THE ENCHANTMENT OF TROYESPosted: May 13, 2012
“Oh!” exclaimed a young woman who was gazing up at the same stained glass window as the one I was looking at in the 12th-century church of Sainte-Madeleine in Troyes. “Oh! I think that’s the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen”. She was probably right, but might have said the same if the first thing she had looked at in Sainte-Madeleine had been the rood screen: both were ravishingly beautiful.
Capital of mediaeval Champagne, on the upper reaches of the Seine, Troyes (pronounced Trois, or Trwah) once rivalled Reims in political stature (John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, proposed it for the capital of France) and in economic importance surpassed it. Wool, not wine was the reason. In the Middle Ages the Roman roads that connected the city with Milan and Boulogne, as well as with navigable tributaries of the Seine and the mighty Rhône, collectively became a transcontinental trade highway; most especially for a trade in cloth from the Low Countries made from English wool. Hence the famous Champagne fairs that made Troyes into one of the chief commercial centres of Europe. Hence largely the prosperity of the Dukes of Burgundy, the Counts of Champagne and the many great merchants and entrepreneurs who built the city’s churches and mansions and imported the best of craftsmen from all Europe to decorate and furnish them.
I wondered how long the young woman had already been in Troyes; how long she would be staying. The cathedral of Saint-Peter and Saint-Paul; the basilica of Saint-Urbain; the churches of Saint-Rémy, Saint-Jean-au-Marché, Saint-Pantaléon and Saint-Nicolas; the Hôtel-Dieu with its astonishing Apothecary and 18th-century wrought iron palisade; the Hôtel de Marisy; the Hôtel du Lion Noir (before modern times, a “hôtel” signified a private mansion); the Hôtel de Vauluisant; the Museum of Modern Art with Bonnard, Braque, Cézanne, Matisse and Modigliani, Degas, Derain and Rodin; but mercifully nothing ‘conceptual’: no ‘installations’; no piles of bricks or unmade beds. Would she have given them all at least a glance; and if so, how many other discoveries would have enchanted her? After my own lightning tour I was extravagantly thinking that with the possible exception of Paris nowhere in all France could conceivably have a better claim to the city’s official title of ‘ville d’art et d’histoire’.
A generation or two of architects and town planners ought to be made to see what has been done here in Troyes before going to the stake for the barbarities they have wreaked upon some of England’s “villes d’histoire”. Wonders of reconstruction and restoration motivated not least by a shrewd calculation on the part of the authorities as to what most visitors come for have been achieved. So compact is the old centre, so free of the obtrusive and hideously modern for modernity’s sake that 21st-century travellers may enjoy the illusion that they are strolling through the Middle Ages without risking a bucket of slops over their heads.
It is characteristic of this so very singular city, and consummately appropriate, that it should possess one of the finest of the very few fine museums of hand tools in the world. At the Maison de l’Outil, superbly presented in the 16th century Hôtel de Mauroy, are more than ten thousand instruments of almost every significant handicraft practised by western man in the past three hundred years. “They are shown to us as they were when their movement stopped”, said the collection’s founder, Paul Feller, almost fifty years ago. In their own right artefacts of strangely compelling beauty — hand forged iron and steel; grained and long-seasoned wood polished only by the grasp of those that used them— they exert so powerful a fascination that I wonder still if there could be something metaphysical about the deeply moving awareness of the dignity of labour and craftsmanship conveyed.
More or less round the corner was a heady experience of another kind. In the Place Jean-Jaurès was Aux Crieurs de Vin, a bistro-like bar and cellar where the owners specialize in champagne, served by the bottle or by the glass. Troyes is the capital of the department of the Aube, which belongs to the region of Champagne-Ardenne. On the map, the line of its ancient ramparts— systematically destroyed in the early 19th century before it was understood that the picturesque would come to be valued more highly than “progress”— famously has a resemblance to a champagne cork. South of Troyes, the vineyards of the Côte-de-Bar,unknown by comparison with the Côte des Blancs and its neighbours, 100 miles away, not only indispensably supply the great champagne firms of Reims and Épernay whose brands are household names with large quantities of grapes, but themselves make champagne as good as many produced by those same, better-known houses to the north. A cellarful of Drappier would go far to making me a happy man.
Aux Crieurs de Vin has a simple menu, too. Unassuming, unpretentious, it does nothing to support the tourist office’s absurd characterisation of Troyes as “une ville gastronomique” ,(Michelin gives Troyes a single rosette, and that 3 km outside the city) but there is something attractively Troyesian (to risk a word) about it; something consonant with the half-timbered, narrow street mediaevality of the inner city as a whole. I saw nothing by way of fancy dress there, yet now, in retrospect, I rather fancy that the place may have been staffed by varlets in doublet and hose.