Troyes, the historic capital of the Champagne region, is one of the most captivating small cities (population 60,000) in France. Ninety minutes by car south of Reims, it can also be reached by train in an hour and a half from Paris’ Gare de l’Est. There’s so much to see and do in this well-preserved medieval city on the Seine that we recommend a visit of at least two days. Happily, Troyes has yet to attract hordes of tourists and remains a quiet and atmospheric place where it’s a pleasure just to stroll the city’s streets.
There’s so much to see and do in this well-preserved medieval city on the Seine that we recommend a visit of at least two days.
Before Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, Troyes was already an established Gallic settlement. The town began a golden age when it came under the authority of the Counts of Champagne in the ninth century. They established textile-trading markets that attracted merchants from all over Europe, and it was at this time that the “troy” weight for gold originated here. Troyes remained the capital of the Province of Champagne until the French Revolution.
The city was devastated by a massive fire in 1524 and subsequently rebuilt. Most of the half-timbered houses that line the streets in the historic heart of the city date from this time, and walking along Rue Champeaux or Rue Linard Gonthier is a form of time travel back to the mid-16th century.
Troyes can also boast fine gothic churches. Those not to miss are the cathedral of Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, the basilica of Saint-Urbain and the churches of Sainte-Madeleine, Saint-Pantaléon and Saint-Nizier. Work began on the cathedral in the 13th century. It has magnificent stained-glass windows, as does the church of Sainte-Madeleine, which is best known for its spectacular Renaissance stained glass. The basilica was named for Pope Urban IV, who was born in Troyes in 1185.
There are also a number of remarkable museums. The Musée d’Art Moderne is currently closed for renovation (through 2020), but the Musée des Beaux Arts et d’Archéologie has a rich collection that includes paintings by Fragonard, Boucher and Watteau. You might need to have a mechanical or technical mindset to fully appreciate it, but the museum of the Maison de l’Outil et de la Pensée Ouvrière is one of the most unusual museums in France. Housed in a Renaissance mansion, it displays a collection of some 12,000 handmade tools that are grouped together according to trade, including cobbler, carpenter, roofer, barrel-maker, blacksmith and others. Few things illustrate human ingenuity more powerfully than such tools, which are especially poignant today when the “tool” many people use in their daily lives is a computer, the workings of which are beyond the comprehension of all but a tiny minority.
Perhaps my favorite place to visit in Troyes, however, is the covered market. The cast-iron-and-stone Halles market was built in 1876 and is open daily. This is a great place to shop for a picnic or edible souvenirs such jam, mustard, herbs and spices, as well as Champagne made in the surrounding Aube region.