Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Medieval France: Provins

I’m thankful to Violette-Anne Onfroy-Curley who recommended I take a day trip to Provins instead of Troyes or Tours. This town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has embraced and is using its many medieval homes and restored cellars to build a thriving tourist trade. 

I’m sure I probably wouldn’t like it during a festival, and I didn’t go to one of the weekly shows, but the town itself is worth a visit any time.  If you like crowds, find the festivals and shows.  If not, go on a quiet weekday like I did. 

The train strike meant that I had to take a bus to Provins, and the drive through the little villages and wheat fields was a lovely antidote to a week and a half in the city.  The bus drops you right outside a tourist shop, with many of the less academic medieval books for sale including some of the lovely books illustrated with medieval miniatures.  

The wall that surrounds Provins was built in the twelfth century. As you enter the city from the tourist center, you enter through one of the original gates.  The tourist center has maps with specific walks through the town, and most walks lead to four fee-based sites that you can buy a pass for at the tourist center.  In the first site, the Tithe barn, the audio guide gives detailed information on the Champagne fairs in the twelfth century that funded the development of Provins before eventually giving way to fairs in larger metropolitan areas like Paris.  It provides details on trade and craftsmanship as well as about the management of money and people at a large medieval fair . 
The tithe barn itself has vaulted ceiling both on the ground floor and in the basement, and the basement guide includes details on medieval quarries that were sometimes located underneath towns.

The number of half timbered houses in town is quite remarkable, and the timbers are visible, so though Provins was a bustling town, that they didn’t plaster over the timbers speaks possibly to less wealth than in places like Paris where plastering over the wood was a way to show your wealth and status.  Downtown, I was lucky to come across a home that was being restored, and later during my walk, I met a man who actually invited me into his wood and plaster home and showed me the progress of the restoration work he and his wife had taken on their charming home forty years ago.

The tower in Provins is another lovely stop.  Unlike the donjon at Vincennes, this tour took me all the way up to the bell keep, full of pigeons and their requisite byproducts.  The bell in the tower still rings, and it chimed while I stepped carefully around the pigeon puddles.  The fortified tower had murder holes and multi function rooms. 

The views over the fields and old houses in the village were worth the somewhat treacherous climbs to the top.

It's possible to walk along much of the old wall from both outside and inside the city, and walking along beyond the canal, I found a lonely stretch where little cut outs in the wall for wells and old gates were visible.  Someone laid these stones eight hundred years ago, and they are still here. Living in the US, there isn't often this deep sense of history unless I visit first nation sites, so I always find these old walls moving. I often stop just to rest my hand against the wall. 

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