It has been a really lovely day and we are now back in France, exploring the eastern region of Lorraine, an area which, like Alsace, has alternated over the centuries between France and Germany.
It rained a great deal last night so it was with some relief that we left the campsite at Luxembourg as Modestine can be very difficult if her wheels start to spin on wet grass or mud. The roads were almost empty as we left the capital and made our way south, back into France for the first time in nearly three months leaving behind the clean, neat and tidy villages and countryside of Luxembourg and replacing them with the rather run-down, untidy villages of France with their broken road surfaces and vehicles parked just about anywhere except on the road.
We rejoined the Moselle, which had gained a couple of final letters since we left Germany, and passed the remains of what would have been a Roman aqueduct to rival the Pont du Gard, had it survived more completely. Originally it must have carried water high across the Moselle to the town of Metz but now only a few overgrown arches remain, along with basins at the spring which was once the source of the water supply, set amidst vegetable gardens and orchards. Nearby was a monument in German to soldiers who had died in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.
We stopped at the little town of Ars-sur-Moselle, where we joined a queue at the boulangerie for bread and croissants before joining the menfolk in the run-down PMU café overlooking the square for large cups of coffee which we drank with our own croissants. The sun had decided to put in an appearance and it was very pleasant just to sit and watch everyone shaking hands, patting each other on the back and smoking in the bar and at the terrace tables – in direct contravention of the EU directive issued just up the road in Luxembourg. Before moving on we went downstairs to use the facilities and realised we really and truly were back in France. How can a country pay such loving care and attention to what it takes into itself and so little to what comes out? Best not dwell on it!
We have been on a pilgrimage on behalf of all our eager readers who through our blogs have become addicted to the hobby of manhole cover spotting! Throughout Europe you will find covers bearing the inscription PAM. This stands for Pont-à-Mousson, almost certainly Europe's main producer, working from a very dated and ugly looking foundry on the river Moselle on the edge of the town. We asked directions from the man working in the supermarket and a happy smile spread over his face as he told us that the foundry had existed for very many years and had brought employment to the town with contracts from all over the world and an order book that is completely full for the next four years! There was little to see at the entrance to the huge complex, other than several young Algerian men clocking on for the Sunday shift. We searched the streets for some unique examples but met with no real success except for one very early and handsome inscribed specimen. The town itself is more agreeable than one would expect of an industrial centre with an attractive arcaded square and several churches. The old bridge which features as a trademark on the PAM covers was destroyed in 1944 and replaced.
By lunch time we were in Nancy, deep in the heart of Lorraine. Back at Lake Garda in April we met some English people who told us on no account to miss Nancy if we ever passed this way and gave us the address of a campsite. Our guidebook to France also sang its praises and not without reason as we soon discovered. It is a stunningly beautiful town and one that today was lively in the sunshine with crowds out enjoying the Parc de la Pépinière with its free zoo, or sitting at street cafes, or wandering the streets of the old town, or simply browsing the Sunday afternoon flea market and bookstalls in the Grande Rue outside the magnificently gothic ducal palace. Nancy should be high on every tourist's itinerary. It makes a wonderful place for a long weekend with so much happening.
The most beautiful square in Europe is probably Place Stanislas here in Nancy. It is complete perfection and has been justifiably listed as a Unesco world heritage site. The beautifully proportioned square of 18th century buildings with its gilded railings and huge wrought iron gates was commissioned by the Duke of Lorraine, Stanislas Leszczynski from 1736, along with many other wonderful embellishments to the city where he held court and encouraged the arts, lavishly entertaining his guests. He was the father-in-law of the French King Louis XV and also king of Poland until he lost his throne, when he was given the dukedom of Lorraine in consolation by the French king.
Near the square we found the cathedral, also commissioned by Stanislas. Built in the classical style with heavy embellishments, it at first seemed overpowering but it is certainly an impressive, perfectly proportioned building. It has a massive organ with over 4,000 pipes and as we wandered around the organist started playing at maximum volume that resounded around the cathedral, filling every space with an incredibly intense sound. He must really look forward to Sunday afternoon rehearsals, the power to make such a thunderous noise in exactly the space intended for it is awesome!
Nancy also claims to be the place where the Art Nouveau movement began with several early examples around the town. We have been so impressed with the beauty and vivacity of the city that we have decided to spend another day here and explore it in greater depth tomorrow. Today we scratched the surface and the city shone gold in the sunlight. Clean, bright, lively, happy and bursting with culture we cannot wait to return tomorrow morning.
After browsing the bookstalls, wandering through the park where children were feeding the goats and geese and a chimpanzee was demonstrating the correct way to eat an artichoke, we were weary enough to look out the recommended campsite. It does seem very good with trees to provide shade as it has turned hot again. We sat outside with our wine, surrounded as usual by dozens of Dutch camping vehicles. We were forced inside an hour ago when the rain began again. Thunder and lightening have joined in and we are back to the usual soggy weather. The little guidebook to the campsite we were given at reception listed any possible problems that might be encountered. Under "Flooding" it mentioned that if it were to happen we wouldn't be half as surprised as they would!
