Saturday, November 14, 2009

In Love with the Lorraine

A week after my return from Nancy and Metz, I’m finally ready to write up a post. For anyone unfamiliar with France, Nancy and Metz are two cities in the Lorraine region in the Northeast. Both are considered “big” cities in the region, albeit still dwarfs in comparison to Paris (both have about a population of about 100,000 people with an extra 400,000 in the surrounding ‘burbs). Relative to Paris, they were colder, more cutesy/rural, wetter (it was gray and rainy all weekend) and far cheaper. I also found them to be friendly and “cozy” in a social sense, which made me decide that if I end up staying in France for another year I need to seek out a smaller town.

Between the train and the bus we took around, we drove through a fair amount of rural countryside. This gave me a chance to enjoy the fall foliage I’ve been missing, which seems to be enhanced the further you get from Paris, although maybe it’s just an illusion created by the concentration of trees. The small provincial downs marked by a lone steeple reminded me of Eastern Germany (which makes sense geographically, I suppose) while the rolling fields under gray skies reminded me more of England.

Our first stop was Metz, where we got a great tour of the town, its canals and its cathedral. The cathedral has the most stained glass of any in Europe, but more impressive than the amount was the particularity of its pieces. After as many cathedrals as I’ve seen at this point in my European wanderings (honestly, it’s easier to find a cathedral than a bathroom here) I’m growing a little weary of Gothic rose windows, so the cubist-inspired windows were a nice change. There were also Chagall windows (supposedly rare, although I always happen to bumble across them) which were as graceful as ever. We grabbed lunch in a cute local café with a cheap “formule” (3 course meal) recommended to us by the tour guide, where we tried a local specialty that I *think* was called “pork balls”—-basically a form of corned beef.

After our tour of Metz we drove out to the countryside, where I learned about the existence of a new kind of fruit called a Mirabelle (that is apparently a big deal in the Lorraine…it’s basically a yellow plum). After hearing about how it’s grown and harvested, I sampled it in a variety of forms and settled on syrup and tea as my purchases. (In case you were wondering, both are delicious.)

The next day we stopped at the Cristallerie in Baccarat to visit their crystal museum and learn about the centuries-old, meticulous family enterprise of crystal artistry. I was pretty skeptical about crystal before I arrived (I kind of turn my nose up at “luxury” products—they seem like a waste of money and a throwback to the excess and decadence of monarchies or despots) but I was surprised at how beautiful some of the pieces were. During the tour, I learned the difference between crystal and glass (they pump lead into crystal to make it harder…which seems bad to me, considering the toxicity of lead and the usual food-serving functions of crystal, but apparently it’s ok). I also learned that crystal is even MORE expensive than I thought it was, and I saw single crystal goblets worth more than my college education (fun anecdote: tsarist Russia used to buy thousands of these goblets for feasts, then throw them over their shoulders to shatter them after they had been used. See what I mean?) Crystal is all hand-blown and engraved, and each piece has to be “perfect,” so about 75% of it has to get chucked at various points during the creation process to uphold the quality (and prestige and price) of the remaining, elite pieces. Hm. Still don’t think I’ll ever be able to afford any of it, but it’s kind of cool how much importance France attaches to its national products and the preservation of traditional modes of production.

Last stop on the trip was Nancy, which was an adorable town with a wide open, gilded central square and a cute tramway. We had a fair amount of free time here, which we used to shop (prices in Nancy are MUCH more affordable than those in Paris), get a great lunch at a brasserie (rabbit in a mustard sauce for me) and sample a local delicacy: macaron cookies. We were then led on a tour of the city and its art-nouveau architecture, which would have been better had it not been raining the whole time. Luckily we had a chance to dry off and warm up at an afternoon tea at the Brasserie Excelsior Art Nouveau de Nancy, where we were treated to a dessert of a cream and meringue tarte with—what else?—mirabelles and maracons before catching our train back to Paris.

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