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Easy Paris Day Trip: Medieval Walled City of Provins

April 8, 2023
St. Jean gate at the entrance to the walls of Provins, France

Less than 60 miles southeast of Paris, the medieval town of Provins is the perfect day trip for anyone who wants to experience something a little different from the capital. If you dream of seeing an authentic walled city in France but don’t have much time to explore outside Paris, this is your opportunity.

We just got back from our visit to Provins, and it was a wonderful way to round out our week in France. Here are a few tips for seeing Provins, including how to get there, where to eat, what to do, special events, and much more.

A brief history of Provins

A brief history of Provins
Photo credit: Cheyenne

t’s not a bad idea to read up on Provins history before you go. It will enrich your experience, and, if you happen to have kids traveling with you as we did, you’ll be able to answer their many questions. (Otherwise, you’ll be slyly glancing down at the brochures you snagged, searching for info to form a coherent response — I speak from experience here.)

Fortunately, those brochures proved educational. I learned so much about Provins as I spent the day there.

The town dates back some thousand years, built on lands owned by the Counts of Champagne. It was one of the major trade cities of medieval Europe, reaching its commercial peak in the 12th and 13th centuries as buyers and sellers from all over convened to trade cloth, spices, pottery, parchment, and the like.

It had around 80,000 residents at the time, many more than the 12,000 or so who live there today. Its symbol is a rose, called the Rose of Provins, first brought to the city from the crusades in 1240 by Count Thibaut IV.

The village is located on a hill, divided into the Upper Town crowned by the Tour de César and the Lower Town in the valley below. With over 50 historic monuments, the entire town is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s as pretty as a postcard, with cobblestone streets and timbered houses. If you love the village feel of Montmartre, you’ll love Provins, a true medieval village outside Paris.

Top attractions in Provins

Provins Ramparts
Photo credit: JF Bénard

You’ll naturally want to explore some of these monuments, and you can. 

Walking the ramparts, towering over 80 feet tall, is absolutely free and a must when you visit Provins. Just over a mile of the town’s original fortifications remain, and they’re quite impressive to behold, including the grand entrance to the town, Port St. Jean. After walking atop city walls, you can take the stairs down into the moat, no longer filled with water.

If you have the time, I recommend getting the Provins Pass so you can see the top historic sites for a reduced price. It includes five monuments for only €15 per adult or €10 for kids ages 4-12. Their family pass has a really nice rate for two adults and up to five kids for only €45.

Monuments included with the Provins Pass:

  • Caesar Tower
  • Tithe Barn
  • Underground Galleries
  • Saint-Ayoul Priory
  • Provins Museum

We found it convenient, and it’s good for a year, so if you’re overnighting or return later, you can finish seeing the sights.

Since it’s a lot to pack into one day, prioritize your itinerary by what you’re most excited to see.

Caesar Tower

Tour César in Provins
Photo credit: JC Jacquin

The Tour César was my top pick, so we headed there first. What can I say? Being the vacation planner has its perks.

The tower is an easy walk from where the bus dropped us off by the tourism office. It was built in the 12th century and feels quite ancient, although it doesn’t have any connection to the Caesar you’re thinking of. We walked up winding, tall stone stairs to sweeping views of the town from the keep. On the way down, a video with English subtitles shows you what life was like under Henri the Liberal.

The views and donjon are both worth the small admission price. This was everyone’s favorite monument in the city.

Tithe Barn

Pottery exhibit at the Tithe Barn
Photo credit: JF Bénard

The Grange aux Dîmes, or the Tithe Barn in English, is where the magic happened back in the 13th century. This vaulted building was once a covered market for the famous trade fairs. Today, historical exhibits show life-size recreations of the traders and their wares on two floors. 

There are audio guides in English to help you understand what you’re seeing.

Underground Galleries

Arches in the Underground Galleries of Provins
Photo credit: JF Bénard

There are tunnels underneath much of Provins. And you can go down into them. What more needs to be said?

Les souterrains de Provins, literally “the undergrounds of Provins,” are a series of passages, only a part of which are open to the public, that were tunneled out of the earth several centuries ago. They served various purposes over the years: quarry, storage for goods, a hideout during the war, a meeting place for freemasons.

Because it’s a delicate environment, you can only visit as part of a 45-minute guided tour. It’s included with your Provins Pass, although you should register in advance. The English tour is only on certain days at 2:30, and we had an excellent reason we couldn’t be there at this time, as you’ll read below, so we took the final French tour of the day.

The French tour is really best for those who know the language well, but I was able to pick up on much of what the guide was saying, and anyway, it was just cool to walk through these subterranean passageways, especially to see the old graffiti and the vast cavern at the very end.

