Travel Drinking: France - An ancient city with plenty of fizz

Capital of France's Champagne region, Troyes' appeal lies in its medieval buildings and its famous drink. By Ray Kershaw
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Along the canyon-like alley of the rue Champeaux, meaty aromas drifted enticingly from the suckling pig roasting outside the Tavern of the Bears. Every building in view was 14th-century or earlier; crooked half-timbered mansions bulged at strange angles against a floodlit skyline of ancient belfries and steeples. But while the setting was unmistakably medieval northern Europe, the place Alexandre Israel, jammed with restaurant tables, had the buzz of a Mediterranean resort.

"Astonish yourself!" the tourist-office brochure had hopefully exhorted. "Visitez Troyes." And, as we sipped our glasses of free champagne, for once the reality was matching the claim. Troyes is four hours drive from the Channel ports, and most British visitors whiz past southwards on the A26.

But inside its inner ring road you discover one of Europe's most historic cities, with a greater concentration of medieval buildings than Canterbury, Chester and York combined. Its special charm is its lived-in, slightly fraying-at-the-edges quality; looking every year its age, so far it has been spared from being overly tarted up.

The ancient capital of Champagne, with Gallo-Roman roots, Troyes asserts its stake in the region's vinous fame by assuming the sobriquet "le bouchon de champagne" - the champagne cork - from the supposed resemblance of the old city's conformation to that jollity-evoking fungiform item.

While it may appear so to flying birds, the strained contrivance is superfluous. For though it is not a wine city like Epernay or Reims, with the effervescent tipple its ubiquitous aperitif at Fr10 a coup, you are clearly in Champagne. And for showing visitors a good time, the city drubs its stuffier northern neighbours.

Troyes has three medieval districts. The Quartier de la Cite is surrounded like an island by the Seine and a canal that lend parts of it a vaguely Venetian look. For hundreds of years it has carried the weight of the huge cathedral of St Peter and St Paul.

With 1,300 square metres of 13th-century glass - more than any church in France - its interior glows like a reservoir of light.

Yet the building is swathed too in a medieval mist of legend and lore, in stories of the Holy Grail and the mysterious Knights Templar.

Troyes is, indeed, the very womb of Arthurian romance. Lancelot and Percival and other all-time favourites made their first public appearance here in the chronicles of the 12th-century poet Chretien de Troyes, by way of bedtime reading for the court of the Countess Marie de Champagne. But did the Grail ever pass this way? In 1128 the order of the Knights Templar, its traditional custodians, was certainly recognised officially in the cathedral by the Synod of Troyes. The order's secret world headquarters is supposedly hidden somewhere in the depths of the nearby Eastern Forest.

The citizens of Troyes are too down-to-earth to worry much about such things, but sometimes late at night in the lanes near the cathedral there appears to be a palpable sense of the past. For times like these, the bustling place Langevin, with its neon-lit cafes, is near enough for a sobering beer.

Back across the canal, with its gardens and parks, the two other ancient districts - the Quartier Saint Jean and the Quartier de Vauluisant - lie cheek by jowl. There are 13 Gothic churches here, but my instant favourite - for no other reason than its curious shape - is Saint Jean au Marche where, in 1420, Henry V (of Agincourt fame) married Catherine of France, making Troyes English for nine years, until Jeanne d'Arc grabbed it back.

Among the numerous museums, the town hall preserves a 17th-century chemist shop. In a Renaissance mansion, the Museum of Modern Art boasts a collection that, for fans of modern art, would justify the trip, including Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso and Cezanne.

But the city's chief pleasure is in its very un-museum-like, bustling daily life. Bulging with local cheeses and hams, a street market burgeons around the old market hall. In between the cheap cafes, butchers shops display the original recipe andouillettes, Troyes's much-lauded tripe sausages.

Between them, the city's restaurants boast but a single Michelin star, but the ensemble succeeds in seeming tastier than the parts. Many offer robust four-course dinners of local specialities for Fr100.

Troyes may be in Champagne but, like an outpost of Alsace, it is choucroute country, too - the preferred accompaniment for Troyens to the lavish plates of sizzling pork being served as fast as they could carve it outside the Tavern of the Bears.

In the autumn, France holds Les Journees du Patrimoine - Heritage Days - and the Quartier Saint Jean puts on its own Nuit du Patrimoine. Most of the city's residents open their houses, Gothic cellars and courtyards, to give everyone a look, with the tourists sustained on their way by champagne from booths lining the route.

The readiness of people to welcome strangers into their homes, creating in the city's heart a sense of village-like community, is what makes the occasion so special, but Troyes does not need a designated day to celebrate its heritage. At once brash and traditional, it just gets on with living it in the way it always has.

The easiest way to reach Troyes by car is from Calais (see Bargain of the Week for a cheap crossing); by rail, there is an easy connection between Paris Nord, where Eurostar trains arrive, and Paris Est, whence trains for Troyes depart. Rail Europe (0990 848 848) can arrange the whole trip