In France, Book a Rendezvous with Nancy

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Nancy, France.
Nancy, France.

If you thought it was easy to fall in love with Paris, wait ‘till you meet Nancy. She’s the capital of Lorraine—about 240 miles from Paris—and she’s a true beauty. Among her primary attractions are the most monumental square in eastern France, fine museums, formal gardens, shop windows sparkling with Daum and Baccarat glasswares, and a lively cultural scene as befits a university town. But Nancy’s most prominent beauty mark is her treasury of Art Nouveau decorative arts and architecture—a glowing treasury from the days when the city was the central player in the colorful Art Nouveau movement.

Nancy’s had a place in my bucket-list address book for years, so when recently traveling to France, I went calling: flying New York to Paris on Air France, taking the bus from Charles de Gaulle airport to Gare de l’Est in Paris; then boarding the TGV EST line for a 90-minute rail ride to Nancy.

Where to Begin
Starting with the heart and soul of the town, Place Stanislas, it was envisioned, built and gilded by the deposed Polish King Stanislas Leszczynski, whose son-in-law, Louis XV, gave him the duchy of Lorraine. The Place was inaugurated in the 18th century; proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site in the 20th century; and remains today one of the most beautiful royal squares in Europe lined with creamy stone classical facades, fountains, and fanciful wrought-iron railings. A statue of King Stanislas commands the grand square as he keeps his eye on his 21st century descendants: babies in strollers, dog walkers, street musicians, local patrons with reserved tables at their favorite outdoor cafes.

What to Do
One of the must-see museums, the Musee des Beaux-Arts, is right on Place Stanislas. Its collection ranges from 14th century altarpieces to post-Impressionists and contemporary art; a new gallery houses furniture and ironwork by Nancy-born architect and designer, Jean Prouve. For many viewers, the piece de resistence here will be the stunning collection of Daum glass.

This visitor set her limited-time sights on this very special world of Art Nouveau or the Ecole de Nancy, locally a movement founded by ceramicist, glassmaker and cabinetmaker Emile Galle that flourished here, “thanks to the rebellious spirit of local artists, who set out to prove that everyday objects could be drop-dead gorgeous,” said the Lonely Planet guide.

While there are Art Nouveau buildings scattered through the town, the essential stop is the Musee de l’Ecole de Nancy, occupying a 19th century villa. Distinguished by its glowing Art Nouveau interiors, curvaceous glass and landscaped gardens, the museum is devoted to and furnished with the works of Majorelle, Galle and the designers and craftsmen who give the city its Art Nouveau heritage starting in the early 1900s. A short ride by taxi or bus takes you to the city’s main Art Nouveau houses located southwest of the city-center.

Nancy is a walking city, but when one is overdosed on Art Nouveau, it is time to head for the Old Town and the Grande Rue, which is the backbone of a medieval maze of shops, markets and slim houses with mullioned windows. It seems little changed over the centuries. Then stroll out into the Parc de la Pepiniere, with its formal English garden, ornamental fountains, a rose garden, and a Rodin sculpture of native son and landscape painter, Claude Lorrain.

And no one should leave town without a look around the excellent collections of the Musee Lorrain, housed in the regal Renaissance Ducal Palace, which also embraces the Chapelle de Cordeliers—modeled after the Medici Chapel in Florence and burial site of the dukes of Lorraine.

Where to Stay
Staying in Nancy may mean securing a “royale” room with a direct view on Place Stanislas at the Grand Hotel de la Reine; the grand hotel is surely not as grand as when Marie Antoinette stayed here on her way to meeting Louis XVI, but it still has a magnificent staircase, recently redone rooms a la Louis XV, and a Michelin-starred restaurant.

The Brasserie Excelsior restaurant in Nancy, France.
The Brasserie Excelsior restaurant in Nancy, France.

However, the tourist office of Nancy chose a perfect hotel for me: the Hotel de Guise, where 17th century elegance meets boutique chic. Tucked down a quiet old town street, the hotel has a marble lobby with a handsome wide staircase that sweeps up to old-fashioned rooms with antique furnishings, inlaid parquet floors and good baths; there is no elevator. The staff is helpful and English-speaking, and amenities include free WiFi, a nice garden and a good breakfast included in room rates ranging from $47 to $201, depending on room size and season.

Where to Dine 
Dining in Nancy must definitely include the Brasserie Excelsior, a splendid Art Nouveau restaurant near the station; it has Majorelle furniture, Daum lamps and a ceiling that resembles dripping ice cream. It’s a place where the local people congregate from breakfast to dinner. The perfect-location vote goes to the Grand Cafe Foy, an historic all-day restaurant with a prime position and outdoor tables on Place Stanislas. It serves classic brasserie cuisine and Lorraine specialties, including quiche Lorraine and baba au rhum.

What to Buy
The best buys in Nancy include Daum glass—big savings over glass galleries elsewhere in France at Daum Boutique. The best buy, however, is the first buy for any art-lover’s itinerary: purchase of the Pass Musee, giving free entrance to six Nancy museums for only $10.88 over 10 days. This essential ticket is on sale in the centrally located tourist office, also the place to pick up the free Art Nouveau Itineraries brochure.

Where to Go Next
And when planning travel to this corner of France, think Nancy and beyond. In the age of special-experience travel, propose to your culture-vulture clients an artistic expedition of discovery of the undiscovered treasures of northeastern France. Start in Nancy (home of Art Nouveau); detour to enjoy the glorious glass in Baccarat; drive to avant-garde Metz (home of the satellite museum of Paris’ Centre Pompidou); continue to Lens (on view the exciting new offshoot of the Louvre Museum) and end up in Lille (now home to not one but three top-class art museums). From here it’s a high-speed TGV rail ride back to Paris. Alternatively, this entire art circuit connects easily on a Rail Europe pass, connecting centre-ville to centre-ville, with no worries about parking. For more information, visit en.nancy-tourism.fr.