In the eastern part of France is a gorgeous and little known area that is the Lorraine region, with its beautiful capital called Nancy (the French pronounce it "nan CEE," with the accent on the second syllable). The big deal in Nancy is Stanislas Square, built by the duke of that name in the 18th century and now on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, as are two other squares nearby. Stanislas, an ex-king of Poland and father-in-law of French king Louis XV, became the Duke of Lorraine and transformed the city of Nancy into one of Europe's most beautiful between 1752 to 1760; note especially the gilded railings and sinuous corner sculptures. After the duke's death, Louis XV pulled down many of the palaces his son-in-law had built, mostly to save expense of the upkeep. Stanislas Square, luckily for us, has been reserved for pedestrians since 2005. (It may be hard to believe that it was once used as a vast parking lot (from 1958 to 1983).
The second item of note here is the amazing number of buildings and their innards that reflect the Art Nouveau movement. A lot of this is due to history, of course. When Germany annexed neighboring Alsace and the northern part of Lorraine in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War, many rich and educated people fled to Nancy, which remained French. Paying special attention to furniture, jewelry and decorative items, they worked hard to turn these "minor arts" into "major arts" (such as painting, sculpture and architecture), seeking new shapes in nature itself. The movement more or less came to a halt with the start of World War I in 1914, however.
A note for the budget-wise: Throughout Lorraine, the free Passport card is a handy thing to carry, offering reductions at more than 150 venues, typically one Euro per person (about $1.37). Museums, castles, parks and gardens are included, as well as theme parks, restaurants, farm inns and more. Get it free at the Lorraine website, listed below.
Of the eight museums in Nancy, the best, by far, is the École de Nancy Museum, displaying the marvelous turn-of-the-20th-century art and furniture related to the Art Nouveau movement. Housed in the former mansion of Eugene Corbin and made into a museum in 1951, the building itself typifies the works that it exhibits. Look especially for the dining room, the Dawn & Dusk bed (the artist's "death bed") and the Rhine River table (at the entrance), as well as the Villa Majorelle Bedroom. The "Death of the Swan" piano is a real hoot. A nice and timely touch is the "Espoir" vase (1889) on the ground floor, which reads Espoir in French from left to right, and the Arabic word for Hope from right to left. Come if you can, as I did, when the lilacs are in bloom (June). Guided tours on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 3, admission 7.60 € ($9.73), regular admission rates without guide 6 € ($8.22), open Wednesdays through Sundays. 36-38 rue du Sergent Blandan, tel. 011-03-83-40-14-86, website www.ecole-de-nancy.com.
For more traditional art, check out the Musée Historique Lorrain, open since 1850. Located in the 16th-century Duke's Palace and the 16th-century Franciscan Convent and Church, it features everything from prehistoric objects to art from the 20th century. You might like the 18th- and 19th-century faience collection. I was fascinated by the etchings of local artist Jacques Callot, especially his Parisian view of Pont Neuf (1632), as well as the room of terra cotta objects on the second floor. It was in the precursor to this palace (the original was built in 1298) that Charles II, Duke of Lorraine, received Jean of Arc in February 1429, asking her to heal him. She demanded that he give up his mistress, but he sent her packing and ignored her advice. Open daily except Tuesdays, admission 3.10 € per building or combined 4.60 € ($4.25 or $6.30, respectively). Lorraine Museum, 64 Grand Rue, tel. 011-03-83-32-18-74, website www.nancy.fr.
The imposing Church of St.Epvre was built in 1864, but is much loved for its many large windows (of which three are rose windows), mostly made in Vienna, making the church "more glass than wall". The main organ was first played by composer Anton Bruckner at its inaugural in 1869.
