One of the advantages of a vacation in Paris is the number of really cool places there are to visit as day-trips outside the city. The most visited of these is probably Versailles - but there's also Giverny, Chartres and Fontainebleau - all very interesting, and all full of tourists.
Yet there is one such trip that seems to have fallen-off the tourist radar screen - is close to Paris - and is an absolute gem. So if you're looking to get away from it all and still be in a magnificent locale, break-out your map and find Provins, just 40 miles southeast of Paris.
In 2001 Provins was named a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its rich history, beauty, and collection of well maintained medieval sites. And once there, the only thing you really need in order to traverse the entire city is a good pair of walking shoes - and a map.
Trains to Provins leave from the Gare d'Est roughly every hour (€18 round trip), and it's about a 90 minute ride with stops in a few small villages along the way. When buying your ticket, go to the window for the TER trains (Transport Exprès Régional) - not the SCNF window - since Provins is within the confines of l'Ile de France (essentially everything within a 40 mile radius of Paris).
Upon arrival at the train station there are buses available into town - but it is such a small and quaint village that I suggest walking to maximize your on the ground time. There are two basic areas to explore; the village of Provins (lower town) where the current residents live - and the medieval hill section (upper town) where you will see the majority of historical sites.
The walk from the train station to Le Tour César is a good place to start. This will take you through the lower village and up the hill to the historic medieval area; about a 30 minute, easy walk. And once up there, a trip inside le Tour César is well-worth the €4 entry fee, and a great place from which to see all of Provins.
From here you have a 360° view of the village and surrounding countryside. There is also a film presented on the history of the area - and the opportunity to wander around a real, well preserved, medieval tower. It's pretty neat.
Just below the tower is the 12th century Maison Romane, which now houses the Provins Museum. And just a few steps from the museum is the upper town's central plaza, which is a great place to find something to eat, or simply sit with a sack lunch while you watch the world go by.
Leaving the plaza you will soon reach one of the highlights of the trip - the fortified walls built during the time of Charlemagne. Provins was the home to the Counts of Champagne during the Middle Ages and the principal location of the leading medieval fairs of that period. As such, it was in need of protection from brigands and foreign armies. Hence the fortifications.
Medieval knight's armies once paraded down these very streets and through the Portes (entry points through the walls) on their way to the Crusades. Walking along these fortifications today is like a journey back in time. And inside the fortifications, fascinating period performances are presented (e.g. The Eagles of Provins) that the entire family will love. And there's even a quite interesting (if somewhat gruesome) medieval weapons museum.
As you eventually wander back into the lower town, there are two places of particular interest to see. The Notre Dame du Val clock tower dating from the 12th century, with a clock that still works. Also, St. Ayoul's Church close by - dating from 1000 A.D.
At St. Ayoul's be sure to see of the saints sculpted into the foyer of the main entrance. You will notice that each and every one of them are missing their heads; a little momento of the anti-clerical zeal during The French Revolution.
From this point in the village you are a 10 minute walk away from the train station. And along the way you will see some of the oldest wood frame houses still standing in all of France.
It is quite simply a delightful village - not swarmed by tourists (yet) - and a lovely place to walk and soak-up both history and charm. It will be one of the highlights of any trip to France, and completely doable as a day-trip from Paris.