An hour south-west from Paris Gare du Montparnasse by train, Chartres makes an excellent option for a few hours out if the capital.
The small city is dominated by its huge cathedral, a classic Gothic structure with its vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses, beautiful stained-glass windows and amazing carvings inside and out.
Add to that the largest crypt in France, and you have a more than compelling reason to visit.
France has more than its fair share of classic Gothic cathedrals (Reims, Troyes, Strasbourg, Rouen, Metz, Paris, instantly spring to mind as fine examples that I have visited), in fact France has more than any country. Chartres is right up there with the best of them.
The vast 220 metre long U-shaped structure with its differing front towers and archetypal circular stained-glass window above the entry gates, dominates the whole city and the skyline for miles around. From the moment you leave the train station you are in its giant shadow, with the monolith looming larger with each step up the hill.
The present day cathedral was built at the turn of the 13th Century following a devastating fire in 1194, although previous incarnations have stood on the site many centuries before.
As with all structures of this size, it is impossible to photograph the exterior in such a way that does it justice. After your best efforts, you turn your attention to the incredible entrance porticoes with their giant statues of the three wise men, saints, apostles, angels and kings. The attention to detail is stunning and although I expect they were created some 800 years ago, they are remarkably well preserved.
Inside is a treat as well. The high vaulted stone ceiling is as white as if it had been bleached and your eye travels the full length of the knave, past the choir to the main altar.
This was a building to be lingered in. The windows were amongst the finest I had ever seen, most with a mesmerising deep blue hue. The most famous window depicts the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus, the Madonna dressed in azure blue and surrounded by blazing red. That’s a window that I will remember for quite some time.
The choir area was surrounded by amazing stucco reliefs depicting the nativity, Christ’s baptism and crucifixion. At the back of the choir stood a huge marble statue of the Assumption – we were later to view the incredible crypt that lay beneath and provided the supporting foundations for heavyweight marble masterpiece.
I spent longer inside this cathedral than any I can remember, apart perhaps from the stunning architectural majesty of Segovia in Spain. Chartres went straight into the top echelons of my cathedral charts, and this without bothering to climb the mighty bell tower as I usually do.
I made up for my tower omission by taking the crypt tour, a tour in French only that runs 4-5 times a day and costs €4. It did not matter a jot that we could not understand the guide, €4 was well spent to wander the cavernous foundations with their multiple chapels, 33 metre deep well & vivid frescoe paintings.
At one point, the singing of nuns wafted sweetly through the stone corridors. We were approaching our last stop on the tour, the Our Lady of the Crypt Chapel.
The nuns were singing afternoon vespers and for a while we were beguiled as we wandered towards the melodies. When the nuns spotted us approaching, they stopped their singing and froze in religious contemplation (or maybe in thinking ‘why don’t those frightful tourists go away?’). It was a great shame, especially as it was replaced by our guide explaining heaven knows what!
Our tour was over at this point. The nuns stayed motionless, staring in our direction with a blank look in their eyes. As we left, they continued their melodic tune, a fitting way to spend our last moments in this amazing giant.
Chartres as a whole was also very pleasant with some nice restaurants & cafes, a covered fruit & vegetable market and a couple of museums including the free to enter musee des beaux artes, interesting enough and housed in a delightful mansion with fine grounds.
We ran out of time and did not get the chance to properly discover the old town or get down by the riverside. I have seen pictures though and this would be well worth a look if you get the chance.
The star of the show though was undoubtedly Our Lady……