I had been wanting to take a day-trip to Provins (pro-vah) for some time now. At the end of my job in Paris, a friend gave me some extra train tickets to this medieval town, so now was the time. To get to Provins, take the train from the Gare de l’Est. Provins is in the Champagne area, about fifty miles outside of Paris. In the 12th and 13th centuries, it was the site of one of the Champagne fairs that brought traders in all sorts of merchandise from all over Europe, and as such, it was one of the most important towns in the world.
Once you get to Provins, it’s an easy walk to the basse ville (lower town), dotted with ancient churches, some of which have parts which date to prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066. Two streams wend their way past, and sometimes under, houses. The creation of a deep blue cloth was a Provinois specialty, and the streams were essential for rinsing the fabric. Then it’s up, up, up to some of main historic sites, including the 13th century Tithe Barn, which served as a covered market, the 12th century Cesar’s Tower that served as part of the defensive fortifications, the network of subterranean galleries that honeycomb beneath the town for miles, and the museum. Provins is famous for its production of roses and rose-based products such as honey and jam because one of the feudal Counts of Champagne brought back the Damascus rose from the Crusades. The modification of commercial routes, wars, plagues, and the decline of the feudal ties when Champagne submitted to the authority of the French crown in the 14th century left Provins as a little time capsule with 58 UNESCO protected monuments.
The French expression, Les voyages forment la jeunesse (lay voy-asj form lah sjun-ess) literally means “Travel shapes youth,” but we tend to say “Travel broadens the mind.” Imagine those who traveled from Venice, or the spice lands, or Northern Europe to buy, sell, and barter twice every year in Provins. The Counts of Champagne were the first to issue passports to allowed the merchants safe access across their lands. It was a sort of European Union of open trade long before those words were ever uttered. Broad minded, indeed. Jules Verne vacationed with his aunt here in the summer; his explorations of the subterranean caves would shape his youthful mind and influence his adventure stories.