‘We will celebrate Christmas in Nancy! We leave on 25 morning from Paris, and drive the 385 kms to Nancy, and next morning we will visit Colmar. It is only 150 kms from Nancy. You will love it. They are beautiful places!’ My daughter and son-in-law were excited and full of energy when they announced the program. My mind focused on the distances, and imagined the car travel for hours on end! What is this new trick of my brain – it focuses on strange things as I grow older!
Christmas dawned clear and cold in Paris, and it was still dark at around 8 am when we set out. Despite the dark, the city was throbbing with activity as the car sped away towards Nancy. It is a town on the Meurthe River, in the Strasbourg area of Northeastern France. Formerly it was the capital of the Duchy of Lorraine. Today a bustling University city, and also a seat of Art Nouveau in Europe.
The youngsters decided to skip the toll route – it would save money, as also give us the chance to drive through the French countryside. Of course it would be a longer drive! As the roads rolled by and the picturesque landscape unfolded it vindicated their decision. We stopped at a petrol pump and decided to eat in the small cafeteria there. Before sitting we had to respond to the ubiquitous request ‘Votre passe sanitaire s’il vous plait?’ The image of the vaccination certificate on the phone was the real passport in this trip of ours to France!
It was nearly 5 pm by the time we rolled into Nancy, and it was already dark. We found a parking and stepped out. The long drive had stiffened me a bit, but was it the fresh air, the slight drizzle or the smooth roads and beautiful scenery? I was looking forward to walk and explore the city! Of course, we had forgotten the umbrellas on the dining table in Paris! No shops were open in the city on Christmas, and we set out in the powdery rain.
In 1750, Stanislaw I (Stanisław Leszczyński), King of Poland and father-in-law of Louis XV, commissioned the French architect Emmanuel Héré de Corny to design a new, well-planned town centre in Nancy.
The central group of buildings erected by Héré under Stanisław I constitutes one of the most perfect and homogeneous existing examples of 18th-century French architecture. The rectangular public square called the Place Stanislas measures 400 by 350 feet and has four cutoff corners ornamented by wrought-iron railings edged with gilding.
When we turned into the square, we were transported to another century in a flash. A beautiful Christmas tree was twinkling in the heart of Place Stanislas, and there were people strolling about. It was dark, drizzling and the subtle lighting around the square – enveloped the place in an ethereal and other worldly feel. It was so beautiful, serene and captivating that heedless of the falling rain, we walked around the square.
On one side to the left in a small open space a Christmas market beckoned. The main attraction in it was the huge Ferris wheel moving slowly. Much like us, most of the people around were without umbrellas, including young children standing in line for the Ferris wheel!
The Stanislas square with its cobbled ground, grand buildings and silent beauty reminded me of the Grand Place in Brussels. There is something about these ornate public spaces of eras gone by – the spirit and vision of generations infuse the surroundings.
The restaurants around the square were packed with people celebrating Christmas. My daughter quickly checked which one was highly rated, and we went in. After waiting for about five minutes we were seated inside. The sense of festive cheer is infectious and enthralling in a place that is in the throes of celebration for its people. The waiter on our table did ‘namaste’ as we sat down to a wonderful meal with awesome Alsace white wine. Outside the Christmas tree twinkled, and it seemed that the centuries gone by were celebrating in the rainy Stanislas Place.
“Now lets head to out to our Air BnB as it is cold and the city is shut” my son in law decided the next step as we stepped out of the restaurant.
“Maybe we can come and see the square in the daytime tomorrow before going to Colmar”, I looked back at the road that lead out of the mesmerizing Place Stanislas.
“Mom, the BnB is 60 kms from here, and we need to get in by 10 pm as per the host.’ What is it about youth that makes time and distance mere words? As one grows older they become mazes that need to be navigated.
The Air Bnb was a small farm house at the outskirts of a small city Arches. We reached the place at 9.45 pm and were greeted by our benign elderly host and her three cats. One of them was sitting on the stomach of an old man who was reclining on the sofa before the TV. I wonder what she must have thought when four Indians landed at her doorstep at that hour in a remote rural area.
The children took over; hauling our bags to the first floor and informing our host about the morning departure – all in French. The room was big with five beds, and we all plonked for the night in the common space. Something we would never do back home!
The next morning when we went down, no one was home, but the cats. On the dining table there were croissants, butter, jam and a flask full of steaming black coffee. We ate to the tune of a morning rooster that was outside in a pen, along with hens and rabbits! We left the empty open house and were on our way….
The beauty of the Place Stanislas was reflected in the trust our elderly host placed in us – a simple glimpse of the strength of a civilization.