Visiting Troyes, or “You had me at half-timbered.”

In a previous post, I discussed one of the best ways to stretch your travel dollars in Europe: visiting “second” cities, the somewhat less-traveled metropolises that allow you to experience a country’s culture and sights without the huge crowds and high prices of its capital cities. 

Here’s one to consider adding to your list: Troyes (pronounced “twah,” like the French number three) in the Champagne region of France.

If you’ve never heard of Troyes, don’t feel bad: neither had I until a recent road trip out of Paris. Even our Parisian friends looked puzzled when I mentioned Troyes, perhaps because this small city is best known today for its outlet stores.

But Troyes is well worth a visit, particularly if you like medieval old towns with narrow cobblestone streets and half-timbered buildings, or fascinating one-of-a-kind museums, plus a rather excessive number of Gothic churches. (One source says there are 11, another six, but I only visited three before I’d had my fill of stained glass, sad-eyed statuary and worn-away ledgerstones, those tomb coverings set in the floors of old churches.)

Troyes used to be an important trade center in the Middle Ages and standardized the unit of measure known as the troy ounce. It was also a big-enough deal in the art world that there is a “School of Troyes” style of painting and sculpture (featured in one of those museums I just mentioned).

But unlike other French cities, which grew and eventually knocked down most of their half-timbered construction, Troyes entered a long economic slump. As a result, its old town still has hundreds of these old buildings to see and explore. 

One of the prettiest – with a huge inner courtyard and a turret – is the Hôtel de Mauroy, which houses one of the coolest museums I’ve ever seen: Maison de l’Outil et de la Pensée Ouvrière. Translated, that’s the “house of tools and workers’ thought.”

Who cares about tools? I don’t, much, but I spent a couple of fascinating hours looking at thousands of hand-made tools from the 17th and 18th centuries collected by a 20th Century Jesuit priest. The museum offers a handy printed guide as well as an audio guide which I’m sure are chock-full of great info about the workers and trades who used these tools. I was content just to look at the beautifully lit, artistically arranged display cases – including one with dozens of hand trowels arranged like schools of fish. 

Other must-sees include a stained glass museum and a small-but-mighty apothecary museum. Turns out the pharmacists of old relied on stuff like ground-up mummies and the skulls of men who died violently to cure the ailments of the living. Also, check out Ruelle des Chats or “cat alley,” a lane where the half-timbered buildings nearly touch, making it easy for cats to hop from one rooftop to the next.

Troyes is about two hours south of Paris by car or train. I stayed in the central, historic Best Western Premier Hotel de la Poste and Spa, which I highly recommend. 

Do you have another “second city” to recommend? Please do so in the comments below. Thanks!

Europe on a budget: The best affordable hotel chains

If you’re a frequent traveler in the U.S., you probably have a favorite affordable hotel chain. It’s the one you book when you don’t want to spend a fortune for a single night but still want a decent experience. (We’re fans of Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express, for example.)

Finding similar options in Europe can be a little daunting, since some of the brands we know and trust don’t exist there. Here are a few to consider for your next trip:

Best Western. I associate Best Westerns with road trips through the American West, but the chain has some terrific properties, often in historic buildings, throughout Europe. My favorite so far: Best Western Premier Hotel de la Poste & Spa, housed in a former post office in Troyes, France. 

My CitizenM room felt like a spaceship pod, in a good way.

CitizenM. This “affordable luxury” chain offers small, well-designed rooms in prime locations. You won’t find bellboys or concierge desks. Instead, there’s a self-serve check-in desk that’s part of a larger “living room” that includes a bar, breakfast buffet and hang-out spaces. I stayed at CitizenM’s Copenhagen hotel, nicely situated on a public transit route near the train station and just steps from the old part of town, including Tivoli Gardens amusement park.

Moxy. This Marriott brand started in the U.S. and spread to Europe, where it emulates some aspects of the CitizenM experience, including compact rooms combined with large common spaces. Moxy locations tend not to be as centrally located as CitizenM’s, but if you need to stay near an airport or don’t mind a little extra travel time from an outlying neighborhood, the savings can be worthwhile.

Ibis Hotels. This is a budget brand from France’s Accor Hotels that you can find throughout Europe. If you need extra room for a family, look for Ibis Styles hotels, which offer slightly larger rooms (and included breakfast). I saw some Ibis hotels in great, central locations and others that were miles away from anywhere most tourists would want to be, so check a map before you book.

All these brands have frequent traveler programs. Best Western and Moxy allow you to book with points you accumulate in the U.S.

Do you have a favorite good-value hotel chain in Europe? Please share your experience in the comments.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to approach buying home insurance for the first time. Also in the news: How to get PrEP with or without insurance, could this be the summer of debt forgiveness, and these credit cards come with sweet airport perks.

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You may be entitled to free health insurance now

The latest coronavirus relief package did more than dole out $1,400 checks. The law also made health insurance free for millions more people and reduced costs for others, at least for now.

The American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed in March, expanded subsidies for people buying their own insurance on Affordable Care Act exchanges. In addition, anyone who receives unemployment benefits this year can qualify for zero-premium health insurance through the exchanges, regardless of income.

In my latest for the Associated Press, find out if you qualify for free health insurance.