9 Feb 2019
I’m standing on the station platform. The train doors are closing and are more than half shut when my pack comes flying through the ever-diminishing opening and lands with a thud at my feet. The doors snap shut and we scream at the top of our lungs Merci! Merci! as the train pulls away.
We’d taken the Paris Metro from République to Montparnasse. We’re pretty sure that’s the right station to connect with the train to Chartres. As the train pulls in to Montparnasse we start to second-guess ourselves and I stand to look at the Metro map. Don stands too, and at the last second we decide this is the right stop and quickly get off the train. We’re in such a hurry to get off the train before the doors close that I hadn’t noticed that I’d left my pack behind. Thank goodness for the quick-thinking woman sitting near us. And thank goodness there was nothing breakable in my pack. Phew! Lucky again!
The town of Chartres is 90 kilometres southwest of Paris and is famous for its cathedral, which is proclaimed to be the finest surviving example of the High Gothic period. We have friends who’ve been to Chartres. Some of them more than once. Every time it’s mentioned that we’re going back to Paris the chorus is: go to Chartres! You must go to Chartres! So we do.
It does not disappoint.
It takes a little under two hours to get there by train. The cathedral is a short distance from the station. You can see the steeples almost immediately, one a Gothic frivolity, the other austere Romanesque, that loom above this glorious 13th-century building. Walking from the station towards the steeples, the cathedral is the first thing of note you come to. And it is unquestionably notable. There’s no walking past this beauty.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres is built on the highest point in the area, a site that has been a place of worship since ancient times. First there was a Celtic temple, then a Roman temple, then five – five! – cathedrals since Chartres became a Bishopric in the fourth century. One has to admire the perseverance of the Bishopric and the local population.
In 1194 the Romanesque cathedral that occupied the site was destroyed by fire. The cathedral that stands today, built from 1205 to 1270, replaces it, and even today, eight hundred years later, it’s in a remarkable state of preservation, with almost all the original stained-glass windows intact.
But it too almost didn’t survive.
Chartres suffered heavy bombing during WWII and it was thought that the Germans were using the cathedral as an observation post. Welborn (yes that really is his first name) Barton Griffith Jr., an American Colonel, questioned the decision to bomb the cathedral and offered to go behind enemy lines to check. He was able to confirm that there were no Germans in the building and so the order to bomb it was withdrawn. He was killed in battle later that same day. What a hero Griffith was, and what a lucky break for the cathedral. It still stands to tell its many stories and to fill the hearts of visitors like us.
We didn’t really know what to expect, but were held in thrall by this extraordinary building for almost two hours. There are the two contrasting steeples, flying buttresses, hundreds of sculpted figures depicting theological themes and stories, and both Romanesque and High Gothic sculpted portals. And that’s just the exterior.
We walk slowly around the building finding a new and interesting aspect at every turn.
The interior takes my breath away with its soaring beauty. It was believed that light was an expression of the divine, and standing inside the cathedral, seeing the luminous stained-glass windows
and the towering vaulted stone ceiling is almost a transcendent experience. This is, of course, exactly what the architects of the Gothic style were hoping to achieve.
We walk slowly around, taking in the details. There are two hundred white stone figures illustrating the lives of Jesus and Mary, forming a renaissance screen around the choir,
and there is a labyrinth on the floor – a maze-like pathway worked into the stone designed for walking meditation.
From the cathedral it’s all downhill,
but only literally. Just as much as the cathedral is magnificent, the old town is infinitely charming as it cascades down the side of the hill, it’s narrow winding streets taking you on a journey of discovery.
I feel as if I’ve stepped back in time. Where are the peasants pushing carts of vegetables? Where are the troubadours? Where are the women hurling their slops from the upper windows, and the children playing hopscotch or bowling hoops along the streets? And where especially is the Pied Piper? I know we’re in France, but this town feels like it could be the home of that famous rat-catcher of the German town of Hamelin, and if we’re not careful perhaps we’ll be spirited away never to be seen again.
The name Chartres goes back to the time of the Druids and comes from the Celtic Carnutes who made this their principal centre. Like all towns in Europe Chartres has seen a lot – territorial wars, occupations, various counts and dukes and kings claiming ownership, fires, religious wars, and finally being severely damaged during WWII.
And yet here it stands, a living testament to an earlier time. A movie set. A village of dollhouses.
It almost doesn’t matter where you go the steeples of the cathedral dominate the skyline.
Even right down by the river they are still not obscured.
The town is full of wonderful galleries and art studios,
and restaurants and bakeries. We have a delicious lunch of a baguette stuffed with something good that I don’t remember, and lemon tart.
On our way down to the river I see this man coming towards us. He’s one of very few people we see on the streets.
It turns out he’s not French though I would have sworn he was. We chat a while and he reveals that he’s 90, from Boston, and has lived in Chartres with his French wife for the past ten years.
The Eure River flows through the town, branching into three separate streams criss-crossed by many small bridges, some of them truly ancient.
We follow the river and eventually come to the 12th century Saint-André Collegiate Church.
I walk up and down these three canal branches of the river, especially here, especially by the water. I can’t get enough of it because I’m pursuing something that I’ll probably never get. It is a deep curiosity about what it’s like to live here. I want to be able to peer inside these homes.
I know they have modern plumbing, and electricity, and the Internet, but what is it like to live in a place so ancient, so grounded in history? What’s it like to live somewhere that has been around for hundreds of years, and to live in a building that has seen and survived so much and yet still stands with such grace? And in the end that is what I feel most about Chartres. It’s a sense of grace, from the cathedral, to the streets
to the details
this elegant old town with its incomparable cathedral exudes a grace that opens my heart and fills me with gratitude.
On 10 Feb 2019 we flew from Paris to New Delhi, and from there to Rishikesh, Uttarakhand.
Next several posts: Rishikesh on the Ganges.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.