Solange Hando returns to the old Duchy of Lorraine, still amazed by the city of her youth.
Who would believe it? A ‘royal city’ created in the 1750s by an exiled Polish king and now a top UNESCO site in the Grand-Est? Little is known of the early days, but Nancy flourished when the Burgundians were defeated (1477) and the Grand Duke of Lorraine built a New Town, south of the old borough and marshlands.
Then arrived Stanislas, a deposed Polish king whose daughter Maria had married Louis XV in 1725. Away from the elegant French Court, he was granted the Duchy of Lorraine to do as he pleased. So at the age of 60, the enlightened Stanislas set up soup kitchens for the poor and with local architect Héré, he planned a ‘royal town’ to show his gratitude to the French King. He spent his personal fortune, cleared up waste ground and in just four years completed the glorious 18th century ensemble we see today, linking the ‘New Town’ and medieval district.
So where do we start? Draped in flowing robes, finger pointing north, Stanislas beckons on the eponymous square where his impressive statue replaced the king’s after the Revolution. Stretching 100m by 125m, the former ‘Place Royale’ is as stunning as ever, but before you marvel at the grand buildings, the Golden Gates take your breath away. Designed by locksmith Jean Lamour, the gilded wrought-iron work is enhanced by pretty lanterns and royal emblems. Each railing is a masterpiece, leading into the surrounding streets and framing the lovely fountains by Guibal, one featuring Neptune, the other Amphitrite. Now take time to relax on the traffic-free square, renovated for the 250th anniversary, and enjoy a glass of wine under the parasols as you gaze at the stylish classical buildings: the imposing City Hall, the Grand Hotel, the Opera House, the Fine Arts Museum, all used originally for public services easy to access from the old and new towns. Stanislas was a wise man, caring for all.
Place de la Carrière
Now looking north, you can’t miss the Triumphal Arch, dedicated to Victory and Peace, topped by the gilded Goddess of Fame blowing a trumpet above Louis XV’s medallion. The arch offers a wonderful perspective from the iconic Place Stanislas to the next UNESCO square, the old jousting grounds turned into the spacious Place de la Carrière. Walk down the wide avenue with its double rows of linden trees, see the golden gates, cherubs and fountains, and you reach the colonnaded ‘Government Palace’ where a royal representative kept an eye on the Duchy. On one side of the square is the lovely Pépinière Park -started by Stanislas with tree-lined avenues- and on the other the Old Town laced in meandering lanes where cosy restaurants hold a surprise or two. Quiche, vol-au-vent, rum baba? They were brought to Lorraine by Maria for her father’s pleasure.
Then a gentle stroll from the main square is Place d’Alliance, also a world heritage site, named after the treaty between France and Austria. It’s a quiet little place with attractive town houses and a fountain, Italian style, gurgling under the trees. Prior to Stanislas, this was the kitchen garden of the Good Duke Leopold who transformed the old Lunéville château into a ‘mini-Versailles’, 25km from the city. With so much work going in Nancy, Stanislas lived mostly in Lunéville where he shared his love of science, music and arts with his Court. But Nancy was always on his mind: he founded the first botanical garden, still flourishing in rue Sainte-Catherine, and in his beloved Baroque style, he rebuilt the church, Notre-Dame de Bonsecours, where he rests in peace with his family.
On the 5th of February 1766, he fell asleep by the fireplace, suffering extensive burns as flames reached his gown. Short of his 89th birthday, he passed away 18 days later and on that very morning, the Duchy of Lorraine was annexed by the French Crown. Yet to this day, the former ‘usurper’ remains the greatest Benefactor of Lorraine and the splendid City of the Golden Gates, listed by UNESCO for its ‘outstanding universal value.’
Eurostar London to Paris Nord, short walk or one metro station to Paris Est, TGV (high speed train) to Nancy. (breakfast on the Eurostar, lunch in Nancy)
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays for independent travel.