With the dog sniffing her way through a now wildflower-filled former moat dwarfed by towering ramparts, I got a crooked neck watching a falcon or possibly an eagle flying overhead checking out its potential lunch. Most say time travel is impossible, but I dare to call the bluff of those unbelievers. This journey was it, a step back in time, complete with a dog who was oblivious to the attention she was receiving from above.
An Easy Day Trip From Paris
Less than 50 miles southeast of Paris, or about an hour’s drive — slightly more on the train from Paris’s Gare de l’Est — among the rolling fields of the Île de France, surrounded by swaying cornfields and endless sunflower expanses, lies the fortified town of Provins. Its ramparts looking nearly untouched since they were built between the 11th and 13th centuries.
Provins is practically unknown, with tourists interested in medieval fortifications more likely heading for the better-known places such as Carcassonne in the southwest of France. Yet, here was this small town, nearly completely surrounded by enormous ramparts that look even more imposing because of the tiny settlement they contain, on the doorstep of Paris and offering an easy-to-reach opportunity to time-travel to those who dare approach.
Medieval Festival Riches
Back in the 1300s, Provins was one of the most important towns in France. Its medieval fairs brought together international traders, jousting knights, lyre-playing musicians, and entertainers of all sorts, and the fairs regularly took over the entire town. Provins was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status because the town was built specifically with medieval fairs in mind, designed to accommodate tents and displays, with squares where businesses and merriment had enough space to flourish and ensure everyone left Provins the richer for it.
Back in its heyday, Provins squeezed some 80,000 inhabitants into the walled settlement, while today some 12,000 people still live and work here, if not all in the old part. Most of the town spills down the hill on one side, leaving two aspects: Ville Basse or the lower town, which despite its history dating to the 9th century, is the more modern aspect of the town of Provins, and Ville Haute, the upper town, known as medieval Provins.
Exploring The Town
Let’s assume that you, like me, arrive at Ville Haute Tourist Information, and, after sorting your tickets and getting a map, will walk along the Chemin du Villecran toward the Port St. Jean city gate. From here you get the first great look at the ramparts and, to the right, the entrance to the events space where medieval reenactments and birds of prey shows take place. The dog and I took the turn to the left, heading out along the upper path past the cemetery and returning below in the former moat for some initial impressions of the sheer scale of the ramparts. Walking past the endless fields is lovely, and you will be tempted to keep going, as it is easy to forget that you have come to look inside the ramparts, not just at the lovely countryside.
Once through the gate, you will continue along Rue Saint-Jean and you’ll start noticing more and more half-timbered houses, filled with small artisan shops, restaurants, and cafes. Turn right into Rue Couverte and head to Place du Chatel, the main square, often filled with a market. It’s no longer quite as glamorous as a medieval fair must have been, but still lovely. Depending on what time you arrive, this is a perfect place for a spot of lunch or a coffee. I can highly recommend the savory galettes at La Fleur De Sel.
From here onward, it’s best to “get lost,” as every little lane is as picturesque as the next. You’ll come across many small and larger squares and pretty cottages, and before long, find yourself at the Tour de Cesar. This sturdy 12th-century dungeon was named for the folklore that suggests Provins dates to Roman times and the tall tower was built by, and named after, Julius Caesar. Sadly, despite the name, there is no evidence that Julius Caesar ever visited the little town. The interesting Museum of Provins is just next door to the tower.
For keen photographers and lovers of cute cottages, don’t miss Rue Jean Desmarets, which is perfect for those social media shots. Equally, the old Tithe Barn and the Saint-Ayoul Priory are well-worth visiting and photographing.
Leave some time for a walk along the ramparts. While you cannot walk around the entire old town anymore, climbing up to the walkway allows you to explore the 22 remaining towers along the wall and bemoan the fact that, reportedly, there were some 5,000 towers back in the 1300s. If you visit in July, chances are you will spot countless bright yellow sunflower fields around the town from your vantage point.
From above the medieval center to below it, Provins also harbors some medieval tunnels, whose origins are still a mystery today. Suggestions are that the rock was tunneled out from underneath the town for building purposes, and later used as refuges, storage for goods during the fairs, and even places of worship. If indeed you are there in the summer, they also offer a cool reprieve from the sightseeing above.
If you do have time, visit the “new town” of Provins, which offers plenty of history, and a beautiful bookstore in a half-timbered building. The Rose Garden, which is at its best in summer and lies between the lower and the higher town, is perfect for a breather.
Need To Know
If you are arriving from Paris by train, you will arrive in the lower town and will face either a steep climb up to the medieval center, or you can hop on the shuttle that waits outside for the train from Paris. Alternatively, you can drive and park by the (higher) tourism office, or take an organized tour from Paris for ease of logistics and ticketing.
In the tourist office, you can buy a variety of tickets: from simple entry to the town’s main sites to guided tours, all-inclusive tickets that also take in the tunnels, and medieval shows.
If you want to explore the upper town without exhausting yourself, there is a little tourist train which takes you around and offers commentary in English, saving you a lot of legwork.
Pro Tip: Provins is the perfect choice for a day trip from Paris, but you could easily pop across to Fontainebleau, a mere 35 miles west, and turn this into a two-day excursion.
France is filled with adorable villages and small towns and cities: