A town with a big heart, historic Troyes

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.

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Heart-shaped sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Heart-shaped sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

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.

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Musée d'Art Moderne, Troyes, Champagne, France

Musée d’Art Moderne, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

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.

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Cathedral, Troyes, Champagne, France

Cathedral, Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

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.

Brexit is just English humour, Troyes, Champagne, France

Brexit is just English humour, Troyes, Champagne, France

The ancient capital of Champagne, Medieval Troyes

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.”

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, Troyes, France

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, Troyes, France

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, Troyes, France

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, Troyes, France

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.

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

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.

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

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.