WORDS BY Trevor Bevins

INCREDULOUS is the only word which seems to apply to my previous lack of knowledge about the historic French town of Troyes and the Aube en Champagne region.

Half-timbered buildings can be found about the planet, but seldom so many well-preserved in one place…and yet I had never heard of this historic town, which by some miracle escaped most of the mass fires which devastated so many others.

It has the look and feel of an affluent town, as it has been in history, with its earlier importance coming from the wool and textile trade and its connections with the Knights Templar and champagne. It was, and still is, an important cultural and artistic centre – with its fine buildings and many churches.

This place buzzes – the shopping streets and pavement cafes are lively. We walked for miles and still did not see much of it, but what we did see impressed.

The tourist office, almost alongside the ornate town hall, offer leaflets and maps a plenty and can put you in touch with guides offering walking tours of this compact town, where seemingly rickety buildings lean into each other across a maze of streets and alleyways.

You can find Romanesque and Gothic churches with sculpture like you may have seldom come across before and in one, Mary Madeleine, what seems like the complete works of the Bible in stained glass. Look up and around and you are sure to spot dozens of the most famous stories – to help tell the stories which most, at the time of its making, would not have been able to read.

Also here you will find a great selection of places to eat.

One which is worth the effort of seeking out, off one of the narrow back streets close to the centre, is Le Valentino. As the name suggests a romantic spot for an evening meal with its courtyard setting and fine food courtesy of owners Claudine and Gilles André.

As in many places in France presentation is a big part of the meal and here they know just how to hit the spot between impressive and not too showy. Taste, needless to say, matches the delight of the eye.

And a taste you almost certainly won’t have tried before, is Prunelle de Troyes, a liquer produced only in Troyes and made from the stones of the blackthorn since 1840 at the Cellier Saint-Pierre. After our guided tour with the owner, Alexandre Krumenacher, I just had to buy a bottle, one of 13,000 produced ever year.

Our stay in Troyes was bang in the centre at the former Post Office, now converted to a boutique town centre hotel, the Best Western Hôtel de la Poste & Spa. It has private parking, a short distance away, although I confess that it took a couple of circuits to find it, having once just overshot by yards, and then having to complete the one-way circuit yet again!

Less than an hour away is tranquil rural France in the shape of the Aube en Champagne region where most of the growers are small, and, it seems, often related to one another.

Our host Lucie Cheurlin gave us a tour of her family business, which dates back five generations, often joking about how grandfather, now in his 80s, would often pop along just to see how things are going – and to ensure the family traditions of fine champagne making are continued.

But while tradition is being upheld the younger generations are not afraid to try new things and this particular family business is moving rapidly towards organic production, not an easy task, but one which is paying off with buyers all over the world because of it.

I need not tell you the tasting session was enjoyable – it is surprising how different champagne, even from one, small grower, can be depending on grape mix, which vineyard the grapes came from and which year.

In Essoyes you can find the holiday home belonging to painter Renoir. He came because he liked it, but also because his wife was born here. His favourite model, Gabrielle, came from the village and was a nanny to his children.

EU money has helped put his former home and a fine visitor centre on the map and in the nearby cemetery you can find his grave with a splendid bust of him and a separate grave for his wife who lies with her mother, rather than her husband. And there is a hint at one of the many stories about Renoir.

Our guide for this visit turned out to be English. Chris and his family came to the area years ago, fell in love with it and stayed. He certainly knows a lot about the artist and was eager to answer questions. Today the centre offers traditional leaflets and also an app’ which will guide you around the village and the story or Renoir’s life. The visitor centre itself runs a film of the story at frequent intervals in English.

And alongside the visitor centre you will find a champagne shop which offers tastings, including a champagne named after Gabrielle. All delicious, of course, and run by a local co-operative of growers.

Good accommodation and food can be had nearby in a recently extended and modernised building, Au Cœur des Bulles at Loches-Sur-Ource. You might have thought the couple behind this were taking a risk but the restaurant was full, mainly with local people, mid-week - testimony enough. But locals also have a vested interest, the whole village joined together to breathe new life into the its old hotel.

For a set menu lunch the food was outstanding – the cheese souffle starter just about my favourite dish of the whole trip. Cooked to perfection and looking a treat.

Overnight we stayed at a hillside hotel-restaurant just outside the village, Les Damoiselles, in one of the modern additions to the building – comfortable and with a fine view from our balcony over the village and valley. The fact that our Renoir guide has tried, several times, to book a meal here without success may indicate just how well it is thought of – and the food lived up to expectation, once again well cooked and well-presented.

How pleasant to sit on the balcony afterward, wine in hand, and watch the bats flit across the darkening sky with little else to disturb the tranquil peace of rural France, save the occasional barking dog.

Lovely as the region is, it’s a four hour drive from any of the ports which, depending on your route, will incur around £30 each way in motorway fees – but on the upside it is lovely, the champagne is cheaper and with more variety than offered by the big houses, and the whole area a delight on the eye, and palate. In many ways France at its best.

If you are feeling a bit flush look at investing in P&O’s priority boarding and Club Lounge just to make your trip that little more special. There really is something almost decedent about being one of the first vehicles on the ferry – and one of the first off. The Club Lounge will get you a welcome glass of champagne, with unlimited hot drinks, soft drinks and snacks during the crossing not to mention comfy seats in an un-crowded area and a splendid view.

P&O Ferries’ route between Dover and Calais allows direct travel from England to France and beyond, with just about any vehicle, or as a foot passenger. With up to 23 sailings a day and a journey time of only 1 hour 30 minutes, travelling to the continent is straightforward with prices from £49 each way for a car (up to 9 people)

(Ferry images can be downloaded here: https://adobe.ly/2w4kH4a )

www.poferries.com/‎ tel 01304 353222

Troyes Tourist Office - 16 rue Aristide Briand - 10000 Troyes - More information

Le Valentino - 35 rue Paillot de Montabert - 10000 Troyes - More information

Best Western Premier Hôtel de La Poste & Spa - 35 rue Emile Zola - 10000 Troyes – More information

Cellier Saint-Pierre - 1 place Saint-Pierre - 10000 Troyes - More information

Champagne Richard Cheurlin - 16, rue des Huguenots - 10110 Celles-Sur-Ource – More information

Au Coeur des Bulles - 43-45 rue Général de Gaulle - 10110 Loches-Sur-Ource

+33 (0)3 25 29 10 01 – More information

Du Côté des Renoir - 9 Place de la Mairie - 10360 Essoyes - More information

Boutique la Belle Gabrielle - 7, Place de la Mairie - 10360 Essoyes - More information

Les Demoiselles - 1, rue Pierre Renoir - 10360 Essoyes - More information