Renaissance in Bar-le-Duc

Bar-le-Duc © T. Joly
Largely ignored by tourists and so, still off the beaten tracks, Bar-le-Duc possesses however a gorgeous Renaissance district. Now served by TGV, this peaceful and charming town of Eastern France also hosts a great festival and produces a unique red currant jam.

[ Practical ]

Getting there
- By road
270 km from Paris on autoroute A4 till Châlons-en-Champagne, on N44 and N4 till Saint Dizier then on D 635 till Bar-le-Duc.
- By train
TGV from Paris Est to Bar-le-Duc. Journey takes approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes.
TER train from Paris Est to Bar-le-Duc. Duration of the journey : 2 hours and 20 minutes.
- Hotels
Etap Hôtel
Hôtel Bertrand
- Bed and Breakfast
La Goutte de Lait
La Renaissance
La Meuse Gourmande
Auberge du Val d’Ornain
Le Bernanos
Aux Petits Oignons
Getting around
It’s possible to go everywhere by foot.
Festival Renaissances
2018 edition from July 6th to 8th
Red currant jam
A la Lorraine
Tel : 0329790681
- Meuse Tourist Office
Tel : 0329457840
- Bar-le-Duc Tourist Office
Tel : 0329791113
Some towns are unfairly neglected and Bar-le-Duc is one of them. Yet the prefecture of the Meuse department boasts one of France’s nicest historical districts. On the other hand, the city has till recently enjoyed a worldwide fame in the circle of the gourmets thanks to a local speciality dating back to 1344 : the seedless red or white currant jam.

Seedless red currant jam © T.Joly
 Caviar of Bar-le-Duc
Spouse of French king Francis II, the queen Marie Stuart described it as “a sunbeam in a pot”. As to Alfred Hitchcock, he liked it so much for breakfast that he was going by preference in the hotel where it was available. According to the gourmets, the lack of seeds makes the taste sweeter, less sour. But can you imagine the work it requests ?... It’s necessary to take the berries one by one between the thumb and the index finger and to extract gently the seeds with a bevelled goose feather quill. It takes the best deseeders two hours to prepare one kg of red currant, more for the white ones, and beginners can spend up to 15 hours to do it !!! As a consequence, this jam also called “Caviar of Bar-le-Duc” is worth 15 € an eighty-five grams pot. 16 € for the white currant one. A huge handicap in the very competitive world in which we live and today there is only one manufacturer left. Don’t miss to go there to taste this delicacy.

Tour de l'Horloge © T.Joly
 Eclectic museum
It makes an enjoyable prelude or conclusion to a visit of Bar-le-Duc where one comes first to discover its remarkable Renaissance architectural heritage. In particular in the Upper Town, that is located on a promontory overlooking the river Ornain. Once the castle of the Dukes of Bar stood there. These were for centuries one of the most powerful noble families of Eastern France. Dismantled by Louis XIV, the fortress only remains are an entrance gate, the Porte Romane, a medieval tower called Tour de l’Horloge, and the Castel Neuf, a 16th century building now housing the Barrois museum.
Quite eclectic, it has an archaeological section tracing back the history of the region, an amusing cabinet of curiosities and a nice collection 13th to 17th century Lorraine painting and sculptures. The masterpieces are on display in a beautiful gothic vaulted room, the Salle du Trésor des Chartes. More surprising, there is also a great ethnographic collection with pieces from Asia, Africa and America including very rare ones.

Rue des Ducs de Bar © T.Joly
 Aristocratic houses
Protected by the thick walls of the castle, the upper town mainly developed between the 13th century and the end of the Renaissance era. So, it has an exceptional architectural unity. Ancient buildings are everywhere and if there were no cars it would be easy to believe being in the past while strolling along the main street, the rue des Ducs de Bar. It is indeed lined with private mansions and aristocratic houses built with golden cut stones. Their beautiful facades are decorated with statues, friezes and sometimes gargoyles. That’s in one of them the French author Georges Bernanos wrote his first novel Under the Sun of Satan. These wealthy houses very often have an inner courtyard with a dwelling for servants. You can explore this backside at the number 75 of that street where is exhibited a 15th century wooden wine press with impressive dimensions : 6 m high, 10 m long and 10 tons in weight !!!! It reminds you that in the past the region boasts numerous vineyards.

Hôtel de Frémainville © T.Joly
 A striking funerary monument
Nearby, is the second highlight of the upper town : the Saint Pierre square where stand several interesting buildings from different eras. A perfectly restored medieval timber framed house is next to the elegant Hôtel de Frémainville dating back to the Renaissance - and now the Justice Court -, and to the Saint Etienne church mostly of flamboyant gothic style. Don’t miss to go inside as it houses two works by the greatest Renaissance sculptor of Lorraine, Ligier Richier. A Calvary representing the Christ and the Two Thieves and the Transi, one of the most famous and striking funerary monuments in France. Sculpted in memory of a 16th century prince, René de Chalon, it represents his decomposing skeleton three years after his death, standing and holding his heart in his left hand. Called in English “The Fleckless figure” or “Death as a skeleton”, this very unusual work is said to symbolize the victory of Resurrection.

Lower town © T.Joly
 Renaissance residences
Another remarkable building, maybe the nicest in town, is located at the foot of the former ramparts. It is the 16th century Renaissance style Gilles de Trèves College that is dotted with a pretty inner courtyard surrounded by an elegant gallery. Montaigne described it as “the most beautiful urban house one could find in France”.
Keep on going downhill and you will reach the lower town, a much more animated and commercial area that spreads on both sides of the river Ornain. Testifying of this trading vocation, the buildings still bear on their walls a large number of mid 20th century advertising paintings. An original heritage that would deserve to be protected because it disappears bit by bit washed out by the rain. This neighbourhood too boasts its share of monuments including several beautiful Renaissance residences located along the rue du Bourg, the neo Renaissance prefecture and the private mansion serving as the city hall.

Notre-Dame bridge © T.Joly
 Fishing in town
If you are fond of history, you can have a look at the Marbeaumont castle. Built in the early 20th century it hosted the headquarters of Marshal Pétain during WWI battle of Verdun. The Voie Sacrée (Sacred Way), the supply road to the troops on the frontline indeed started from Bar-le-Duc and the first milestone is still visible. As to the cycling enthusiasts, they can have a look at the small statue honouring Ernest and Pierre Michaux, two men who developed the pedal-powered velocipede. And, to simply relax, take a stroll along the banks of the Ornain river. You get a nice view of this peaceful scenery from the delightful Notre-Dame bridge that bears a small chapel in the middle. The river is so pure that trout inhabits its crystal-clear waters and it’s not uncommon to see fishermen trying to catch them. But only no kill fishing is allowed. Anyway, it’s quite an unusual sight in the middle of a town this size.

April 11, 2018
Thierry Joly 

[ Festival ]

Every year Bar-le-Duc becomes a giant stage on the occasion of the Renaissances Festival. Held early July, it brings together leading companies coming from France and across Europe that give a wide range of street theatre and circus performances. Tristan and Iseult seen like if you were watching a movie shooting, the opera Carmen revisited by clowns, actors dressed like in the 60’s who invite spectators one by one to come in a caravan to listen a tale,… All around there are about 60 original and great shows on the program including a dozen of them especially designed for kids and the 2018 edition will take place from July 6th to 8th.