One of the most delightful towns in France for tourism, is the capital of the Aube department, Troyes. It is today a community of 60,000, the history of which dates back to Celtic settlements circa 600 BC. Well-developed during the Roman era, it benefitted from being at the intersection of Roman roads that traveled north-south and east-west.
It reached a peak of economic vitality in the Middle Ages, when Troyes became a major hub of the cloth trade that brought it great wealth. Later, bonnet-making also became a specialty of Troyes to the point that products of the region became heavily identified with fashion. The annual fair in Troyes was one of the Europe’s major economic events, and the ‘troy’ ounce that is a key measure of weight for gold was coined there, and remains part of gold trade and terminology to this day.
Different European centers of economic vitality experienced commercial declines for different reasons. In the case of Bruges, the sea withdrew, rendering its formerly bustling port unnavigable. Rennes declined after Brittany became attached to France and ceased to be an independent capital. The same can be said for Rouen in Normandy, although there are still other factors that played a role, such as the alternatives to river-generated power that arrived with steam and combustion-engine power.
Whatever the explanations, Troyes, Bruges, Rennes and Rouen have something distinctive in common: medieval town centers that are comprised of an extraordinary number of half-timbered buildings. Some date back to the 13th, 14thand 15thcenturies. Each exudes an aura of tranquility and offers respite from modern times. Among them all, Troyes has one of the most charming Old Towns, and a visit there is chance to step out of the 21stcentury and enter the 16th.
Due to a fire that ravaged Troyes in 1524, most of its half-timbered buildings date from the 16thcentury, although many of the earlier buildings were re-built to the exact same former detail. A walk through its Old Town offers one a pleasant mix of medieval buildings, large open plazas, private mansions, canals, and churches. Troyes did not suffer destruction during the last two world wars nor in the Franco-Prussian War.
Another attraction in Troyes is a large number of attractive sculptures that are liberally sprinkled throughout public spaces, including several produced by the Belgian sculptor, Tom Frantzen. I especially enjoy his “Wait for Me” sculpture of geese, chased by a basset hound, taking flight, and the near-by sculpture by Andras Lipi of a seated young lady reading a book, “Lili.”
Keeping in the spirit of half-timbered architecture, consider staying in one of two very pleasant hotel is Troyes: La Maison de Rhodes and Le Champ des Oiseaux. Both are lodged in half-timbered buildings, side-by-side, on a supremely quiet side-street. They are beautifully managed yet very affordable respectively, five and four star hotels.
Most visitors of Troyes are not aware that the Aube region is a major producer of Champagne wine. Since the French Revolution, Troyes ceased to be recognized as the capital of Champagne, a role that it enjoyed ever since the 9thcentury when the Counts of Champagne chose it be their capital. Since the French Revolution, Reims and Epernay have supplanted Troyes as the wine capital of Champagne. Don’t let that stop you from visiting such wine estates as Drappier, which is a drive of a bit under one hour from Troyes.