Saturday, June 15, 2013

Chapter 24: Cathedral of light--Saint Etienne and Metz

There is plenty to see in Germany, but we seemed drawn to France these days. It's so close by! I'm fascinated by French architecture and culture, and it just feels more like an escape when we venture beyond the German border for our weekend trips. Metz, our point of visitation this last weekend, is only an hour and a half drive from our apartment, and Lorraine has at times in history been part of Germany, so it's not much of a geographical leap; however, the people do speak French, and the food is different, so it is a switch.

Metz (pronounced "Mess" by the French) is a charming city in Lorraine that positively glows from the yellowish Jaumont rock quarried nearby that was used to build much of the old town. It was at various times the home of Rabelais, Paul Verlaine and Robert Schumann (not the composer, but the European statesman). 
Rabelais' house
Paul Verlaine's house

The city is most famous for its incredible Saint Etienne Cathedral, started in the 13th century and improved upon until our own time. Cleaning is currently underway. Saint Etienne has the greatest expanse of stained glass windows of any cathedral in the world, and the lighting effect is quite stunning. The front expanse which includes a vast rose window is part of the original 13th century design, and then as one ventures further toward the altar, the glass artists reflect later periods, including twentieth century artists Francois Villon (not the celebrated medieval poet) and Marc Chagall. 
St Etienne Cathedral undergoing cleaning
Cathedral of light
Great rose window

Windows of Francois Villon

Window of Marc Chagall

As with the Strasbourg cathedral, Etienne has weathered the ravages of violent history, and Lorraine is no stranger to violence, having been warred over for centuries between France and Germany. Probably the worst damage, however, occurred during the French Revolution when zealot anti clerics defaced much of the church and had plans to destroy all of the windows. Fortunately, the job proved to be too expensive, so it was abandoned, and the next republic proved saner. The Jaumont stone throughout the city, including the great church, gives all of the winding streets and wide boulevards and squares a luminescence, which is only amplified exponentially in the brilliant, sun lit cathedral. Paris is called the City of Light, but certainly Metz deserves a similar appellation. Paris's lights are electric, as in so many modern cities, but Metz's are within the walls themselves, and the cathedral is a sublime window of the soul.

Tourist center
Jaumont facades
The magnificent Metz train station
Also glowing from the Jaumont bricks are the old bishop's palace, which has long served as the town's market. It is filled with fresh meat, fish, vegetables, herbs, fruit, sausages, breads and a large section of eating areas, filled with the aroma of various cooked meats. It's a riot for the senses. Further down the street is the Musee (museum) which houses a large collection of eastern French Roman artifacts, as well as important collections of more recent art from the region. Still further is a vast square across the Moselle river which is dominated by the oldest opera house in France, also of luminous Jaumont brick.
Yes, Metz has a river walk along the lazy Moselle
Shopping under the dragon, the symbol of Metz. Tradition has it that St Clement drove the dragons from Metz.
Metz is typical of many French cities, with its charming old town, filled with pedestrians and bicyclists navigating the narrow and sometimes insanely steep cobble stone streets, and the relaxed restaurants and cafes; but it is unique in its literally glowing construction and hybrid culture that, despite being clearly French, also owes plenty to German influence. Germans love to visit this town, and visitors will hear a consistent mix of both languages in the shops and patisseries. The cathedral, of course, is essential to visit when traveling through this region. There are plenty of spectacular churches in eastern France, most notably in Strasbourg and Reims, but none so luminous as Metz. Each of these great sacred spaces has it's own miraculous appeal and beauty, but the sunlit Saint Etienne is a miracle you will see nowhere else.
St Etienne's, looking up.
A smaller, but still impressive 13th century church, St Martin's, that we visited.

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