NANCY, France - The gilt on the black wrought iron gleamed in the sun as I wheeled my suitcase through the gates into Place Stanislas and headed toward the hotel at the far corner. It was the sort of pomp you would expect in a public square named for the father-in-law of Louis XV. Stately neoclassical buildings provided a serene counterpoint to the over-the-top Baroque gates while enhancing the sense of circumstance.
But you know what they say about first impressions. It turns out that Place Stan - as everyone calls it - is a decidedly casual place. People lounge in cafes as children ride bikes across the broad pavement, teenagers hang on the railings and flirt, and dogs slurp from the ornate fountains.
I had long wanted to visit Nancy, one of the centers of the Art Nouveau movement in France. With a couple of extra days in Paris and new high-speed train service to the east . . . why not? I knew that Nancy was also the historic capital of the dukes of Lorraine, but I never expected to be captivated by its Baroque heart.
The plaza was the doing of Stanislas Leszczynski, a twice-deposed Polish king who gained a new lease on life in 1737 when his son-in-law Louis XV installed him as the duke of Lorraine. He gratefully honored his benefactor with a magnificent public square. A statue of Louis XV held court in the center until it was torn down in the Revolution. In 1851, a statue of Stanislas himself, decked out in flowing robes, claimed the place of honor. By all counts the duke was a popular ruler who managed to enjoy himself even while undertaking ambitious civic projects. Local lore holds that one of Stanislas's mistresses modeled for the statue of Amphitrite, Poseidon's wife, on one of the fountains.
Over the centuries the plaza had its ups and downs, even serving as a parking lot from 1958 to 1983, the year it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A 9 million euro makeover restored its 18th-century luster in time for its 250th anniversary in 2005. Now Nancy residents and tourists alike vie for coveted cafe table seats. I kept my eye on the action in the plaza as I sampled the definitive Lorraine version of quiche Lorraine for lunch one day. Place Stan was even livelier when I returned in the afternoon for a coupe Lorraine, a drink featuring ice cream and liqueur made from mirabelles, the local, slightly sour yellow plum. If not for the clock on the town hall, I might have lost track of time completely.
Beguiling as it may be to just hang out, Place Stan also makes a good place to embark on exploring this city of about 100,000. It's a short stroll from the ornate Arc de Triomphe, also erected for Louis XV (who ruled from 1715-74), to Pépinière Park. This green oasis on the site of the city's ramparts was one of the duke's last projects before his death in 1766. Joggers, rollerbladers, bikers, strollers, and dog walkers share the paths that circle the gardens.
Stanislas may have made the biggest mark on the city, but monuments to its early history remain. Not far from Pépinière Park, the narrow streets of the compact Old Town fan out from the former ducal palace, easily recognized by the dashing equestrian statue above the doorway. Saint-Epvre Square, Nancy's oldest, was the medieval market center. Nowadays, a Sunday market sprawls in the shadow of the Church of the Cordeliers, the burial place of most of the dukes of Lorraine. The turreted Craffe Gate, built in the 14th century, is one of the last remnants of the city's early defensive walls.
Nancy's Art Nouveau buildings still dot the city, and a tourist office map identifies more than 60 sites. A number of modest buildings that now house pharmacies, banks, and bars cluster along rue des Dominicains and rue St. Jean in the shopping district only a few blocks south of Place Stan. And it really wasn't a drastic stylistic leap from the Baroque swirls of Stan's gates to the elegant curves of Nancy's Art Nouveau.
The École de Nancy museum, , which opened in 1964 in the former home of a big collector, offers the best overview of the movement. When Germany annexed parts of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871, an influx of artists, wealthy families, and manufacturers to French-controlled Nancy provided the impetus for the development of the new style. Its leading proponent was glass artist Émile Gallé and the museum is strong on his work and that of his disciples, including cabinetmaker Louis Majorelle and glass artist Antonin Daum. An even more comprehensive collection of work by the Daum factory is in the Musée des Beaux Arts on Place Stan, where some of the original city walls are preserved in the museum's basement.
Between 1870 and 1900, Nancy's population doubled; many of the homes constructed in the Art Nouveau style cluster on the streets around the museum. In 1902 Majorelle moved into his own Art Nouveau manse. The museum arranges tours on weekends, offering an unusual opportunity to see the private dwelling of one of the masters of the style. But no such arrangements are necessary to visit Brasserie Excelsior, where I marveled at the vaulted ceiling, stained glass, and carved wood from a cozy booth while dining on veal steak with fresh mushrooms, followed by a plate of macaroons and a scoop of mirabelle sorbet.
Macaroons, in fact, are another Nancy specialty. At Maison des Soeurs Macarons, Nicolas Genot makes the cookies from a secret recipe concocted by Benedictine nuns at the convent in Nancy. Genot's father handed down the precise proportions of egg whites, ground almonds, and sugar, and the son now follows the recipe religiously as he bakes 700 to 800 dozen cookies a week in the tight kitchen in the rear of his shop.
Nancy, I finally decided, was like a rich cake with layers from medieval to Baroque to nouveau. So one afternoon I bought a small box of Genot's cookies, returned to Place Stan to claim a spot near the sinuously Baroque Poseidon fountain, and savored one last taste of history.
Patricia Harris, a freelance writer in Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.