It seems so long ago since Leonard Cohen put Nancy (the girl) in the charts and Nancy (the place) on the map. In the past three decades, this fine city has smartened up. It is neatly located 350km east of Paris and the same distance south-east of Lille and north of Geneva. Nancy makes an ideal location for exploring eastern France. For example, you could hike in the spectacular Ballons des Vosges: rounded summits, deep blue mountain lakes and summer pastures. But that's assuming you can tear yourself away from a place that possesses one of Europe's most spectacular squares, ceremoniously re-opened earlier this month.
From the station, pass Port Stanislas and along rue Stanislas to, you guessed it, place Stanislas. Stan the man was the deposed Polish king, Stanislas Leszczynski of course. He became Duke of Lorraine thanks to his son-in-law, Louis XV, and set about transforming the city.
The amazing 18th-century square, which this year celebrates its 250th anniversary, looks better than ever now that vehicles have been excluded. South of it you can find the cathedral and plenty of shopping opportunities; north, there are some good museums and the large and lovely Parc de la Pépinière. And to the south-west, in an improbable location, is the Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy - an impressive compendium of Art Nouveau.
The accommodation options are less broad than in more celebrated cities, but with many of them aimed at business travellers you can expect bargains at weekends. The optimum place to stay is the Grand Hotel de la Reine on place Stanislas (00 33 3 83 35 03 01; www.hoteldelareine.com), with a superb location and Louis XV furnishings. It has a weekend rate of €186 (£133) double, including a good buffet breakfast.
Alternatively, try the two-star Hotel de Guise. This manor house dates from the period of Louis XV and King Stanislas and is in the heart of the old town only 500m from Place Stanislas. It has 48 recently renovated rooms, including six suites, and also boasts a private car park. Prices for a double bedroom start at €58 euros (£41), excluding breakfast.
Savour the space that has this month been given back to the city: place Stanislas is dominated by the Hotel de Ville on the south side, one of the great confections of the 18th century and now looking more delicious than ever. But there is much more to the city than this. The Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements provided the second great architectural resurgence in Nancy, reflected in house façades scattered around the city; you can follow a trail of them supplied by the tourist office, which unsurprisingly is located in the Hotel de Ville (00 33 3 83 35 22 41; www.ot-nancy.fr).
Recent re-structuring has drawn much of the traffic away from the centre, allowing pedestrians (and cyclists) to reclaim a very handsome town. Bustling shopping streets and a lively cultural scene make this a worthwhile weekend destination. An excellent time to visit is the two middle weeks of October for the annual jazz festival in the Parc de la Pépinière.
On the north-west side of place Stanislas is the Musée des Beaux Arts (00 33 3 83 85 30 72), which has a fair sprinkling of Italian, Flemish and 19th- and 20th-century French art - plus an impressive collection of glass from the local Daum enterprise. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Tuesdays; admission depends on the prevailing exhibition. North of place Stanislas, the place de la Carrière is a beautifully preserved avenue. At the far end, just behind and to the left of the Palais du Gouvernement, is the Musée Lorrain (00 33 3 83 32 18 74): an instant introduction to this complex region. It opens 10am-12.30pm and 2pm-6pm daily except Monday and Tuesday, admission €3.10 (£2.20).
Apart from quiche, Lorraine's best known dish is the baba Stanislas, a tradional baba au rhum. King Stanislas imported the baba's recipe (originally made with Tokay wine), which the French patissiers then replaced with rum when it was made available in France. The predominant drink is the distinctive Gris de Toul wine: a Pinot noir mixed with two other types of grapes, creating a rosé wine colour in a characteristic shade of grayish pink.
The one must-eat location is the scrumptious L'Excelsior (00 33 3 83 35 24 57; www.brasserie-excelsior.com), opposite the station at 50 rue Henri-Poincaré. It dates from 1911, when a family of brewers decided the city needed an opulent brasserie. The interior is a work of art, and fortunately the culinary standards match the location. Try the lambs lettuce salad with truffle oil and local goat's cheese to start, followed by a pastry parcel of duck foie gras; two courses costs €22.40 (£16), or less if you reserve a table online.
For more information contact the Nancy tourist office on 00 33 3 83 35 22 41; www.ot-nancy.fr
For a swirling feast of Art Nouveau within a 1909 villa, make the half-hour trek south-west to the Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, at 36 Rue du Sergent Blandan (00 33 3 83 40 14 86), open 10.30am-6pm except Monday and Tuesday, admission €4.60 (£3.30). The villa is set in lovely gardens, and allows visitors to see original features augmented by pieces from elsewhere in the city.
TOP FIVE: SHOPPING
At Daum Boutique, at 14 place Stanislas (00 33 3 83 32 21 65), you can step from admiring the glass on display in the Beaux Arts museum to the Daum company store, which has some lovely modern crystal creations. Some might shatter your credit card limit, but many are affordable.
