A Nancy Macaroon Weekend
Macaroons are the cupcakes of France: they’re everywhere - and all through France, claims are made as to which "macarons" are the ones with pedigree or the royal stamp or the best-loved by the locals.
The city of Nancy in northeastern France has one of the best claims to macaroon supremacy with a story that includes a pair of defiant 18th-century Benedictine nuns going into hiding at a local doctor’s home and baking macaroons on the sly, using a Renaissance recipe that has been zealously guarded and passed from generation to generation for more than 200 years. You eat a Nancy macaroon and you’re eating the history of France.
The unofficial slogan of Nancy, France is "I Heart N Y" - with an unobtrusive lowercase "anc" between the N and the Y: in other words, a touch of New York brash in the midst of la belle France.
But then, Nancy is the city that rivaled Paris as a center of art and architecture at the end of the 19th century and was often referred to as the "Capital of the East." First built in the 11th century, Nancy was the one-time capital of the Duchy of Lorraine, which helped it attract many artists. "Art in all" and "Art for all" was the battle cry of those young, well-educated, and cultivated artists who fled to Nancy with the annexation of Alsace by Germany in 1871.
A youthful city with numerous universities and schools of higher learning, Nancy is home to more than 45,000 students. Ninety minutes from Paris by TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse or French high speed train), Nancy makes for a perfect weekend getaway.
Apart from macaroons, Nancy is celebrated for the "Ecole de Nancy," a loose confederation of remarkable Art Nouveau artists who worked at the dawn of the 20th century and whose work gained worldwide acclaim for the amalgamation of art and industry, which they made manifest in works done in wrought iron, cabinetry, stained glass, jewelry, sculpture, glassware, pottery, bookbinding, and architecture.
The Ecole de Nancy artists included decorator and furniture designer Louis Majorelle, ironworker and artist Jean Prouvé (who wore a leather apron for many years, in honor of his fellow smithies), glassmakers Antonin and Auguste Daum, and architect Lucien Weissenburger, all of whom ushered in a rebirth of decorative arts and a new dynamism in furniture design.
By utilizing local flora for their plant-inspired designs, these artists popularized Art Nouveau (and Nancy) the world over. The application of art to civic buildings insured that the city became a repository of the Art Nouveau style and, today, even a casual wander through the city provides you with some stunning examples of this exuberant artistic movement.
For those who love crystal and glass, Nancy is the home of Daum, the celebrated glassworks whose history mirrors the development of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Since 1878, Daum has been manufacturing limited edition and unique "objets d’art," often utilizing the technique of "pate de verre" (or "lost wax"), which dates back to 5000 B.C.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983, Stanislas Square at the heart of Nancy is one of the most beautiful royal squares in Europe. An 18th-century square built in 1755 as a perfect example of French classicism, Stanislas Square is surrounded by gold embossed gates with fountains. The square’s four sides include the city hall, the opera house, the theatre, and the fine arts museum.
During summer, in the evenings, the facades of Stanislas Square are illuminated by a captivating, 20-minute sound and light show that showcases the history of the city of Nancy and its love for art, beauty, and technology.
After your peregrinations about the city, take a seat at one of the several cafes on Stanislas Square and order a plate of macaroons.
The man in front of you, the statue at the square’s center, is Stanislas Leczinsky, the former King of Poland who became the Duke of Lorraine (and the father-in-law of Louis XV). With an upraised arm, he points north - toward what? The brothels of the old city? The fleur-de-lis in the Arc de Triomphe?
Whatever you decide, raise a toast to the man whose aesthetic vision enabled you to be seated in such a splendid setting.
By nightfall, you too will concur: I HEART N anc Y.
(Travel feature continues on next pages: What to Do, Where to Stay, Where to Eat, Getting There...)