What comes to mind when you think of the region of Lorraine, France? If you thought immediately of quiche lorraine, you’re not alone- though the people there do question how the cheese and bacon quiches got that name as neither is in an authentic quiche lorraine! I admit going into my trip with Atout France, Lorraine Tourism and Meuse Tourism that I didn’t really know what to expect from Lorraine, aside from knowing that it was an important site in World War I. For all its sad history, Lorraine is just as charming and interesting as its fellow regions, with plenty to offer no matter if you’re a history buff like me or simply want to experience more of France at its most authentic. Not convinced yet? Here are 7 reasons why you should visit Lorraine, France:
1. The region is full of adorable towns and villages!
Because Lorraine has passed hands so many times- less than a century ago it was still part of Germany, having been reclaimed after the Franco-Prussian war- the architecture varies in style depending on when different sections were built. The city of Metz, for example, is the capital of the region and dates back 3,000 years; it was a major city in Gaul and, later, the Roman Empire. Wandering through the city, you can pass through centuries separated by just a few streets- from the medieval Porte des Allemands to the eclectic Alsatian-like houses along Avenue Foch built during the German expansion of the city to the little streets of the imperial quarter that could be a side street in Paris or Aix-en-Provence. Given that it’s only a little over an hour away from Paris by train, it’s the perfect spot for a weekend getaway, as it’s still largely undiscovered by the hordes of tourists visiting the capital. We didn’t get a chance to explore Verdun because of the weather, but I’ll be back to check out the underground citadel!
2. It’s also steeped with history…
The region was the location of some of the most important- and bloodiest- battles of World War I. Of those, the most famous are the 10-month Battle of Verdun, and the Meuse-Argonne offensive, named for the French department Meuse and the Argonne forest, which was the French-American part of the major Allied offensive that finally put an end to the war.
Even a century later, the events that occurred throughout Lorraine still permeate the edges of modernity. Certain parts of the landscape are still off-limits, littered with unexploded shells now covered by grass and leaves. The indentations in the ground that one might normally chalk up to normal variants in the landscape are shallower than they were 100 years ago but were originally caused by heavy shelling.
To understand how relevant a century-old war can still be in modern times, you MUST visit the museum Romagne 14-18 to see Jean Paul de Vries’s collection of items and artifacts collected from within a 5km radius of his home in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. It contains over 200,000 objects, he estimates, and he found 95% of them himself- horseshoes, shovels, boots, wagons, canteens, even an old typewriter with mangled keys. If he’s available, ask Jean Paul himself to show you around the museum- it’s his descriptions of these seemingly random objects that give a humanity to the war that may not otherwise be felt.
3. …that can be seen at every turn…
Quite literally, every turn! The main highway between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc was known as the Voie Sacree, or Sacred Road, given its name after the war for the role it played in the Battle of Verdun. It was the only reliable way for troops and supplies to reach Verdun since the Germans made the city impossible to reach by train. Now markers periodically dot the roadside, reminding drivers in their modern cars of the vehicles that had once rolled their way down the same roadway, carting men and arms to and from one of the most terrible battles on the Western Front.
From the upstairs terraces at the very modern Verdun Memorial Museum, you can see the Douaumont Ossuary in the distances. Looking like nothing more than another war monument, the ossuary in fact contains the bones of 130,000 unidentified soldiers from both sides, collected after the Battle of Verdun and laid to rest on the top of the hill, in front of the largest French cemetery of WWI, full of crosses representing 16,142 French soldiers, identified by their uniforms.
4. …or you can go looking for it.
If you prefer to see the more hidden sites of the war for yourself, there are a number of old forts, trenches and tunnels that you can explore. One such location is the Butte de Vauquois, or Vauquois Hill, where French and German forces battled it out for three and a half years. The butte is one of the best existing examples of how much damage modern industrial warfare can do- the crater in the middle of the hill was created by the German soldiers setting off sixty thousand kilograms (66 tons) of explosives in an attempt to destroy the hill itself- and the hill and tunnels are still much as they were a century ago, with barbed wire emplacements outlining the hill and glass bottles lying untouched in the tunnels and underground rooms. You’ll need to go with a tour guide, as the entrance of the tunnels isn’t easy to find, and it’s even more difficult to find the exit once you’re underground! If you’re looking to go really in-depth (literally and figuratively) with the history of WWI, it’s an incredible place to visit.
5. But if you need a tastier side of history, you can go eat some candy!
Take a tour of the Dragées Braquier factory, which has been creating the verdunoise specialty since 1783. Dragées are sugar-covered almonds, and these versions were officially created in 1220 by an apothecary in Verdun wishing to preserve his almonds by coating them in sugar. Now they are traditionally given out at weddings and baptisms, and the factory makes many varieties- chocolate covered, nougatine, even metallic ones using real edible gold and silver dust to coat them. The tour explains how the treats are made as you walk through the factory and watch the magic in action.
At the end, you can head into the shop before the exit and buy some to take home! And yes, there’s a spot to taste test before you buy.
6. There’s plenty of culture to be had besides the historical parts.
The Centre Pompidou in Metz is a modern art museum that hosts temporary exhibits year round- you could come multiple times a year and never see the same thing twice! The museum itself was designed by two architects, one French and one Japanese, with a unique roof structure that was inspired by a Chinese hat found in Paris by the Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban.
The current exhibits, lasting until 8 January 2018 and 5 March 2018, focus on Japanese architecture and art, respectively. My good friend Sophie of Solo Sophie and I were thrilled to discover an exhibit of famed artist Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors called Fireflies on the Water, hidden away on an upper floor.
7. And you can stay in some pretty stellar hotels as well!
During our long weekend in Lorraine, we stayed in two lovely hotels- Les Jardins du Mess, which was a bit more modern, and Château des Monthairons, a chateau-turned-military-hospital-turned-hotel. Both were wonderful, with comfortable beds and delicious restaurants. I would recommend Les Jardins du Mess to someone who wanted to stay in the town of Verdun and have a lovely view over the river from their balcony! Château des Monthairons is great for someone with a car looking for a more secluded getaway.
Have you been to visit Lorraine, France? What was your favorite place?