Travel: The crossroads of Lorraine

Positioned on the border of France and Germany, Metz has had an uncomfortable history. But, as Robert Rollason discovers, it is one that has left this French city with a surprisingly rich legacy.
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Which country is Metz in? At present it is in France, but it is also in the Eurodistrict of Metz-Saarbrucken. This concept of integration may still be only the shape of things to come, but already cross-border cultural guides are being issued in French and German.

Metz is positioned squarely at the crossroads of Europe. Motorways and railroads intersect here from Paris to Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and from Belgium down to Switzerland and Italy. In a larger sense, too, Metz may be at a junction in its history. "We have always lived life on the frontier here," says Victor, a local doctor.

The glory of this surprising city in Lorraine, its absolute cracker of a Gothic cathedral, is very European. It was built between 1200 and 1520, more than 100 years before Metz was officially recognised as French at the Treaty of Westphalia.

Few cathedrals can have more beautiful stained glass. The early artists in the medium were from Germany - Hermann of Munster and Theobald of Lixheim. In the 1960s Russian-born Marc Chagall contributed an epic window that recreates Adam and Eve's colourful experiences with a sensual modern eye.

In contrast to Chagall's power, the windows by Jean Cocteau in the church of St Maximin in the rue Mazelle seem a little lacklustre, not much more than pale doodles that look incongruous in this solemn Baroque and Gothic structure.

Metz is certainly rich in churches, both Catholic and German Protestant, and includes France's oldest church, St Pierre aux Nonains, based on a 4th-century Roman basilica. Yet one of the most impressive buildings in the city was built not for the glories of the spiritual world but for the convenience of more modern communications. The railway station is a massive neo-Romanesque structure at the heart of Metz's German Imperial quarter, built after the German annexation of Lorraine in 1871. The Germans constructed their own public buildings to leave behind what could be a section of pre-war Berlin.

To their credit, the French cherish a German legacy which is so different from the city's predominantly French classic style. They have also preserved a controversial relic of the German occupation during the Second World War, one not mentioned in the guidebooks. The Fort de Queuleu is a sinister fortification that the occupiers used as a concentration camp in 1943- 44. A memorial is dedicated to those Frenchmen "executed or deported" and to members of the Resistance who "disappeared" during the hostilities.

The Messin territory is rich in monuments that commemorate old campaigns. A short way south towards Nancy at Ars-sur-Moselle are the stately arches of a fine Roman aqueduct that brought water 15 miles to Metz from Gorze. This small town has a grand 17th-century Abbot's Palace which was used as a hospital for French troops in the Napoleonic wars. The museum at Gorze has many exhibits from 1940-44. Even the mundane displays here are chilling: humdrum rationing notices, for instance, finish with "Heil Hitler".

Today the area is an easier place to eat well in. In Gorze the Lion d'Or is packed with discriminating local people. In Metz, the Maire, overlooking the Moselle at the Pont des Morts, is probably one of France's nicest restaurants. Also close to the river is the stylish Le Resto on the quai Felix Marechal. The food is excellent at all three places, and they offer many of Lorraine's gastronomic dishes, including variations on mirabelles and quetsches, the region's own yellow plums and damsons. For an inexpensive quiche Lorraine, Le Beverly in the lively central Place St Jacques is good: this is a traditional French cafe bistro, all the more cherishable because across the way is a McDonald's.

Perhaps ironically, the Americans - who liberated Metz in November 1944 - now represent the latest invasion in the form of films and fast food. The Messins react to the new multi-culturism in different ways. There is a significant National Front vote in Lorraine and Alsace, but there is also support for a more integrated Europe.

Doctor Victor believes that union with Germany is necessary, accepting Chancellor Kohl's view that this is the one way that the serial wars that took place in 1870, 1914 and 1939 may now be halted.

Many of the former barracks in Metz have been taken down and are now green fields. The city is working hard to replace the troops with tourists by promoting its spectacles - which include France's oldest working theatre - and its festivals, museums and golf courses. The new Metz is well on the way to becoming a destination rather than just a staging post for Roman legions and German Panzers.

metz jets

Getting there

By air, the closest airport is Luxembourg; from there, you take a 20- minute bus ride to Luxembourg City station, then a 50-minute train ride to Metz. Luxair (0181-745 4254) flies from Heathrow and Stansted to Luxembourg for pounds 112 return including tax. British Airways (0345 222111) flies there from Heathrow and Gatwick, with a lowest fare of pounds 182 return.

By train, Eurostar does not sell tickets to Metz, but Rail Europe (0990 300003) does. The direct link from London Waterloo, connecting at Lille, costs a minimum of pounds 118.50 return.

More information

French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123, a premium-rate number).