Great cathedral, world-class stained glass
SNCF from Gare Montparnasse, www.chartres-tourisme.com. A pleasant old river-side town of crooked streets and gabled houses, Chartres plays second string to its chief glory, the great Gothic Cathédrale de Nôtre-Dame. One of the miracles of medieval architecture, the cathedral was built on an ancient Christian site over the ruins of a Romanesque pilgrim church largely destroyed by fire in 1294. The left-hand tower, one of a pair which can be seen from miles around, and the famous carved Portal Royal remain from the Romanesque church, but the rest of the cathedral was built in an astonishing 25 years. The flying buttresses were the first of their kind, and the overall harmony is most impressive.
Of the interior, the broad nave retains its rare 13thC maze which worshippers would trace out on their knees, but it is only fully visible during pilgrimage times when the chairs are moved out. There are fine carvings and a beautiful Renaissance choir screen, but it is the stained glass which predominates, a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour lent depth by the glorious and unrepeatable ‘Chartres blue’. Some 3,000 square metres of the 12th-13thC glass was painstakingly removed for its protection during the First and Second World Wars.
Another special feature of Chartres is Malcolm Miller, a passionate cathedral scholar and brilliant guide who used to conduct the noon and afternoon tours on Mondays to Saturdays from Easter to November. He’s now semi retired, so check his availability.
With time to spare, a stroll around the old town is recommended, or relax in the cathedral gardens which slope down towards the Eure. The Musée des Beaux-Arts with its paintings and lovely tapestries is housed here in the old bishop’s palace. At the north corner of the gardens a flight of steps leads down to the quayside near the Romanesque Eglise de Saint-André, now used as a cultural centre.
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