The famous Gothic cathedral is among many attractions in this historic city.
Chartres has always tantalised me: the glimpse of twin spires from the autoroute, half-remembered history lessons. I have always known it as being interesting and special, but an overnight stop last spring sealed the deal: I was going back and doing it properly.
I had a busy schedule, touring the cathedral and the medieval city, checking out the famous illuminations and driving out to visit the house where the writer Marcel Proust spent his childhood holidays.
First stop, however, was the Ateliers Loire, in Lèves, just outside Chartres. Founded in 1946, this family workshop has restored the cathedral’s stained-glass windows, and supplies traditional and contemporary glass all over the world – examples of which are on display in the Vitraillerie – a garden of glass.
The process is fascinating. Traditional windows are made using techniques unchanged since the Middle Ages, with sheet glass cut to shape and set in lead, and sophisticated grisaille (neutral- coloured) details added by painting the glass with enamel and then fusing the materials at high temperatures. Dalle de verre, meanwhile, is a technique where blocks of glass are chipped to shape using a hammer called a marteline and set in concrete or resin.
Being just a few minutes’ drive from the cathedral, which contains the most extensive collection of medieval glass in the world, I plunged right in with my newly acquired vitreous knowledge.
Set on top of a steep bank above the
River Eure, the Cathédrale Notre-dame de Chartres is a magnificent spectacle. A Unesco World Heritage site and a masterpiece of spectacular Gothic architecture, the current building dates from the 11th to the 13th centuries, although it has been a place of worship for much longer.
It is spine-tinglingly glorious. The two spires – one flamboyantly Gothic and the other in the plainer Roman style – can be seen from all over the city and beyond. The three main facades are ornately carved with religious scenes and stories. Flying buttresses dominate the exterior and provide the structural strength to accommodate unusually large windows. You can see the evolving skill of the craftsmen in the three rose windows, each one finer and airier than the last. The ‘Chartres blue’ is everywhere and the Virgin Mary a constant backlit presence.
After the great fire of 1194, the cathedral was rebuilt in just 27 years and it has changed little since. Windows from this time are said to honour the tradesmen who donated money, picturing blacksmiths, apothecaries and so on. One window is curious, however. This depicts The Prodigal Son on the road to ruin, cavorting with wenches, being kicked out of a brothel and eventually returning, destitute, to his father. “The benefactors are anonymous but it is possible that it was funded by the prostitutes,” says my guide, Anne-marie.
Beneath the cathedral lies the largest crypt in France but, rather than the dank and spooky space of my imagination, I found it lit with bright candles and echoing with fragments of song as people tested the acoustics. Here, too, there is a lot going on: the well that dates from 200 BC, the panel depicting Charlemagne the Great’s confession of incest, and the reliquary purporting to contain a fragment of the Virgin Mary’s veil.
But the city is not all religious pomp and ceremony, and it was while wandering the narrow streets and steep tertres – passages connecting the upper and lower towns – that I discovered the lives of the ordinary Chartrains.
The river and the steep bank represented a literal class division. “The upper town was the location of noble professions; the lower town was the dirty, stinking professions,” says my new guide, Victoria. In medieval times, women and children would have had to plod up the hill with water, while the tanneries and slaughterhouses along the riverside worked at odds with the lavoirs, ancient wash-houses that were used until 1976.
With an audio guide, you can read the story of the city on its streets and buildings, and I could happily have
spent a day on the medieval architecture alone. The escalier de la reine Berthe is a protruding wooden turret into which is carved a singular crocodile with ears like a rabbit; other half-timbered houses are decorated with animals, too, such as a spinning sow, la Truie qui file, and a mighty wooden salmon.
During Chartres en Lumières, the city is transformed with a magical wash of light telling stories set to music over 24 sites. The old theatre hosts a tale of love, and the episcopal palace is the backdrop to a story of a little moon which has lost its star. There is an interactive build-yourself-a-lightshow, and fish swim across the stonework of the bridges. The pièce de résistance is the cathedral, where the north door is painted by light in its original colours and the west facade depicts the building work, with swinging workmen and stately saints rising from the ground.
This final sequence – accompanied by Ave Maria sung by the soprano Natalie Dessay – gave me the shivers; a reminder that this is a magnificent and ancient place of worship, not just a tourist attraction.
The following morning, I retreated to the spa in my hotel to unwind. Massage jets dealt with stiffness from walking up and down the steep tertres, and the sauna and steam-rooms did the rest. Next up was a visit to the Marcel Proust museum, La Maison de Tante Léonie, in Illiers-combray, about half an hour’s drive away. It was here that the author of In Search of Lost Time spent summer holidays as a child with his aunt and uncle Jules and Elisabeth Amiot. In 1971, the town of Illiers assumed a dual identity by taking on the double-barrelled addition, Combray – which was how it appeared, easily identifiable, in the seven-part novel. Similarly, the fictional Tante Léonie is based on Proust’s aunt. Back in the centre of Chartres, drinking coffee in front of the cathedral, intellectually stimulated, physically polished and spiritually uplifted, I knew that in two days spent speeddating this fabulous city I had just scratched the surface. It is a place of hidden depths and layered histories, with saucy twists and a frisson of human hardship.
CLOCKWISE FROM FACING PAGE: Chartres Cathedral dominates the skyline; Bruno Loire works on stained glass in the family atelier; The River Eure flows through the city; The cathedral’s royal portal during the illuminations
ABOVE: A trompe l’oeil mural; RIGHT: One of the three rose windows in the cathedral