If you’re looking for a nice escape from the crowds and chaos of Paris, consider heading to the small city of Chartres for a day or two. Situated 60 miles (96 km) southwest of Paris, just an hour’s train ride from the Montparnasse station with trains running almost every hour, the town is easy to get to. Chartres has its own charm, is not too crowded and is very easy to explore on foot.
Things to see and do in Chartres:
The main site of interest is the great cathedral whose spires dominate the skyline, about a five minute walk from the train station. Chartres’ Cathedral of our Lady is dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus, a theme present throughout the church. The cathedral is considered by many to be the finest Gothic cathedral in France, perhaps even all of Europe, and it has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Construction on the church began in 1194 shortly after the old church was destroyed in a fire. The new structure was completed in only 66 years, a remarkably short time in an era when it often took centuries to complete such massive projects. As such, it represents an unusual harmony of architecture, stained glass and other decor that represent the thinking and values of the time. It’s long been a site of Christian pilgrimage because it’s said to house Mary’s “Veil” (or birthing gown) which the church acquired in 876 A.D. and which survived the great fire of 1194 (fortunately it had been stored below ground in the crypt). Because of it’s magnificent church, Chartres became a medieval center of higher learning.
Spend a little time exploring the outside of the church and enjoy the fine quality of its statuary and details of its architecture, including the two spires, flying buttresses, a sundial and a rare 24 hour clock. Start at the pretty little square in front of the cathedral but be sure not only to see the details of the main (west) entrance, but also go to the north and south sides to see how well crafted and interesting these are.
The interior of the church is immense and memorable for its:
- Stained glass windows: To me the most impressive feature of the cathedral is the 176 stained glass windows (28,000 square feet worth), including magnificent Rose windows over the three entrances. Most windows date back to the time of the church’s construction. The windows are vibrant with color and tell hundreds of stories on their panes, a treat to the pilgrims of that time and for that matter also today’s tourists. Be sure you find the Blue Virgin window — whose color was extremely rare during the 12th century.
- Choir Screen, highlighting the life of Mary through 41 statue groups, from her birth to the Annunciation, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and Mary’s death and ascent to heaven. Remember these were crafted through the eyes of the medieval artisans and I found them fascinating.
- Labyrinth built into the floor which is large and partially obscured by the seats in the cathedral. See if you can find it — it’s much bigger than you think.
- Our Lady of the Pillar: A 17th century dark wood sculpture of Mary and baby Jesus, draped in cloth.
- Mary’s Veil: The tunic she allegedly wore when she gave birth to Jesus and the church’s main icon. As you would expect from a poor girl, its just a simple piece of cloth.
Consider taking the tours offered by historian Malcolm Miller who is the historic guru of this cathedral, having studied it for more than a half century. Malcolm has referred to Chartres Cathedral as a storybook of the entire Christian story and when you visit you’ll clearly see what he means.
Walking through the city
As you leave the cathedral, be sure you walk behind the church to the Bishop’s palace (now the Museum of Fine Arts) and enjoy this perspective of the church. The Bishop’s home has lovely and tranquil gardens as well great views of the Eure River valley and the medieval center of Chartres. If you’re tired and need a rest or want to eat your picnic lunch, this is a great spot.
Amble through the narrow medieval alleys and lanes of the old city, enjoying it’s many half timbered homes including the memorable Salmon House (with fish carved into its timbers– now it’s a tourist information center). During your walk you’re likely to see another lovely old church, the 13th century Church of St. Pierre, which has dramatically arched flying buttresses.
Make your way down to the River Eure and walk its banks, enjoying its picturesque charm and old humped bridges. While the Cathedral on the hill was a place for pilgrims to visit, the business and industry of old Chartres was centered along this river. Stop somewhere and just enjoy the quiet and ambiance of the place.
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