The fa­mous Gothic cathe­dral is among many at­trac­tions in this his­toric city.

France - - Contents -

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.

Class di­vi­sion

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

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