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.
is the major “un-dreary” exception to this rule, mainly because most of its architecture was created before Paris became so pre-eminent.
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?)
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.
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 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.
Provins’s Old Town brims over with remnants of the medieval trade infrastructure: featuring buildings such as La Grange Aux Dimes, an ancient warehouse …
. .. and the Croix d’Or, officially the oldest hotel in France. Its facade was built in – and has been unchanged since – the 13th century.
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.
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 …
… 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.)
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).
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