Rambling ’round France: Chartres Cathedral, a Gothic Wonder
Chartres makes for an easy, affordable weekend jaunt. There is no lack of things to do.
The Gothic cathedral is of course, the main thing to see, and you can spend 2 days just exploring that.
The cathedral itself, both inside and out, is truly one of the wonders of the world. The crypt includes a Romanesque church on top of which the cathedral was built, Roman ruins, an old Druid well, and a gallery that was probably used by the Druids to worship Bellissima, and later converted into a chapel dedicated to the Mother and Child of Chartres (it is said that the Druid goddess Bellissima also held a baby in her arms, although in a different position from the classic Christian manner).
The tower gives wonderful views of the medieval town, as well as the sculptures, buttresses and framework of the cathedral itself. My neighbor Eric Vivien gives extremely detailed explanations in his tours. Don’t forget to look for the labyrinth in the middle floor of the cathedral as well. On certain days, they clear away the chairs, and let pilgrims walk around it.
Another neighbor, Englishman Malcolm Miller, who fell in love with the stained glass windows in Chartres decades ago, is the great specialist on the Chartres’ stained glass windows, considered by most to be the most beautiful and well preserved in the world. He gives regular tours at 12:00 p.m. and 2:25 p.m. except on Sundays. It is best to contact the tourist office at the end of the cathedral esplanade just to make sure. Please note that his tours are private, and not associated to those organized by the tourist office.
Another interesting stopoff is the Loir family stained glass store to the left as you face the cathedral. The Loir family has been making stained glass for generations, and continue to provide cathedrals all over the world with stained glass windows. The shop includes restored as well as contemporary stained glass, and has rotating exhibitions of contemporary artists.
A walk around the medieval city is also breathtaking if you are interested in architecture. During the Middle Ages, the town is said to have had over 120 churches. Some people say the very ground is telluric, meaning that it is full of good (and perhaps holy) energy. That might be one of the reasons that people have been making pilgrimages there for at least 5,000 if not 6,000 years, well before Christ was born.
Suggestion: Get a good map from the tourist office before you start getting lost in the “labyrinth” of the city.
How to Get There
easyJet lands at Orly Sud and from there you walk across the street and pick up a rental car. If you rent online well ahead of time, there are always deals as low as 5 or 6 euros a day (you sometimes have to look hard).
For true pilgrims, there is plenty of lodging at the Maison St Yves. For lovers of luxury, choose the Hôtel Grand Monarque, a Chartres institution where many of the grande bourgeoisie celebrate weddings, baptisms, birthdays and anniversaries. If you are celebrating something special, you can download the program of special dinners and weekend packages from their site.
Otherwise check out the Chartres tourist site for all other types of B & Bs, inns, furnished apartments and hotels.
The Georges in the Hôtel Grand Monarque is great for special occasions, and they have a bistro that is open late, but my favorite restaurant is the Restaurant St-Hilaire in the rue St-Hilaire, right off the St-Pierre Church square at the bottom of the hill. They offer both traditional dishes from the region, and a number of more modern (and delightful) ones, and use only products from the region. Chartres is in the Beauce, the Iowa of France, so you’ll find wheat incorporated into some surprising dishes, such as wheat risotto, wheat crème caramel, and, of course, the bread, which they make themselves. All the cheeses on the cheese board are from the Beauce region.
The owner, Mr. Brémont, is the former sommelier of the Grand Monarque, and he always has new and delicious wines on offer. Take his advice. He knows, boy does he know. I always discover some new wine or producer, so each time I go, it’s a new adventure. In Chartres, they consider the Loire Valley wines to be “local”, since the beginning of the Loire Valley is only half an hour away, and Mr. Brémont is from the heart of the Loire Valley.
They offers several menus, one based entirely on products and traditional dishes from the Beauce. They start at 27 euros and go up to around 50. Somehow, I always end up choosing the 27 euro one. It’s about the best quality for the money I know, and changes with the seasons.
NOTE: Reservations are absolutely necessary, and I would suggest calling well in advance.Restaurant Saint Hilaire 11, rue du Pont Saint Hilaire 28000 Chartres Telephone : +33 02 37 30 97 57
This article was originally published on GenevaLunch.