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March 26, 2011 / TAB

Paris- time for a day trip- Chartres

After a couple perfect sunny days, it was time for a day trip. Of the several on my list, I picked Chartres because I’m a sucker for stained glass windows and little towns.

Chartres has had a cathedral since the ninth century and the current one is at least the 5th known on that site. You wouldn’t think fire would be a problem but it is because they used wood supports for those massive stone arches. The amazing Gothic facade is covered in scaffolding now as a restoration campaign is underway. They have removed the oldest of the Gothic windows for cleaning and have completed the North portal and a portion of the part above the altar. It will be a good reason to return in 5 or 6 years to see it all bright and shiny.

I took a tour with Malcolm Miller, an Englishman who came to Chartres as a student over 50 years ago and has made the study of the cathedral a life’s work. I wish we had spent more time on the windows and less on church history. The windows were meant as teaching tools for those who couldn’t read and there is an order to reading them, bottom, left, right, center, top.

The church’s other claim to fame is the garment “worn by Mary” when she gave birth to Jesus. This piece of cloth, sometimes referred to as a veil, miraculously survived one of the fires which destroyed the rest of the church.  Pilgrims have come to the church to honor Mary since it was built. There is a labyrinth in the floor where pilgrims traced its path on their knees. This labyrinth is uncovered some of the time because it is still on the pilgrim route.

The afternoon was spent wandering the winding streets of the old town and along the banks of the river. Many of the streets are named for professions, like shoemakers or tanners, and some are named for locations, like fish market or herb market.  You can also look for special street plaques in a treasure hunt.

This time of year the town was very quiet with shops closed and the little tourist train not running. There was one tour group there are I arrived and it reinforced my dislike of tours. The guide gave an introduction to the cathedral, told the people what to look for, gave them 90 minutes to explore the church AND have lunch before getting back on the bus for the next stop. How can you have any meaningful visit on those terms. I’m so glad I can just wander.

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Leave a Comment
  1. Maxine / Mar 27 2011 4:14 am

    I feel the same about tour groups…..

  2. Brian / Apr 2 2011 5:41 am

    I’ve heard about Malcolm Miller and was planning on taking his tour of the history of the cathedral. But it’s the windows I want to see! So, the main Rose window is…gone, for now? Is there any way of knowing when the labyrinth is uncovered? I specifically wanted to walk that. I’m glad you mentioned that.

    • tabtrav / Apr 2 2011 8:25 am

      According to one guide book I read, the labyrinth is uncovered on Fridays for pilgrimages. You would certainly have to check before arrival to see the current schedule. Malcolm asked at the beginning if there is anything in particular that you are interested in or have heard before on a previous tour and then he will plan his talk accordingly. I didn’t know enough to ask specifically for the windows as I thought that would be the primary focus. The restoration is supposed to ongoing for 5 to 6 years but the big windows in the west portal may be back before then as they are working their way around the outside and inside. The part above the altar is finished and sparkling.

  3. Brian / Apr 2 2011 8:36 am

    Well, this time is a quick trip to Paris after teaching in Italy- arriving Friday evening and leaving Wednesday. But, I plan on being back. Thanks for the info!

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