Chartres   –   Cathedral city

an hour from Paris

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 Chartres - jewel of provincial France

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Chartres cathedral
The recently renovated interior of Chartres cathedral, in its original colours.  
Ever since the Middle Ages the towers of Chartres cathedral have stood as unmissable landmarks amidst the wheat fields of La Beauce, the great breadbasket of France to the west of Paris; and even today, those who know what to look out for can spot them on the horizon while still many miles from Chartres, from any of the main routes that have converged on the city since Roman times and even earlier.
   Chartres cathedral, a UNESCO world heritage site, is one of France's greatest medieval cathedrals, famous for its spires, its exquisite sculptures and its magnificent stained-glass windows, generally considered to be among the finest examples of stained glass windows in Europe.

A short History of Chartres

Map of chartres Chartres, the old town.
 The town's history goes back to prehistoric times, when humans established an early settlement on a bluff beside the river Eure. Later, the settlement gave way to a Roman oppidum, by the name of Autricum. It was an important Roman settlement, at the hub of a road network. Many of the roads leading into Chartres today follow the line of the old Roman roads built some two thousand years ago, though there is little left to be seen of these, and little to see of Roman Autricum. Until the Middle Ages, wars, fires and sieges left little standing of the city which had, by the tenth century, turned into a major and prosperous pilgrimage centre. 
  In 1134 Chartres was almost totally destroyed by a devastating fire that tore through the tightly-packed timber-frame houses at an unstoppable speed. The old cathedral however was spared, and taking advantage of the occasion, the Bishop and chapter decided to extend the building westwards, giving it the dimentions of the cathedral we see today. Their work was short lived, as in 1194 the cathedral itself was burned to the ground, leaving little but its ground plan and crypt. Undaunted, Bishop Renaud de Mousson set about rebuilding the cathedral in the great new architectural style,  and in the place of the romanesque edifice rose up the stunning gothic cathedral that we see today.
Chartres stained glass
Detail froim one of the medieval stained glass windows 
  Not only is Chartres cathedral one of the first and greatest of France's great medieval gothic cathedrals, it was also built in record time, with the main building work completed in under thirty years. By the time the cathedral was consecrated in the year 1260, it was essentially the the same as the building that we can visit today.

  Through the following centuries, Chartres, surrounded by the wheatbelt of the Beauce, became a very prosperous town and an important pilgrimage point. It was an important staging point on the medieval pilgrims' way from Paris to Santiago de Compostella, and on the routes from Paris to the Loire Valley and Paris to Tours and Bordeaux. Yet the town and the cathedral had other problems to endure. The town was held by the English for 15 years duringthe Hundred Years' War, and in 1568 was besieged by the Protestants during the Wars of Religion. To celebrate that victory, the cathedral was used for the coronation of King Henry IV, Henry of Navarre, who paradoxically had converted  from Protestantism to Catholicism in order to become king.
   In 1836 the roof of the cathedral was completely destroyed by fire; fortunately, as with Paris's Notre Dame cathedral in 2019, the cathedral below, though damaged, was not destroyed. Most importantly, the medieval stained glass windows survived too.
   The cathedral was saved from destruction one final time  during the Second World War when  American colonel Welborn Griffith defied orders to destroy it; Allied intelligence suggested that the towers, with their extensive views over the surrounding countryside, were being used as a German observation post. Gutted at the idea of destroyng a priceless historic monument, Griffith took a few men and went into what was supposedly German-occupied Chartres.; they climbed to the top of the towers, and found nobody. Chartres cathedral had survived its greatest threat in modern times.
   Since 2007 the interior of the cathedral has been completely renovated; instead of the dark interior known to those who visited in in earlier times, the cathedral now boasts bright walls covered in the pale plaster that was used by the original medieval builders. During the renovation, much of the stained glass was cleaned and renovated, bringing the cathedral back to a condition close to the original.

Sites and monuments in Chartres

In the area of  Chartres

The chateau de Maintenon

1. Within 30 km of Chartres

Maintenon - 20 km northwest of Chartres, Maintenon is one of the more attractive small towns in France. Its 16th century château is like a small scale Versailles, with a lavish interior and formal gardens laid out by King  Louis XIV's great landscape gardener, Le Nôtre.  At the end of the gardens stand the remains of the Maintenon Aqueduct, part of a never-completed project of Louis XIV to bring water all year round to the gardens of Versailles.

Meslay le Grenet - 12 km southwest of Chartres. Eglise Saint Orien.  This small village church in the middle of the Beauce is decorated with a remarkbly complete and well preserved set of 15th century frescoes representing the Dance of Death.

Illiers Combray - 28 km southwest of Chartres. This is the village where life has imitated art - or literature.  Originally just known as Illiers,  the village was immortalised as Combray in Marcel Proust's seminal series of novels A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (in English Remembrance of Things Past - more recently retranslated as In Search of Lost Time). Villagers decided to change the name to Illiers-Combray in 1971.  There is a Proust museum in what was the house of Proust's Tante Léonie, where the author spent happy childhood holidays between 1877 and 1880.

2. Less than 50 km

Chateaudun -  Half an hour down the N10 road in the direction of  Vendôme and Tours is Chateaudun, another small town that is worth a visit. Two attractions stand out in particular. The château of Jehan de Dunois, perched impressively on a rock beside the river Loir,  is reputedly the first of the great Loire chateaux, and one of the few with a surviving medieval keep; its Renaissance wing has an exhibition of tapestries.    Nearby, the Foulon Caves, les Grottes de Foulon, provide a unique opportunity to explore what was once an underground river, was later used as a shelter in neolithic times, and is  now a remarkable geological site including large crystalline geodes.

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Photo top of page : Chartres cathedral

Key tourist information for Chartres:

: the north of the Centre-Val-de-Loire  region.
Nearby cities: Paris, Orleans
Nearest airports: Paris
Population:  38000
Main sites:  Notre Dame Cathedral, Picassiette House, Agricultural museum .
Nearby attractions and sites: Maintenon.

Access to Chartres:
  • By train:  Chartres is on the Paris - Le-Mans - Brest line (not the high-speed line), and can be reached in just over an hour by direct train from  Montparnasse station in Paris. It can also be reached by direct train in an hour and a quarter from Le Mans. Check out  train tickets.
  • By road:  Chartres is on the A11 Paris - le Mans - Nantes motorway an hour west of Paris. It is also on the routes from Calais via Rouen and Orleans to the south and southwest of France.
  • By bike:  Chartres is on the Véloscénic cycleway from Paris to Mont Saint Michel.
  • By air:   The nearest airports are Paris Orly and Paris Charles de Gaulle. From there Chartres can be reached by road (85 km from Orly) or by train.
Getting round Chartres
Chartres is not a big city. Visitors arriving by car can use the large underground car park located close to the cathedral.  For visitors reaching Chartres by train, it is a 750 metre (half mile) walk from the station to the cathedral.  To visit old Chartres without having to walk, take the tourist mini train : departure point just in front of the cathedral.

Remarkable medieval sculptures adorning the western facade of Chartres cathedral

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Except photos Maison Picassiette and Maintenon by Patrick
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