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Daytrip from Paris: Chartres

Paris is wonderful. However, once in a while, it is also nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Even within a mere hour or so of travelling time (and I’m not talking about getting to the airport in order to be jet away!), there are possibilities aplenty. For those without a car, fret not, the rail system is extremely efficient and exploring France couldn’t be made any easier! Taking advantage of rare sunny spring days last weekend, we decided a day-trip to Chartres – famed for its magnificent 12th-century Gothic cathedral – should be the order of the day.

Given the impromptu nature of our decision (made on Friday, trip on Saturday), we bought our tickets at Gare Montparnasse just before our elected departure time and paid about €30 per person for return tickets (specifically, €14.90 each way). There were trains scheduled nearly every hour in both directions, which left us with a very flexible timetable on when to leave and when to return. Needless to say, we were not at all prepared and without even a basic map, we set forth on our adventure.

Médiathèque l’Apostrophe

Sculptures

Monument Jean Moulin

Freshly alighted from the train, we stumbled upon a square that opens to the view of what I would describe, on first impression, as a neo-Gothic hôtel particulier and it could perhaps be the mairie of Chartres? I was wrong. It is instead a former post office – nicknamed Notre Dame de la Poste due to confusion of tourists who thought this to be the famous cathedral – which today houses the Médiathèque l’Apostrophe. I also found out later that its architecture is more accurately a merge between neo-Gothic and Art Deco.

Scanning around the same square, we also spotted a number of interesting monuments, including a pair of sculptures by Hanneke Beaumont depicting two seated men turning back towards each other, a sculpture in honour of the adoption of “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” of 1789, a fist holding a broken sword in commemoration of Jean Moulin (hero of the Resistance Movement during World War II), and the middle-ages constructed Église Sainte-Foy.

Chartres

Flower market

Old signage

The famed Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres is situated uphill and we pondered for a second on how to get there. Ah, easy – follow the single-minded tourists that were filing in one line in a fixed direction! ;) We only trailed them half-heartedly though, squeezing in a bakery pause so I can grab some chouquettes to snack on and of course, multiple photo breaks. Soon, these visitors that arrived on the same train as us had disappeared in the horizon. Shoulders shrug, no big deal, we continued with our leisurely exploration.

It seems all paths eventually led to the cathedral – pretty difficult to try to avoid it altogether! En route, we came along a couple of markets (vegetables and flowers), some pretty squares (sorry, no map = clueless about names!), elegant old beam-style buildings, the main tourist office, and even a couple of walking trails that we could take.

Beamed house

Labyrinth garden of Jardin de l'Évêché

Chartres Cathdral, view from Jardin de l'Évêché

A quick chat with the girl at the tourist office helped us to decide what to do next. We were informed that normally there are two guided tours of the cathedral, one at noon and one later on at 2.45pm, given by Malcolm Miller. We reckoned we would go for the later session, so that in the mean time, we could walk one of the trails and hunt for some lunch too.

We bypassed the cathedral and walked towards the Bishop’s Palace Garden aka Jardin de l’Évêché. It opened to the view of the townscape of basse ville (old city), as well as a well-kept labyrinth garden on the lower terrace. If only there were hedges to go with the labyrinth, could make an interesting game out of it!

Museum of Fine Art

River Eure

Rue du Bourg

Following the signs marking the circuit touristique (see, one doesn’t even need a map), we covered some ground around the cathedral e.g. Musée des Beaux-Arts and Centre International du Vitrail, back to the Jardin de l’Évêché, and headed downhill towards River Eure. There, we continued to walk along the tranquil river front, while Frédéric joked if we should try to move here and commute to work in Paris. (Errm, funny, but I don’t think so!)

It was exactly time for our lunch reservation when we arrived at the doorstep of Les Feuillantines. See, as disorganised as we were, I had put in some effort and did a quick dig around various sources to pull up a visit-worthy restaurant in Chartres. Les Feuillantines was awarded Bib Gourmand by the Guide Michelin, so we were reasonably confident that we would be well-fed without paying way too much. This paid off and we indeed had a very delicious feed in this small and friendly restaurant.

Chartres Cathedral

Sundiwl

Chartres Cathedral

Not wanting to be late for the afternoon walking tour, we hightailed our way back to the cathedral and figured out the usual meeting spot. And waited. And waited. More people joined in. And we waited. Someone then came by to inform us that there would be no afternoon tour that day and apologised for the unforeseen circumstances. Caught by surprise, we just nodded and then drifted away without even asking why it was cancelled.

We then took our time to look around the cathedral, tracing the pattern of labyrinth flooring (which was sadly interrupted by chairs), gazed at the various Gothic features in its architecture, and admiring the stained-glass windows that had been recently cleaned restored. There was another part within the cathedral that was sealed off, as the restoration work is being carried out in phases. It is a big job and is expected to continue right up to 2015!

Gargoyles

Saints

Chartres Cathedral

Since it was a warm and sunny day, we also decided to climb the north tower for a panoramic view of Chartres. The walk up the couple of hundreds of steps to the north roof was literally breath-taking (it is a good spot to take a short break before continuing) and from there it’s another handful tens of steps up very narrow pathway to get to the view point. How wonderful it was to be there!

Up close and personal, the flying buttresses, the sculptures, the gargoyles, and the decorative motifs were more than impressive. An enormous amount of work had been put in to carve these pieces to withstand the battering of time and elements, yet remaining remarkable as they are today.

Winding down our day, we descended the tower, got out and took a seat on one of the benches of the parvis, just looking at the cathedral, somewhat enthralled. The day has gone by beautifully, where we had had an opportunity to explore parts of the city, enjoyed a delicious lunch, and appreciated the work put in in constructing such a magnificent cathedral. We could not have asked for more.

Chartres: Full set of photos on Flickr



Category: Europe, France, Travel

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