A Lorraine official told me there were only three great wines from this region, namely the gray (rose, Gamay grapes), light reds (Pinot Noir grapes) and dry white (Auxerrois grapes) Cotes de Toul labels. Bottles of this in a restaurant such as the Flo Excelsior run from 14 € to 18 €, typically ($19.19 to $24.67). Traditional foods here are quiche (of course), baba au rhum, bouchee a la reine (a casserole featuring quenelles, mushrooms and fish, similar to the vol-au-vent), macaroons and mirabelles (small plums).
You can dine well at La Mignardise, as I did, and you can have dinner on weeknights for just 21 € ($28.78), which includes a glass of wine and coffee. With that menu, you have a choice of three appetizers (shrimp, salad, etc.), three entrees (beef, osso buco, etc.) and choice of cheese or the dessert du jour. They even have had kangaroo on the menu, but I wasn't asked to choose between that and anything else. Open daily except Sunday evenings. La Mignardise, 28 rue Stanislas, tel. 011-03-83-32-20-22, website www.lamignardise.com.
For ambience while dining, you can't beat the Grand Café de La Brasserie Moreau Flo Excelsior, part of the small Flo chain. Near the rail station, it's a 1910 fantasia of Art Nouveau décor, with works by such local celebrities as Louis Majorelle, Antonin Daum and Jacques Gruber. Be sure you eat in the gorgeous main dining room, not in a dull private room, as I had to. Their starters include quiche Lorraine, naturally, their main courses osso buco of breaded roast monkfish with creamy risotto, and their desserts a choice of Lorraine specialties, including bergamot crème brulee. When you leave the restaurant, note the great windows by Gruber in the Chamber of Commerce building next door on the rue Poincare side. Brasserie Excelsior, 50 rue Henri Poincare, tel. 011-03-83-35-24-57, website www.brasserie-excelsior.com.
The best meal I had in Nancy was a buffet lunch (16 €, $21.93) at Lezart Café, a book-lined retreat near the Sunday market adjoining the Church of the Cordeliers. The delicious variety of salads was especially good. Lezart Café, 93 Grande Rue, tel. 011-33-38-33-87-60-18, no website.
The grandest place to stay is, naturally, the Grand Hôtel de la Reine, right on the magnificent Place Stanislas. If possible, try to get a room facing the square so that you can people watch and in the evening enjoy the lumiere show (with music) from your own window. The hotel, one of many fine 18th-century mansions surrounding the square, was lived in by Stanislas' finance minister. Only 42 rooms and suites, for which a double, not including a smallish buffet breakfast (16 €, $21.93), ranges upwards from 145 € ($198.72). There's an elegant dining room, as well as an equally sumptuous ground floor bar. Grand Hotel, 2 Place Stanislas, Nancy, tel. 011-03-83-35-03-01, website www.hoteldelareine.com.
If you want something equally grand, but less pretentious, check out the Hotel d'Haussonville (1528), close to the Ducal Palace, a four-star rated place with seven rooms where you pay from 140 € to 230 € ($191.87 to $315.21) and an extra 16 € ($21.93) for breakfast. You'll be sleeping behind a façade lined with flamboyant Gothic sculpture. Hotel d'Haussonville, 9 rue Monseigner Trouillet, tel.011-03-83-35-85-84, website www.hotel-haussonville.fr.
Thanks to the new French TGV Est, the fastest train in the world, you can get from Paris to the Lorraine TGV station near Nancy in just 90 minutes, compared to the former train time of 160 minutes. The trains are super deluxe, quiet and comfortable, and the one way full fare is just $76 second class or $135 first class. TGV, by the way, stands for train a grande vitesse ("high speed train"). More information can be had at Rail Europe, tel. 888/382-7245 in US or 800/361-7245 in Canada, www.raileurope.com (US) or www.raileurope.ca (Canada).
American Airlines, with direct flights to Paris from New York and several other cities, has a vast network of connecting cities from all over the US. More at www.aa.com.
Check out the site for the Nancy Tourist Office, Place Stanislas, tel. 011-03-83-35-22-41, website www.ot-nancy.fr.
For information on Lorraine, go to www.tourism-lorraine.com.
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