Originally created 08/17/97

Provins journey a trip to the past

PROVINS, France -- This quaint hilltop town reverts to a bustling medieval capital in spring and summer.

Out of the Middle Ages, knights in shining armor wield swords and joust astride white stallions. Foot soldiers bombard city ramparts while bird trainers entertain crowds with feats of falconry.

Make no mistake about it, though. This is no medieval theme park, but an enjoyable trip into the past.

"Today, the town wants to offer people a real trip into the Middle Ages, not just give them a vague idea of what daily life was like," Mayor Alain Peyrefitte said.

When chivalry reigned in the 12th and 13th centuries, this town about 50 miles southeast of Paris was a throbbing urban center. Protected by four miles of thick ramparts, Provins was home to the counts of Champagne, who defied French royalty and levied taxes on serfs farming the rich land.

Medieval Provins was an economic way station for merchants who came from all over Europe and beyond to sell their goods at the town's twice-yearly, two-month-long market.

One of the town's leading attractions is La Grange aux Dimes, a wax museum re-creating scenes from the medieval market: moneylenders weighing gold pieces, weavers on the loom and fur traders selling pelts, among them.

A weekend extravaganza in June kicked off summer festivities. Celebrations included sound and light shows, evening jousting matches, a parade of fools, a demonstration of medieval weaponry and falconry.

Some 2,000 residents lined the narrow, cobblestone streets dressed as crusaders, knights, minstrels, serfs, beggars and lepers. Actors in medieval costume hurled large water balloons the length of a football field, demonstrating how soldiers of old could blow holes in the walls of heavily fortified cities.

A two- or three-hour walking tour of the city includes:

  • The Tour Cesar, long regarded as the symbol of Provins. The tower rises high above the town and offers a breathtaking view of the fertile Brie plains. During the Middle Ages, it served as a dungeon, prison and barracks for soldiers guarding Provins' wealthy residents against marauders.
  • A vaulted cellar under the Grange aux Dimes. It is part of a network of 150 cellars connected by six miles of underground passages. The cellars were used as meeting places by secret sects, and they still bear their mysterious markings.
  • The town's mile-long ramparts. Erected between the years 1000 and 1300, they are ideal for picnicking.
  • Other points of interest include the 12th-century Collegiale Saint Quiriace, adorned with medieval masterpieces, and the Saint Croix church famous for its magnificently sculpted main gate.

    From May to September, Provins' famed roses are in bloom. Legend is that they were brought from Damascus by a 12th-century crusader and are the genesis of most of today's European stock.

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