For those who prefer their day trip to a UNESCO world-heritage site near Paris not to include 1-hour entrance queues and wallpaper-to-wallpaper crowds (hello Versailles), this beautifully intact medieval town to the southeast of the capital is just the ticket.
A major crossroads for trade in the Middle Ages, Provins was France’s third most powerful city after Paris and Rouen. To broadcast (and protect) this exalted status, the ruling Counts of Champagne pulled out all the stops and the resulting fortified town is today considered to be amongst the most impressive and best-preserved examples in France.
With over 50 listed monuments, Provins is a charming time-capsule of formidable fortifications, timber-frame buildings and handsome maisons particuliers spread between the Upper Town (Ville Haut), built on a low ridge, and the Lower Town (Ville Basse), constructed over reclaimed marshland.
The most interesting medieval bits are to be found in the Ville Haut and include 25m ramparts, a fortified keep (offering stellar views over the surrounding countryside), a tithe barn, a 12th-century collegiate church and a veritable warren of underground galleries, that have been used over the centuries for everything from storage space to masonic meet-and-greets.
The symbol of Provins is the Gallica rose, the oldest of all garden roses. Legend has it Thibault, Count of Champagne, returned from the Crusades with France’s first rose bush after having witnessed the multitude of medicinal purposes roses were being used for back East. The Count kick-started the flower’s cultivation in France and eventually Provins became European capital of the rose, a mighty lucrative business in those days considering rose petals were more valuable than gold. Today, this heritage is celebrated at the Provins Rose Garden, 3 hectares of landscaped grounds sheltering over 300 cultivars of rose (as well as a scattering of handily positioned lawn chairs should visitors fancy a quiet snooze in the afternoon sun).
In spring and summer, Provins puts on a host of medieval re-enactments, including jousting, falconry and weapon demonstrations. The high point of the calendar is the annual medieval festival, one of the biggest in Europe, when streets become choc-a-bloc full of costumed revellers and colourful parades.
To prepare your visit: Provins Tourism Website.
Maison Stella Cadente, 28 Rue Maximilien Michelin 0610228830- a serene bourgeois façade concealing fantastical interiors that could only have been put together by an eye as assured as that of designer Stella Cadente. In warmer months, the shady terrace is a particularly lovely spot for light meals and refreshments... la vie en rose...
- Les Bistrophiles- located at the foot of the medieval town, this cheery bistro offers updated cuisine du terroir showcasing the best of seasonal Ile de France produce.
- La Ronde des Abeilles, 3 Rue des Beaux Arts- For excellent rose jams and honeys, hand-crafted by the ever-smiling Carla Renault.