Chartres

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Many travel guides locate Chartres (pop  41,600) within the IÎle-de-France region, as it is within an hour's travelling distance by train from Gare Montparnasse, in the 14th arrondissement and thus presents itself as a wonderfully viable day trip from Paris.  It does, however, lie on the Beauce Plains (the “granary of France”) and is the capital of the Eure-et-Loire department, squarely within the Centre region. The name Chartres comes from Carnutes, a Druid tribe that lived in the region. The town is best known for its 13th century cathedral which has made Chartres a pilgrim destination and whose spires rise above the surrounding golden wheat base.

Despite having suffered many onslaughts throughout history (from the Norman attacks in the 9th century and the Protestant battles during the Wars of Religion, to the WWII bombings); Chartres has managed to preserve this fine Gothic building as well as many other medieval structures that lie on its riverbanks. The surrounding natural landscape together with these ancient buildings, give Chartres its distinct rural flavour.

 


 


CHARTRES 
STREET MAP:   1. Tourist office  2. Train station  3. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres  4. Église St Aignan  5. Église St Pierre  6. Collégiale St- Andre  7. rue des Écuyes 8. Musée des Beaux-Arts

 

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Cathédrale de ChartresThe sublime Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres [24 cloître Notre-Dame,  +33 237217502 ] is considered the world's finest High Gothic cathedral, just squeezing out its rival Gothic Cathedral in Cologne . This UNESCO World Heritage Site stands on a promontory of the Eure River, overlooking the town with its 130m long ‘wingspan’ and is said to be one of the finest achievements of the Western civilisation’s architectural legacy.

The cathedral sits on a somewhat holy spot, as 6 different churches have been built here, and indeed it may have been a former Druid sacred site. The current cathedral was erected in the 13th century in place of a Romanesque church that was severely burnt by a massive fire in 1194. The present-day Gothic church remains relatively unchanged since its construction, which took place surprisingly quickly, in a matter of 30 years, and it owes its architectural homogeneity to this quick construction process.       

There remain a few remnants of the former Romanesque place of worship, such as the Portail Royal, the western entrance which dates back to 1145, featuring high arches and statues that depict the life of Christ, and the old Clocher Vieux (bell tower), a 112m high Romanesque steeple.        

FRANCE CENTRE chartres au couchantThe interior of the cathedral houses its transcendental stained glass windows, most of which date back to  before the 13th century, and covering some 2,600 square metres.  The most notable are located above the Portail Royal and below the rose window; dating back to the mid-12th century. These stained glass works are known for their unique deep blue tones which are refracted into the interior prompting the colour itself to be named the Chartres blue

Inside the cathedral a 110m crypt- the largest in France – an empty Romanesque structure that was built in 1024, and believed to be the centre of ancient Druid ceremonies that were held here before before and during the Gallo-Roman period.  You can visit the crypt, but it is rather gloomy.     

The cathedral houses the Holy veil of the Virgin Mary (Sancta Camisia)- a veil apparently worn by the Virgin Mary during childbirth.  This relic was perhaps the reason for the cathedral’s speedy construction, as the veil which was presented to the church by Charles II, attracted many pilgrims to the site, causing the locals to pour in donations and free labour to complete the construction of the building quickly.     

Check out the choir screen dated from the 16th century which wraps around the choir and separates it from the ambulatory.  Its intricately carved details depict scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The chancel screen contains an astrological clock that told the time, the day of the week, the month of the year, the time of sunrise and sunset and the phase of the moon.

If not covered with chairs, the ancient 11.9 metre 13th century pavement laybrinth is worth appreciating for its esoteric geometry that plots out 11 walking circuits for monks to perform ritual contemplation ... and Easter dances as well.  There is just one path through the labyrinth and it is 294 metres long.

Different sides of the cathedral present different features, as the entire area is extremely detailed. Hence, if you do not wish to miss a thing, guided tours are recommended. 

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CHARTRES CATHEDRAL  Exterior:   1. Royal Portal  2. Old bell tower  3. Buttresses    Interior:  4. West Rose Window  5. North Rose Window  6 South Rose WIndow  7. Choir screen  8. Crypt entrance  9. Labyrinth  10. Nave

Other places that also house striking stained glass paintings are the St Aignan (17th century stained glass) and St Pierre (14th century stained glass) churches, both standing on the banks of the Eure River, southeast of the cathedral. The Église St Aignan [Place St-Aignan] was built in the 16th century, with intriguing wooden barrel-vault roofs. Église St Pierre [Place St-Pierre] dates further back, as it was once part of a Benedictine monastery in the 7th century. Being located outside the cathedral borders, the church was built with defensive structures such as the Romanesque bell tower that was used as a refuge by the monks.
 

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Surrounding these churches is Chartres' Old City. It is a well-preserved quarter that is home to several streets lined with medieval structures, including the ruins of Collégiale St- Andre that stopped functioning in 1791. Across the river lies a north-south bound stretch that provides a nostalgic return to Chartres’s rural riverside lifestyle. Further down is a popular riverside promenade, rue des Écuyes – one of the best restored zones in the old city, lined with several old half-timbered homes.

Musée des Beaux-Arts [29 cloître Notre-Dame,  +33 37904580, ad/ch €5.10/2.60 (Prices vary)], which is just north of the cathedral in a former Bishop’s palace. This 18th century building is home to a varied art collection that features works ranging from Zurbaban, Vlaminck and Leonard Limosin.

The town is busiest in mid-August, when it holds its annual Procession du Voen de Louis XIII. This procession attracts many tourists and pilgrims, as it commemorates the French monarchy’s vow to serve the Virgin Mary.