On Provins: Gallic roses and the fairs of Champagne

Where and what?

Have you heard of Provins? I hadn’t, unless perhaps it was mentioned in my hearing but, thanks to my still-imperfect grasp of French accents and pronunciation, filed  under references to ‘Provence’. Which may have led to some confusion if we were talking about how to get there, seeing as Provence is in the south of France, about 4 hours by train from Paris, whereas Provins is a mere 1 hour and 25 minutes by the same vehicle.
That’s how I got there, on a beautifully sunny day in late winter that had us all convinced that spring had arrived early (in fact, winter put its bitter claws back into us a week later, so I was intensely glad to have profited from the sunshine).
To start with, let it be said that I wholly recommend the place in general. It’s quite touristy, but in a more quaint and charming way than Paris, and with largely French visitors – although I do my best to harbour no bias to a particular country and the tourists it may produce, it’s still nicest to be surrounded by people of the country you’re actually visiting when you’re sightseeing.
I had the luck to be there on a market day, so even the ‘new’ part of town was bustling with activity as clothes and books and fresh produce spilled abundantly from fold-up tables in the main street while the market hall hosted butchers’ stalls, baked goods and long rows of fish and seafood lying glassy-eyed on their banks of ice cubes. Although Paris has wonderful fresh food markets, I couldn’t help but appreciate the wholesome simplicity of an average small-town Saturday market, free from any pseudo-traditionalism.

What’s there to see?

In terms of sightseeing, I bought a 12 euro Provins Pass which gave me access to everything apparently worth seeing in the old part of town. That includes, specifically, les sousterrains – ‘the underground’ – one-time quarries converted into storage that stretch beneath the town; the town museum, the small fortified tower (la Tour César) and the somewhat kitschy grange aux dimes (tithe barn) which has mocked-up displays of various tradespeople surrounded by their work – weavers, potters, merchants, etc. Each display is accompanied by a short dialogue between the figure and a very conveniently curious 13th century visitor, giving you a basic understanding of the roles the workers played in a medieval context. The audio is easy enough for kids to follow, but still informative enough to be interesting to adults – assuming you don’t happen to be an amateur medieval expert already.

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La Tour César (right) with the dome of St. Quiriace church in background

The town museum is essentially just a collection of oddities related to the area, and reminds me strongly of small-town Aussie museums where they don’t really have enough history in the area to justify a whole museum and try to make up for it by dedicating a room to art-deco bathroom fixtures or some random inhabitant’s family tree. There’s zero coherency to the exhibits, with Neolithic stone fragments displayed beneath a Belle-Epoque era painting of someone-or-other and faced by some wooden Renaissance religious effigies. It seems strange, considering their strong links to medieval history, that there isn’t anything more particularly aimed at vaunting this, but I suspect from the emptiness and lack of information on the displays that this might be due to lack of funding.

A taste of history

The foires de Champagne (Champagne fairs) were 6-8 week long affairs that encompassed practically any and all goods – food, precious metals, livestock, cloth, trinkets, spices, whatever the merchants could find and make a profit on. By decree of Count Thibaut IV de Blois, there were 6 held annually, in 4 different major cities of the region: Troyes, Lagny, Bar-sur-Aube and Provins. The regular influx of visitors served to enrich these host cities, and the authorities began to provide guaranteed, free protection to merchants travelling to the cities in order to ensure that these profitable events continued smoothly. Over the 12th and 13th century, the towns grew in wealth and importance, so it makes sense that is this time from which the major buildings and the town’s fairly extensive ramparts date.
These ramparts, of which more than a kilometre’s length of the original 5km exist, are freely accessible. Following them makes for a pleasant ramble down cobbled roads and grassy lanes, with cultivated fields spreading wide on one side while you gaze over the rooftops of Provins on the other. Being there in the very beginning of spring, I revelled in noticing the first brave blooms of field-flowers along the path, even if the glorious sun that had accompanied me through my visit in the town itself was in the middle of setting.

There’s also plenty of houses from later periods, though, and walking through the town’s cobbled streets provides a reasonably picturesque mix of non-descript buildings that are difficult to place chronologically, and pretty examples of half-timber houses from around the 17th century.

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If you truly fall in love with the town, there’s sure to be a half-timber house like this one currently available for purchase

The rose of Provins (rosa gallica officinalis)

The town is also famous for the Provins rose, supposedly brought back to Europe from the Crusades by the local count, Thibaut IV, the same one who introduced regulations to the Champagne fairs. Also known as the Gallic rose,  the hardy flower was used in religious ceremonies and for medicinal purposes up until the late Middle Ages – to aid digestion when made into a syrup, relieving sore throats as a candy, and applied to the skin as a lotion. It’s still popular in dozens of different forms today, and you can find anything from rose-flavoured ice cream to coffee to liqueur in the various shops in the old town. Personally, I can recommend every rose product I sampled myself, which is to say: rose petal jam (excellent on waffles), rose ice cream and rose-infused honey!
All things considered, Provins makes a lovely daytrip if you’re in Paris or its environs, and is well worth a stop if you’re just travelling through the area. Particularly for those with children, who tend to be unimpressed by beautiful cities like Paris and much more interested in clambering over some city walls and sampling sugary pink goodness, it provides a fun and wallet-friendly experience of a small French town with a fair bit of interesting history to keep you occupied.
There’s also a number of spectacles, including regular bird of prey shows held on the ramparts, and medieval reenactments involving horses and knights, but as I didn’t bother coming at the right time I can’t proffer an opinion on them. Check out the Provins tourism site for more information!
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