I was hooked on this small hilltop town when I heard about the river jousting.
Gazing down from the center of town, I was tracing the curves of a long-demolished Roman amphitheater. Then my digital companion, a CD audio tour guide I had picked up from the local tourist office, informed me that Roman Empire-era residents of the town packed the amphitheater not only for speeches and plays but also to watch floating jousting matches on the Eure River below.
I turned off the CD player and pondered this quirky historical tidbit: Two thousand years ago, Romans were waging mock battles on boats on this small, meandering river. This, I realized, was a town worth getting to know.
Only 53 miles southwest of Paris, Chartres is typically a day trip for visitors to the French capital. But a better idea is to spend a night or two away from the crowds that throng Paris and savor the calmer atmosphere of Chartres.
It is a small town--its economy is largely based on tourism centered on its renowned cathedral, along with agriculture--but its rich history, charming, walkable streets, interesting medieval churches, museums and galleries focusing on French art, history and stained glass provide ample diversion for an overnight traveler.
As in most European cities, the layers of history in Chartres sit unceremoniously on top of one another: A Roman amphitheater gives way to narrow medieval streets; Gothic churches sit beside 20th century houses. It’s a town of so much history that officials dug up a Roman building site in front of the cathedral a few years ago and, after detailing its contents, covered it up again with dirt.
But the town’s history wasn’t the main thing on my mind as I left Paris in early March to spend three days here. I had become interested in labyrinths and decided to make a pilgrimage to see the cathedral and the labyrinth that graces its nave. My wife, who’s not much of a labyrinth walker, agreed to stay at home in Baltimore with the kids.
I sat on the left side of the train and watched Parisian suburbs dissolve into forests and farmland. Finally, Chartres’ cathedral--with its green copper roof and two utterly dissimilar towers--rose majestically in the distance above the Beauce countryside.
When I arrived in late afternoon, the town of 42,000 residents bustled with energy, students heading home from school, workers leaving offices. And everybody, it seemed, clutched a freshly baked baguette.
I made the easy walk from the station to Chartres’ small, modern commercial district to drop my bag at the Hôtel de la Poste. In minutes I was headed to the cathedral.
Chartres’ spiritual heritage runs deep. Druids once worshiped here, and by the 8th century the town had built a Catholic cathedral, although it was destroyed by the Duke of Aquitaine after a dispute among nobles.
Another cathedral was burned by Viking intruders, and a splendid medieval church on the site was destroyed by fire in 1194. The townsfolk moved quickly, rebuilding the existing cathedral in only 25 years.
The Cathedral of Our Lady is considered by many to be the unsurpassed jewel of Gothic architecture. I entered through the Royal Portal--its extravagant west entrance.
Some of the entranceway’s sculptures, which depict a range of biblical figures, have been replaced with models; others are pocked and eroded. A statue of Jesus over the center door has lost a chunk of its left arm.
Almost everywhere, dirt and soot obscure the beauty of its exterior, giving it a somber appearance. Thankfully, recent restoration work on the north façade has revealed the much more welcoming, cream-colored limestone the cathedral’s builders used.
Henry Adams, an American writer, wrote in his 1904 treatise on Chartres: “The cathedral has moods, at times severe.” Indeed, at first glance, the interior is severe--jaw-droppingly huge, dark and cool. Voices echo off the stone surfaces, and there’s a faint smell of burning candles.
The interior was built on a superhuman scale. An oversized 18th century high altar in the style of Bernini dominates the view down the nave. The vaulted ceiling rises more than 10 stories. Massive columns stand like sentries up and down the church.
But, as Adams noted, “Chartres is all windows"--roughly three-quarters of an acre of stained glass in hundreds of panels spilling gentle, colorful light into the harsh space below. The windows include tributes to obscure saints and more familiar biblical references, including a violent depiction of the Good Samaritan story and a retelling of Noah’s Ark, complete with a beautiful rainbow-colored sea and a pair of tusked elephants. Bring a pair of binoculars, for you could spend hours tracing the windows’ stories.
I was delighted to find windows depicting the 12 signs of the zodiac and aspects of life in the 13th century--a barebacked man threshing wheat, winemakers stomping grapes, a farmer preparing to slaughter a pig with an ax. For a congregation that couldn’t read, these surely would have illuminated the services in the awe-inspiring cathedral.
Somehow the windows survived the fires and wars that rocked Europe. Chartres officials protected them during the last century’s world wars by removing the stained glass for safekeeping elsewhere.
Another survivor is tucked inside a gold case in a small chapel: a tattered remnant of the cathedral’s relic, a piece of white cloth said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. The relic was considered to be a symbol of divine protection for the town and, so the story goes, miraculously survived the 1194 fire.
After exploring the cathedral, I was ready to walk the labyrinth. Chartres’ reputation as a destination for spiritual pilgrims has been revived in recent years, thanks to the labyrinth that was inlaid into its stone nave around 1200.
