cobbled streets dripping with flowers.... majestic cities glittering in unimaginable
splendor.... countless images of a country whose countenance never disappoints.
But dig a little deeper and consider the alternate faces of France -- funny
little towns too often neglected by the average tourist -- those who
may be missing the good looks of her celebrity sisters but
with perhaps a tad more imagination, texture and historical weight.
Why always search out the one-dimensional when you
can unlock the magic of a more intriguing thumbprint?
I'm thinking of Troyes, a lovable little town full of unconventional complexity.
Sure, her teeth are a little crooked and she could use a trip or two to the
beauty salon -- but oh boy, her half-timbered houses and historical
credentials more than make up for any gaps in her appearance.
Before the Revolution, Troyes (pronounced twah) was the capitol of Champagne.
Devoid of the champagne houses just down the road in effervescent Epernay,
(just 52 miles to the north), Troyes doesn't come up the least bit short.
Immersing yourself in the Champagne region is always a good idea,
but in Troyes, you'll find reasons to drop anchor
that have little to do with the bubbly.
Offering visitors a different persona than most mainstream travel darlings,
an overnight or two here offers a true trial of the often overused expression
"getting off the beaten path".
You can start with the Romans but I prefer to begin
with the era of the famous trade fairs.
Held here during the late 12th and 13th century,
these events were the medieval means to market cloth,
furs, leather, dye, spices and some agricultural products.
Each commodity had its own special day of commerce,
an influential badge of economic honor for the region.
In contrast to what we think of as market day today,
the fairs in Troyes (held twice a year) lasted just over a month each.
In most cases, commerce was between merchants rather than
the typical merchant-customer arrangement that's currently in vogue.
Much of the stock came from Genoa and Florence, crossing
the Alps on the same roads the Romans built.
It was a cultural event, an exchange of goods as well as ideas.
Troyes' mix of medieval alleys, Gothic churches,
Renaissance mansions and spooky wood carvings cook up
a whole passel of character in its compact center.
The main bosom of the township is famous for being shaped like a champagne cork
and you'll be ready to make a toast or two after a day of unconventional discovery.
Troyes' exceptional charisma lies not in its looks but in its deep-seated fiber.
Personally, I'd swap a bad complexion for a good soul any day of the week.
Case in point, Ruelle des Chats (Alley of the Cats) made me flip my lid.
I freaked out over this skinny-minny passageway made up of dilapidated
structures barely held together by aging timber and suspicious looking
supports -- looking as if they were going to fall in at any moment.
Seemingly built for wenches and ruffians of the era,
it looks like the dream set of a high-strung mystery writer.
But don't despair, the scariest thing I experienced was the sight of a neighborhood cat jumping from one rooftop to the next in a brave show of architectural faith.
From the flamboyant Gothic of the Cathédrale St. Pierre et St. Paul to the
splendidly Gothic rood screen of Église Ste-Madeleine, you'll witness
a fantastic array of stained glass windows, organs and gargoyles,
some even brazenly displaying the family jewels.
Église Saint Nizier, Basilica St. Urbain, Église Saint-Jean-au-Marché
and others -- the numbers will startle you.
Don't miss the covered marché and be on the lookout
for Troyes' most famous culinary delicacy.
Put the caution light on because it's the only food in France I personally
find scary -- and I'll famously eat just about anything.
Troyes' little andouillette, a renowned specialty made from pork intestines,
wine, onions and spices is a favorite in this land.
Famous foodies -- tough guys like Anthony Bourdain and
Andrew Zimmern -- seem to enjoy it's -- uh -- interesting aroma
and -- um -- extraordinary flavor.
But don't take my word for it, go for it.
I've tried tripe three different times -- once in the form of an
andouillette -- always hoping to like it, to be cool -- but no, it's not for me.
Bring mouthwash and don't despair,
there's plenty of wonderful food in Troyes.
I recall a particularly memorable feast at a classic little restaurant
featuring some of the best vegetables I've ever tasted,
paired, quite naturally, with the most gorgeous local champagne.
There's a bit of Knights Templar history here, too, as well as a storied
heritage of persecuted Jews and royal weddings, but Troyes' most
famous legacy is when Joan of Arc and the future Charles VII
stopped by on the way to his coronation in Reims.
engaging art installation gifted from a generous bequest
from the Lévy family of Lacoste fame.
Who knew pink alligator shirts could buy a Picasso?!
The Musée d'Art Moderne de Troyes offers a collection of 2,000+ works by
master artists such as Degas, Picasso, Courbet, Derain, Bonnard and Matisse.
The palace-turned-art-museum has an impressive sculpture collection as well
as inventive art deco glassworks by local talent Maurice Marinot.
Nearby, two museums, Musée de la Bonneterie and the
Museum of Tools & Craft (Maison de l'Outil) include hundreds of
tools used during the age of manual labor.
Knitting machines, power looms, and blacksmithing instruments pay
respect to Troyes' long legacy of artisans in ancient trade enterprises.
But my favorite of all has to be the pharmacy museum,
the Apothecary of the Hotel-Dieu-le-Comte.
An 18th century wood paneled pharmacy holds the mysteries of medieval medicine. Who knew my back problems could be cured with a
mixture of ground dog turds and rose petals?
And for more serious ailments, feudal pharmacists recommended
you boil and grind two fresh puppies, mix in a handful of worms, drink and enjoy!
No wonder the popular sausages here make me a bit queasy.....
with creating the Arthurian legend in Europe.
His words ring true still today.
"Love without fear and trepidation is fire without flame and heat,
day without sun, comb without honey, summer without flowers,
winter without frost, sky without moon, a book without letters."
English translation by D.D.R. Owen
I will add -- A trip to the Champagne region without a stop in Troyes
is much like starting a journey with your glass half empty.
Admittedly, Troyes is an alternate universe
in the vivid landscape of beautiful France.
But it's a universe you'll be glad you met and after all,
isn't diversity one of the main reasons we travel?
I dare you not to feel a combination of affection and amazement.
Embrace the other side of France -- freckles and all.