Day Trip from Paris: Chartres, France, Part I

If you’ve heard of Chartres, you’ve most likely heard about it in the context of one famous building that lies in the center of town. The town of Chartres is a popular day trip from Paris because it is close (about an hour drive or via train) and it has one magnificent star-attraction that towers over the town: the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, or commonly referred to in English as the Chartres Cathedral.

You also must know if you've spent any amount of time in Europe that cathedrals and grand churches exist all throughout France and the rest of Europe. I’m at a point in my European travels that I have a bit of “cathedral fatigue.” I know, the three-years-ago-me would have rolled her eyes and be tempted to slap the present-me at even the thought of how that could be possible. Just think what she would do knowing that I admitted it. But the point is, after a while, one huge old church seems similar to the next and the novelty starts to wear off.

So hear me when I say that despite my church fatigue, Chartres Cathedral is something very special. Special enough to plan a weekend trip around it, even considering that we had seen this very cathedral three years ago.

We had wanted to return to see how the progress was advancing on the restoration work of the Cathedral. The interior had been darkened by the dirt, grime, and candle-smoke of centuries past and the restoration work is giving it a face-lift. The church has evolved over time so the finished product won’t show the variations of how it used to be painted inside, but will remove centuries of buildup off the surfaces. Some argue that the project takes away from experience of sensing the passage of time and the mysterious atmosphere. I personally approve of the work and like that the Cathedral is still a thriving place, not one deteriorating as a thing of the past. What do you think? 

Here’s a restored section, looking at the alter. You can see the bright, clean walls and ceiling.

Behind the altar is a newly restored section of the church.

Restoration work aside, we also wanted to come back just to enjoy touring Chartres Cathedral again. Let’s dive in and see why this church is so unique.

There has been a church on this spot for centuries - the one that stands today is at least the 4th on this plot of land, each dedicated to Mary. The church had the supposed gown that Mary wore when she gave birth to Jesus. This relic made Chartres a pilgrimage destination. Like tourism today, this meant substantial income for the town. When the church burnt down in 1194, the relic was miraculously unscathed. The town took it as a sign from Mary that perhaps she desired a more impressive church and got right to work.

Got to work they did - most of the Cathedral was rebuilt in a mere 30 years, and it was completed in 1260. This is incredible considering that many churches took centuries to construct. Chartres Cathedral thus is a Gothic cathedral that maintains a consistency in style and construction that sets it apart from so many others.

The most astounding feature of the Cathedral is its stained glass windows. There are a few that were salvaged from the prior church that burnt down, and the rest were made for the new Cathedral. It’s incredible that these windows survived through the French Revolution and even through the World Wars. (During World War II the windows were transported to the Monolithic Church in Saint-Émilion, which I got to see here - apparently no one wanted to destroy perfectly good, renowned vineyards so that area was a safe hiding spot.) 

Above is the Jesse Window, one of the oldest windows in the Cathedral, dating from about 1150 (pre-fire). It is based off of the Old Testament, from Isaiah 11:1: "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit." The window traces the genealogy of Jesus, with Christ seated at the top.

The Blue Virgin Window (Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière) is famous. It is another of the oldest windows in the Chartres Cathedral - it also dates back from the mid-12th century. It was the central window behind the alter of the church, and survived the fire. It was salvaged and reinserted into a new frame in the 13th century when the new (present) Cathedral was built.

The South Rose Window, dating from about 1225. Check out the bottom row - on either side of Mary holding the infant Jesus are four Old Testament prophets giving piggy-back rides to the four New Testament evangelists. 

I really strongly recommend doing some type of tour to get more information on these stunning preserved windows. The best option is to go on a tour with Malcolm Miller, who guides visits daily in English. Have you ever had a teacher or professor who was so passionate about the subject s/he taught that you couldn't help but be interested in every last word they uttered in class? Well, Malcolm is that sort of person. He’s been studying the Cathedral his entire adult life and has been giving tours since 1958. He knows the church so well that he claims every tour is different - he has that much to say. We went on one of his tours three years ago and we were looking forward to spending more time with Malcolm.

Unfortunately, although you don’t need to make a reservation, sometimes he does take time off. Which I guess we have to allow. He wasn't giving a tour on the day we went at the end of August, so we should have sent him an email to confirm. (We actually did see him roaming around the Cathedral alone, so know that he must love this place so much and treat it like a second home that he still walks through on his time off.)

We ended up doing the 45-minute, “Cathédrale circuit” audio guide tour (pick up in book shop, €4.20 each) which was also helpful and informative. We also bought one of Mr Miller’s books in the gift shop so we could still soak up some of his knowledge on the stained glass windows and have something to remember the visit with later on.

I got some insight on how to “read” Chartres Cathedral’s stained glass windows on Malcolm's tour. One thing I learned is to look to see which group sponsored the windows. The various merchant groups donated money to help with the construction of the new cathedral, like this window brought to us by the money changers. Nothing like a little medieval advertisement!  

16th century Astrological Clock in the choir screen 

Seriously, is it not stunning?!

"Our Lady of the Pillar," Madonna chapel

The outside of the Cathedral is quite elaborate as well. I’ve always loved the sculptures on the exterior of Paris’ Notre Dame. Chartres takes it to a whole new level. There are three facades to admire - the Royal Portal (front entrance), as well as the North and South Porches. The outside deserves a bit of time as well just to take in the incredible details and powerful symbolism. 

Remember that most of the people at the time of construction could not read, so whether you’re looking at the stained glass windows or sculptural work, everything is meant to tell a story in a visual way for the common people to understand

The central bay of the North Porch showing the coronation of Mary in the central panel

Every inch of the North Porch was full of rich detail.

The central part of the South Porch, portraying the Last Judgement. 

Above are my favorite sculptures at the Cathedral, from the North Porch. The five men are from the Old Testament and all point to Jesus' coming: the prophet Melchizedek, Abraham with his son Isaac, Moses, Samuel, and King David (not pictured - is the right-most statue). I love the symbolism and how every inch of the church tells a story. 

I hope you enjoyed this little tour of Chartres with me. Have you ever visited the Cathedral? Do you have a favorite picture from this post?


Chartres Cathedral

16 Cloître Notre Dame, 28000 Chartres

Open daily, 8:30am-7:30pm (open until 10pm on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays during July and August)

Free entry

Tours with Malcolm Miller daily, from Easter until the end of October at 12:00pm and 2:45 pm. Monday-Saturday (not on Sundays or if there is a religious ceremony); from November until Easter only one tour at 12:00pm if there are 8 or more participants, providing that he is working that day; no reservations necessary; there is a fee to take the tour

To get to Chartres: About 1 hour by car, or just over an hour by train. Trains leave from Paris' Gare Montparnasse hourly. The TER (regional train) costs €15.60 one way for an adult. Because it's a regional train, the ticket prices remain the same and there is no need to buy a ticket in advance. The Cathedral is less than a 10-minute walk from the train station. 

Lou Messugo

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