At Bois Brule (burnt wood), two trenches depict the grotesque nature of that war. A German trench built with stone-and-brick walls remains intact 90 years after the end of the war just 60 feet from a French trench. Between the two are remnants of the barbed wire of no man’s land.
A trip through this eastern part of France is rewarding, not only from the historical perspective of World War I, but for the cultural and culinary delights its cities and towns offer.
Reims is about 90 miles east-northeast of Paris, less than an hour’s ride on the fast TGV train. It is the major city of Champagne-Ardenne, one of France’s 22 administrative regions, and is still thought of as the capital of the old province of Champagne, for which the famous bubbly is named. Some of the Champagne is aged in bottles in the chalk tunnels dug by ancient Romans beneath the city.
Reims is France’s art-deco city. Badly destroyed by German shells in World War I, it was reconstructed in the art-deco style after the war, and many of the houses in the central part of town have beautiful art-deco facades. Waida, a pastry shop and tea salon in the central shopping area, is worth a visit to taste the delectable bread, pastries and chocolates and to see the exquisite wood paneling with marquetry pictures of clocks showing various mealtimes with the appropriate dishes.
The kings of France were crowned in the 13th-century Cathedral of Our Lady, where the stained-glass windows from the 13th to the 20th centuries dazzle the eye.Charles VII, aided by Joan of Arc, was crowned here in 1429. The facade is a masterpiece of carving from the Middle Ages. Behind the cathedral is the art-deco Carnegie Library, a gift of Andrew Carnegie.
Reims was the seat of the World War II German surrender to the Allies at 2:41 a.m. May 7, 1945. In the War Room of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters, which occupied part of what was Reims’ technical college (now the Surrender Museum), Gen. Alfred Jodl, the German chief of staff, signed the unconditional surrender. The room where the signing took place is intact, down to the white ashtrays on the table.
As Reims is to art deco, so Nancy is to art nouveau. A group of artists and artisans led by Emile Galle created the school of Nancy about 1900 and forged an alliance between art and industry. Decoration in stained glass, wrought iron, sculpture, pottery, bookbinding, architecture and furniture found its way into homes and businesses.
Nancy’s old town is filled with examples of art-nouveau decor, one of the best being Brasserie Excelsior. Nancy’s pride is the elegant, renovated 18th-century Place Stanislas with its splendid mansions surrounding the square and a set of gilded iron gates fronting an elaborate fountain.
Metz is a relatively unvisited French treasure. Settled by a Celtic tribe in the fifth century B.C., it became French in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years’ War. Metz changed hands and nationality with the 19th- and 20th-century wars: German in 1871; French in 1918; German in 1940; French again in 1944.
What strikes a visitor to the city is the light. The medieval city is built of beautiful yellow stone that turns golden in the sun. Because Metz was built at the confluence of the Moselle and the Seille rivers, the water reflects the sunlight as well. At night, the city lights up its old buildings and monuments.
The Gothic St. Etienne Cathedral, like the cathedral in Reims, is filled with beautiful stained-glass windows. The city has retained some Roman, medieval and 17th-century ramparts. Its railroad station is a superb example of early-20th-century Germanic stone-relief carving depicting activities at the station.
Lorraine is a wonderful region to explore. It’s the origin of quiche Lorraine; the mirabelle yellow plum is ubiquitous, used in tarts, jams, liqueurs; and eau de vie is ubiquitous.
Baccarat is home of the famous crystal. St.-Clement, one of the oldest faience factories operating in France, has been making beautiful dishes and table art for 250 years, including dishes for Marie Antoinette. In Bar-le-Duc, where the upper town’s Renaissance district has been restored, a local enterprise makes the so-called “caviar” that neither Victor Hugo nor Alfred Hitchcock could resist. Its red and white currant jam, made by individually seeding each currant with a goose feather, is 65 percent sugar; a 3-ounce jar sells for about $60.
The charming town of Verdun is home to dregees, the sugar-coated almonds that the French give on special occasions. Verdun has been making dregees since an apothecary hit upon the idea of coating an almond with layers of sugar and honey in 1220.