Troyes: Off the beaten track in Champagne country
Short breaks in France
The medieval streets of Troyes make the perfect off-radar break in France, says award-winning travel writer Isabel Conway.
Set the Mood
We are strolling around the pastel coloured half-timbered medieval streets of Troyes (above), capital city of the Counts of Champagne back in the Middle Ages, as the guide points upwards at beams that connect the houses whose roofs touch.
“This street is called Ruelle des Chats, because the beams that joined the houses allowed cats free movement from one attic to the next,” she explains.
Troyes has risen from the ashes on more than one occasion over the centuries, having survived its share of fires and wars. The lively, picturesque and historic capital of Champagne invites the visitor to get lost in an old centre named by locals as ‘Bouchon de Champagne’ (Champagne cork).
Why? Viewed from above, the outline is almost exactly like one.
But that is apparently coincidental - the result of successive transformations of the town boundaries going back to the Romans and involving many diversions of the river Seine along the way.
Unlike famous champagnes coming from Reims and Epernay exported worldwide, little of the sparkling wines from these parts makes it beyond the French border. Yet fantastic champagne abounds in L’Aube with the largest vineyards in the Cote des Bar half an hour away by car from Troyes.
Proud local producers showcase their methodology and afterwards look forward to generous free tastings after the cellar tour. Arnaud Gallimard of a six-generation wine producing family in Les Riceys had us spellbound with stories about the origins of champagne and his district’s Rose des Riceys.
This wine reputedly was made famous by Louis XIV after he was offered a taste by his Versailles stonemasons from Les Riceys group of villages (champagne-gallimard.com).
Troyes perfected the free movement, of people and goods hundreds of years ago, and for a time cloth reigned supreme - followed by hosiery back in days when nothing epitomized a woman’s desire for glamour and style quite like the sheerest of flattering shaped to the leg nylons.
Head to the largest designer retail outlet in Europe to take advantage of discounts of up to 50 per cent in over 250 stores at the McArthur Glen Shopping Centre on Marques Avenue. Naturally discounted top brand stockings and tights have pride of place along with classic creations here.
Separated from Troyes by wooded hills, sloped vineyards and leafy river banks is the village of Essoyes, where grand master of impressionism Pierre Auguste Renoir chilled out with his family every summer for more than 30 years and where the couple are laid to rest.
The artist would flee the noisy distraction of his family to the tranquillity of his studio at the end of the garden ‘caressing the canvas with his brush’ on its upper floor. From June 2017, you can wander through the family home purchased by the local municipality and now restored.
Its interior makes visitors feel that the famous painter stepped out for a glass of local ‘Rose de Ricey’ at his favourite café and may return home at any moment. The village also has an interesting visitor centre showing a beautiful short film about several generations of the Renoir clan.
Take a Renoir-themed walk around Troyes, exploring covered market stalls, canals, grandiose churches with spectacular stained glass windows - and check out the many wonderful little restaurants hidden away in cobbled courtyards overhung with greenery.
My favourite was La Mignardise, housed in a fabulous half-timbered turreted mansion on 1, Ruelle des Chats (lamignaridise.net), offering bistro-style French dishes at their best. The speciality of the town Andouillettes (tripe sausages) was available here, but I couldn’t bring myself to try it.
You will need to rent a car or travel by ferry with your own from Ireland to properly check out this wonderful, off-the-beaten-track corner of France.
Southeast of Paris, the Aube region hugs the border of Burgundy.
For those who want to base themselves in Troyes, bus tours to local champagne houses (information from the Troyes Tourist Office at 34 Quai Dampierre) operate regularly. There’s nothing like making your own discovery winding through little villages and country wine estates.
From Gare d’est in Paris I boarded the TGV train for Troyes via a night at the epicentre of Champagne production Reims, distance one and a half hours.
See voyages-sncf.com/en for best fares.
I flew with Ryanair to London-Stansted, taking the direct bus to St Pancreas-Kings Cross where I boarded the Eurostar for Paris (eurostar.com).
For further info, see champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk, atout-france.com and aube-champagne.com.
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