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For medieval escape, French town is wall-to-wall fun

Email|Print| Text size + By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / November 9, 2005

PROVINS, France -- What is it about the medieval period that is so fascinating? Is it the pageantry of kings and the loyalty of vassals? Or a society that, at least in our minds, seems simpler? A return to hand tools and horse-drawn carts might be appealing in an age of crashing computers and polluting SUVs.

I was mulling this as I stood on the ramparts of Provins, one of France's best-preserved walled towns. Had I been a girl in her ''princess phase," at that moment I might have yearned to be rescued by a handsome knight. But as a former Dungeons & Dragons nerd, I instinctively knew the appeal of the Middle Ages: not lords and ladies, but boiling oil. Call me cruel and unusual, but standing on that 50-foot battlement, the thought of pouring vats of scalding, noxious liquid on a mob of attackers pleased me to no end.

Wandering the cobbled streets of Provins is not a bad place to fuel such fantasies. The town lies deep in the rural wheat-growing region of Brie, about an hour and a half by car or train southeast of Paris, making it an easy day-trip destination (and one much less mobbed than Versailles or Giverny).

Of course, Provins is not untouched by tourism. Some of the town's attractions -- the staged ''Battle of the Ramparts" live-action show, for example -- have taken on the faint timbre of a Disney production. But the backdrop is not some faux styrofoam-and-stucco magic kingdom. Provins is an authentic fortified settlement and was once among the most important economic centers of France -- in fact, the third most populous after Paris and Rouen.

By the 12th century, the town had become a hub for banking, textiles, and handicrafts. Merchants' houses, storage spaces, and mills sprang up. Provins even churned out its own currency. To protect the trading fairs, the Counts of Champagne built ramparts and gates. Troubadours spread word of this formidable commercial town, which many a ruler would have liked to control. In 1230, when the Picardy army laid siege to Provins, Count Thibaud IV of Champagne rode out to challenge Philippe de Hurepel, Picardy's leader, in hand-to-hand combat. Thibaud won, saving Provins. Alas for us dreamers, the days of kings riding on the frontlines into battle have passed. As for Provins, plagues, politics, and changing trade routes diminished its importance.

From the 14th century onward, the town remained stagnant architecturally. Bad for its citizens, but a boon for tourists today. In other castle towns of France, only chunks of original walls remain; here, 1 1/2 miles of original ramparts still exist.

A visit here might begin in the ''ville basse" (lower town), now an anachronistic mix of banks, cheese shops, and clothing stores. This is where, in 996, the remains of Saint Ayoul were discovered, prompting the draining of a marsh and construction of churches, canals, and convoluted alleys. From here, climb the hill to the ''ville haute" (upper town), dominated by the Collégiale Saint-Quiriace church, the tower Tour de César, and the surrounding defenses.

I loved seeing the tower, a medieval keep with an octagonal upper story. This was intended as a place of refuge, a watchtower, and a prison. I ducked into the guards' chambers and jogged up the narrow staircases, thinking how a soldier might have defended the tower. Once again, images of hot cinders and catapulted animal carcasses danced in my head.

For the incurably medievally obsessed, the best time to visit Provins is mid-June, for the annual Medieval Festival, when 2,000 participants flood the streets in period costume, creating a mayhem of craftspeople, jugglers, and crusaders on horseback. Demonstrations of siege weapons, swooping raptors, and jousting techniques also occur regularly from late spring to early fall.

But Provins's attractions are open year-round, and many are not war-themed. A tour of the vaulted stone Tithe Barn (La Grange aux Dîmes) shows how money-changers, stone carvers, and spice merchants hawked their wares. The nearby Maison Romane serves as an informal local history museum.

Once you've explored the town, you can take a one-hour tour of the honeycomb tunnels called Les Souterrains. These passageways, hand-hewn from solid rock, were used during the Champagne fairs to store fabrics, grain, wine, and gold.

''You are in the belly of the earth," intoned Colette Rangheard, my group's guide to the underworld, as her flashlight flickered off the smoothed limestone. ''We haven't lost anyone yet on these visits. Try to stay together."

Even here, 20 feet below Provins's towers and ramparts, my imagination was racing. What about the other 65 miles of tunnels I wouldn't get to see? I looked for a side passage to slip down. Could I find the remains of a tortured bastard prince or a goblin's treasure trove and still catch up with the group by closing time?

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