Pretty Provins

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Day Trip from Paris

If you have ever visited a major city anywhere around the world, you will be familiar with the problem: metropolises produce such enormous fields of economic and intellectual gravity that they tend to hoover up anything of cultural interest in their immediate and even not-quite-so immediate neighbourhoods.

For centuries, the question for people with the means and the taste to create something interesting has always been: why not create it in the place where all of your peers are going about their business and where, in all likelihood, they have built their interesting “somethings”?

So, unless you are the sort of person who, out of sheer spite, would pick the worst possible and most remote place for his project (a Sun King, in other words), in France, Paris is pretty much it.

This explains why, specifically since the French Revolution, relatively little of merit has been created in the area around Paris. And why much of that part of France, which is most directly affected by the Parisian field of cultural gravity – the so-called “banlieue”, is often so dreary.

Pretty Provins

is the major “un-dreary” exception to this rule, mainly because most of its architecture was created before Paris became so pre-eminent.

"The medieval town of pretty Provins near Paris"

In the 10th century, Provins counted 80,000 inhabitants, roughly equivalent to the population of Paris (today, the score is roughly 6 million to 10,000). Then and now, tourism was Provins’s main industry. But while today most people you will meet in the streets are day-trippers from Paris, in Provins’s medieval heyday, they would have been people on business.

Provins, after all, was famous as the main medieval market town in the entire area.

Lives in the Middle Ages were nasty, brutish and short, and the social climate was much more violent than it is today. (I wonder who the cultural pessimists of the day would have been blaming for that. Wandering minstrels, perhaps?)

"Medieval stones by a city wall in pretty Provins near Paris"

Medieval stones

As a consequence, merchants – more than anything else – needed someone to protect them and their transactions, and the powerful Counts of Champagne (who resided near Provins) made it their business to do exactly that.

"Part of the ramparts of the medieval part of pretty Provins now"

The city walls, started in their present shape in 1226, not only provided safety from outlaws and bandit: perhaps even more importantly, they were designed to advertise the fact that they could.

"The Tour Cesar of Provins near Paris

Tour Cesar

The contemporary Tour Cesar, the town’s landmark building, was nominally built to provide protection, but was considered, even at the time, to be rather “weak” in that respect, as even the official tourism brochure admits with disarming frankness. PR, it seems, was invented long before the 20th century.

"La Grange Aux Dimes in Provins near Paris"

La Grange Aux Dimes

Provins’s Old Town brims over with remnants of the medieval trade infrastructure: featuring buildings such as La Grange Aux Dimes, an ancient warehouse …

"Medieval hostel Croix d’Or"

Croix d’Or

. .. and the Croix d’Or, officially the oldest hotel in France. Its facade was built in – and has been unchanged since – the 13th century.

"The church of Saint Quiriace in Provins near Paris:

Saint Quiriace

Saint Quiriace, built to replace an even older monastery church, was planned on a monumental scale in the 12th century and abandoned around 100 years after when the money ran out. The until then “open” nave was only closed off in the 16th century – with the austere and unadorned facade you can still see today.

"An old timber framed house in Provins near Paris"

Most of the timber-framed residential buildings in the Old Town date – by the looks of it – from the 15th and 16th centuries, when the town must have already been in decline. (The decline of Provins started in earnest when the Counts of Champagne lost their status as semi-independent warlords in 1316.) But they still look picturesque …

"Downtown Provins near Paris"

Downtown Provins

… particularly when combined with a floral background or foreground. (Flowers are everywhere in Provins. The town administration must have a higher florists’ bill than Elton John.)

"Timber framed houses in Provins"

Trains from Paris (Gare de l’Est) leave hourly and are not too expensive (Pretty Provins is still part of the suburban RER network – Zone 6) but take a whopping 84 minutes. You can easily spend the best part of a day here (there is also a lively downtown area with cafés and restaurants).

Shame about the hiking, however.


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10 comments to Pretty Provins

  • It is, Andrea, and it’s so near Paris, perfect for day out.

  • This is another town I’ve wanted to visit for ages. It looks so adorable!

  • Calogero

    I like these flowers and monuments in Provins!

  • What a charming town! I love its history and all the unique architecture around it. That Tour Cesar looks so neat perched up there. I would loe to visit this as a Paris day trip. Beautiful pictures!

  • amy hume

    Thanks for the new information. With limited time i constantly have when in France, i may never get to this place but will add to the list.

  • What a scenic little city or suburb. Looks like it could be a village in Normandy or Alsace.

  • I’m sold on Provins and would love to visit one day. . . probably not for the hiking though! I’m a sucker for medieval villages and like Jeff, they make me weak in the knees. Thanks for enlightening me!

  • Like Jeff, I had never heard about Provins and would not have expected to find such a lovely old medieval town close to Paris.

    Thanks for sharing this article. I love discovering new places and it’s a pity that too often big capitals overshadow nearby awesome smaller towns.

  • What a wonderful tour through Provins! I have never heard of it until now…in love with all the medieval fortresses and the timber-frame architecture (makes me weak in the knees!). Gorgeous photos my friends!

  • Quite the different path for those two cities. Provins looks quite beautiful, but I guess I don’t really understand medieval protection as the Tour Cesar looks pretty solid to me!

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