Bar le Duc: A Fine French Find

Elise Ford shares the secrets of a tiny French town in Lorraine that has us longing for some currant jam.

It’s not everywhere that you can walk streets lined with 16th-century townhouses, tell the time by glancing at a medieval clock tower, admire Renaissance art in a Gothic cathedral, or savor freshly made red currant jam hand-seeded with a feather quill, but in the little Lorraine town of Bar le Duc, these experiences are a way of life.

From its 1st century beginning as a Gallo-Roman staging post, this river valley settlement expanded to encompass a Ville Basse (Lower Town) and its Ville Haute (Upper Town) perched upon a rocky promontory.

Bar le Duc’s heyday arrived with the Renaissance. French royalty partied here; merchants and artists flocked to the town. Prosperity reigned and the Dukes of Bar celebrated by erecting grand churches, houses, and schools ornately decorated with gargoyles, friezes, and fancy cornices–most evident in the Upper Town’s strollable, compact Renaissance Quarter.

The highlight is Rue des Ducs-de-Bar and its aristocratic limestone townhouses. Note the musical instrument festooned at no. 73, the much-gargoyled no. 47, and the military-themed friezes of no. 41. Tour the Musée Barrois (the dukes’ former chateau)

to trace Bar le Duc’s history, in eclectic displays of Gallo-Roman artifacts, 16th- century weapons, and a Renaissance cabinet of curiosities (look for the shrunken heads). Then sample regional cuisine at La Meuse Gourmande.

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In the Lower Town, locals dine happily at Le Taj Mahal and Bistro Saint-Jean, and twenty-somethings dance all night at Magnum. The village’s few hotels are in this area. Try Hotêl de la Gare, by the train station. Historic landmark highlights: Renaissance facades, such as no. 26, with coy mermaid and women’s faces sculpted into window pediments and frames, and the town’s oldest church, Notre Dame, built in 1088.

Treat yourself to a final pleasure: “Lorraine’s caviar,” red currant jam. Confitures à la Lorraine, the last shop producing this specialty in the traditional way, is just a 15-minute walk from the town center. Enjoyment of the delicacy puts you in good company: folks from Mary Queen of Scots to Alfred Hitchcock have been fans.

Logistics: Bar le Duc is 147 miles east of Paris, a 1 hour and 45 minute trip via TGV Est Européen. Hotêl de la Gare, www.barleduchotel.com; rooms from $66. La Meuse Gourmande, www.tourisme-barleduc.fr/fichiers/meusegourmande.pdf. Confitures à la Lorraine,  www.groseille.com.

Photos: Caitlin Ford