Provins: The Perfect Medieval Town

Today we visited Provins, a small, historic town around 55 minutes drive from our house. It is one of the best preserved medieval cities in France. Every street corner evokes the splendour of this, the old capital of the Counts of Champagne. In the 12th and 13th centuries these feudal lords defied the Kings of France from their towering ramparts. They introduced a passport system ensuring safe passage across their territory to merchants and because of this Provins became a leading trading point, a centre for fairs. Cloth merchants, money lenders, spice merchants, poets and intellectuals flocked their and made it their home. Heloise and Abalard and the love story of Blanche de Castille and Thibaud, Count of Champagne, known as the balladier are all part of the town. Thibaud was also famous for having brought back the damascus rose from the Crusades. In the 14th century, trade routes changed and the town declined. It returned to being a small, rural town. But this loss of fortune preserved it. Today it is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List with 58 monuments named as of special interest.

The town is split into two halves. The old medieval centre is up the hill, the more modern French town in the valley beneath. We parked up on the edge of the medieval town near the tourist office where I got a map. We then walked in, through a gate into the ramparts. The walls stretched away in both directions, grey stone. Inside the narrow cobbled streets are lined with medieval homes, beamed with wood, covered in ivy and flowers. Really pretty. The whole centre was largely pedestrianised unless you were a resident returning. I don’t know if it was always like that or just at weekends. The latter I think.

The old town very much trades on its medieval past especially at weekends in the summer and on holidays. There are shows of knightly skills – jousting and horse-riding – which can be viewed from the battlements. There are falconry displays. The little shops are uber quaint and there are plenty of restaurants trading on the medieval past. But the town is not some tourist creation. There are people living here, it’s a working town. There are schools and normal shops in this old town area.

We started with a coffee in the Place du Chatel, the little central square that once upon a time held markets. There is a large cross there which was used as the town notice board, notices pinned to it. And also an ancient well. We then took one of the various walking routes printed on the tourist map. Every tiny street was worthy of a painting. The small houses dripping with roses, vines and other flowers. Often houses had two doors, one large, one very small. The small door leads to a cellar of which there are 150 in Provins. These underground rooms are vaulted with decorated columns. They sometimes were used as store rooms during the fairs or as shops themselves.

Towering ahead of us was Caesar’s Tower, Caesar’s Tower is nothing to do with Caesar who never came here. It is a keep built in the 12th Century as a symbol of the Counts of Champagne’s power. It was used as a watch tower, a prison and a bell tower. You can climb to the top for a spectacular view.

We then came to the Saint-Quiriace Collegiate church which was built in the 12th century by Count Henri le Liberal. There were financial difficulties and it was never finished, the dome was buiilt in the 17th century. The stone carvings inside and the stained glass are extremely beautiful. Quiriace is St Cyriac who was martyred in Jerusalem in the 4th century. His story is associated with that of the True Cross. The ties with the Eastern Church are still there with a very interesting exhibition on Eastern Christians. Well worth a visit.

We wandered around, visiting some of the shops and the buildings. Soon enough it was lunch time. The restaurant we intended to eat at was closed but there were plenty of others. We ate at one called Le Dome which is part of the Aux Vieux Remparts Hotel Well worth clicking on the link for the small video which launches the website.

We sat on a very nice outside terrace area covered with umbrellas and surrounded by more flowers – nicotiana, which must be lovely in the evening as the scent is released. It was quiet when we went in but soon became busy. We started off by sharing a platter of delicious charcuterie and then followed with a main. I had steak tartare which was very well seasoned and flavoured. I really enjoyed it. Bob had a chicken caesar salad and Daisy had a faux fillet steak. Every thing came with fries. Very enjoyable and a buzzy atmosphere.

After lunch, we walked around some more and then headed back to the car. Had a quick look at the newer part of town which also looked exquisite and well worth a visit next time round. The town also has many roses perhaps dating back to Thibault. There is a famous rose garden there with many varieties. We drove to it but it was sadly closed for the long lunch break (some things never change about France) and we decided not to wait. Another reason to come back.

On the way home we stopped in the town of Coulommiers in order to pick up some bread and cheese. Coulommiers is a typical market town and it is the centre of the manufacture of the cheese that bears its name. Coulommiers is also known as “little brie”. It is very popular in France, third in popularity to camembert and emmenthal. We found a fabulous fromagerie on the market square and bought a selection, including the famous local cheese and some fabulously runny looking St. Marcellin. They all look and smell amazingly lethal! Daisy is in love with all this cheese and is wolfing it down with loads of bread. I’m not bitter or anything….

Got home at about 4 and felt rather shattered after all our walking. We all had a good nap and then a very light bit of supper of bread, cheese and charcuterie. Another fab day. If you’re spending any time in Paris and are looking for a day out, we would really recommend Provins or Chateau Vaux le Comte where we went yesterday.