Troyes is a buzzing place, and by far the largest community in Aube-en-Champagne. Quite by chance, the walled centre of this ancient town is constructed in the shape of a champagne cork: coincidence, of course, but a charmingly appropriate marketing device.
Troys is famous for its ancient monuments and magnificent listed buildings of 16th-century timber-framed houses (pan de bois) with Gothic gabled roofs. It also has nine listed churches including a cathedral and the church where the English king Henry V was married.
Troyes has an important collection of stained-glass windows dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries and original statuary from the Troyes School of the 16th century.
By way of contrast, Troyes is also the capital of the French knitwear industry. Added to which there are five original and important museums.
The Museum of Modern Art, found in the old Bishop’s Palace, includes works by Degas, Cézanne and Modigliani. The Maison de l’Outil et de la Pensée Ouvrière (Tools and Working Class Thought), houses a collection of over 10,000 tools of trade from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Saint Loup Museum, which focuses on natural history and archaeology; the Valuisant Museum, which traces the evolution of the industry which started in 1745.
The half-timbered buildings of Troyes
Aesthetically, the streets are a ‘pick and mix’ assortment of splendid buildings and monuments, all carefully restored and protected (or being restored and protected).
Large areas in the centre are pedestrianised, a commendable move that does much to protect the fragile buildings, many of which, weary with age, lean on their neighbours for support.
The centre of the old city is crammed with private mansions and 16th-century half-timbered houses with wooden corbelled balconies.
Mary Shelley, the authoress, stayed here in 1814, four years before she created her monster, Frankenstein, though I could find nothing that may have inspired her writing. Turner painted the cathedral, and John Ruskin knew and loved St Urbain.
Little has changed in the meantime; the street café culture has evolved, especially around the Place Alexandre Israël, but elsewhere it feels as though the centuries’ old buildings that predominate have a paternal influence that deters unsympathetic development.
Markets in Troyes
Troyes also has traditional French markets. The Saturday market is a frenetic affair, as all French market days are.
The huge indoor market is open most days of the week and is the source of good wine, cheese, meat, seafood and olive oils.
The outdoor market meanwhile brings in rafts of fresh vegetables, fruit, rolls of linen, clothing, live poultry, hamsters and a few budgerigars – all for sale, but I don’t think you’re meant to eat the budgies!
A brief history of Troyes
Nowadays Troyes is in the Aube department in the Grand-Est region of Champagne-Ardenne. But its roots are ancient.
Before Julius Caesar’s conquest, Troyes was already a town of the Gauls. Under Augustus it became the capital of the Gallic tribe known as the Tricasses.
Converted to Christianity in the third century, the town was threatened by the Huns in the fifth century and defended against them by its bishop, St Loup.
Sacked by the Normans in 889, Troyes became the home of the counts of Champagne, who founded a number of churches and almshouses here and established the great fairs which gained an international reputation and brought exceptional prosperity.
In medieval times, Troyes was a town of two halves: the Cité, which was the aristocratic and ecumenical centre clustered around the cathedral, and the Bourg, a more secular, middle-class area, where the fairs were traditionally held.
In 1524, a fire devastated over 1,000 properties in the town, but the by-now prosperous inhabitants took the opportunity to re-build it in a more opulent style, and did so with commendable panache, 16th-century style.