Provins: Medieval Christmas Market and Other Oddities

Something out of a Game of Thrones episode, or nearly.

Nothing says Christmas like wenches and codpieces – or at least that was the impression I was getting. Provins, a little town just southeast of Paris, is known for its annual Medieval Christmas market one weekend each December. This past weekend, it all happened.

I had been waiting for years to find the right moment to go to Provins. I’ve read about and to me, it was a secret little vault of miracles just outside my front door. But alas, I had procrastinated. But being Christmas, and needing to get into the spirit, I decided it was the right year, month, and day.

An early train on Sunday whisked us away, and in just over an hour, we were there, walking back through time, mostly, through the streets of Provins. I mean, they’re not stuck in the past entirely – they have a Monoprix, after all.

These bozos...

A UNESCO heritage site, the city hosted the biggest medieval fairs when the area was controlled by the leaders of Champagne. Today, the half-timber houses and ramparts are still all around, offering an escape from Paris.

But we were there for the Medieval Christmas market, whatever that meant. I had been to Strasbourg’s Christmas market, so my expectations of what a proper one should be are slightly skewed, but I thought Provins would hold up its end of the bargain by giving me something unique and worthwhile.

By wandering and ignoring the other tourists, we scaled the walled historic part of the city, past towers and walls, and eventually to a square with stalls everywhere in the upper town. It was something out of Game of Thrones, really. But the French version. Hot wine was mulling over the fire while chestnuts were roasting over an open fire, literally. Grand, truly.

Yes, chestnuts roasting on [nearly] open fire...

And the costumes! Half the attendees were in get-ups pulled from either a Tolkien novel or Xena, Warrior Princess. One woman casual stroked the dead scarf around her neck while another sported a kilt, and many others carried weapons that would probably have the police on alert if we were in America.

Fortunately no weapons were used and everyone was in good spirits as vendors peddled their artisan wares – horns, wooden beer steins, puppets, and spices. It was a much romanticized version of the Middle Ages, I think, given the lack of plague or any detectable stenches. Alas, there were no dragons, but one woman had a pet dove, while another man had a brown chick perched on his shoulder. Close enough.

Some of the less-traditional medieval-esque goods for sale...

Down below, in the center of town, another Christmas market, lacking any medieval décor, boasted about two dozen or so stalls with ornaments, cheesy raclette sandwiches, confectioneries, and other gift ideas. It was a bit more traditional, but with none of it was the chintzy stuff we find on the Champs Elysées in Paris.

We bought a few decorations for the tree, some coconut rochers, and a bottle of bubbles after a tasting by Vins&Une, a start-up where the owner brings local wine makers directly to the customers. The Champagne was exceptionally good, and at 20 euros a bottle, I couldn’t say no. Especially not to a start-up. She promised she’ll have a tasting in Paris in the winter – I’ll be the first in line.

The standout at the Christmas market may have been the ice skating rink, which didn’t seem to contain any ice, just some sort of plastic tiles. The kids didn’t seem to mind, but Lord help them the day they step out onto real ice and feel their feet fall out from underneath them…

I love a good rampart...

All in all, after about three hours, we had done Provins and the markets. I wasn’t expecting to stay until last call, but I had expected a little more production value. The man hammering a sword against an anvil was a bit lackluster, and the bits of Christmas carols playing over the speakers in the center of town were festive, but slightly eerie, as if Bing Crosby were stalking you through the streets.

There is plenty more to do in Provins – I think – if you are really into medieval stuff, notably architecture, but we weren’t at that moment. We came, we Christmased, and we peaced out on an early train back to Paris with a few sweets, a few baubles, and a bit of bottled holiday cheer.

Far from disappointed, I still think I might go back to Strasbourg for Christmas before I head back to Provins next year, but for a quick, easy, and affordable daytrip from Paris, I don’t regret it.