Travel 2018 – French Road Trip, Day 3, Troyes

Monday, May 7th – Day 3, Troyes, Etoges

Monday morning dawned sunny and clear so I set off for a run around the village. It wasn’t easy to cover much mileage without having to test every side road available, unless I wanted to run along the main roads. Given the sheer volume of farm traffic zipping around everywhere I didn’t fancy that much; turns out I’m an urban runner really, what with liking parks and pavements. Anyway, I managed half an hour before I ran out of options, so it was back to the hotel for a shower and breakfast, an excellent spread including some truly scrumptious fruit juices, and Champagne, along with local yogurts, cheeses and charcuterie, and fabulous breads.

After that it was a case of making a choice for the day. We could either head for Reims or for Troyes. Reims has a lot of medieval buildings but also goes heavy on the Roman stuff, and after last Autumn we fancied less of the Romans and more medieval history, so Troyes it would be. Lonely Planet has this to say: In polls of France’s most romantic towns, Troyes invariably makes the grade – and with good reason. Its astonishingly intact, ludicrously pretty historic centre wings you back to the Middle Ages, with its warren of cobbled streets, fine ensemble of half-timbered houses in pastel hues, once home to wealthy textile merchants, and uplifting Gothic churches. Often overlooked, it’s one of the best places to get a sense of what Europe looked like back when Molière was penning his finest plays and the Three Musketeers were swashbuckling.

To be fair the city does have Roman origins, but it’s of interest in particular because of its medieval heart. Having been an important international trading centre, a lot of development took place there. A fire in 1524 did massive damage, but the rebuilding made for a most harmonious townscape, and it’s pretty much survived intact since then, despite the best efforts of the town planners in the 1960s.

This venerable city is now living through its fourth golden age. In the 12th century, Troyes experienced rapid commercial and financial expansion, as well as an incredible intellectual and cultural explosion. In the 16th century, the city was an artistic hotbed, while the 19th century saw Troyes undergo an economic and industrial transformation, driven by the hosiery industry. A hundred or perhaps a thousand years from now, historians may
look back on the 21st century as a time when the city reconnected with its heritage and truly understood the value of its stunning architecture.

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Once we finally got there after going round the nearby motorway service station three and a half times trying to find our way in to buy windscreen cleaner (please don’t ask!) we started out by finding another fine, cool, secure car park, and then headed for the Hotel de Ville and a nearby cafe for a coffee while we tried to get our bearings. It turned out the Tourist Information office was just around the corner, so we nipped in and picked up a map with some information about the historical sights, and worked with the Michelin Green Guide to try and see as much as possible. We were slightly thwarted in this by the fact that it was Monday, and thus most of the museums were shut for the day. You’d think we’d know by now, but no, we were tripped up by this frustrating fact yet again.

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Anyway, even without the museums, Troyes had plenty to offer, and we found it slightly odd that the place was not rammed with tourists. Between half-timbered houses, canals, art nouveau confections, stone mansions, and what seems to be a medieval church at every corner, there’s an awful lot to love about Troyes. It also suggests itself as the place of origin of the novel, given that Chretien de Troyes is regarded as one of its native sons.

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In addition, Hugues de Payns, who founded the Order of the Templars, was a local, as apparently was Bernard de Clairvaux, with whom de Payns collaborated, the latter having traced the outlines of the Rule of the Knights Templar at the 6th and last Council of Troyes in 1128. As if that were not enough, the town’s Jewish community produced Salomon Ben Itshak (better known as Rashi), who founded a Talmudic school in Troyes and is now commemorated in the sculptural globe pictured above. It’s no wonder then that the city now possesses a vast collection of medieval manuscripts. It thus also comes as no surprise to find out that the first papermill in France was constructed here.

We set off to follow a rambling walk of our own devising, aided by the guidebook and the TI map, discovering many interesting and quirky things on our way, in a town which once sat smack bang on the Via Agrippa branch that ran from Lyons to Boulogne.

starting with the Hotel de Ville, begun in 1494 and finished around 2 centuries later, where the usual revolutionary slogan of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” has the unusual addendum of “ou la mort”, a rare version apparently. Most civic fathers preferr to leave that bit out for some reason these days!

We made our way through narrow streets of pastel-shaded houses that were saved only in the 1960s when the general mood was to demolish them to make way for modern housing, but they were rescued when a local group was formed to ensure that the city centre, which the locals claim is shaped like a Champagne cork, didn’t lose its wealth of historic buildings. The houses now mean that the city, which went through a rough patch after World War II, is a lure for tourists, though nowhere near as many as I would have expected. given its charm. It reminded me of York in many ways, and should probably be as packed. I’m glad it isn’t, and would recommend a visit now before that happens. There are stunning churches, and a spectacular cathedral.

There’s the very medieval Ruelle des Chats, where it is claimed a cat could cross from one side of the street to the other via the upper storeys.

And as if that were not enough, there are cooling fountains…

Many and varied statues…

Fabulous stained glass windows…

A lovely market hall (closed on Mondays)…

And mansions from the city’s spell as a rich centre of hosiery manufacture.

All in all there’s a great deal to like about Troyes and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in history, to be honest. Having exhausted ourselves in the heat, we headed back to Etoges and the coolness of our hotel room to meet W and E who had arrived, having successfully made their escape from the UK without the fates noticing. We would have dinner in the hotel that evening, of which more elsewhere.

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