Every town has its own sense of history. In many places around the world a hundred year old house is seriously historic. 19th century buildings are the common fabric of Paris, those from the 17th century are considered old and two 15th century survivors compete for the title of the oldest house in the city. In the 12th century Provins rivaled Paris in size and importance. By the 15th century the town’s heyday was past so old buildings were repaired and adapted rather than being replaced by waves of redevelopment. The seniority of the oldest house in Provins is undisputed but historians are unsure whether the building dates from the 12th or 11th century.
Provins owed its medieval prosperity to its role as a commercial centre on the overland trade routes between Flanders and Italy. Long distance trade was a slow business in 12th century Europe with an annual round of fairs allowing merchants to meet contacts as well as customers. Only the most valuable good were worth hauling across the continent – silks and spices from the south, furs and tapestries from the north – so a successful trading centre needed stable government and secure store rooms as well as trustworthy notaries and bankers. Protected, fortified and organised by the Dukes of Champagne, medieval Provins offered all the facilities a traveling merchant might need and also added its own speciality of fine woolen cloth to the trade.
A visit to Provins is an easy day trip from Paris. One (slow) train per hour on the regional Transilien network takes you from Gare de l’Est to Provins in an hour and twenty minutes. It’s just a short walk from the station to the medieval Ville Haute and pedestrian routes between the historic monuments are well signposted. A €12 day ticket gives access to Tour César, the town museum, the Grange aux Dîmes and the fascinating Souterrains, a network of underground quarries, store rooms and passageways. In summer the streets fill up with visitors for the medieval fairs and son et lumière shows but on a bitterly cold winter’s day the place was atmospherically quiet. Take your pick!
A post for Thursday Doors.