The Biggest Medieval Festival in France is a hit once again

Encampments outside the ramparts at Les Médiévales de Provins

My boys and I used to make the annual Fête Médiévale de Provins whenever possible, but–with my children grown–it had been some years since I’d been. When David and I decided to move back to Paris for the year, I looked up the festival, put it on my calendar and signed up for the festival email list. Then, I packed the “Guinevere” dress I bought some years back just for the occasion and crossed my fingers that we’d work the Provins fête into our schedule. Despite early summer heat and the possibility of storms (that didn’t materialize) we made it out to the picturesque walled town this past Sunday for the 38th annual festival. Les Médiévales de Provins was packed with visitors, entertainers, vendors, craftsmen and more, lots of whom sported elaborate medieval (or fantastical quasi-medieval) costumes in a perfect setting. What fun!

Street entertainers in front of Saint Quiriace church in Provins

Provins is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the town is worth a visit any time of year. Surrounded by intact medieval ramparts, the town has a tower, underground galleries, a historic church, a museum lodged behind a 12th century facade, and more. Provins regularly hosts spectacles including falconry and jousting shows from late March to early November. Half-timbered buildings and a maze of charming cobbled streets entrance visitors. In summer, lush roses spill over stone walls and small canals meander past bright flower boxes and under overhanging greenery. The whole town smells sweetly of blossoms. In winter, the streets have a different appeal and its fun to visit without the crowds. The main church Saint Quiriace was built in 1160(!). Joan of Arc and King Charles VII attended mass there in 1429. The main part of the church burned and was rebuilt in the 1600’s.

During the medieval festival, Provins truly comes alive. Tents offering all sorts of medieval-era-inspired handicrafts line the square around Saint Quiriace and continue down numerous cobbled streets to the big place du Châtel and spill out onto the grass at the base of the ramparts: jewelry, leather goods, food, clothing, ironworks and more. Street entertainers play music, dance, juggle, and parade by on stilts. Book stalls fill the church. Grills and spits, kettles and crêpe pans send enticing odors wafting into the air. There are interactive workshops for medieval trades and skills, jousting, archery, falconry and more.

Arriving at the festival just before noon, David and I bought cold craft beers at an early booth, then let ourselves be lured by the stalls, sipping as we went. We opted for a lunch of easy and quick sausage and rice “paella” cooked in huge iron pans and served by people dressed as peasants. Not wanting to waste time with lunch, we ate perched on a stone wall, but we could have opted for any number of places with tables set up outside or one of the regular restaurants that dot Provins. There were roasted pigs on spits, raclette sandwiches, sausages, meats, all kind of sweets. Teams of cooks and servers tended to dress alike with “knights Templar” barbequing in one spot and brown-robed monks at another. The theme was definitely open-fire and grill cooking, although there was something for everyone. Drinks included the usual modern offerings along with medieval treats like hypocras (spiced wine), cervoise (an ancient form of beer made with local plants) and hydromel (a mead-like drink made with honey).

Along with the vendors and street entertainers, our fellow visitors provided never-ending entertainment as we headed towards the large main square, place du Châtel. People of all ages attend the festival and some of the costumes are truly amazing in their accuracy and elaborateness… and no doubt expensive. The fête offers some of the best people-watching ever! We passed a knight Templar in full armor, sipping a drink via a straw stuck through a hole in his helmet, couples in lavish silken brocades, ragged peasants, warriors in leather and furs. Just for fun, I checked out the price of a wide, tooled leather belt: €175. Given that such belts were just a part of costumes that included everything from gorgeous headwear to curled-toed shoes, I can only imagine the investment some people make in their gear.

A small sampling of the costumes at the festival

I was looking forward to showing David the tents that I remembered dotting the grass beneath the ramparts of the city, so we crossed out of the walls via one of the town’s bridges and walked down the slope to where clumps of people in period dress clustered around tents demonstrating medieval crafts or selling food, drink and everything from hand-forged knives to leather wear. [See lead photo above.] The encampments ran around a corner of the base of the ramparts, spanning two sides of the town. Women in peasant dresses tended a small child who played in a wooden tub. Another woman demonstrated making thread. A man hurled throwing axes at a straw target. A group of peasants tended a small flock of black goats. And on it went. Random entertainment is liable to pop up anywhere. I remember when my sons were young, a sword fight broke out near a children’s archery range, quickly followed by a grappling hook “assault” on the town ramparts. My boys were entranced! This time, we didn’t see any swordplay, just “soldiers” marching past the tents. We bought an early Christmas present, then walked back uphill to enter the town again by yet another bridge.

A mobile “hospital” provides a random bit of entertainment at the Provins Medieval Festival

We found yet another busy square and a green area where archery supplies for rent drew a crowd who shot at a row of targets. Children played with farm animals in a small makeshift petting zoo. David bought cervoise from a brewmaster who explained the history of the drink and how it differed from beer. We loved the unique, sharply herbal flavor and agreed with the brewer that, even if they drank it warm in medieval times, he was right to serve it ice cold on this warm June day.

There’s a wonderful show put on at another spot at the base of the ramparts which we opted out of this time as I’d seen it several times and our time was limited. It’s definitely worth seeing, though, well-acted and in an ideal setting. The plot last times I saw it was simple: Invading “black” knights ride up to take the town and are met by town dignitaries. The sides agree to settle things by a sword fight between each side’s hero. When the black knight took a dastardly swing at the town hero’s back, my then second-grade son leaped up shouting, “Tricheur!” (“Cheater!”) I knew then his French was coming along fine. 🙂 There’s also an entertaining falconry show, medieval dance lessons, and a show entitled “between dog and wolf.” These spectacles are not included in the entry fee to the festival and tickets can be bought online in advance. As I’ve mentioned, though, there’s plenty of free entertainment, including musicians, dances, concerts, a parade and workshops where you can participate in activities ranging from pottery-making to forging metal.

Musicians near a gate through the walls of Provins

Practical Info: Provins is an easy train ride from Paris’ Gare de l’Est, about a hour and a half on Transilien train Line P. Provins is located in Zone 5 of the Paris/Ile de France transport system, so was included in our annual Navigo Passes. For those buying an individual ticket, the cost would currently be €5 each way, €2.50 for reduced-fare riders (which includes children 4-10 among other categories).

Les Médiévales de Provins takes place each year over a weekend in early June. Entrance fees this year for one-day were €12 in advance or €13 at the gates for adults and €7 for children over 12. Two-day adult passes were €18. Guests in costume (like me!) were €7 for one day and €10 for two days, but tickets for costumed visitors can only be bought on site. Children under 12 are free as are persons with disabilities (+1 accompanying person). I believe next year’s festival will be June 1 and 2, 2024. Find out more here.

Provins offers regular spectacles from late March through early November. Find more info here. The Provins Pass provides access to the 5 paying monuments of Provins: the Cesar Tower, the Tithe Barn, the Underground Galleries, the Saint-Ayoul Priory and the Museum.

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