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Trying Out Troyes

photo: hammer, anvil, musee outil

Hammer and anvil in the tool museum in Troyes.

21st Century Mediaeval

Troyes:– Sunday, 21. December:– At first the sky is winter-clear, like blue glass. The sun is as low as it will get, and the wind in exposed places is more than cool. In the old town, and Troyes is mostly 'old town,' the wind waits, just around the next corner, in any direction.

But it is a lot better than yesterday. The train station, a 90–minute ride from Paris' Gare de l'Est, is on the edge of town. For an arriving visitor there don't seem to be any buses or taxis and the tourist office is closed. A city map, not next to the train station, indicates that the town's centre is straight ahead.

It is almost raining. All the shops are closed and there are few other pedestrians. The first of the half–timbered buildings show up here and there, along with cafés with Portuguese names. Looking down narrow streets to the right, a lot more woodwork can be seen.

At the place in front of the covered marché there is life. A FNAC sign on a corner announces that commerce is indeed alive and well here. A further downtown block to the east, past the side of the Hôtel de Ville, there is an open space full of potentialphoto: tower, troyes centre Christmas animation, slumbering at this post–lunchtime hour.

The first café–looking café here is a non–smoker. The café's café has no wonderful taste either, after the deserted walk in the cruel elements from the station. Having a train–hotel deal from SNCF, the first next thing to do is find the 'city–centre' hotel – that is just beyond it, conveniently placed next to a shiningly–new cinema multiplex, beside a chain steak–house and an Alsastian brasserie.

Timbers, towers, in Troyes' city centre.

The good news in this ancient capital town of Champagne on the Seine east–south–east of Paris, is that it became Christian in the 3rd century. When Attila the Hun showed up in 451 after burning down Reims, Saint–Loup offered himself as a hostage and so impressed Attila that he spared Troyes and went off to burn down other towns.

After that, just 500 years later, the Counts of Champagne took it over and began a church–building spree, with Henri 1er building no less than 13 of them. Thibault IV went a step further and created the famous Foires de Troyes, and the last of the Champagnes, Jeanne, married Philippe de Bel in 1284 and Troyes was added to the French kingdom as a wedding present.

A few hundred years later, Troyes got mixed up in the feud between the Armagnacs and the Bourguignons, when Isabeau of Bavaria signed the Treaty of Troyes with the English, and they governed the city together with the Bourguignons. There was shame all over the place, except in Troyes.

There are three main reasons for visiting Troyes. Starting in the 13th century, while the rest of France was adopting Renaissance design, the artisans of Troyes continued to build in the mediaeval tradition. Their influence spread throughout Champagne and showedphoto: wagon wheel, mus outil up in nearby Burgundy. Besides outstanding sculpteurs, there also were the colored–glass artists, who worked here between 1400 and 1700. Their creations are still be seen in the many churches, basilicas and the impressive cathedral.

Wagon wheel, shown 'under construction.'

Troyes was also the stocking capital of France, beginning in 1505, and this activity became organized in 1554. It evolved into a proper industry in the 19th century, and as recently as 25 years ago employed 20,000 workers in the 'bonneterie.'

But on Saturday afternoon, it is raining and finding the Musée de l'Outil – 'et de la Pensée Ouvrière' – the Tool Museum – is not easy in the narrow mediaeval jumble of streets and alleys in the Saint–Pantaléon area.

The rarity of this unique museum, and of Troyes' considerable collection of 16th and 17th–century half-timbered houses, is overshadowed in the guide book by the dozens of 12th to 18th century churches. Seeing all of them might take a week.

The museum is located in the Hôtel de Mauroy, in the Rue de a Trinité. Its present form dates to 1556, and when its original owners died it was converted into an orphanage and school. Beginning in 1630, establishments like this were not allowed to exist from donations, so the kids were put to work making stockings – in the Manufacture de la Trinité, which was once the most important factory in Troyes.

The museum was begun somewhat later by Paul Feller, with his tool collection in 1958, along with the collaborationphoto: awls, musee outil of the Compagnons du Devoir. Before the industrial age, most skilled workers began their careers as apprentices. Especially for carpentry, they would have learned their skills with the Compagnons du Devoir.

Various awls for various tasks.

The museum contains 20,000 examples of hand–made tools, from the 17th to 19th centuries. Tools for working with wood, stone, iron and leather are represented and displayed as 'they were when their movement stopped.'

