Europe's train systems make it possible to reclaim a sense of adventure--and still be back in time for dinner.
PARIS TO PROVINS
Exploring medieval France without using a time machine: Provins (it's pronounced pro-vanh) is one of the few medieval towns in the Paris region, and it's certainly the prettiest. More than a mile of crenellated ramparts hugs the ville haute (upper town), which is crowned by the Tour César, a turreted, fortified tower that overlooks the fertile green countryside. Back in its heyday in the 12th and 13th centuries, Provins was famous for its huge trading fairs, or foires, when the streets welcomed convoys of carts and wagons full of goods from all over Europe. You'll arrive in the more recent--and also pretty--ville basse (lower town). From there, a 10-minute stroll takes you to the base of the medieval cité. There aren't a lot of clearly marked signs to the old town from the train station; grab a map at the train station, or print one in advance at provins.net. The center of the old town is the place du Châtel, a large square surrounded by half-timbered buildings and several cafés. In the morning (hours vary by season), you can visit the Tour César, the domed Saint Quiriace church (an interesting conglomeration of 13th- and 17th-century architecture), and the Grange aux Dîmes, a huge 13th-century edifice used by merchants during the fairs to sell their wares. Your best lunch option is a picnic in front of the magnificent 12th- and 13th-century ramparts. If you come on Saturday, stock up on goodies at the open-air market in the ville basse; if the weather doesn't cooperate, have a crepe at La Fleur de Sel. During the high season (April-October), there are plenty of ways to spend the afternoon, including a falconry display with eagles and vultures; a re-creation of a battle, complete with knights in shining armor; and a motorized tourist train called Le Petit Train that runs around the ville haute.
Brie and bread from Au Bon Terroir; made in the area, the cheese is far superior to the pasteurized stuff sold in the U.S.
Provins Tourism Office: 011-33/1-64-60-26-26, provins.net. Tour César: rue de la Pie, $4.50. Grange aux Dîmes: 2 rue Saint Jean, $4.50; call or check website for schedule November to March. La Fleur de Sel: place du Châtel, 011-33/1-64-00-26-34. Battle re-creation: $6. Le Petit Train: $7. Au Bon Terroir: place du Châtel, ville haute, 011-33/6-85-54-60-57.
80 minutes each way. Round-trip ticket: $26. Commuter trains to Provins leave from Paris's Gare de l'Est; a direct line runs every morning at 9:09, except Mondays (9:14) and Saturdays (10:14). Since a round-trip ticket costs $26, you're better off buying a Mobilis one-day pass valid for eight zones ($25)--Provins is in Zone 8--which allows unlimited travel on Paris's public transport and regional trains. Cards can be purchased in advance at metro, bus, and train stations. On the day of travel, write the date and your name on the card; it's activated once you insert it into a subway turnstile or get it stamped at one of the yellow composteur machines at Gare de l'Est. The ride to Provins takes about 80 minutes. The 5:53 p.m. return train arrives in Paris in time for dinner; there's also one at 8:10 P.M. Schedules at transilien.com.