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Provins and Troyes eastern France


Few travellers in this part of Eastern France turn off the Great Mulhouse line of railway to visit the ancient city of Provins, yet none with a love of the picturesque can afford to pass it by. Airily, nay, coquettishly perched on its smiling, green eminence, and still possessed of an antique stateliness, in striking contrast with the busy little trim town that has sprung up at his feet, Provins captivates the beholder by virtue alike of its uniqueness and poetic charm; I can think of nothing in my various travels at all like this little Acropolis of Brie and Champagne, whether seen in a distance in the railway, or from the ramparts that still encircle it as in the olden time. It is indeed a gem; miniature Athens of a mediaeval princedom, that although on a small scale boasted of great power and splendour; tiny Granada of these Eastern provinces, bearing ample evidence of past literary and artistic glories!

You quit the main line at Longueville, and in a quarter of an hour come upon a vast panorama, crowned by the towers and dome of the still proud, defiant-looking little city of Provins, according to some writers the Agedincum of Caesar's Commentaries, according to others more ancient still. It is mentioned in the capitularies of Charlemagne, and in the Middle Ages was the important and flourishing capital of Basse-Brie and residence of the Counts of Champagne. Under Thibault VI, called Le Chansonnier, Provins reached its apogee of prosperity, numbering at that epoch 80,000 souls. Like most other towns in these parts, it suffered greatly in the Hundred Years' War, being taken by the English in 1432, and retaken from them in the following year. It took part in the League, but submitted to Henry IV in 1590, and from that time gradually declined; at present it numbers about 7,000 inhabitants only.

The rich red rose, commonly called Provence rose, is in reality the rose of Provins, having been introduced here by the Crusaders from the Holy Land. Gardens of the Provins rose may still be found at Provins, though they are little cultivated now for commercial purpose; Provence, the land of the Troubadours, has therefore no claim whatever upon rose lovers, who are indebted instead to the airy little Acropolis of Champagne. Thus much for the history of the place, which has been chronicled by two gifted citizens of modern time, Opoix and Bourquelot.

It is difficult to give any idea of the citadel, so imposingly commanding the wide valleys and curling rivers at its foot. Leaving the Ville Basse, we climb for a quarter of an hour to find all the remarkable monuments of Provins within a stone's throw - the College, formerly Palace of the Counts of Champagne, the imposing Tour de Cesar, the Basilica of St. Quiriace with its cupola, the famous Grange aux Dimes, the ancient fountain, lastly, the ruined city and gates and walls, called the Ville Haute. All these are close together, but conspicuously towering over the rest are the dome of St. Quiriace, and the picturesque, many pinnacled stronghold vulgarly known as Caesar's Tower. These two crown, not only the ruins, but the entire landscape, for miles around with magnificent effect. The tower itself, in reality having nothing to do with its popular name whatever, but the stronghold of the place built by one of the Counts of Champagne, is a picturesque object, with graceful little pinnacles connected by flying buttresses at each corner, and pointed tower surmounting all, from which now waves proudly the Tricolour flag of the French Republic. A deaf and dumb girl leads visitors through a little flower-garden into the interior, and takes them up the winding stone staircase to see the cells in which Louis d'Outremer and others are said to have been confined.

Close to this ancient church is the former palace of Thibault. It is superbly situated, commanding from the terrace a wide view of surrounding country. Perhaps, however, the most curious relics of ancient Provins are the vast and handsome subterranean chambers and passages which are not only found in the Grange aux Dimes literally Tithe-Barn, but also under many private dwellings of ancient date.

Those who love to penetrate into the hovels of the earth may here visit cave after cave, and subterranean chamber after chamber; some of these were of course used for the storage and introduction of supplies in time of war and siege, others may have served as crypts, for purposes of religious ceremony, also a harbour of refuge for priests and monks, lastly as workshops. Provins may therefore be called not only a town but a triple city, consisting, first, of the old; secondly, of the new; lastly, of the underground. Captivating, from an artistic and antiquarian point of view, as are the first and last, all lovers of progress will not fail to give some time to the modern part, not, however, omitting the lovely walls round the ramparts, before quitting the region of romance for plain matter of fact. Here you have unbroken solitude and a wide expanse of open country; you also get a good idea of the commanding position of Provins.

Provins affords an excellent example of that spirit of decentralization so usual in France, and unhappily so rare among ourselves. Here in a country town, numbering between seven and eight thousand inhabitants only, we find all the resources of a capital on a small scale; Public Library, Museum, Theatre, learned societies. The Library contains some curious and valuable books. The Theatre was built by one of the richest and most generous citizens of Provins, M. Gamier, who may be said to have consecrated his ample fortune to the embellishment and advancement of his native town.

Space does not permit of an enumeration of the various acts of beneficence by which he has won the lasting gratitude of his fellow-townsmen; and on his death the charming villa he now inhabits, with its gardens, library, art and scientific collections, are to become the property of the town. The Rue Victor Garnier has been appropriately named after this public-spirited gentleman.