My knowledge of the city of Metz
comes mostly from military history, as the fortress at Metz was part of the Maginot Line fortifications and stalled the drive of General Patton's
Third Army during the Lorraine campaigns of the fall of 1944. But after visiting the battlefield
s of Verdun yesterday I was feeling a bit 'fought out' today. The site of so many bones and shellholes takes a while to come to peace with, and that knowledge about myself is something I'm kinda pleased to gain. Nevertheless, today I visited Metz.
Metz is just a couple train stops down from Luxembourg, and if you decided to you can take the TGV there. You won't get there at TGV speeds though, the tracks aren't good enough to run at a sustained 170 MPH. Still, you need reservations to board that train, and from their Paris is only a couple hours away. If I were commuting to Paris. It's also a place my cousins strongly recommended, one of their favorite spots for a weekend away before they had children. Upon arrival I could see why. The City itself is not flat, but it's built between the Seille and Moselle Rivers and before I pulled in I was once again reminded of how many different wars have been fought in that region by the surprising surplus of Fortifications. One the left (east) side of the train I spotted a big, big scarped ditch that was once part of the Bastions of Fort Bellecroix, one of a ring of forts surrounding the city. A few seconds later I spotted the Allemands Gate, a thirteenth century Gate house built by the Teutonic Knights that formed the last of the defenses of the old city wall. And all that was seen while the train was braking.
Then I left the train station and my eyes were really opened. Start with the train station itself, a neo-Romanesque building designed by Jurgen Kroger in 1905, its completely beautiful with a gorgeous clock tower at the center. Buildings to the left of me? Don't know what they are, but boy are they gorgeous. Look to the right, and I saw a tall, germanic water tower made out of masonry and beautifully decorated. Look ahead and the town is just gorgeous, and I can see the Cathedral of St. Etienne rising over the town. What to do? Let's turn right and see if I can find that medieval gate I'd seen from the train. And I found it rather easily.
The German Gate (Porte des Allemands) was built from 1230-1480 by the Teutonic Knights, if I remembered enough of my high school French to actually read the plaque. It was the last gate put into defence in the city walls, and shows proper crenellations, and there was a slit for a portcullis in the center of the gate. I was quite impressed really, and while I realize the gate is technically still a fortification there's a lot of difference between guns and swords even if the difference is mostly academic to the people on the receiving end. Did Aragorn son of Arathorn carry a rifle? Trust me, it's different.
Besides, the walls are mostly in ruins now, and they made a very lovely park adjacent to the gate and running along the Seille. Trees benches and moss-covered ruins make for a peaceful setting in my mind. I sat there for a little bit before deciding to climb uphill toward the Cathedral of St. Etienne. One of the quirks of European construction is that you hardly ever seen anything of less then two stories. I'm sure such buildings exist, but I haven't seen any lately. That means that even when the roofline of a building is almost 200 feet high, they can still be hard to see from within one of the narrow streets. I had to guess where it was, but my internal map said "thataway uphill" and my internal GPS worked fine this time, greatly abetted by the fact that close counts when you're dealing with a building over 300 meters long and around sixty meters high.
On the way there I was once again reminded how beautiful Metz is. I passed up a number of photographs (and a good thing that was as it turned out) and rather quickly located the cathedral's nave when I turned a corner and spotted flying buttresses.
I suppose I should say something about gothic architecture at this point. Prior two the 11th century you made buildings the way the Romans did, using a conventional barrel vault with a round top. The weight of the roofline would be carried down the arch and into what were necessarily quite thick walls. Such buildings made good fortifications, but you needed strength the entire length of the wall, so windows were necessarily small and dispersed. As the invention of florescent lighting was almost a thousand years away buildings made in the Romanesque style were dark and not very tall. Not good
Then someone, and I have no idea who, invented two things, the pointed arch and the ribbed vault. The pointed arch characterizes gothic architecture, and is just what it sounds like weight is carried down from a point around an opening (like a window), and thus can permit a wider opening. More important is the ribbed vault. Viewed from below or in section the romanesque barrel vault is just what it sounds like, a really, really long roman arch. Weight goes down the walls. The ribbed vault is different as weight is transferred to the corners of the structure down the ribs. Viewed from below a ribbed vault looks somewhat like four triangles put together. In a way, the ribbed vault is an extension of the engineering principle of triangulation, as triangles transmit stress effectively.
The result was walls where the windows could be wider then the stressed area. Of course the stress didn't go straight down the wall like in a barrel vault, so you needed some structure outboard to bear the additional load. The Flying buttress was used, spanning the distance from the walls to a more distant heavier structure, opening the windows up to admit light from the outside. Plus the walls could be made much taller, with Cologne, Beauvais and Amiens more then twice the height of any Romanesque church. Gothic architecture was a hit right off, particularly for religious buildings. What better way to glorify God then in a building where his creation could also be admitted freely? Particularly when these new big windows could be filled with beautifully stained glass created by fine artisans. The first Gothic building is generally considered to be the Abbey of St. Denis outside Paris, and after Abbot Sugar got St. Denis going Gothic spread all over medieval Europe and became the dominant paradigm in church architecture until more modern materials (like iron) became available.
The Cathedral of St. Etienne is very much that style, with a size and height of nave rivaling Amiens cathedral. And what really sets Metz apart from other gothic cathedrals is the stained glass in that much of it survived including the 13th century rose window designed by Herman de Munster. The glass is spectacular an several windows in the apse were created by French artist Marc Chagall. Another thing about gothic buildings of that era is you can hardly look anywhere without seeing some spectacular art. The doors are decorated with around a hundred scuptures each, ranging from life sized to miniturized. The glass is done, the wooden choir stalls and podium are all decorated, everywhere you look is beauty.
If any building can truly glorify God, this is it. Particularly when something this tall and lovely was built without steel or power tools. Cathedrals like St. Etienne took centuries to finish, and you can see where the work went.
From there I went to the market square, and sat down for a bit. The closed off the old part of downtown to cars, only busses passed through. Metz has an upscale shopping district Manhattan could envy, and a big open square where people sat out doors to eat, drink and visit. And they did today, as for once I had good weather. I walked around and found a wifi friendly Irish pub where no one spoke a word of English. But beer is spoken in many languages, and good cheer knows no borders.
From there I took another walk, found another great arch and a business and residential district dominated by the most gorgeous architecture and flowering trees. Alas my camera developed chronic dead battery disease once I'd left the cathedral, so I could take no more pictures. And I'd have loved to take a lot more. I'd like to go back. If I get married someday, I'd like to honeymoon there, for if you want a town beautiful enough to celebrate your love you could do no worse then Metz.