Gillian Thornton loves colorful buildings, rich artwork and bargains in Troyes
You don’t have to linger over Troyes to understand why this enchanting city proudly proclaims itself “land of a thousand colours”. Simply wander the bustling streets of the medieval old town to find half-timbered houses in shades ranging from pastel peach to vibrant pistachio, and rich raspberry to golden yellow.
And the colors of the rainbow continue inside too. Historic seat of the Counts of Champagne, Troyes (Aube-en-Champagne prefecture) is recognized as the French capital of stained glass and bargains. Prepare to be dazzled by the magnificent stained glass windows of the city’s many ancient churches and, in stark contrast, by the multicolored temptations of the outlet malls.
As for the Old Town’s form of champagne cork – the ‘Bouchon de Champagne’ – it was not shrewd marketing by a historic wine merchant, but a happy accident that could be seen as an omen of things to come. to come. The corky shape of the city center was indeed defined by the medieval ramparts, laid out some five centuries before the sparkling drink was created, according to legend at least, by Dom Pérignon. Today, the surrounding Aube department is the second largest champagne producer after the Marne, with the Montgueux vineyard a few kilometers from the heart of Troyes.
First stop on rue Aristide Briand on the edge of the pedestrian zone to pick up a map from the Tourist Office and admire its magnificent half-timbered house dating from the 16th century. All you have to do is stroll through the streets of Le Bouchon, camera in hand. Today the picturesque town center is beautifully maintained, the streets and squares a mix of Renaissance stone houses and timber-framed estates with wonderfully bizarre woodwork and grand gables – but Troyes has no not always been so attractive.
In medieval times houses were built of timber from the nearby Orient Forest, but in 1524 a catastrophic fire burned down some 1,500 properties, leaving 7,500 people homeless. Rich Troyens chose to rebuild in stone, leaving less fortunate citizens to start again in wood, and it is this spectacular mix of styles that gave the city center its unique architectural heritage. After rapid commercial expansion in the Middle Ages, Troyes in the 16th century saw not only a building boom but also a flourishing of the arts, while the 19th century brought economic prosperity through the hosiery industry. But by the end of World War II, many residents were living in slums. Large areas of the city center were demolished and many 16th century buildings were lost forever. It was only in the 1960s that Troyes took stock of its architectural heritage and began to preserve it, leading to the city’s fourth “golden age”. The effort has accelerated since the turn of the millennium, and 2022 sees the reopening of three major city museums after major upgrades.
Trojans are proud of their city, so it’s no surprise that one of the favorite photos of locals and visitors alike is the Heart of Troyes, a giant heart-shaped metal sculpture surrounded by water jets. Located opposite the Théâtre de Champagne, this much appreciated emblem stands on the banks of the old canal between the head and the body of the “Bouchon”. Stop in the evening to see the heart glow red as you approach, and don’t miss a photo op with the nearby statue of ‘Lili, the Lady in the Hat’.
You could happily wander the quaint streets and soak up the atmosphere, but Troyes rewards visitors richly with its history and cultural attractions. Learn the story behind the ‘shameful’ 1420 Treaty of Troyes in which French and English kings agreed that an English king – then Henry V – would rule both kingdoms. Visit the Church of Saint-Jean-au-Marché where Henri married Catherine de Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France, then contemplate what Europe might have looked like if a second Treaty of Troyes in 1564 had not revoked the first !
But the real glory of the city’s churches is the stained glass. Troyes and Aube are home to the largest collection of painted stained glass windows in Europe: 1,500 m2 in the cathedral alone and 9,000 in the surrounding area department. And you don’t have to be an art lover to appreciate them.
After three years of renovation, the Cité du Vitrail reopens this year at the Hôtel-Dieu-le-Comte, with a substantial space entirely dedicated to the art of stained glass from the 12th to the 21st century. Discover the city’s know-how, not only through history and techniques, but also through workshops, immersive experiences and films. Also revamped, the Apothecary Museum, housed in the same building, will present a collection of medicine boxes and wooden pharmaceutical jars from the 16th to the 19th century, as well as a laboratory of scientific objects. There has also been a makeover for the Museum of Modern Art, housed in the atmospheric setting of the former Episcopal Palace. Expect a revised route through the permanent collection as well as new spaces for graphic arts and temporary exhibitions, a new boutique and a sculpture garden. The eclectic collection of over 2,000 works includes artists such as Matisse, Dufy, Modigliani, Picasso and Cézanne. If you’re still in the mood for culture, head to the Musée Saint-Loup, the city’s excellent museum of archaeology, natural history and fine arts. Do you like DIY or crafts? Then get inspired by the Tool and Trade Museum, a collection of 11,000 tools from the 17th and 18th centuries. Unique in France, it was founded by the French Guild of Itinerant Craftsmen in 1974 and is housed in the Hôtel de Mauroy, built during the Renaissance.
