small reminder of all that was lost.
Saturday late-afternoon/ early evening: Attending a memorial ceremony at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, D123, 55110 Romagne-Sous-Montfaucon, France
For many of the memorials dotted around the scarred landscape, there is a corresponding cemetery. The corresponding cemetery for the Montfaucon memorial is the American cemetery of Meuse-Argonne. The cemetery is the largest American cemetery in Europe and contains 14,246 American soldiers, nurses, Americans engaged in the First Field Services, etc.
It was here, in the Meuse-Argonne cemetery that we attended a memorial ceremony on the 11th November. Over 3000 graves were lit with candlelight and it really was a moving sight to see. Next year, for the centenary of the end of the war (on 23rd September 2018), all gravestones in the cemetery will be lit up by candlelight. During the memorial, volunteers were dotted throughout the cemetery, all talking about the lives of the soldiers and answering any question that passersby might happen to have.
Saturday night: A stay at Hostellerie du Château des Monthairons (a real French château), 26 Rue de Verdun, 55320 Les Monthairons, France
Château des Monthairons is a former French Château turned luxury hotel and is situated just 12km south of Verdun. Built between 1857-1859 by Charles-Henri de la Cour, the estate has seen plenty of history over the years and has not one, but two chapels within its expansive grounds.
During WWI, the château was used as a military hospital and you can still see the photos of the château during this period in the hotel’s library. Today, the grand mansion operates as a 25 bedroom family run hotel with excellent food- and an even better cheese board. In fact, the restaurant here is quite literally the only place to eat in the village of Monthairons!
Sunday was dedicated to seeing the battlefield of Verdun,
Sunday morning: A visit to Douaumont Ossuary, 55100 Douaumont, France
In the very middle the battlefields of Verdun, you’ll see what at first appears to be a high and imposing monument to those who lost their lives. This is Douaumont, an ossuary and memorial for well over a hundred thousand soldiers- a small reminder for a loss of life on an unimaginable scale. In the ossuary, the bones of over one hundred and thirty thousand unidentified French and German soldiers are housed. In the adjacent cemetery, which lies to the front of the memorial, 16,000 French soldiers are buried- identified only by their uniforms.
Sunday morning: A visit to Fort Vaux, 55400 Vaux-Devant-Damloup, France
As has already been noted from the tunnels at Butte Vauquois, much of the fighting during WWI did not take place in the trenches, but in a variety of equally awful places. One key location during the battle of Verdun, and throughout WWI was Fort Vaux. Located in Vaux-Devant-Damloup in the Meuse, the fort was first constructed between 1881-1884. During WWI, the fort was occupied by both German and French troops, both sides battling it out to gain control of this strategic point of the battlefield.
Sunday afternoon: A visit to Verdun memorial and museum, 1, Avenue du Corps Européen, 55100 Fleury-Devant-Douaumont, France
The very modern looking museum of Verdun is interactive and an important learning opportunity for young and old alike. From the very moment you enter into its dark depths, you are plunged into the heart of the beginnings of WWI. From there, the museum is set over various levels, each detailing numerous aspects of the war. The museum is incredibly moving, and by the time you reach the top, you can see views over much of the surrounding countryside, including the nearby Monument and Ossuary of Douaumont.
I would recommend dedicating at least a couple of hours to listening to the audioguides, examining the exhibits and learning about many aspects of the war; exhibitions about the home front, the Western front and the war at air are all on display in this interactive museum. Details on opening times and admission costs for the Mémorial Verdun can be found on the museum and memorial’s official website here.