Following the footsteps of the mythical Knights Templar
Updated: Mar 30
After Vendeuvre-sur-Barse in north central France, but before you get to Géraudot, there’s a right turn down a forest road called Temple Way, in reference to the path’s namesake.
From the 12th century, these powerful warrior-monks protected pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land and funded the kingdom of Jerusalem until the King of France, Philippe IV, in a difficult financial position and in conflict with the Pope, brought a sudden end to their functions.
Their founder, Hugues de Payns, was a lord from the Champagne area, explaining their strong presence in this area of France, where they established twenty-two commanderies (monasteries attached to landed estates).
There were several more Templars commanderies to the east of Troyes, in the Orient Forest, which is part of the Der Forest (from the Gaulish word for oak). It stretched from the Marne river to the gates of the capital of the Champagne region until clearing by the Romans divided it in two.
Around the middle of the 13th century, these forests were coveted by barons, village dwellers, and religious groups since they provided all kinds of resources. They were a source of wood for the growing cities, which needed it for construction and in the pottery and iron industries. Through a system of royal charter, farmers gathered firewood and used the lands for grazing.
Temple Way takes you into a part of the Orient Forest that is known as "Templars’ Forest" after it was sold to the Templars in 1255 by the Durnay lords from the Vendeuvre region. Spanning 1,200 hectares, it was the largest forested area controlled by the Templars in the West.
After two kilometers, the road reaches a car park in a clearing which is the starting point of a well-marked circuit of approximately 5 km. It’s an easy walk as long as you’ve got good walking boots. There are eleven wooden information signs marking the way and in between are smaller signs with hands clearly indicating which direction to go.
The signage system was put in place by François Gilet and Valérie Alanièce, two local history experts who have dedicated part of their lives to the Templars, compiling archives, working on scholarly projects and surveying and charting this section of the forest. Part of their research has been to unearth traces of the Bazin Lodge, an isolated Templar commandery once surrounded by a dozen hectares of lands, forests and four small dams, which are now empty.
The trees in these forests are now under protection since the area was returned to the state during the French Revolution. Nature walkers will love this area with its wild deer, dragonflies and wild orchids.
It’s a great spot for history lovers too, even though, as Valérie Alanièce warns, “there were massive changes to the site in the 19th century when the state forest department, the ONF, came through to lay new forest roads".
Following the track marked out by the signs, walkers will come across ditches and earth walls (rudimentary ramparts which would have had fences on top and were used as animal enclosures), as well as the remains of the dam walls built by the Templars.
Near the fourth panel is the residential area of the Bazin Lodge. Spread across two hectares are scores of pieces of brick and tile under a carpet of undergrowth and dead leaves. “The buildings were vast," says François Gilet.
There wouldn’t have been any treasure hidden in the smaller commanderies like the Bazin Lodge, contrary to the legend that emerged in the 19th century spreading the idea that there are forgotten treasures still to be found buried around Templar sites.
“The monks themselves lived very austere lives and handed over all profits to the central Order. The crusades were expensive to run and the commanderies were expected to work with the greatest efficiency,” François Gilet and Valérie Alanièce tell me.
At the end of the circuit, I hop in the car for Payns, north of Troyes in the Seine Valley, a short drive away. It was the fiefdom of Hugues de Payns and the seat of the first Templar commandery. It had a chapel and numerous outbuildings and was the center of a vast sheep-farming operation.
In 1998, 708 pieces of gold, forged between 1035 and 1240 were discovered in a field. This led to archeological excavations during which the foundations of the commandery were found.
The coins are on show in the museum, which was set up and is run by Thierry Leroy and a group of enthusiastic volunteers. There is a scale model of the Payns commandery as it would have stood and a 20-minute documentary film detailing the history of the Knights Templar.
To see some astonishingly well-preserved commandery buildings, head to Avalleur, to the south of Troyes. This was one of the Order’s wealthiest sites. It was founded in 1167 with donations from the Count of Bar and expanded over subsequent years. François Gilet and Valérie Alanièce used to live very nearby and it was here that they caught the "Templar bug".
Their curiosity was piqued, and they started researching. Three years later, they published their first book, written in French, Les Templiers et leurs commanderies: l’exemple d’Avalleur en Champagne. Without them and their supporters, it is unlikely that these buildings would have been restored.
When the Templars were suddenly outlawed, they entrusted their estates to the Order of Saint John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller. In the 16th century, the Order largely rebuilt the buildings, but many medieval objects and artifacts were discovered too.
Like the declaration given at the trial of Chrétien de Bissey, the last head of the Avalleur commandery, this site provides unique and irreplaceable testimony of the Order of the Temple.