Troyes is graced with dozens of beautiful half timbered buildings, narrow medieval lanes, wonderful public spaces filled with statues, and is towered over by its crowning glory, the magnificent Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul. To say it came as a surprise is a gross understatement. It’s not only the fantastic history on display, Troyes is a lively and cultured town with good restaurants and an excellent food market.
There are even champagne vineyards in the surrounding countryside, and tasting opportunities in the town. Despite this, Troyes is pretty much unknown to the world. It seems to be most famous for its singular contribution to France’s culinary reputation: the andouillette sausage, made from the small intestines of pigs. It’s undoubtedly an acquired taste, prompting one BBC food writer to comment that “it absolutely stinks and we’re not talking good stink.”
It’s not exactly a glowing recommendation for visiting the town, but the andouillette is famous across France and on every menu in Troyes. Thankfully, ever since a rather unfortunate incident with an extremely unpleasant pigs’ ear stew in Spain, I’ve learned to be a bit more circumspect about local delicacies when travelling.
Troyes is just about as “off the beaten path” as it gets in the Champagne region. We saw hardly any other foreigners. Given its treasure trove of historical buildings, good museums and easy-going friendliness, it deserves to be more popular. After all, there was a time when Troyes was the capital of Champagne, playing host to royalty and claiming centre stage for the dynastic feud between England and France.
Here, in 1420, during the Hundred Years’ War, King Henry V of England married Catherine of Valois, cementing his claim on the throne of France following the signing of the Treaty of Troyes. The Treaty not only made Henry V King of France upon the death of King Charles VI, but the title was to be passed down to Henry’s heirs to unite the two countries under one crown.
This was a claim that would be quickly and bitterly disputed. Eventually, English claims to France were ended by the intervention of Joan of Arc. Following her dramatic capture of Orléans, French forces took Troyes from English control in 1429 while en route to Reims for the coronation of the French Dauphin.
The town was severely damaged by a fire in 1524, over 1,000 houses burned to the ground, but its medieval centre still evokes those turbulent days. Leaning houses almost touch each other along narrow alleyways, their wooden frames painted jolly colours. The Ruelle des Chats, which is fun to walk down, is named because cats were able to jump from one rooftop to another to cross the street.
Walk the maze of streets and you’ll discover several medieval churches with beautiful stained glass windows, a legacy of a time when some of Europe’s finest master glassmakers worked in Troyes’ once famous glass industry. Many of the streets in the central medieval quarter are pedestrianised, making it the perfect place for outdoor restaurant tables and people watching. Just avoid ordering the andouillette.
When we were there over a summer weekend, there were musicians playing live in the square and a busy outdoor market. All of which makes it even more remarkable that one of the main activities recommended for tourists is to visit outlet stores. Quite why anyone would bother with shopping when there’s so much else to enjoy is beyond my comprehension.