UNESCO-classified Provins, 80km east of Paris (1h25 by train), is one of the most intact medieval walled towns in France. Apart from its captivating history, it has a unique form of merrymaking that makes it well worth a detour from the flat Brie countryside surrounding it. Enter through the ramparts and you step into an obscure universe where modernity and medievalism coexist: many folk spend part of the year dressed up as their middle-age predecessors to re-enact – much to the delight of tourists – forgotten medieval practices. The festivities include bird displays with falcons, vultures and eagles soaring with acrobatic fury over wolves, camels and men galloping on horseback; and chivalry is kept alive by wannabe Lancelots who charge at each in the knights’ jousting tournament. Not for the cynical, however.
Reassuringly, the celebrations are not all there is to see in Provins. By the 12th century, the town was a centre for European medieval trade fairs, had its own system of weights and measures, its own currency and its own cloth industry. Remnants of such a great past don’t disappear that easily. In fact, despite a close shave during the Revolution, some of the best models of medieval architecture, town planning and hydraulic systems in the world are still found here. La Tour César and the 5km of ramparts are fine examples of medieval military architecture dating from the reign of Henri le Libéral in the 12th century. The Place du Châtel brings together a whole caboodle of medieval buildings incluing Saint-Thibaut Church, the Hôtel de la Coquille mansion, the Croix des Changes monument in the centre of the square and the wishing well next to the cross. La Grange aux Dimes was a 12th century storage building that now shelters an informative exhibition on Medieval Provins fairs. And La Maison Romane is the earliest example of a Provins’ stone structure. Today it is a museum featuring a range of art from Renaissance paintings to Merovingian sarcophagi.
Where to eat: For good traditional French cuisine try La Croix d’Or in the Ville Basse (1 rue de Capucins; 01.64.00.01.96; fixed-price menus €29) or Aux Vieux Ramparts (3 rue Couverts; 01.64.08.94.00 http://www.auxvieuxremparts.com; fixed-price menus €29 ) in the Ville Haute, which doubles as a pleasant hotel (doubles from €112; half-board from €120).
For more information, check Provins’ tourist office website (01.64.60.26.26).