"37 euros a person, for a week."
"Really? That's so cheap. We could go...wait, where's the map?"
About a week ago, Karl made the discovery that a fairly modest amount could buy us an unlimited Zone 1-6 pass on our metro cards. A score of sleepy, charming countryside towns rest on the edges of the Paris suburbs just waiting to be explored, but usually cost a little over 20 euros round-trip, so we plan carefully. This way though, we could have free rein both in and outside of Paris for an entire week. Sweet.
When we hopped on the first sleek train headed east, a nervous feeling hit my stomach, like I was getting away with something that I shouldn't. You see, there are complex sets of rules that twist around all matters of French life, and this seems to have conditioned us over the years to believe that we're guilty until proven innocent. (A friend of mine studying law once explained to me that this is indeed the governing feeling in judicial matters here.) So, we waited for the next shoe to drop...but it never came! Now on to the enjoyment.
Provins. Rosy medieval city laid with gnarled cobblestones, flower petals strewn everywhere like confetti welcoming us through these ancient gates. We spent the sweltering early afternoon deep in the 10 kilometers of cool underground tunnels that honeycomb the upper town. No one really knows why they were originally built - there's a science fiction plot waiting to be written. Apparently, Umbero Eco features Provins in part of Foucault's Pendulum:
"Have you ever been to Provins? A magic place: you can feel it even today. Go there. A Magic place, still redolent of secrets. In the eleventh century it was the seat of the Compte de Champagne, a free zone, where the central government couldn’t come snooping. The Templars were at home there; even today a street is named after them. There were churches, palaces, a castle overlooking the whole plain. And a lot of money, merchants doing business, fairs, confusion, where it was easy to pass unnoticed. But most important, something that has been there since prehistoric times: tunnels. A network of tunnels – real catacombs – extends beneath the hill." (Foucault’s Pendulum, p 125.)
Our trusty guide pointed out suggestive clues along the way. The passages are most certainly linked to the mercantile history of Provins, since it was one of four influential Champagne towns overrun by traders hawking their wares in the 13th and 14th centuries. All this hustle and bustle was under the strict control of the Counts of Champagne who kept order in the region until the King of France took over in the 14th. Those counts ran a pretty tight ship. The formidable dungeon at the top of the hill probably had something to do with it.
Two kilometers of strong ramparts remain on one side of the town, built eight hundred years ago to keep the Parisian riffraff out. Since we had come peaceably, they let us in and gave us a perch atop the city walls. We watched the sun go down over the nearby wheat fields and chewed on thick slices of country bread spread with paté, duck rillettes, Brie from nearby Meaux, all washed down with a local beer. Yes, la vie en rose. And speaking of roses, there's another story. Count Thibaut IV, both a poet and a warrior, supposedly brought back a rosebush from the Crusades and planted it in Provins, and they have since spread like wildfire over the area. Rose soaps, rose candy, even crystallized rose petals you can drop in your champagne.
As the sun waned, we ran for one of the last trains out of the city and plopped ourselves down in our seats with 30 seconds to spare. A teenager nearby remarked: "Vous avez bien de la chance." ("You guys sure are lucky.") It's true, we are so blessed. And so grateful.