Saint-Ayoul Priory

Saint-Ayoul Priory
Photo credit: JF Bénard

This was the only one we couldn’t make it to of the five. It was the farthest away from the main sights, though only a seven-minute walk from the Underground Galleries. 

It’s over a thousand years old at its core with parts of the priory destroyed, rebuilt, and renovated over the centuries. Highlights include the central courtyard, the cloister, the chapel, the many frescoes, and the stained glass windows.

There are two unexpected cultural exhibits here as well. One is about Pingyao, the sister city of Provins, located in China, and the other is about Thang Long in Vietnam.

The priory offers a free audio guide in English to help guide your visit.

Provins Museum

The Provins Museum
Photo credit: Provins Office of Tourism

Like each of the other monuments on this list, the building housing the exhibits about Provins is an exhibit itself. The Provins Museum is ensconced in the town’s oldest stone building, dating to the 12th century. It has art and artifacts from the neolithic period to the 19th century. See religious relics and ancient sarcophagi, all under one roof.

The museum wasn’t crowded when we visited, and it made a nice stop-over between our two shows since it was situated between them.

Authentic Medieval Dinner Show in Provins

You think you’ve done dinner shows, perhaps, but you’ve never done anything like the Banquet des Troubadours. I’ll admit, when I heard it was a medieval meal served alongside entertainment from the same era, I immediately thought of the North American franchise Medieval Times. But this is nothing like that. It was much more intimate, much more authentic. Here was our experience.

After gathering outside the restaurant, right across from the Underground Galleries, we were soon greeted by one of the performers, who opened a heavy wooden door and invited us to step from the street downstairs into a cavernous vaulted chamber dating to the 12th-century. We were invited to attire ourselves in period garb. Then we sat down at one of the communal tables surrounding the center floor.

Banquet des Troubadours
Photo credit: Banquet des Troubadours

There’s no stage because it’s not needed as you’re so close to the entertainers. Nor would it be authentic. Instead, the enthusiastic troubadours juggle, do magic, and cavort around as a minstrel plays music in keeping with the theme. 

The show carries on in between a series of five courses, carried in impressively on giant slats. They include ingredients that would have suited a medieval meal for lords and ladies:

  • Seasonal vegetable soup with bread
  • Pork puff pastry
  • Meat stew with vegetables and lentils
  • Brie
  • Dessert sampler of almond cookie, a cinnamon candy, pear with rose, and gingerbread 

To drink, there’s water, red wine, apple juice for the kids, and a sweet, spiced wine called hippocras. You won’t see individual napkins or forks, the troubadours explain, because these things wouldn’t have been around in the Middle Ages. They let the authenticity slide with the bathrooms, fortunately, which are plenty modern and easy to access throughout the show as you might need.

Banquet des Troubadours
Photo credit: Banquet des Troubadours

The entertainment is first-rate, especially tricks with diabolos. The performers draw in people from the audience in clever ways that make everyone laugh. You don’t have to speak French to appreciate the humor of a 21st-century tourist going along with the whims of a medieval troupe. I even found myself briefly part of the story through the phenomenon of being there at all — the jester pointed out that North America hadn’t been discovered yet by Europeans, so it was rather strange my showing up, and indeed, he was quite right.

There are certainly many verbal jokes in French — I was rather pleased with myself to pick up a pun on “fesses” — but there are also physical gags that require no translation. There’s a simple dance anyone can join. And the fiery final is so grand as to eclipse everything that came before. This is what the kids were talking about as we walked to our next attraction.

This video gives you a pretty good idea of what it’s like.

The banquet happens only on Saturdays (both lunch and dinner) and Sundays (lunch only). If you’re doing a day trip, lunch is best if you don’t want to be rolling into Paris quite late. The feast and show take three hours, so it’s quite a time commitment. We found it worthwhile as something incredibly unique. A medieval French meal with French actors in a 12th-century setting room — just how often do you get to do that? Only in Provins!

Other live shows in Provins

La Légende des Chevaliers
Photo credit: Equestrio

There are many more shows in Provins during the festival season, which runs from late March to the start of November. Saturdays have the most performances, but check the calendar to see what’s happening during your trip.

Here’s an overview of the main options.

  • The Legends of the Knights: Chevaliers joust and perform impressive feats of horsemanship as a story about Provins unfolds (pictured above).
  • The Eagles of the Ramparts: Watch the art of horseback falconry as eagles, hawks, and other birds of prey soar overhead. Afterward, visit the aviary filled with around 80 birds.
  • Fire Horses: This show only happened in the evening on two days midsummer, combining horsemanship with fire and light.

We saw The Legend of the Knights, or “La Légende des Chevaliers” in French, held in an outdoor covered gallery near the entrance to town. It was filled with acrobatic stunts, dressage, and a fairy-tale-style plot that involved a monster attacking the city of Provins, which (spoiler) is ultimately saved by the Rose of Provins.

