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Continuing my journey in French medieval history I find myself traveling  to the city of Chartres on a very cold but clear Sunday. Chartres is about an hour train ride from the Gare Montparnasse in Paris.  Because I take this very train to Gare Versailles Chantier to get to work everyday it does not provide for a particularly relaxing start to the trip.  But, once we pass Gare Versailles Chantier I relax into my seat knowing to look out the right side of the train – if you are lucky you get a magnificent view of the gardens of the Versailles Chateau that most travelers do not know to look for.

I have been to Chartres before and the trip never disappoints.  You can start to see the spires of the cathedral upon arrival and I am excited to re-visit this ancient city and former intellectual capital of France.

The Cathedral at Chartres was built between 1194 and 1250 and is the last of five churches that have stood on the site since the 4th century.  Ina Caro, author of ‘Paris to the Past’ says that if you can only see one of the medieval French cathedrals Chartres should be it.  I could not agree more.  The most distinct difference at Chartres to me is the light.  There are more brightly coloured stained glass windows at Chartres which makes it feel far more cheerful than the gray and cold of other cathedrals.

I arrived at Chartres just in time for Sunday mass.  Because these cathedrals are so big and made out of stone it is virtually impossible to heat them.  Sitting through a mass this time of year entails sitting in your winter coat with scarves and gloves on.  This makes taking communion a little challenging and I am in sympathy with the little kids who all keep shifting in their seats to keep warm despite the chastising looks of their parents.

During medieval times cathedrals worked hard to bring pilgrimages to their sites in an effort to pay for the building of the cathedral and help with the economy of the town.  Chartres was able to serve as one of the top pilgrimage sites because it claimed to have the cloak the Virgin Mary wore at the time of Christ’s birth.  When the church was destroyed by fire for the fourth time in 1194 the town at first was not interested in rebuilding feeling it was a sign from God.  However, when the cloak of the Virgin Mary was found three days later in a crypt unscathed by the fire the Cathedral was enthusiastically rebuilt.

As I mentioned earlier the stained glass windows at Chartres are, in my opinion,  the distinguishing factor of this cathedral.  Not only are they bright and full of colour but they tell a story about what life was like in medieval Chartres.  Stained glass windows in all cathedrals are designed to tell stories as the majority of people, including the aristocrats, were illiterate in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  Most windows describe biblical tales (and to be honest they are usually so high up or small it makes me wonder how well these windows imparted the bible onto anyone) but  in Chartres the windows also tell the story of the town at the time including windows depicting farming, merchants, a blacksmith and a carpenter, large enough to see without binoculars.

The majority of the windows at Chartres are the original glass.  The windows were taken out during WWII to protect them from German bombs.  When the Germans invaded France the Americans thought they were using the cathedral as a base and the American commander was ordered to bomb it.  He thankfully did not follow the orders and  carried out a rather dangerous mission with only one other officer into Chartres to determine if the cathedral was occupied – it was not and thanks to Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres still stands.

While I have focused primarily on the Cathedral (partly for selfish reasons, it was too cold to wander)  the town of Chartres itself is beautiful with winding streets and alley ways, old houses and buildings, charming shops and fantastic restaurants.   Well worth a visit on your next trip to France.

Next Stop – Reims

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