How Nancy managed to survive intact throughout the French Revolution, the Franco-Prussian wars and both World Wars we cannot understand, but thankfully it has, leaving Europe an architecturally richer and more beautiful place.
Monday 25th June 2007, Nancy, France
We gather that the weather has been dreadful in England too recently with serious flooding in Yorkshire. We did wonder after a night of torrential rain and thunder here whether we would find the campsite personnel wide-eyed with surprise and the campsite under water, but as we are on sandy soil on a hill high above the town, we just have lots of messy puddles that tread in and make the carpet oozy and unpleasant.
We braved the weather to take the bus down into town where we have spent the entire day and still feel there is much to see. We started by seeking out some of the early Art Nouveau buildings of which the town is justifiably proud. Mid-morning we stopped for a coffee outside at one of the smart cafés on Place Stanislas. Suddenly the rain returned so violently that the square looked as if it had a covering of mist where the rain bounced up from the cobbles. Several of the huge parasols blew over, overturning tables as they fell and soaking everyone with the deluge of rainwater that had gathered on them. We hastily moved inside to finish our coffee but others were drenched before they had chance to move.
As the rain was set for the day and the adjacent Musée des Beaux-Arts was open on Mondays we scuttled through the rain to next door where we shed our coats, deposited our bags and enjoyed a wonderful morning that only ended at 3pm when hunger forced us to leave in search of food.
The museum contains some excellent works by artists of international renown including Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Rubens and Brueghel as well as French artists that include Delacroix, Courbet, Dufy, Doré, Monet, Manet, and Picasso. There is a separate museum of works from the late nineteenth and early 20th century School of Nancy but several excellent local artists were represented including Friant. There is also a good selection of sculptures including works by Rodin. The highlight in many ways was the discovery at the end of our visit of over 400 pieces of glass produced by the Nancy based firm of Daum. Pieces dated from the end of the 19th century, heralding the start of the Art Nouveau style, through the Art Deco period and on to modern contemporary items, amongst which were designs commissioned from Salvador Dali. Each item was individually designed and produced, usually in vibrant colours using a range of different techniques, decorated with scenes from nature - leaves, flowers, berries, brambles, fruits or vines. They were either fused into the glass, moulded onto it or etched into it. Items displayed included lamps, tall vases, dishes and pots with lids. None could have been intended for use though the company also produced a range of high quality domestic tableware decorated with a liberal use of gold.
After exploring a few more of the city streets we decided it was too wet to linger so took the bus back to the campsite and made use of the internet point in reception. We also cooked a hot meal in Modestine for the first time in ages. It is good to be back in a country where all food does not come sausage shaped and there is a good range of products that can be easily prepared in an extremely small camping car in the rain.
Tuesday 26th June 2007, Verdun
The paragraph below is brilliantly contrived but will probably only be appreciated by those of you who either love or loathe the musical The sound of music.
The region of Lorraine is very proud of its local heroine, Jeanne d'Arc who was born in the village of Domrémy on the banks of the Meuse in the department of Vosges. This morning we looked on the map and we didn't think Domrémy far, so late to go as it was, we finally set off in the rain. There was a rising scale of excitement as we passed a female deer, but it rained all morning and we saw not one drop of golden sun! We discovered it was farther than we thought and was a long, long way to run, sew we didn't arrive until nearly lunch time when we had tea, to drink with ham and bread outside the basilica, just above the village. We then returned down the same road which brought us back to Domrémy.
Domrémy is a small rural village like hundreds of others in Lorraine. Here, around 1429 the seventeen year old Jeanne d'Arc heard voices urging her to unite the disparate factions of the French army in their campaign against the English in the One Hundred Years War. She achieved phenomenal success but became an acute embarrassment to the Church who had no wish for ordinary people to claim direct communication with the saints, bypassing the Church. She also became a problem for both the French and the English and because of her refusal to recant was burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431 and was eventually canonised in 1920. She has become something of a cult figure and her life has captured the imagination of writers and artists around the world with plays written by George Bernard Shaw in England, Friedrich Schiller in Germany and Jean Anouilh in France. She was also famously depicted in a painting by Dante Gabrielle Rosetti.
The village was wet and deserted when we arrived and we were able to wander freely around the house in which she was born before exploring an exhibition of the European perspective on her life. At midday we had to leave as everywhere closed for two hours. So we drove up to the rather ugly Romanesque basilica above the village, built in dedication to her. It commanded lovely views of the valley of the Meuse and inside had huge wall paintings depicting major scenes from her life. In the crypt there was a chapel of remembrance to the soldiers of the Vosges who died in the First World War.
After a picnic lunch in Modestine we returned through the village and continued our journey northwards through a very pleasant countryside to Verdun.