Labyrinths are circuitous paths that lead the walker into a center space and out again. Hundreds of years ago, pilgrims traveled the stones of Chartres’ labyrinth--often on their knees--as a substitute for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Today, interest in the labyrinth as a meditation tool has surged, and Chartres has the best known of the surviving ancient paths. But the people of Chartres seem to care little about theirs. Except on most Fridays, the labyrinth is covered up with folding chairs.
Although I had seen many pictures of the labyrinth, I hadn’t expected its sheer aged look. Made of two colors of stone--a lighter one for the path and a darker, blue-black marble for the borders--the labyrinth is cracked and rutted, a twisting moonscape.
I moved through the path alone and pondered the countless walkers who had gone before me--monks, nobles, soldiers, nuns--feeling a sense of communion with pilgrims across eight centuries.
That evening I took a long walk through the labyrinthine streets of the old town before settling in for dinner at the Brasserie Châtelet. I enjoyed its specialty: a large bowl full of mussels and fries, accompanied by draft Belgian beer. A steaming, velvety tarte Tatin concluded a perfectly fine--and inexpensive--meal.
The next morning, Saturday, I went to the huge open-air food market in the Place Billard. It seemed every resident of Chartres was there, each toting a basket or pulling a shopping cart.
I was sorry that I had eaten breakfast at the hotel when I saw the array of fruits and vegetables, as well as crepes, oysters on the half shell, breads, cheeses and pâtés. Nearby, on the Rue des Changes, where centuries ago bankers aided pilgrims by exchanging currencies, farmers were selling live animals--ducks, geese and chickens.
Next I spent several pleasant hours retracing Chartres’ history, using the well-produced CD audio guide. It led me on a rigorous trek down the hill from the cathedral, through winding alleys to the banks of the Eure, where mills and tanneries once flourished, and back up again.
More than 2,000 years ago, Chartres was a settlement of the Carnutes--ancient Gauls for whom the town is named. It later fell to the Romans, who called it Autricum. As I followed the walking tour, I saw little visible evidence of Roman occupation. But along the way I glimpsed the long-gone medieval wall that surrounded the cathedral to create a religious city within the city. There was also a trace of the Porte Guillaume, the massive medieval city gate, which was blown up by the German army as it retreated during World War II.
The CD guide led me to three other churches in town. St. Andrew’s, which dates back to the 1100s, sits cozily by the Eure. In the 13th century, when the church needed to expand, it simply built an addition over the river. Although the addition is long gone, you can still see portions of supporting arches of this piece of audacious civil engineering.
Slightly higher up the hill rests the Church of St. Peter, a dank Gothic stone masterpiece, which features 29 impressive stained-glass windows from the 13th and 14th centuries, and St. Aignan Church, an airy, barrel-vaulted structure with an interior of brightly painted wood. Both need significant restoration, and my head spun as I contemplated the financial burden these historic structures--and the cathedral--place on this small town.
One stop that left me dissatisfied was at the Rue aux Juifs, the center of the town’s onetime Jewish ghetto. Chartres was no kinder to Jews than the rest of medieval Europe, expelling them entirely in 1394 after years of persecution. But the matter-of-fact audiotape gave no glimpse of the life they led here.
Chartres abounds in information, though, about vitrail, stained glass. The International Stained Glass Center occupies the main floor of a former medieval storehouse a block from the cathedral. The barn-like building displays delicate ink drawings of newly designed French churches and their stained-glass windows, as well as an interesting collection of traditional and abstract windows.
A short walk away, La Galerie du Vitrail had an impressive collection of original stained glass and reproductions of some panels in the cathedral, with many of the pieces priced at less than $200.
During my walk I grabbed lunch on the go--a soggy tuna sandwich, washed down with an Orangina, followed by cappuccino and an éclair. There were, of course, countless pâtisseries and coffee shops for snacks along the way.
I ended my solo tour in midafternoon at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, a fine arts museum housed in the former home of Chartres’ bishops. The museum is creaky and dusty, but there were treasures worth perusing. Many of the names of the painters--Francisco de Zurbarán, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Maurice de Vlaminck and Chaim Soutine, among others--were barely familiar, but their work was impressive. There was also a nice collection of intricate enamels, old harpsichords and a startling depiction of one of the many fires that roared through Chartres, this one in 1836. But my favorite was a 17th century oil of “un jeune garçon,” a young boy holding--what else?--a gnawed-on baguette.
For my last night in town I splurged at the slightly upscale Le Pichet, on a quiet street a block from the cathedral. The kitchen produced a marvelous cassoulette, a seafood stew with potatoes and carrots in a garlic-laced broth. Onion soup came with butter-drenched croutons.
The next morning I took a last look at the cathedral, grabbed another tuna sandwich for the road and walked down the hill to catch my train for Paris. I had crossed the Atlantic to see the labyrinth--and it had lived up to its billing. But I had not been prepared for the subtle pleasures of Chartres itself. What better reward for a traveler than unexpected delights?
Tom Waldron, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, is based in Baltimore.