Back in May 2015, I spent a day in this beautiful little town with my Dad and his wife. Being the deadline-oriented, focused writer I am, I’ve let nothing get between me and this post.
Chartres is about 80km south-west of Paris, 1h20 by train and worth a day visit, but probably not much more. The town’s big drawcard, and the reason for our visit, is the UNESCO World Heritage listed Notre Dame de Chartres, arguably the most beautiful Gothic cathedral in France.
This cathedral was built almost entirely between 1194 and 1205, which is pretty bloody quick for that era (consider that the Notre Dame de Paris took over 200 years and the Duomo in Milan closer to 800) and it’s incredibly well preserved, surviving the French Revolution and both World Wars.
It’s also long been a pilgrimage site, being an important crossing and stopping point on the Routes of Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James) and is famous for its distinctive unmatched spires and beautiful stained glass panels which are almost entirely intact. They were removed in 1939 just before Germany invaded France, and were cleaned and re-leaded before being replaced after liberation. Good job team.
The Cathedral is very close to the train station (actually, everything is close to the train station: it’s not a big town), so we made a beeline right for it. Laid out like a giant T, it is freaking enormous. It’s three stories tall, and 130m long. I felt like a tiny ant walking around inside it, a feeling enhanced by it’s relative calm: there weren’t too many people about, one of the joys of small-town France. I haven’t quite inherited my Dad’s passion for architecture, but I was humbled by it’s beauty and enormity. Especially the enormity. It is staggering to think it was built without cranes and computers.
I wandered down the western end and ended up standing directly on top of the preserved 12th century labyrinth, a design created out of stone on the floor which pilgrims walk around as the finish their pilgrimage. Apparently every Friday the chairs are pushed out of the way so pilgrims can walk along it. I concluded that I would get very dizzy.
While I was waiting outside in the sunshine, the local crazy guy sang me songs and gave me a pendant of Saint Christopher. That was very nice.
After a sandwich at the friendly little boulangerie (people are so friendly outside Paris! They must be hiding something…) we walked up and down little cute cobblestone streets, towards the rue des Ecuyers which was lined with half-timbered houses, and a beautiful sixteenth-century spiral staircase of carved oak, known as the Staircase of Queen Berthe. We searched high and low, but no explanation was given as to why it is called the Staircase of Queen Berthe. I took things into my own hands. “Queen Berthe was an enormously fat and eccentric woman, not actually a Queen, who once lived in this home with her tame badger. She spent her considerable and mysterious fortune (said to have been stolen from a Spanish bee-keeper) on this staircase, specially designed to support her weight. It’s heavily fortified design ensured that it would endure until the present day”*
Chartres is flanked by branches of the Eure River, and we crossed over it at the old bridge known as La Porte Guilliuame, giving us a wonderful view looking back up towards the town. The dense, old structures and the nature hill created a lovely terraced effect.
The Porte Guillaume itself was built in the beginning of the 15th century, as a defensible entrance to the town. It stood unchanged by the years until being almost completely destroyed by the retreating German Army on the 16th of August 1944. There is only a little scrap of it left now, but since 2010 the city has been actively working towards reconstructing it. Perhaps when I come back one day I’ll be able to see it completed.
There was tonnes of interesting information, and a picture of a postcard from between 1902 - 1904 that shows what it looked like before the bombings of 1944. I tried to recreate it, although the original photographer must have been standing on a ladder or had very long legs.
We crossed back through a gorgeous terraced garden to the back of the Cathedral, where I took a bunch of out of focus pictures while trying to get the arty flower-framing-the-building effect. Mixed results.
Our last stop was the Musée du Verre (Museum of Glass), which is a bit misleading. It’s actually only about stained glass windows, which is too bad, as the history of glass, it’s creation and the role it has played in human civilization would be a fabulous subject for a Museum. In any case, they actually managed to make still-fascinating subject of stained glass extremely dull. The walls of the ground floor were covered with photographs of windows, set beside long and dry descriptions of the images.
‘This panel represents Saint Obnivacious kneeling on a pile of apples. Saint Obnivacious is remembered as a Saint who could not walk past an apple tree without gathering all the apples together and kneeling on them. In his later life, he had bad arthiritis. He also had a very large nose and was nephew to Sybil the Goat, wife of Jean the Unusually Tall.’**
What about the men who made these panels? Did they get lead poisoning? How did they learn their craft? Who decided what to depict? Were they happy?
The worst part is that right next door was a real, live workshop with real, live glass artisans working away. I forced my head into a tiny gap to try get a glimpse of what they were up to, but my damned front-facing eyes let me down.
I’m about a trillion times more interested in seeing somebody work in glass than reading endless plaques, yet this is what we are forced to work with. Seriously guys.
Anyway, underneath the museum was a great display of modern stained glass art workers, and huge printed images of their work in modern Churches around the world. This was truly wonderful, and the only reason I’d recommend visiting this museum.
When we emerged and convened, we realised that it was beer o’clock and Chartres had offered us all that it could for the day. While our train home slowly made its way north towards us, we found a cute cafe at the foot of the Cathedral, and drank cold beers in the afternoon sun.
*This is not even close to being true.
** I also made this up. This is actually way more interesting that what the plaques really said. I was so bored by them I immediately erased them from my memory.