nancyIt was like walking through a gothic fairytale. Just before dawn the sky was beginning to lighten on the narrow streets of the medieval quarter. In the French city of Nancy, lamps still glowed behind mullioned windows and the tower of Saint Epvre Basilica pointed faintly at the night sky. The scent of freshly baked bread floated out of a small bakery as I passed. This was the time of day when the quarter was filled with the past, before crowds came and shops and markets opened. exploring nancy’s history In the 15th century Ducal Palace, with its elaborate stone arches and life-size equestrian statue of Duke Antoine over the door, I could see two curators in a small room fronting the street discussing the arrangement of a new exhibition. Like me, they were up early.

Here in 1560 Claude de Valois, the hunchbacked daughter of French queen Catherine de’ Medici, had held sway. Next door, behind the stone walls of the Church of the Cordeliers, Lorraine’s ancient rulers slept beneath their stone effigies. At the end of the Grande-Rue, the narrow street that bisects the quarter, lay the formidable bastion of the Craffe Gate. The oldest part of Nancy’s fortifications and once the town’s prison, it stood in sinister shadow. Around the Craffe Gate Nancy is a medieval city but that is only one of its many faces. Like a secret treasure, the city lies in the rich heartland of the French countryside, 90 minutes from Paris by train.

Nancy was still the capital of the powerful duchy of Lorraine when in 1725 Louis XV married the daughter of Stanislas Leszczynski, king of Poland. As part of a plot to absorb the duchy into his kingdom, Louis appointed his father-in-law its duke and the future of Nancy changed forever. a unesco world heritage site With visions of Versailles before him, Stanislas initiated a massive building program in his new capital, endowing the town with what is now a prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Moving out beyond its medieval walls, the center of Nancy became the Place Stanislas, reputed to be the most beautiful royal square in Europe. Palisaded by 18th century white and gold classical buildings, the corners and street entrances into the square are decorated with hanging lanterns, wrought iron gates twisted into ornate arabesques, and elaborate Italian-style fountains guarded by mythological statues. Together with two adjacent squares, the Place de la Carrere with its hedge of lime trees, and the Place de L’Alliance with its central fountain modeled on the Piazza Navona in Rome, they form the town’s social and economic heart. Here, presided over by a statue of Duke Stanislas, are the busiest cafés and most elegant hotels and today these squares have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.