Another unique collection resides in the ultra-modern architecture of the Jacques Chirac Media Library. Here, in addition to the public lending library, the Great Hall houses some 50,000 printed books, including medieval manuscripts from the Abbey of Clairvaux and the private collection of the Counts of Champagne.
But Troyes is not just the past. The city grew around the Seine and its tributaries, with the counts of Champagne creating canals to irrigate the city center and provide water for industry. Many canals have been rerouted underground, but bodies of water are taking center stage again – including the Seine itself – and one side of the old canal has been redeveloped for pedestrians and cyclists.
Water was hugely important to the town’s long history of textile manufacturing and among several iconic brands born in Troyes are Lacoste and Petit Bateau. Foreign competition caused the industry to decline after its heyday in the 1970s, but Troyes is still known as France’s knitwear capital and among the brands still made in the city today are agnès b. and Sonia Rykiel.
Shoppers can browse the shops under the half-timbered properties in the town center, stopping for a drink and a bite to eat while soaking up the surroundings at a well-placed restaurant or sidewalk cafe. But for serious shoppers, there’s only one place to go. European capital of outlet shopping, Troyes has more than 250 shops and 400 major brands concentrated in four distinct centers on the outskirts of the city. Attracting around 3.5 million visitors each year, they offer permanent discounts of between 30 and 50%. With such savings, you can shop till you drop and still have money for champagne!
THE ESSENTIALS OF TROYES
Two hours from Paris by car, 1h30 from Reims, by the A5 motorway; 1h30 by train from Paris Est.
WHERE TO STAY
Opening later this year, the 5* Hotel La Licorne, an M Gallery Hotel and spa resort in the city center. In the meantime, the half-timbered 5* Maison de Rhodes is the second-hand hotel par excellence. www.maisonderhodes.com
Meet at the Tourist Office at 16 rue Aristide Briand. Tel: 03 25 82 62 70. The City Pass new look is a magnetic card giving access to specific museums as well as gourmet and shopping offers. Choose from 24, 48 or 72 hours for €15, €20 or €25. www.troyeslachampagne.com
FIVE ESSENTIAL SITES IN TROYES
Troyes is the perfect mix of history and architecture alongside shopping and festivals – here are our five favorite things to do and see
THE ALLEY OF THE CATS
Arguably the most iconic street in the city, this narrow alley is so named because it was said that a cat could leap between the rooftops and opposing lofts. Three new half-timbered houses were added in 2014, based on old postcards and vintage prints.
SAINT-PETER AND SAINT-PAUL CATHEDRAL
Built for 400 years, this masterpiece of Gothic art was never completed. Missing one of its twin towers, it has a certain unhinged charm, but the interior is stunning with over 1,500m2 of stained glass windows and treasures including medieval enamels, an 11th century Byzantine box and the Sanctuary of Saint Bernard.
THE CITY OF STAINED GLASS
Reopened this year (see website), the stained glass discovery center is located in the 18th century Hôtel-Dieu-le-Comte and retraces the history and techniques of artisans from Troyes and Aube. The restored chapel has old and modern stained glass windows. cite-vitrail.aube.fr
Visit Marques City (sporty and urban style), McArthurGlen shopping village (premium and luxury brands) and Village de Marques (American fashion) in Port-Sainte-Marie, 5 km northeast of Troyes. Marques Avenue in Saint-Julien-les-Villas, 3 km to the southeast, offers 50 fashion and home stores.
Champagne Route Festival (July 30-31); Festival Ville en musiques (every weekend from the end of June to the end of August); The 48 Hours Automobiles of Troyes (9-11 September); Champagne Nights Festival, musical rendezvous for the voice, from October 24 to 30. www.nuitsdechampagne.com
Excerpt from France Today magazine
Main photo credit: Cliche Cathedral © BC Image