IN THE heart of the Champagne region, Troyes celebrates its most famous produce – and much else besides
We’re wandering along the medieval streets of Troyes, a town located at the heart of the Champagne region of France, trying to avoid tripping over fellow pedestrians as our guide encourages us to look up. She’s pointing to the roofs of the pastel-coloured half timbered houses and indicating architectural features which unlock the story of this fascinating place. We visit Ruelle des Chats, one of the most famous streets, so called because the roofs of the houses touch, allowing cats to pass unencumbered from one attic to the next.
And we find the narrow road behind the square where the champagne fairs were held in the Saint Jean au Marche district in the prosperous Middle Ages. Here money changers and bankers lurked to oil the wheels of commerce, as traders arrived to do business in wool, leather, fur and spices.
Curiously, the shape of the centre of the town has even evolved into the outline of a champagne cork, underscoring the importance of the sparkling wine in the history of Troyes. All this talk of fizz was making us thirsty, so we thought we’d better find some to try.
By far the best way to discover what is produced locally is to visit a small wine maker and arrange to have a tour and a tasting, or degustation. Even tiny producers with no staff other than family members are often happy to show you round and open a bottle or two for you, as long as you don’t pitch up in the middle of the harvest (late September). We headed to Les Riceys, a group of small villages surrounded by vineyards, and famous not only for champagne, but for a special wine that is only made in small quantities, and some years not at all, if the harvest is not judged to be good enough. Rosé des Riceys tastes more like a robust red wine, complete with tannins, rather than the light and fruity rosé you might have been expecting. We visited Guy de Forez in Les Riceys Haut for our tasting session and to hear how the wine is made. Whether it’s truly necessary, or part of a tradition, grapes are pressed by foot, in stainless steel tanks, and because you have to get in the tank to do this, the job often falls to a woman. I hopped inside one to get the general idea. All I can say is that I hope King Louis XIV, who became a huge fan of the wine after being offered a taste of it by his stone masons, appreciated what his subjects went through to make it. Put it this way – it wouldn’t do to be claustrophobic.
A walk through the surrounding vineyards gave us the opportunity to see the ancient stone shelters, or cadoles, used by the workers to seek refuge from the heat of the day.
There’s nothing like following in the footsteps of great men and women to help you understand a bit more about their life and work, and the next stage on our tour explored the worlds of two French giants of art and politics.
North east of Les Riceys is Essoyes, the village where Pierre-Auguste Renoir had a summer home and where he and his family spent some of their happiest days. You can visit L’Atelier Renoir, a recreation of the studio the painter had built at the bottom of his garden in 1906. As you enter you see the distinctive wicker bathchair Renoir used toward the end of his life, suspended over the quote projected on the floor, “Oh well, I prefer painting to walking!” In other words, he wanted to use his remaining strength to paint above all else. If you want to see where the artist took his inspiration in this pretty, quiet village, follow the signs for the Chemins de Renoir. It’s quite something to gaze down to the spot on the bank of the river Ource, where the women used to wash clothes, and imagine that the artist once stood in the very same place, in front of his easel, painting the scene before him.
Our second subject helped us shed light on history of the more recent past. Charles de Gaulle bought La Boisserie in the village of Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises in 1934. Charmed by the tranquillity of the 12-roomed house, secluded in woodland, he saw it as ideal for weekends and holidays, but it was to become the one place in the world where he truly felt at peace. Part of the reason for buying it was because his youngest daughter Anne had Down’s syndrome and he felt that she would have a happier life in the countryside than in Paris. His ground floor office has spectacular views across the rolling landscape, but amusingly, his vast desk is missing a phone. De Gaulle hated phones and would only permit one to be installed in a cupboard under the stairs and his wife Yvonne, was required to answer it.
After our visit to the statesman’s home we travelled the short distance to the Charles de Gaulle Memorial, opened in 2008, which tells the story of recent European history through the prism of de Gaulle’s life. Beginning in 1890 when de Gaulle was born in Lille, the interactive exhibition takes in two world wars, his years in the political wilderness, the student uprisings of 1968 and the general’s opposition to Britain joining the EEC, and ends with his death in 1970.
The subject matter sounds complex but this museum stimulates all your senses. Our highlights included the sleek Citroen DS19 in which de Gaulle was travelling when an assassination attempt was made on him in 1962. Neat white crosses mark the places where the bullets hit. The space documenting the French Resistance movement is also fascinating.
Back in Troyes to eat (history makes me hungry) I’m ashamed to say that we did our best to avoid the speciality of the town, andouillettes, or tripe sausages. Normally pretty adventurous on the dining front, we couldn’t bring ourselves to sample these strong-smelling pale tubes of offal, but we did enjoy finding out about the fan club for this delicacy – the Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillettes Authentiques, or AAAAA – obviously, always the first entry in the telephone book.
Souvenir shopping was no problem. In the 18th century Troyes was a centre for the production of textiles and it retains a connection with clothing manufacture today as the European capital of factory outlets. There’s even a McArthur Glen shopping centre, and bargain hunters from across France travel to Marques Avenue in search of discounted goods. There are plenty of designer sportswear stores, with the vast Lacoste outlet proving one of the most popular. I was pleased to find iconic French T-shirt brand Petit Bateau on the outer reaches of the map, and made it a priority to relieve them of some of their stock.
Un coup de champagne to celebrate? Why not?
THE FACTS Flights from Edinburgh to Paris start from £190, www.airfrance.co.uk
Transfer by RER and Metro to Gare de l’Est for the TGV (£14 return) to Troyes, www.tgv.co.uk The Hotel Relais Saint Jean in Troyes has rooms for £75, see www.relais-st-jean.com; www.tourism-troyes.com
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