A CITY whose name is pronounced "mess" may not sound the ideal resort to enjoy the last daytime disappearance of the sun in this millennium. Sure, there are more celebrated French venues in which to witness the spectacle of next Wednesday's eclipse; Laon and Reims are two smaller, prettier cathedral cities. But a pleasant surprise awaits those who make a last-minute dash for Metz, the capital of the Lorraine region.

You realise this as soon as you step off the train at the monumental railway station, built by occupying forces in the late 19th century as a symbol of imperial greatness and benevolent craftsmanship.

The foundations were laid 3,000 years ago when Celtic tribes created a Bronze Age settlement on a small hill where the Seille flows into the Moselle.The Romans later made the settlement into a strategic fort. Today the city's biggest draw is the Cathedrale St Etienne, an immense 13th- century Gothic edifice of yellow sandstone and exquisite glasswork. Its commanding silhouette dominates the skyline; inside there are glorious stained-glass windows. The most recent was designed by Marc Chagall, to such luminous effect that the cathedral is poetically dubbed La Lanterne du Bon Dieu, "the Lantern of God".

The city also boasts France's oldest surviving church, St Pierre de Nonnains, which was built in the fourth century AD on the site of a Roman court. Next to it, the Napoleonic military store known as the Arsenal has been beautifully renovated and transformed into a concert hall and art gallery.

There is more to entertain the eye in the pedestrianised city centre: street markets in small squares, family-run patisseries (with cakes to diet for), the arched passageways off place St Louis, and fabulous facades at almost every corner. Across Pont des Roches, the grandiose place de la Comedie houses France's oldest functioning opera house.

The Moselle winds through the city, pocked by islands and bordered by parks - plenty of room for everyone on Wednesday. For yet more open space, a few miles south west of Metz is another pleasant surprise; the vast Lorraine Natural Park, with rambling, fishing and riding opportunities, and the ideal place to see the sun go out.

Kevin-Barry Trindles

The travel desk has spent most of the week failing to get through to Rail Europe (0990 848 848) to check availability and fares; in the end German Railways (0171-317 0919) gave details and is happy to sell tickets if available. If you travel on Tuesday 10 August, on Eurostar from London Waterloo, and change trains from Paris Gare du Nord to Gare de l'Est, the lowest fare is pounds 161 return.

Kevin-Barry Trindles paid 490F (pounds 51) for a double room at the Hotel du Theatre, Port St Marcel (00 33 3 87 31 10 10)

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