Troyes was an absolute revelation. I knew little about it before going, and only when there did I learn of the designation that has been bestowed upon it: Ville d’Art et d’Histoire, City of Art and History. That, at least, gives an indication of the delights that await when you get there. Even then most tourists seem to stay further north in the heartlands of the champagne-making region, near Reims and Épernay. Troyes was completely underwhelmed by tourism.
The best way to discover Troyes’ art and history is to walk the compact medieval centre. Diving down narrow alleys between the timber-framed houses that are emblematic of the town. There are small courtyards and squares to discover, and 12th and 13th Century churches hidden amongst the tangle of streets to find. Amongst these pedestrianised streets the past seems to come alive.
Historic Troyes is said to be shaped like a champagne cork. A shape formed originally by defensive walls, and today by elegant boulevards and the River Seine as it twists around the town. The resemblance to a champagne cork can still be seen today despite the town’s expansion. Equally, it could be a mushroom or, if you’re a teenage boy, a more phallic object. I doubt the tourist board will adopt that interpretation any time soon though.
The stem of the cork is where the medieval old town is found. In the bulbous head of the cork can be found the early 13th Century Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, surrounded by a collection of timber-framed medieval houses. Next to the cathedral in former church buildings is the Musée d’Art Moderne with a pretty sculpture garden, and a treasure trove of works by Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso.
The walk between the two areas takes you through lovely squares flanked by 17th and 18th Century buildings, and over the Canal des Trevois. The route is dotted with public art, statues and fountains. On a warm sunny day, Troyes is a fantastic place to stroll around. When you’re done strolling, my advice is to head to Le Millésimé on Place Saint-Rémy, near the food market. Relax with a glass of local champagne and watch the world go by.
The historic wealth of art and culture can be traced back well over two thousand years, to when Troyes was founded by Celtic tribes. It became a centre of trade between Northern France and Italy following the Roman conquest of Gaul. Trade links made Troyes wealthy and, in the medieval period, famous for its great trade fairs which established it as an international trading centre.
The decline of Troyes began with the persecution of the many Protestants who had founded industries there, particularly cloth making industries based first on the wool trade and later cotton. A massacre of Calvinist Huguenots in 1572, and a century of occasional persecution, culminated in Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
By guaranteeing Protestants equal rights the Edit of Nantes brought an end to the French Wars of Religion. The ending of religious, civil and legal protections saw a wave of persecution unleashed on the Huguenots, and a flood of skilled Huguenot workers leave the city. Many of the refugees established themselves in Protestant England and the Netherlands, both of which benefitted economically while the economy of Troyes, and France, was severely damaged.
Troyes went from being a centre of trade to a relative backwater. Something modern visitors should should be grateful for: it’s one of the reasons why its collection of medieval buildings has made it into the 21st Century.