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Provins: A day trip from Paris into the past
Fall activities in Paris abound, as the city fully embraces the atmosphere of la rentrée with the debut of cultural events, expositions, and festivals. If, however, you’re looking for a detour from the capital to take in the natural splendor of fall, France Today magazine suggests heading to medieval Provins, a veritable time capsule of Middle Ages culture and architecture, about 80 kilometers southeast of Paris.
Geographically situated at a commercial crossroads, Provins was one of only three towns in the Champagne region of France to host regular trade fairs in 13th century. Thousands of merchants and traders visited the territory from Flanders, the Mediterranean, and beyond during their fairs taking place in spring and autumn.
In the early 14th century, however, the success of Provins as a trade town diminished due to plague, war, and the popularization of sea trade. Instead of fully modernizing to keep up with the times, the town lay dormant for some time, subsisting within its protective ramparts. The streets were already wide enough to accommodate the stalls of local merchants, so although some eventual modernization did take place, many medieval buildings remained and Provins became what is now a charming medieval time capsule.
Fast forward to the 21st century, when Provins began to truly flourish once more, gaining UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001 as one of the best preserved medieval cities in France. At the height of the Champagne Fair prosperity of the 13th century, the population of Provins was around 15,000 people. Although Provins is now home to about 13,000 people in its Upper and Lower sections combined, seasonal tourism greatly increases the populace, especially in June when the town plays host the largest fête médiévale in France.
For 2 days, huts and tents are set up at the foot of the ramparts around the city. Here you can participate in games such as shuffleboard and ninepins, watch demonstrations by leather-workers and seamstresses, listen to live medieval music, and be entertained by acrobats, jesters, re-enactors, and visitors in medieval dress. A one-day ticket costs €11 for adults, with two-day tickets at €15. If you dress up in period costume, however, you pay only €5 for a one-day ticket and €6 for a two-day ticket. Children under 12 get in free.
Although 2018’s festival has come and gone, the historic medieval energy of this town still lives on throughout the year. Wander along quiet, cobblestone streets, take in the ancient architecture, explore historic monuments at leisure, and enjoy the live shows without the crowds.
First stop: Hit the Visitor’s Center at the main entrance to the Upper Town for brochures in English and for more information about events and guided tours. A labeled map also proposes three color-coded walking routes based on time, lasting from 90 minutes to about three and a half hours, all punctuated with information panels.
Unbroken ramparts still surround the town on two sides and visitors coming from the main parking lot will pass through Saint Jean’s Gate (Porte Saint-Jean), positioned between two towers. Head straight down rue Saint-Jean and you’ll see the Tithe Barn (La Grange aux Dimes), a typical Provins-style home once serving as a covered market during the Champagne Fairs. Today, mannequins demonstrate the activities that would have taken place here – the money-changer, the Italian and Flemish merchants, and the Provins wool merchants – while in the the vaulted cellar visitors can witness trades such as pottery, stone-cutting and quarrying.
There are over 160 underground rooms in the Upper Town, several of which are open to the public. Le Roy Lire is a medieval bookshops specializing in history books located beneath rue de Jouy, accessible by a steep, centuries-worn staircase. Shop-owner, Maxime Flon, can guide you to the English section if needed.
Further along the street, on the main market square, Place du Châtel, Le Chemin de Champagne boasts a unique selection of interior decor and garden objects in a beautiful vaulted cellar. To see more underground galleries or to visit the 12th-century hospital for the poor, be sure to ask the Tourist Office about guided tour times.
After your decorative detour, walk through the square toward the unmissable Cesar’s Tower (Tour César), a 12th-century watchtower offering panoramic views of the town and the surrounding countryside. Look out for the dome of the Saint Quiriace Collegiate Church to the southeast. A short walk from la Tour César, this 17th-century church was never completed, as it proved too costly a project under the reign of Philippe le Bel.
From the church, walk downhill to the Lower Town, but turn off along rue des Jacobins during the summer months to visit La Roseraie de Provins (The Rose Garden of Provins). Here you can relax among the perfumed buds and take in the views leading back up the hill to the medieval skyline. La Roseraie also contains an exhibition room, outlining the history and varieties of roses, as well as a tea room and a shop specializing in all things rose, in particular, the Rose of Provins, which was brought to the region by Count Thibaut IV from the Crusades in 1240. Thibaut allegedly cultivated the flower on the land around his castle, and over the years the species grew to emblematically represent the town.
A seasoned rider and beloved poet, Thibaut is prominently featured in the live equestrian show, The Legend of the Knights. Join Thibaut IV and Blanche of Castile as they celebrate Thibaut’s return from the Crusades, only to be threatened, of course, by the terrible Torvark and his warriors. Expect stunt riding, dressage, and cavalcades beneath the ramparts. Or think about viewing The Age of the Ramparts, where the Lord of Provins and his knights demonstrate the weapons and techniques of medieval warfare. If this doesn’t quite suit your fancy, The Eagles of the Ramparts show just might do the trick. An exquisite display of medieval falconry, this production features stunning birds of prey in an aerial ballet, all taking place beneath the magical backdrop of the town’s remparts. After the show, be sure to visit the aviary.
Live-action medieval shows take place between mid-March and early November. Check the town’s website before travel for specific seasonal timetables. Adults €12; children 4-12 €8.
Créneaux Chocolat, 4 rue de la Citadelle. Handmade ice creams, sorbets, and chocolates, including the town’s speciality, Rose of Provins.
Le Roy Lire, 9 rue de Jouy. Medieval bookshop specializing in history books. Open daily from April to December, from Tuesdays to Sundays in winter.
La Ronde des Abeilles, 3 rue des Beaux Arts. Your one-stop shop for all things honey and rose. Open from 1:30 PM to 7 PM, closed Tuesday.
Making the most of Provins
Think about purchasing the Provins Pass Card, which gives entry to the four key monuments of the town – César’s Tower, the Underground Galleries, the Tithe Barn and the Museum – as well as discounts on medieval shows, the Tourist Train, and la Roseraie. The pass is valid for one year and gives the holder one entry into each attraction. Adults, €12; children 4-12, €8.50; or Family Pass (2+2), €35.50.
If you need a rest from all your walking, why not enjoy the guided 30-minute tour on the Tourist Train? The train runs daily from May through August, and on weekends and public holidays outside the summer season. Adults, €6.50 (€5.90 with Pass Card); children €4.50 (€4.10).
Where to Stay
Le César Hôtel, 13 rue de Sainte-Croix. Tel: +33 1 60 52 05 20. Boutique hotel in the lower town, 5 minutes from the train station and a short uphill walk to medieval centre. Breakfast only.
Aux Vieux Remparts, 3 rue Couverte. Tel: +33 1 64 08 94 00. Within the medieval town. Hotel restaurant (L’Esquisse), a spa, and a local produce shop.
Where to Eat
Hostellerie de la Croix d’Or, 1 rue des Capucins. Tel: +33 1 64 00 01 96 email: [email protected] The oldest restaurant in France still in service, housed in a 13th-century building classified as a Historic Monument. Closed Sunday evenings, Monday and Tuesday.
Le Petit Écu, 9 place du Châtel. Tel: +33 1 08 95 00. Traditional French cuisine in 15th-century beamed property on the main square.
For information on other heritage attractions in Seine-et-Marne: www.lesparisplus.com