Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Where Eagles Dare...

...and also falcons, hawks, owls, vultures, and one Secretary Bird...

The medieval town of Provins lies just 80 kilometers southeast of Paris, an easy train ride from the Gare de l'Est. The old capital of the Counts of Champagne, Provins today is a city frozen in time.

Its fortified ramparts stretch as far as the eye can see, offering the feudal lords in the 12th and 13th centuries a perfect defence against the Kings of France.

Inside the gates, winding streets lead the visitor past stone houses, covered at this time of the year with wisteria and other climbing vines...

...and timbered houses that show the beauty of lilacs as well!

In the very heart of the town, La Place du Châtel is still home to an ancient well and the "Exchange Cross", dating from the 13th century. Here, financial transactions took place, and public notices were posted with edicts from the Counts of Champagne.

Just visible in the background, and a short walk away, the Saint-Quiriace Collegiate Church dominates the lower part of town. Begun in the 12th century under Count Henri le Liberal, it was never completed, due to financial difficulties in the reign of Philippe le Bel. After a fire in the 17th century, the striking dome was erected. Every evening at dusk, it is lit, spilling its soft glow for miles around.

Inside, under the soaring vaulted roof, a celebration of Sunday Mass honored VE Day (May 8), when all of France pauses in memory of the end of WWII in Europe. On the right, two French Tricolors can just barely be seen, marking the occasion.

Just above Saint-Quiriace, on the edge of a rocky spur, stands the redoubtable 12th century Tour César. As a symbol of the Counts of Champagne's power, it was used as a watch tower, a prison and a bell-tower.

Matthew and I slowly made our way up the winding stairways to the top of the tower...

...where the views were stunning.

The bell tower itself was added in the 17th century to house the bells of the church below, after it burned.

Mercifully, it did not ring during our visit!

Just off the main square, this 12th century tithe barn (grange au dîmes) became a centre of the commercial fairs that moved around this part of France. Strategically situated, La Champagne stood at the commercial crossroads for merchants from the North, South and East.

Inside, merchants came from Venice, Florence, Genoa and Flanders, as well as from local areas to set up their wares.

The money-changer had an important role to play. He sat on un banc, a bench, and the word banc soon became "banker". His table and bench might be ceded as a fief, or sold out. Here, he weighs the coins to be sure they are honest!

Then there was the scribe, the letter-writer. On a wax board, he wrote down every deed between the merchants and the changers, drew up the rules of the fairs, as well as the bills of exchange. By the way, if he wrote with his right hand, he chose a feather from the left wing of a bird, and vice-versa if he wrote with his left hand!
Today, Provins cherishes its unique historical heritage, along with some modern additions for the thousands of families who come here every year. In December, 2001, the city became part of UNESCO's World Heritage Lists. 

As well as carousel rides, horse buggy rides, live music, shops selling specialties of the region, and a good choice of cafés and restaurants, visitors can also dress up in medieval costumes, like this knight, and then take home a photograph as a souvenir.

For most visitors, though, the climax of their visit takes place with this man, Philippe Hertel, and his colleagues, who present a show twice a day: Les Aigles des Remparts (Eagles of the Ramparts). As a mad lover of birds, I was curious to see the show, but never could have imagined what was about to unfold before our very eyes!

Set against the inside corner of one section of the ramparts, the Vol Libre team, with costumes, music, props and narration, transported us back to medieval times and the world of falconry and raptors. 

Up on the ramparts, a man walked along, a large raptor on his hand. When he reached the corner, he released the bird, who soared way up and then swooped low, low, low over the audience, before climbing back up into the sky again...

...and then down into the arena, where the same man's arm was waiting. That was just the beginning.

For the next 50 minutes, we sat spellbound as more and more birds appeared, circled, swooped, rushed toward us, then veered away, only to return, on a signal, and land on the trainer's glove, like this small falcon.

 After the falcons, it was time for owls! First to fly in was this big grey species from Russia...
...then from out of nowhere, barn owls appeared, maybe a dozen of them, flying this way and that, almost touching our heads as they skimmed by us.

Here's one, perched on the railing, as a second one comes flying in on the right...

...a second later, and they are both on her arm!

One of the big delights for me was the appearance of a Secretary Bird (Sagittarius serpentarius), a large, mostly ground-dwelling bird that's endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. I used to see them in the South African game parks when I lived there. Wonderful birds, tall, long legs with this quill of feathers on the back of the head. Striding through the bush with their distinctive grey and black plumage, they look like Dickensian clerks scurrying to don an eyeshade and pick up their pen - thus the name, Secretary Bird!

In Sunday's show, the setting was more like Sudan, with the trainers in desert garb, the one dangling a wriggling rope to mimic a snake, the bird's favorite food. See if you can get this video to play on your computer.

By this time, we were breathless! Then, a movement behind us:  a bald eagle taking off from a platform...

...landing just a few feet in front of us, before taking off again...

...coming to rest even closer, folding its massive wingspan neatly in!

Throughout the show, one or other of the crew wove the wonderful history of falconry into an excellent narration, which also told us so much about these raptors, these birds of prey, how each is adapted to its particular environment, how their incredible eyesight and hearing is key to their success, etc. etc. Vol Libre's birds are born in captivity, some of them in their own bird enclosures behind the arena. They also take ownership of birds from zoos, bird parks, as well as from private breeders in England, Belgium and Germany.  I have mixed feelings about birds in cages, but watching these magnificent creatures in action, soaring through the sky, and then returning to their keepers, you really sensed a strong relationship between them, one of mutual respect and admiration.

As a final image, they released half a dozen vultures, who hovered above us and perched on the ramparts, their flexible necks twisted, their heads peering down at us. Silhouetted against the sky, their malevolent aspect was palpable. Perhaps this was our cue to leave this magical medieval world, and head back home to rue Réaumur, where our avian neighbors are mostly pigeons, and the occasional blackbird, whose song always brings a smile to my face!

À bientôt!


  1. What an increadible experience. Looks truly 'awesome'

  2. Wow - that looks awesome. We're definitely gonna take Willa

  3. Un superbe article pour une superbe balade ! ça donne envie (malgré le froid) !

  4. Those birds looked amazing!!!

  5. I love the video the best, which is too bad because I'm a still photographer.

  6. I enjoy reading your post guys,,, just keep posting. Life Quotes