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Unsung but unforgettable

Lorraine is the quiet type. A tranquil, industrious province, Lorraine doesn't clamor for attention the way its neighbors--turbulent Alsace, exuberant Burgundy--are inclined to do.

The pax romana brought prosperity to Lorraine's early Celtic population, for the Romans built towns and good roads. The Franks brought Christianity and the first abbeys and churches, some of which survive to this day. The Episcopal cities of Metz, Toul, and Verdun, important crossroads in Carolingian Europe, evolved into the powerful Triple See. But over the centuries, the dukes of Lorraine were hard pressed to defend their territory from the dukes of Burgundy, the Holy Roman Empire, and the kings of France. By a quirk of European history, the exiled Polish king Stanislaw Leszczynski (who also happened to be the father-in-law of Louis XV) traded his claim to Tuscany to rule Lorraine in 1738. Under his vigorous influence, the province was industrialized (iron works, crystal and ceramics factories) and gloried in an artistic golden age. When Stanislaw died in 1766, Lorraine became subject to the French Crown until Germany snatched it away, along with Alsace, in 1870. And like Alsace, Lorraine returned to French sovereignty in 1919 after World War I. Hitler in turn annexed the province in 1940, but Lorraine, with Alsace, was restored to France by the Allied victory.

This rapid overview of Lorraine's history helps us discover and understand a province often neglected--underestimated!--by travelers to France. Religious tolerance is an age-old tradition here; so much so that in the Reform era Luther's message was favorably received. The arts flourished in Lorraine's liberal climate, architecture in particular. Romanesque and Gothic churches spring up in odd places: a magnificent basilica in tiny Saint Nicolas-de-Port, or a Rhenish-style cathedral Saint-Dié. Metz claims Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains, the oldest (fourth century) church in France, and the towering cathedral of Saint-Étienne, with its inspiring, jewel-like stained glass (notice the King David Window by Chagall). Amid the ancient dwellings of Bar-le-Duc stands the Gothic church of Saint-Étienne, known for its macabre statue of the Décharné (skeleton) by sculptor Ligier Richier.

A land of patriots from Joan of Arc to de Gaulle

Ever-embattled Lorraine naturally bristles with military architecture. The medieval fortress at Bitche in the Moselle, and the citadel at Montmédy, north of Verdun, begun by Charles V in the 1400s, were both transformed in the seventeenth century by Vauban, a brilliant engineer and marshal of France also responsible for the fortified gates at Phalsbourg and Longwy. In this century the Maginot line was conceived to prevent German armies from penetrating France, with an incredible--and, as it happened, utterly useless--system of underground fortifications at Bitche (Simserhof Fort), Longuyon (Fort Fermont), and Veckring (Fort Hackenberg). This architectural inventory would be incomplete without a word for the magnificent châteaux and opulent dwellings at Haroué, Fléville, and Commercy, and for Lunéville, which Voltaire called “the Versailles of Lorraine.” Place Stanislas in Nancy is an exquisite eighteenth-century ensemble; the city also possesses fine Renaissance and Baroque mansions, and Art Nouveau town houses designed by the artists of the École de Nancy.

Though Lorraine is hospitable, open to new ideas and commerce, it is also fiercely patriotic. Joan of Arc, who spurred King Charles VII to expel the English from France, was born at Domrémy-la-Pucelle. The Cross of Lorraine, borrowed from medieval crusaders, rallied the French who, with de Gaulle, resisted the Nazi occupation. And Verdun crystallized France's defiance of Germany in the Great War, though it cost 600,000 men dead or wounded. Lorrainers honor the memory of these sacrifices at the World Center for Peace in Verdun, at the battlefields of Vaux and Douaumont, at the German cemetery of Andilly, the American cemetery at Dinozé, the Pershing memorial on Montsec. With its 10,489 graves Saint-Avold is the largest American cemetery in Europe.

For all its battle scars, Lorraine is the most densely wooded area in France, and it sparkles with rivers and fish-filled lakes. Water's purifying virtues have been celebrated here since Celtic and Roman times. Locals even brag that the custom of “taking the waters” began in Lorraine. However that may be, curists flock to the spa-resorts of Vittel, Contrexéville, Plombières, and Bains-les-Bains to gulp lungfuls of mountain air and drink from crystalline springs.

Lorraine's iron-ore deposits were the basis of its once-mighty steel industry. In its heyday the foundry at Pompey produced the 7,300 metric tons of steel that built the Eiffel Tower! Lorraine's industrial base also covers timber from the Vosges, paper mills, breweries, and tires. Though it is no longer an industrial powerhouse, Lorraine's location in the heart of Europe has attracted high-tech manufacturers from America, Sweden, and Japan. Next to iron, crystal is Lorraine's most famous export. Crystal and fine glass have been produced in the towns of Baccarat and Saint Louis since the third century. At their apogee in the eighteenth century, Lorraine's cristalliers (who had learned the secrets of their Italian and Bohemian rivals) supplied all the royal and imperial courts of the world. Today Baccarat produces 40 percent of French crystal; the town's Crystal Museum is a must-see. The glassworks of Saint-Louis-lès-Bitche, the oldest in Lorraine, offers guided tours. In Nancy, Daum's art glass can be seen at the Fine Arts museum as well in the firm's workshops on Rue des Cristalleries.

A tradition of art and craftsmanship

Lorraine's inhabitants are taciturn, known for their reserve (an effect of the inclement climate, perhaps?), yet the province has a deep-rooted tradition of fostering the arts. The painter Georges de La Tour, master of chiaroscuro, is perhaps the region's most renowned artist (see his paintings in the art museum of Épinal), along with Claude Gellée, better known as Claude Le Lorrain, and the sculptor Ligier Richier whose affecting works grace churches in Saint-Mihiel, Bar-le-Duc, and Briey. Connoisseurs and collectors of Art Nouveau should know that the movement was born in Nancy, with Émile Gall. Rallying other brilliant artists and craftsmen, he launched the École de Nancy, which included the Daum brothers, Louis Majorelle, Jacques Grubert, the sculptor Victor Prouvé, and cabinetmakers Eugène and Auguste Vallin. Lorraine's ceramics industry, based in Lunéville, Longwy, and Sarreguemines was strongly influenced by the sinuous forms and floral motifs of Art Nouveau.

Beyond quiche lorraine

It is said that the great Stanislaw Leszczynski, Count of Lorraine, was so fond of the table that he employed a staff of 30 just to prepare and serve his meals. He is credited with inventing the baba au rhum, and introduced Commercy's buttery madeleines into royal circles. Today Lorraine's restaurateurs regale guests with local specialties that go beyond the well-known quiche lorraine to include matelotes made with fish from river and lake, trout pâté, and potée lorraine brimming with hearty cuts of smoked pork. The cheese course might include a nutty Brie made with milk from Lorraine's dairy herds; and dessert will surely include a tart garnished with the region's bounty of cherries, damsons, blueberries, or mirabelles (which are also distilled into the clear fruit brandies that bring meals in these parts to a close).

Unsung Lorraine, as you can see, has many surprises in store. Here's one more: while it wasn't a Lorrainer who discovered America, it was a native of Saint-Dié who printed the first work that called the New World by that name: America. The rest, as they say, is history.

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(Updated: 01/07/13 CT)

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