Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Travelling Back in Time to Medieval Provins

The Routard guide's description of Provins, a medieval town located 90km from Paris on the regional border between the Ile-de-France and Champagne-Ardenne, is an exercise in creating inflated expectations. Admittedly, we didn't follow the instructions to approach the town from the ville haute in order to "experience the shock of entering without any transition into the Middle Ages". We took the Transilien train from Paris-Est, then walked up from the station, meaning that our first views of the old town were set against the backdrop of the D619, a few block-shaped apartment buildings and a BUT furniture warehouse, all prosaic reminders that we do actually live in the 21st century.
View from the Tour César. You can't quite see But and the main road in this picture.

Nevertheless, we had a lovely day in Provins. The sun was out for what seemed like the first time since last October, and we were far enough from Paris to almost feel as if we were on holiday but without the inconvenience of having to book a hotel, pack a suitcase, or even pay a train fare. (Provins is the final stop in Zone 5 of the Transilien network, so you can go there for free on a de-zoned Navigo pass.)

We started by climbing the Tour César, an octagonal tower whose building was begun by the English during the Hundred Years War and which was mainly used as a prison. After that, we walked out to the Porte St Jean and climbed up to the ramparts to admire the view of hoards of children setting out on an Easter egg hunt that was being organised by the tourist office. In Paris, this could have been the beginning of a nightmare scenario for two adults hoping for a tranquil day trip, but in Provins there was space for everyone and everybody seemed calmer somehow.

The Place du Châtel from the tower. Look closely and you might see the old well enthroned in a circle of lime trees among the superb residences which surround it ... or you might just see some spindly branches and old, pretty houses.
We ate lunch at a terrible crêperie at the end of the Place du Châtel, where the dry galettes served with a blob of margarine on top were somewhat offset by the pretty terrace and the view of the square. One prime source of entertainment was a clown giving rides to children on a bicycle with a toy horse that they could sit on attached to the front. The kids' wore expressions of pure joy and the clown himself genuinely seemed almost as happy as they were.

We finished our day in Provins with a look around the Collégiale Saint-Quirice and a stroll out to the Porte de Jouy. With more time, we would probably have visited a couple of the museums and maybe gone to see one of the shows, and I'd also like to go back when the medieval festival is on, but we left satisfied with our visit, despite the best efforts of Le Guide du Routard to set us up for disappointment.


  1. Sorry that the crêpes were not à la hauteur!

    I know exactly what you mean, sometime travel guides built up expectations and when you get there you wonder what the big deal is about. I felt like this about a few places... including Carnac in France. Oh, and most of Thailand, but this may be just me.

    Glad you still enjoyed it. You're wise enough to make the most of what could have been a disappointment!

  2. I normally use Rough Guides or Lonely Planet, which if anything tend to err on the cynical side. Clearly Le Routard is a bit more optimistic!