France - Chartres - Cathedral on the Hill
Jun 17, 2004
|Religion was, and still is, taken very seriously in France. No matter how small the village there will be at least one church. Larger towns and cities will have numerous churches as well as a cathedral. All have magnificent stained glass windows, high vaulted ceilings, an ornately carved pipe organ, a wealth of other furnishings, sculptures and paintings, and maybe even a few gargoyles if you're lucky. Most all of the churches have been burned down, bombed down, or ripped down over the years, rebuilt a number of times, and often have a real blend of architectural styles. The amazing architecture and grandeur of these churches and cathedrals reflects the powerful influence of medieval christianity. And there's no better example than the Notre Dame Cathedral in Chartres.
Chartres is in the upper "Centre Val-de-Loire" region, around the point where Brittany, Normandy and the Upper Loire meet. To get here I had to break my vow not to enter Paris, but it would've been a much longer and more expensive trip had I not gone thru Paris which seemed silly, and I only arrived in one train station, caught the metro, and left from another train station, so technically I don't think it counts.
Anyway, I originally travelled to Chartres because of its close proximity to Versailles which I wanted to visit, but I enjoyed snooping around Chartres so much that I lingered there and never made it to Versailles.
My standard protocol upon arrival in a new place is to: (i) dump my gear at the hostel, or a storage facility if the hostel isn't open yet, and (ii) hit the Tourist Office and get information on the town/city and a map that guides you on a walking tour through the old town district. It's a great way to go exploring without getting totally lost, and the map points out and explains all the significant highlights of the area.
Chartres boasts of having many things to delight and entertain a tourist. It apparently has one of the best retained medieval old town areas in France. Old watermills and former washhouses and tanneries line the banks of the Eure River. Numerous humpback stone bridges (which I fell in love with!) lead you into the lower old town area which has the ever-present twisting cobbled streets and 15th and 16th century half-timbered houses. The oldest house in Chartres dates back to the 12th century. I enjoyed reading the street signs in one particular district; they obviously had a bit of fun here as sometimes there were humorous names or pictures, and sometimes a name which gave a strong hint of an event that occurred there in the past.
Numerous ramps and long stairways lead you ever upward from the lower old town area to the upper town area where the cathedral is located high on top the hill. The 2 steeples, clearly visible for many miles, are still used as a guiding beacon for people travelling on pilgrimage.
Because the cathedral is quite large and filled with so much history, I took a tour conducted by charming englishman, Malcolm Miller. This is Malcolm's 47th year conducting cathedral tours, so I'd say he's pretty much an expert on the subject. He knows every nook and cranny in the building and speaks of her in loving tones and descriptions. With additional wit and humour, the tour was extremely enjoyable and definitely worth the money spent.
Chartre's Notre Dame Cathedral packs a long list of heavy duty credentials, and you can soon see why it's considered one of France's greatest cathedrals. This is the sixth cathedral to be built on the present site, the first cathedral dating back to the 4th century. The present cathedral, built between 1134 and 1230, is the most complete and well preserved example of Gothic cathedral architecture. Larger in size than its namesake in Paris, it's crypt (below the cathedral) is also the largest in France. It has 172 stained glass windows, mostly from the 13th century, considered the finest collection in Europe in terms of their age and beauty. Thanks to Malcolm, we received an interpretation of these medieval "picture books".
As if the list weren't already long enough, the biggest treasure held in the crypt of the cathedral is what is believed to be a piece of the original robe worn by the Virgin Mary, although it's no longer on display as flash bulbs were causing deterioration. This relic, called "Virgin Mary's Veil" is the reason why Chartres Cathedral is still a place of pilgrimage.
The Cathedral also has a black stone labyrinth (sort of like a maze, but on the floor), normally covered with chairs but for some reason they remove the chairs on Fridays and it's a tradition that people "walk the labyrinth". Well, since I was there on Friday I also walked the labyrinth. What the heck, isn't there a saying "while in Rome do like the Romans"?
Okay, I'm pretty much done with touring cathedrals now! Time to head further south and see some chateaux!