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Travel: Day tripping from Paris to Chartres

The World Heritage site Our Lady of Chartres cathedral sparks our day trip from Paris
Our Lady of Chartres, located about 80 kilometres outside of Paris, is seen from a distance.

Attracting pilgrims since the Middle Ages and still one of the most revered monuments in France, the World Heritage site Our Lady of Chartres cathedral sparks our day trip from Paris

Almost hourly, trains travel between Montparnasse Station and old Chartres. The regional service sweeps us southwest across 80 kilometres of countryside. Along the way, our guidebooks describe the inspiring history of the Gothic masterpiece.

In 1194, a fire destroyed the ancient market town of Chartres, including its beloved place of worship. Only its towers, Royal Portal and some stained-glass windows survived. Despite overwhelming devastation, hard work and determined fundraising helped committed townsfolk rebuild their cathedral in a remarkable 30 years.

Arriving at Chartres station in about an hour, a stroll past the pretty town’s shops and patio bistros leads into a sculpture-filled plaza, complete with inviting benches. The cathedral’s two markedly different steeples soon greet us.

On the right, the sombre older spire and world’s tallest Romanesque-style bell tower contrasts dramatically with the newer, lacey and flamboyant one to its left. The hardy climb its 300 worn stone steps to achieve panoramic overviews.

Nearing the main entrance, an embellished facade bedazzles.

Astonishing lifelike figures frame Royal Portal’s three doorways. Kings, queens, priests and prophets stand atop decorative columns, detailed faces contrasting with their rigid, elongated bodies. Above the doors, sculpted panels depict Christ’s holy story. To the left, angels lift Him onto a heavenly cloud. In the centre, apostles gather around Him. On the right, Mary sits serenely on the Throne of Wisdom, infant Jesus on her lap.

Inside the hushed cathedral, 12th-century windows generate rainbow light on all sides. Donated by wealthy merchants and royalty to inspire hope, 172 stained-glass windows primarily illustrate familiar Bible stories, while some reflect daily medieval life.

Like us, many bring binoculars to further appreciate the scenarios’ fine details. Over the west entrance, the original windows radiate marvelous shades of blue. Surviving the great fire, the shimmering 700-year-old glass strikes us as unusually exquisite.

Around the choir’s ornate 100-metre-long stone screen, 40 sculpted scenes portray Mary and Jesus’ lives. The last 14 constitute stations of the cross. Representing Christ’s glorious ascension, pink marble columns flecked in gold flank a magnificent white angel rising behind the altar.

At one time, all this stonework, stained glass depictions and other artworks imparted Christ’s story to a largely illiterate population. Eventually, the storied cathedral became fondly called the Bible in Stone.

As well, artifacts and paintings fill recessed chapels throughout the cathedral. Scores of believers once trekked to Chapel of the Martyrs just to contemplate a legendary pale-yellow relic. Thought to be the tunic worn during Jesus’ birth, the Veil of the Virgin is said to offer protection. Even today, curious travellers visit this treasured holy remnant, also known as Sancta Camisa.

Amid the nave lies an inlaid labyrinth, an element for personal reflection in many 13th century cathedrals. The winding path symbolizes the way to God from Earth. Early devotees did penance here, atoning for their sins. Fervently repenting, they followed the 262-metre pathway on their knees.

Typically an hour-long meditation, today’s devout worshippers walk the same maze-like course, some barefoot as they circle slowly toward the flower-shaped centre.

In leaving through the south gate, three-tiered flying buttresses dominate the exterior. One of the first churches to use them, these striking reinforcements allowed architects to double structural heights and add bigger windows. Spacious, airy cathedral interiors with better lighting resulted.

Below a walled terrace behind the cathedral, we watch folks in Jardins de l’Eveche. Some walk the gigantic outdoor labyrinth. Others visit the Bishops’ lavish palace, now a museum farther along the terrace.

Before long, gentle music begins to fill the air. Chanting old French parables, a costumed street entertainer gradually approaches, a floppy chicken puppet tucked firmly under his arm. As he serenades, the wacky hen mimes his delightful ditties.

On the northwest side, grotesque gargoyles perch boldly on the Gothic tower’s gutters. As well as keeping evil spirits away, their spouts divert rainwater from the wall. Nearby, a pavilion shelters a gold 24-hour, astrological clock. Indicating 16 o’clock, it’s already time for us to return to the train station. But first, we salute our wondrous immersion in architecture, art and history with double cassis gelatos.

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