The multitude of tools are displayed in large glass cases, 61 in all, arranged in eight rooms of various sizes, over two floors. Scattered around are video displays showing how the tools were used – for example, one display shows the shaping of a piece of white-hot iron into triangle to be used as a masonry trowel.

Some tools are for measuring, and other are very close to the end user – such as the tools used in slaughterhouses. Or for cobblers and shoemakers, or horseshoe makers. And there are tools for making other tools. None have much embellishment, but some are elegant as they are. You may take your average wine barrel or carriage wheel for granted, but the tools for making either are impressively ingenious.

It is no small tour to see everything in the museum. Therefore I do not see the museum's reference library, which is supposed to be the number two library of its kind after the collection at the Bibliothèque Forney in Paris.

There is a newly opened book store as well, which is an outpost of the 'Librairie du Compagnonnage' in Paris. The works include techniques, artistic decoration, and books about tools and crafts.

Outside it is still raining and the Christmas market is in full swing with whole families touring the stands, watching the ice sculptors, or waiting in line for the little train ride or the carrousel.

It is far too late for lunch and far too early for dinner. In a tavern I can get a plate of frites and a good café, and after wandering around in semi–darkness in the mediaeval streets crammed with Christmas, commerce, and totally loudspeakered with inappropriate music and commercials, I find a crêperie for some emergency fuel.

One crêpe comes with Troyes' famous speciality, Andouillettes. A story has it that a 16th century royalist army was so delighted with this sausage that the town's defenders were given enough time to organize a resistance, and massacred all the royal troops, who died happily full, as legend would have it.

The menu's German description of Andouillettes says they are made of mettwurst. This is a favorite in North Germany, but I never cared for it. The menu's English translation doesn't mean anything to me, but if I ever come across it I'll give it a pass too. Life is short and there are hundreds of other sausages.

Finally, Troyes is famous for its collection of modern paintings in the Musée des Beaux–Arts, which is installed in the Abbye Saint–Loup. I see this early Sunday afternoonphoto: sign, bonneterie ellen, louis nicot while the sun is shining, but do not particularly notice the great cathedral right beside the museum. Passing one every two blocks kind of dulls the impact. Besides, it is closed at lunchtime.

The rest of the time left is spent on a walking cruise around the half–timbered houses that were obscured by rain and darkness on Saturday. There are a fair number of 'for rent' signs to be seen. After the great fire of 1524, Troyes was rebuilt of wood, and continued to be heated by wood.

In the alleys, buildings on either side lean towards one another. The paving underfoot is cobblestones, with a depression in the middle for the rain to run off. It's hard to think that the old places are inhabited, but there door–code panels everywhere.

I see a sign that seems to indicate that UNESCO has a centre here. This organization may be behind all the signs advertising the restoration and renovation of Troyes, and the marble flagstones that cover some sidewalks. These may not be truly authentic, but they are easier to walk on than the cobbles.

Finally, with the sun gone again, I find a restaurant in a timbered building. It has had its stuffing between the timbers removed, and replaced with glass. With timbers inside as well, looking out is like looking through a knurly forest. On the other hand, it could have been warmer if the wall–stuffing hadn't been removed.

Troyes is certainly worth a visit, especially if you want to get into the atmosphere of an old timbered town. There's enough of it so that you can find corners where there's no sign of the 21st century. I wouldn't recommend the period just before Christmas for other than residents. Though, if in winter and there's snow, this would be another way of feeling that you are in another century.

Another minor pastime in Troyes is eavesdropping on people to learn how many ways it can be pronounced. Thisphoto: half timbered, troyes centre probably has something to do with Troyes' old position as one of the major Foires de Champagne towns. With the Italian merchants coming here to meet the traders from the north countries, Troyes' name came out muddled.

Typical shops in Troyes.

It you are a stained–glass fan, there is no shortage of it, but you might want to allow for a couple of days to see it all. There are other worthwhile sights too, such as a museum for the textile industry and an important library. The Seine loops around the city, but the weather was a bit too raw for me to walk far enough to see it.

Back at the train station, it has its entries being renovated. There is no outside awning of any sort, the station's buffet is closed, and the whole thing seems unheated. I go back out into the rain, and cross the place where there are no taxis, to a café that has a huge loudspeaker parked on the bar. I'm not sure if it's playing Troyes' downtown Christmas program, but it's as loud.

Right on time, the diesel–engined train glides into the station. A lot of other passengers get on, after a weekend visiting home, and the 90–minute ride back to the Gare de l'Est is non–stop.

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