The characters speak to the audience, but understanding French is a lot less important for this show compared to the banquet as it’s pretty easy to follow the plot based on visual cues. The horsemanship is truly impressive. It’s 45 minutes, and the time flies by. There’s also a shop and exhibits about medieval Provins, including giant machines of war like the catapult.

Tip: If you bought a Provins Pass, you can get a discount on the shows on the day of purchase.

More to do on your Provins day trip from Paris

Roseraie de Provins
Photo credit: Roseraie de Provins

That’s not everything in town, by any means. If you go in summer, you’ll want to visit the Provins Rose Garden, over 8 acres and 450 varieties of roses. There’s an on-site tearoom where you can taste rose-flavored treats as well as a boutique. You also get reduced admission to the garden on the day you buy your Provins Pass.

There’s a Tourist Train as well during much of the festival season with commentary in French and English. Your Provins Pass gets you discounted tickets. The ride is a good idea if you’re traveling with younger kids who might get tired of the cobblestone streets. You can also rent e-bikes for a mere €8 for two hours. There’s plenty of hiking along fields, rivers, ramparts, and more if you’re looking to explore nature.

Just exploring the town is fun. Across from the Tour César is a church begun in the 12th century, the Église Saint-Quiriace. We stepped inside for a quick look, and it was lovely.

There are also festivals and events throughout the year. Again, you want to check the agenda, but this is a partial list to give you an idea.

  • Medieval Festival of Provins: This happens mid-June and is the biggest event of the year. Expect crowds, street performers, reenactments, and more family-friendly revelry than you can shake a timbrel at.
  • Provins by Candlelight: This is when the Fire Horses show happens as well as other nighttime events. It’s the first Saturday of July and August.
  • Harvest Festival: The old-fashioned tradition of harvest celebrated with floats, tractors, folk dance, threshing, and more.
  • The Niflette Festival: In November, this event honors a Provins culinary specialty, a medieval cream-filled pastry flavored with orange blossom. There are demonstrations, a gourmet market, live music, kids’ activities, and more.

There are also special events for Easter, Halloween, and Christmas.

If you’re looking for a nice dinner, La Croix d’Or comes highly recommended. It’s in the Guinness World Records as the oldest hostelry in France, dating to 1264. They have a medieval dish as well as classic French food, plus lots of thematic decor. There is a kid’s menu, but this may be better for older teens since it’s a bit more upscale.

There’s also a Monoprix grocery store fairly central to town if you’re looking to eat on a budget or grab some picnic supplies. You can pick up almost any other food — pastries, pizza, you name it — for takeout as well if you don’t have time for a sit-down meal and are headed back to catch the bus as we were.

How to get to Provins

If you’re driving, it takes about an hour and a half to get to Provins from Paris, but if you’re like most tourists, you’ll be relying on public transportation. Luckily, it couldn’t be easier to do this Paris day trip without a car. 

There’s a train from Gare de l’Est, one of the major stations in Paris, directly to Provins that takes around 80 minutes. It leaves every hour, so you have plenty of options for your outbound and return journey. 

If the train isn’t running for some reason during your trip, either due to a strike or maintenance work, you’ll need to take a train and then a bus. This is what we had to do, and it’s actually quite simple. We took the train to Disneyland Paris, went through Disney security to get to the bus station (a short walk away — enough time for a quick photo on the way) and then boarded the bus. 

I’m always suspicious of buses abroad, thinking they’ll be less comfortable or slower or harder to figure out the timetables for, but the bus was even more comfortable than the train, and it departed regularly every hour. It was also inexpensive. We used our Navigo pass for every leg of the journey, metro to train to bus, but buying train or bus fare is typically just a few euros from what I saw online when I was looking to buy ahead.

Google Maps was pretty reliable through all of this, but the Provins tourism website has additional info if you need it.

They also speak English at the tourist office in Provins, so feel free to ask questions about travel in and around Provins. They’re happy to help.

A perfect day in Provins

All told, I’m thrilled we went. I’ve been dreaming of seeing a fortified French town, and this hit the spot. It was plenty affordable, too, with a nominal admission for most attractions. It could even be free if you use your Navigo pass and just wander around the city, visit the churches, admire the architecture, go on a hike, and climb the ramparts.

And it’s absolutely unlike anything in Paris. I loved being able to show the kids something of the France outside of Paris, and a medieval village is truly unique. It was educational for everyone. We all learned something new about not just Provins but also about what life in France was like in the Middle Ages.

Add in that it was easy to reach via public transit, and this is a no-brainer for a convenient, adventure-filled family day trip.