For those whose French is not especially good, the idea of visiting a bookshop may not appeal. But Hall Du Livre at 38 rue Saint-Dizier (00 33 3 83 35 53 01; www.halldulivre.fr) has three storeys of large-format books on Art Nouveau, plus CDs and classy postcards.
Those with a sweet tooth should head for Maison Des Soers Macarons at 21 rue Gambetta (00 33 3 83 32 24 25; www.macaron-de-nancy.com). The "sisters' macaroons" were first created during the turbulent end of the 18th century, and this place claims to have the only true recipe for this local delicacy; it also sells other regional treats.
If the part you like best about museums is the shop at the end, head for Musées Galerie at 89 rue Grande (00 33 3 83 37 53 16; www.museesgalerie.fr). Souvenirs from the Louvre and other great French museums are on sale, along with plenty of local posters and crafts.
La Boutique at 15 rue Saint-Dizier (00 33 3 83 32 30 55) may have a plain name, but this city-centre store has a fabulous range of leather, ceramics and jewellery.
CITY SHOPPER: STRASBOURG, MULHOUSE AND METZ
An early summer's day subsides in Strasbourg. The cathedral enjoys one final flourish as the sunset inflames the pale pink stone. While the light dwindles, the buttresses look set to take off, the delicate stone chasing the last rays of the sun.
Were there a Eurovision Throng Contest for the most attractive Gothic cathedral, Strasbourg's masterpiece would surely win it. And the capital of Alsace is also a sure bet for the title "crossroads of Europe". It is the place where western Europe's greatest river, the Rhine, is crossed by the continent's most notable railway, the line of the Orient Express.
You could walk from the cathedral doors to the German frontier in an hour. Leaving would be daft, though. This is one of France's most elegant and well-to-do cities: partly thanks to a wealth of industry that is quietly consigned to the suburbs, and also because its location means any European institution worth its salt mountain has an office here, including the beautiful new homes for the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights. They have settled in this fine city because nowhere sums up better the calm after the stormy past two centuries in Europe. As part of Alsace, Strasbourg has shuttled back and forth between France and Germany. Much of the handsome architecture you see is solidly Prussian, and a statue of Goethe stands in front of the university.
The retail offerings reflect the city's diversity - yet there is a strong showing for regional arts and crafts. Visit Arts et Collections d'Alsace on the place du Marché-aux-Poissons, the Poterie d'Alsace at 3 rue des Frères or the Alsatian shoemaker Heschung at 8 rue du Sanglier. And if you cannot wait until yule for the spectacular Christmas Market, at Un Noël en Alsace (10 rue des Dentelles) every day is 25 December.
Strasbourg tourist office (00 33 3 88 52 28 28; www.ot-strasbourg.fr)
France has some great, unsung rail journeys. One of them is the line south-east from Paris via Troyes and Ronchamp (yes, site of Le Corbusier's chapel). You pass stirring scenery, and you alight at an imposing station on the edge of one of France's hidden urban secrets.
Mulhouse is a city that works, in every sense. The rejuvenated place on the doorstep of the station shows the ambitious scale of the city, and its respect for architectural heritage. Beyond the compact city centre, follow the tyre tracks to the Musée National de l'Automobile's Collection Schlumpf: a superb tribute to the manufacturing history of Mulhouse, and good, hands-on fun too. If a new car is beyond your budget, then you could head for the Marché du Canal Couvert, or shop for antiques along rue des Tanneurs.
The city will be in festive mood from 12 to 15 June, when Mulhouse 2005 celebrates contemporary art - handing the baton to Basel, just across the border in Switzerland, for the art fair that runs 15 to 20 June.
Moulhouse tourist office (00 33 3 89 35 48 48; www.tourisme-mulhouse.com)
The French say "mess", and architecturally Metz is certainly a melange: the years spent under Prussian rule are evident as soon as you step from the train in the imposing neo-Romanesque railway station.
Yet the old town is every bit as adorable as you would expect from a place blessed by the young Moselle. Search out the 17th-century convent on rue du Haut-Poirier, which houses the city's cultural wealth in the Musées de la Cour d'Or, or Saint Pierre aux Nonnains, one of the oldest churches in France.
Even on a dull day, Metz looks golden, thanks to the use of yellow stone. The high point is the cathedral, which boasts windows by Marc Chagall; south from here, around medieval place St-Louis, you can find tempting food shops. On the square itself, La Migaine creates masterpieces in pastry, while nearby the covered market has a characteristic range of cheese and charcuterie.
Germany may be more celebrated for the wines of the Moselle, but the vines grown on the valley slopes further upstream make fine French wine, too. Visit Domaines de Hennequin at 33 boulevard Maginot for some of the best. Also along this road, you will find the spectacular Porte des Allemands - the "Gate of the Germans" - facing east, from where you explore 30km of footpaths along the ramparts.
Metz tourist office (00 33 3 87 55 53 76; http://tourisme.mairie-metz.fr)