Spellbound by Paris, the illusion was soon shattered. When our OuiBus rolled into McArthurGlen, a shopping complex reminiscent of the terrible Bicester Village in Oxfordshire and completely out of place in its rural French setting, reality soon struck. At least an hour’s walk from central Troyes, our desired destination, we aimlessly wandered in search of a local bus to ferry us into town. Finally, after many confused discussions in broken French, we were on the bus and things were starting to look up.
A scenic ride through the beautiful Troyes town centre gave us hope that our visit would be magnificent. We soon arrived at our apartment, and after a grainy, interrupted phone call to our AirBnB host, we were met by his previous guest, a timid young lady who spoke little French or English. We muddled our way through conversation and she led us up a creaking staircase in a building that was reminiscent of a horror film set and into our rickety apartment. Spacious, clean and comfortable this place was not. A series of mimed interactions with the previous tenant soon revealed that the apartment was falling apart. No knobs on the hob controls, a dilapidated sofa and a broken flush on the toilet further dampened our spirits. Even for travelling post-graduates, used to filth and squalor, this would test us.
Steeped in history, Troyes was the capital of the Province of Champagne until the French Revolution in the late 18th Century; the cobbled streets which gently weave through the entire city and 16th century houses that somehow cling to their foundations characterise this picturesque destination. If soaking up the history that lingers in the air doesn’t feed your cultural hunger, then a visit to the Saint-Loup Museum should satisfy your appetite. Paintings reclaimed after the revolution line the walls of the fine art section. From Rubens to Watteau and a questionable portrait of Lord Byron, this provincial museum houses an impressive collection. As long as we spent ample time in the city centre, we could forget the woes that awaited us at our temporary home.
Given we were in the region, we of course tried the champagne. Midi O Halles is an excellent choice to sample some of Champagne’s best product. An extensive menu, ranging in price, lets any budget enjoy some fizz in the shadow of Église Saint Rémy, one of Troyes’ many gothic religious structures. We opted for Côte des Bars Brut and its Extra Brut cousin. The acidic bubbles of the Extra Brut popped on my palate against the backdrop of rich fruit flavours, this was my favourite.
My aim from our stay in Troyes was to immerse myself in provincial French life. With this in mind, I made a conscious effort to visit our local boulangerie, fromagerie and boucherie every day. Each morning I would bring home two freshly baked baguettes, a different deli meat or a slice of artisan cheese. The most memorable of these was the Morbier, soft and slightly elastic with an aroma of hay, this traditional cheese had a bold and unforgettable hazelnut flavour. Being France, however, shops are open for limited periods each day and some are often closed for two entire days each week. No wonder the economy is slow! These closures forced us into the local supermarché on many occasions, experiences that I surprisingly savoured. Unlike British supermarkets, the French offer superior fresh produce on an entirely different scale. I was most impressed by the bread, I actually struggled to find a processed loaf, no Hovis in sight. Similarly, the vast cheese selection included no burger cheese or dairy lee, just the occasional triangle of La Vache qui rit – Laughing Cow. Cheaper than the fromagerie and just as tasty, the Buche de Chevre we bought was amongst the best goat I have ever eaten. Our favourite element of French convenience shopping was the wine aisle. From 2010 bottles of Bordeaux to six-pack plastic bottles of Vin Blanc our local supermarket had it all. It is difficult not to slip into alcoholism here.
Left a little strapped after London and Paris, we sought traditional dishes of the region in spit-and-sawdust like establishments. When we stumbled upon the ‘Traditional Set-Menu’ at a restaurant in the city’s heart we thought we had hit the jackpot. My quiche Chaource – a local cheese –was a good start and my editor’s tuna rillettes was also tasty. For main, I opted for Andouillette, a pungent sausage made from pork intestines, my first experience of this delicacy. It was as rich as one would expect an offal sausage to be. I enjoyed the roasted potatoes in a wholegrain mustard sauce far more than the centrepiece. To continue with the almost Germanic obsession with sausage, my editor had a selection of pork products served on a bed of sauerkraut. The fermented cabbage was delicious, however, the barrage of pork was not. Underwhelmed by our mains, we couldn’t help but think that if we had spent a little more cash at a finer restaurant we would have enjoyed the traditional fare Troyes had to offer.
Regardless of the negatives, I wouldn’t discount another visit to this tranquil, rural French city. I would, however, only return with a wallet full of cash and the promise of a fine hotel.