The 94 km ride from Paris to Provins is akin to weaving through various time periods of history. You set out from majestic and romantic city ofParis , visualized and built by Baron Haussmann during 1853 to 1870, which is spell binding.
Soon, as the city gets left behind, a modern 21st century city of glass cased high rises comes into view. As the car finally takes the highway and moves into the countryside, quaint small habitations surrounded by vast areas of farmland come into view. And then you reach the medieval town of Provins that flourished in the 13th century, southeast of Paris.
We embarked on this time shuttle ride to Provins in peak winter. Winter landscapes have a surreal beauty to them. The grass was green, the trees were bare and seemed to be standing still awaiting spring. The small houses that dotted the landscapes seemed to be painted in the harsh serenity that was captivating.
As our daughter maneuvered the car into the city the first and foremost challenge was to find a parking. Being a Sunday just before Christmas, the town was inundated with tourists. It was her first visit too so we were dependent on Google maps, and her French skills to navigate the city. From the road itself we could see some old fort like architecture on the top of a hill, and I shuddered to think that I would have to walk up in the bitter cold!
Once the car was securely parked, we donned our caps, coats and gloves and stepped out. The road was cobbled and it was cold. Provins is a medieval town of France that retains a flavour and ambiance that is unmistakably old.
We looked around and saw a few people moving in a particular direction. We decided to follow them and soon came upon a small and sweet Christmas market. As we neared the entrance, a lady in blue uniform standing there said, ‘votre passe sanitaire s’il vous plait?’
And in that moment the COVID era enveloped us. We showed our vaccine certificates one by one and she let us through. This one small polite French query is now the entry ritual everywhere that you go. The Christmas market was between the narrow street across a few blocks. It made up for its size by the color and variety of food stuffs that were on sale. At the entrance sat a Santa Claus, and he waved out to us, and I responded with a namaste!
The road from the market straight up lead to the Ville Haute or Upper Town. We walked up, along with many other tourists. The roads and buildings around belonged to another era, but they were inhabited. Provins was one of the most important towns in France, in the 13th century, with a population of 80,000 inhabitants. It was a prosperous wool centre, and its fairs were famous all over Europe.
Provins was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001; for the preservation of its architecture and general layout. It was known in the 12th and 13the century for hosting the trade fairs of Champagne.
As we walked up the street, the melody of jingle bells was becoming louder, and it took us to an open area, which had a huge decorated Christmas tree. The yard was surrounded by many restaurants and despite the masks on our faces – the festivity was all around. Walking the streets of the medieval Ville Haute is both engaging and refreshing. You might see roses blooming in the small courtyards of houses – Provins is famous for its roses, brought to the town by some Crusader!
Do visit the Tithe Barn that remakes the medieval shopping arcade. There is also a small museum that attracts attention.
To the left of the open space lies the Caesar Tower. A 12 century dungeon the tower signifies the power of the town and the Counts of Champagne in the medieval ages. Its name is also a homage to the great Roman emperor, who never visited the area, but has a tower named after him! It is the imposing turret of the Tour Caesar that is visible from the road. It served as a watchtower, a refuge and a prison. Today it houses the bells of the collegiate church of Saint-Quiriace.
After showing your pass sanitaire and paying the entry fee of 4 euro you can climb the Tower. I did not fancy climbing 400 steps, and waited in the entry room while the family did. The young boy at the counter was dressed in something medieval and it struck me that the dress resembled our Kashmiri firan, including the embroidery!
After admiring the beautiful Church behind the tower, we walked down again to the Lower Town. Had lunch at a small restaurant and were on our way back by late afternoon.
The visit to Provins – a little snapshot of history – was a window to the chimerical nature of time. Eras and ages exist together, and we often forget that.
Photos courtesy Dnyaneshwar Mulay and Pujya Priyadarshni