Travel: The city with a heart of glass

With its Art Nouveau tradition and grand Baroque squares, Nancy is one of France's best-kept secrets.
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The Independent Culture
Imagine a small city where the central square is classed as a World Heritage site, which houses some of Europe's most striking Art Nouveau architecture and which boasts its own Arc de Triomphe. The wonder is that so few people seem to know about Nancy, historic seat of the Dukes of Lorraine and the administrative centre of the Meurthe-et-Moselle department in north-eastern France. It may not offer the excitement and glamour of bigger cities, but this less-vaunted destination is well worth exploring.

Several contrasting styles and eras compete for attention. The Roman occupation left its mark, and the Italian influence can still be felt today. Eighteenth-century grandeur, epitomised by Place Stanislas, is a stone's throw from the winding streets of the medieval old town, while the Art Nouveau legacy can be seen in facades and windows scattered across the city. The most important sights can all be covered in the walking tours suggested by the tourist office (whose pamphlets, covering the city's heritage, are available in English).

The discoveries start immediately on leaving the station. Cross the road to the Brasserie Excelsior (Excel to the locals) at 5 Rue Mazagran, where the vaulted ceiling, sepia glasswork and wrought-iron chandeliers display the craftsmanship of the "Nancy School" and provide a Belle poque setting to work out the best route down to Place Stanislas. For once, the most direct route may not be the best: it would be a pity to miss the stained-glass windows of the Chamber of Commerce on rue Henri-Poincare, or the facade of the CCF bank on rue Benit, whose intricate metal pillars (this was Nancy's first metal-frame building) are the framework for innovative turn-of-the-century glass designs by the same artist, Jacques Gruber.

But there is no avoiding the stylish, astonishing square named after ex-king Stanislas of Poland, who was offered the duchy of Lorraine in 1736 by his son-in-law, Louis XV of France. Stanislas was an inspired town planner who left behind magnificent buildings to sweeten the inevitability that the duchy would be annexed by France after his death. Looking round at the finely wrought gilt railings, the classically designed opera house and fine arts museum, and the gleaming Neptune fountain, it is easy to understand why this spacious square was named after the prince. Order a drink in one of the many cafes around the square and you can toast the statue erected 60 years after his death.

Before leaving the square, it's worth taking a look down rue M Barres towards the Baroque cathedral: an old red British telephone box (with fully functioning French equipment inside) signals the location of the Musee du Telephone. At the other side of Place Stanislas lies the longer place de la Carriere, once the scene of tournaments and jousts, but transformed by Stanislas into a decorous, tree-lined square linking the old and new parts of town. Together with Place de l'Alliance, to the east, this area was recognised as a World Heritage site in 1984.

The Vieille Ville presents a complete contrast to this proportioned splendour: narrow winding streets stretch from the 14th-century city gatehouse which was once a prison, past the former Ducal Palace (now the Lorraine Historical Museum) and towards Place Stanislas. I stopped counting the restaurants, and there wasn't enough time to look in all the galleries, bookshops and antiques stores - but I did recharge in a cafe opposite St-Epve cathedral, a proto-Eurochurch. Its main bell was cast in Budapest, the chandeliers came from Belgium, and the 78 stained-glass windows were made in Vienna.

A short walk away, the Parc de la Pepiniere is the ideal place to relax. With a mini-zoo, merry-go-round, crazy golf and regular concerts, it is a lively place, yet peaceful enough for art students to paint watercolours of the autumn leaves.

This natural inspiration lies behind much of the Art Nouveau designs. Flowing floral lines recur everywhere in glasswork and furniture in the Musee de l'Ecole de Nancy. Across the road, a dip in the Nancy Thermal swimming pool provides more evidence of the Nancy School's prolificacy: float on your back for the best view of the stained-glass windows in the domed roof.

In 1999, the city is planning to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the Nancy school, with three major exhibitions (porcelain and glass, natural inspirations and fine art) and a range of events. The first of these will be the re-opening of the Musee de Beaux Arts on Place Stanislas, which has been closed for renovations. As well as works by local artists, there are paintings by Monet, Modigliani and Rubens and a gallery of Daum crystal. Lorraine craftsmen have been producing fine crystal for centuries, and although the most famous factory is in Baccarat, some distance outside Nancy, the Daum workshop (Rue des Cristalleries) is open to the public.

Fact File

Getting there: The best-value ticket to Nancy is from London Waterloo on Eurostar, booked through Rail Europe (0990 848848). If you book a week in advance and stay on a Saturday night, the fare is pounds 109 return; first class is pounds 70 more.

Staying there: Margaret Campbell paid Fr360 for a double room at La Residence, a family-run hotel not far from the station (00 33 3 83 40 33 56).

For four-star luxury overlooking Place Stanislas, reserve a room in the Grand Hotel de la Reine, 2 Place Stanislas (00 33 3 83 35 03 01). Rooms start at Fr600 per night. On Place Maginot, the American (00 33 3 83 32 28 53) charges Fr300 for a double room with bath.

More information: French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123, a premium-rate number), or Information on the centenary celebrations is available from the Nancy Tourist Office, Place Stanislas, 54000 Nancy (00 33 3 83 35 90 10).