A short break in Saint-Etienne
There are so many wonderful cities in France, though few have such a unique contemporary edge as Saint-Etienne. Saint ... where? This was probably my reply as well when I’d first heard the name of this former industrial town, however, upon digging deeper into France’s only UNESCO designated “Design City”, I found one of the country’s best-kept secrets.
On the 50-minute train journey from Lyon, snaking between the sleeping volcanoes of the Massif Central region, I hardly expected to find signs of life beyond some sleepy villages and grazing cows. Then Saint-Etienne arose out of their midst. Much like Manchester, the city underwent a 20th century renaissance, reinventing its industrial heritage of rundown factories and warehouses for the modern era. As soon as I got off the train, I started spotting the city’s creative flair evident in the scores of eclectic shops, ultra-modern restaurant decors and boutique hotels, all encouraged to innovate by the Saint Etienne’s Commerce Design Competition. You might even be able to spend the weekend browsing over 50 award-winning venues, but they’re only the tip of this creative iceberg.
My artsy meander through town led me to the fantastic Cité du Design. Located in a former arms manufacturer, today the space is occupied by a higher education institution focused on research, experiments, conferences and a world famous International Design Biennale (held every other mid-March through mid-April). If you can’t attend the Biennale, you’re not out of luck because the centre also hosts temporary exhibitions. Though the grand finale isn’t on the walls. Since I’d gone on a Saturday I had a breathtaking surprise as I huffed and puffed up the stairs of 32-metre-high Observation Tower, my efforts rewarded with the amazing view of the town and the surrounding countryside.
Your next stop could be at the city’s Modern and Contemporary Art Museum, holding one of France’s best collections of modern and contemporary art including works by Monet, Picasso, Léger or Calder. After viewing the classic “greats,” you can keep with Saint Etienne’s design theme by perusing the museum’s changing exhibits of top national and international artists and designers.
If you’re staying the weekend, make time to explore the origin of the city’s design roots at nearby Firminy. Saint-Etienne actually had its first resurgence in the 1960s thanks to world-renowned architect Le Corbusier, where on the outskirts of town, the Swiss-French genius designed several buildings, making it the second most important site of his work in the world.
This exceptional site of Firminy Vert has a “Unité d’Habitation”, a Maison de la Culture, a stadium and a swimming pool, but I was awestruck with the interior of the Saint-Pierre church, radiating beams of different colored lights - a modern version of the effect of stained glass. As 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the architect’s death, there are various special events taking place over the course of the year, making it the perfect time to visit this truly remarkable example of modernism.
For your night out in Saint-Etienne, check out the agenda of Le Fil. The music venue’s cool decor and architecture carries over into its innovative agenda with a great range of concerts from electro DJs to hip hop and from jazz to reggae. When you grab a drink at the bar, have a gander at the walls showcasing the artwork of local contemporary talent.
My design tour took me straight to bed, that is, by staying at a “Hotel D” - a group of hotels that have joined another of the city’s design initiatives. Launched in 2008, the program promotes alternatives to traditional accommodation, with each participating hotel pairing up with designers to create new cutting edge looks taking hotels into the 21st century.
Settling into the cushy bed, I had designer dreams racing through my head and absolutely no regrets for taking this offbeat excursion to Savvy Saint Etienne.