Metz for the Holidays

 You needn’t leave the country to find the holiday bustle and cheery atmosphere of a traditional German Christmas market. Just go to the ex-German part of France. While the Alsatian markets are probably the best known, Strasbourg and Kaysersberg are a bit far for a rail weekend. But Metz, the capital of Lorraine, also has a Christmas market – and celebrates the official arrival of St. Nicolas in a big way.

Santa Claus is coming to town December 10, the Sunday after St. Nicolas’ Day. He travels to Metz not by sleigh but by train. The city gives him a parade, and marks the occasion by turning on Christmas lights all over town for the first time. Then St. Nick takes up residence in the Christmas market.

The market runs all month in the medieval Place Saint Louis, whose arcades form one of Metz’s oldest shopping streets. The collection of more than 60 chalet stalls, crammed to the gills with Christmas decorations and gifts, forms a kind of village, complete with its own church and crèche. In addition to Santa, the market features music by carolers and instrumentalists, and hot wine to warm shoppers’ hands.

This regional capital was already ancient when Julius Caesar visited two millennia ago. It was then the home of Celts who were called the Mediomatrics. Today the inhabitants are known as Messins (Metz is pronounced “Mess”). When the centuries-long Franco-German tug of war for Alsace and Lorraine last stopped, it was the French team that was still standing – and Metz is indisputably French in feel and look, unlike much of Alsace.

The Teutonic influence is strong only in the environs of the train station. The yellow-gray station and its rose-red neighbor, the central post office, were perpetrated by the Germans around the turn of the century in the style known as “kolossal.” Arriving and leaving by train, you will have ample time to contemplate their massive kitchiness.

A richer yellow stone predominates in other Metz monuments, most notably the superbly situated Cathédrale St. Etienne. Seen to best effect from the banks of the Moselle to the north, its golden spires and buttresses soar above the town. It incorporates one of France’s chief treasures, some 6,500 square meters of stained glass ranging from the 13th century, when the building was begun, to the 20th century with works by Chagall.

Judging by the state of the sidewalks, Messin dogs are aptly named – the city badly needs some Paris-style pooper-scoopers. Aside from that quibble, amenities such as wheelchair ramps and public toilets (for humans) abound. And the parts of the city damaged in two world wars have been rebuilt with taste by someone with a feel for the surviving remnants.

Near the cathedral, the city art and history museums occupy a 17th century convent, a 15th century tithe barn and remains of the Roman baths. They house a particularly fine Gallo-Roman collection and decoration from the church of St. Pierre aux Nonnains. St. Pierre, now deconsecrated as part of the Arsenal cultural complex, claims to be the oldest church building in France: bits of it date from the 4th century, though the bulk of the fabric is Romanesque and Gothic.

The Arsenal complex also includes a curious little octagonal Templar chapel, from the 13th century. The Arsenal itself, star of the former citadel quarter, is 19th century. It has been transformed into performance, exhibition and trade fair space, with a splendid concert hall by the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill.

On the esplanade northeast of the Arsenal, to January 6, an exhibition of crèches has been set up, with some 140 Nativity scenes from around the world. The collection ranges from simple wooden or clay creations to more elaborate manger scenes in African ivory, Murano crystal, Bolivian fabrics, English Bakelite, Brazilian ceramics, Philippine terra cotta, etc. Entry: adults 25F, children 15F.


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