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A Drive to the UK via Metz (with pics)

First published on 10th October 2004

Every couple of years or so I get the urge for some old British favourites. Some of these items are too heavy to comfortably carry in a suitcase through Heathrow, or at least they are if you want to buy in bulk. But sometimes I just feel I’d like to enjoy the journey more, to turn it into something of an adventure… but where to stop en route?

My normal car is ideal for town driving in Basel, but for a longer distance I decided to hire a car via the Hertz “Le Swop” deal. This allows you to hire a left hand drive French registered car from Basel airport (French side), exchange it in Calais for a UK registered right hand drive model and travel through the Channel Tunnel and back again all for one bargain price. No matter which country you are in, the driver is always on the correct side for safety and ease of paying tolls and car park fees.

I like driving on uncluttered roads, so wanted the maximum quantity of Peage toll roads as these are usually pretty empty, well surfaced and comfortable. They also go via the main towns so you can travel with or without sightseeing depending on your wish.

My route through France took me past Strasbourg, Metz, Reims, St Quentin, Arras, and finally Calais itself. Just less than half way to Calais is the fascinating city of Metz, about 3 to 4 hours drive from Basel.

Metz Old Town

Metz Old Town

From the motorway you could be forgiven for thinking of Metz as a real industrial mess. To a large extent it is too. Driving in as I did from the Strasbourg side provided seemingly unending views of run-down 19th Century and immediate post war industrial buildings, although there is much in the way of new industrial parks all over the place. But Metz is a lot more than just another industrial centre.

The centre of the town straddles the River Moselle, of wine region fame. Metz has been an important crossing point of this strategic waterway for many centuries. During this time a great number of fine buildings were built and paid for by the considerable wealth that accumulated from the city’s good fortune.

Metz Opera Theatre

Metz Opera Theatre House

Part of the old town is centred on the Port St Michel quarter on the river itself, and the Hotel du Theatre where I stayed for just EUR 99.- is right in the middle of it. It’s less than two minutes walk to the river, and less than ten to the old Cathedral.

On the way a variety of grand old buildings made of a glowing golden sandstone are reminiscent of some parts of the Cotswolds, not least of which is the old opera theatre itself. It’s all quite beautiful.

Arched Gallery at Metz Opera Theatre

Arched Gallery at Metz Opera Theatre

Around the ancient and imposing Cathedral many side streets reveal hidden treasures, including the indoor market selling a variety of local foodstuffs from butchers, green grocers, fishmongers and bakers.

As the city is at the heart of the old centre of Lorraine, it is no surprise a Quiche Lorraine tastes so much better here than anywhere else, a true mixture of both French and German culture and cuisine.

Metz Cathedral

Metz Cathedral

Inside, the Cathedral is absolutely stunning. The scale of the building is breathtaking, and you can really imagine the awe of any early Medieval man coming into it for the first time and feeling totally dwarfed and insignificant in the face of such glory.

Lorraine itself was created when the lands of Charlemagne, who ruled both France and Germany 1,200 years ago, were split up amongst his sons according to Frankish custom on his death so that one son took Germany, one France, and another the strip of land from the North Sea southwards to seperate the two.

Side Aisle of Metz Cathedral

Side Aisle of Metz Cathedral

This was the original Lorraine, and it still marks the division between the German and French speaking peoples of Europe. This is graphically illustrated as you drive westwards through Lorraine and see two fascinating valleys labelled as first “The German Ditch” and further on, “The French Ditch”.

Metz Stained Glass

Metz Stained Glass

There are many other wonderful places along this much travelled route, each of which has many secrets for you to see – if you take the time to see them. The hotels are certainly better than in the UK, and cheaper, the food is generally excellent, and some of the sights really take your breath away. They are worth so much more than a fleeting glance as you pass by at 120 kmh.

Life is too short to live it without stopping to feel its texture now and then. Next time you drive to the UK, take a time out along the way and put the rat race on hold for a while. Make sure you take full advantage of living in the heart of Europe – don’t let it pass you by!

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