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Ever since the Middle
The recently renovated interior of Chartres cathedral, in its original
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,
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
Chartres, the old town.
The town's history goes back to prehistoric
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
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.
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,
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
- Notre Dame
cathedral. (Michelin Green guide *** ) After
Notre Dame de Paris, the most famous gothic cathedral in
France, dating from the 13th century. A UNESCO world
heritage site. The cathedral is home to what is commonly
considered to be the finest collection of medieval stained glass
windows in Europe.
The west facade is decorated with a magnificent collection of 12th
century sculptures, illustrating the transition from the romanesque to
- The Bishop's
palace & museum - Le Palais épiscopal.
Largely dating from the 18th
century, the Chartres Bishops' palace, a stone's throw from the
cathedral, is a historic building, largely rebuilt in the 18th century,
and now home to the town's museum and art gallery. The art gallery is
particularly known for its large 16th century enamals made by
Léonard Limosin for King François 1e, and for its collection
of works by the fauvist painter Vlaminck.
Picassiette. This is one of France's more quirky
attractions, a modest suburban house which was decorated over
with a mosaic of hundreds of thousands of bits of glass, ceramics and
metal collected and arranged by local municipal employee Raymond
Isidore, one of France's great "naive" artists. Less well-known
than the Maison du Facteur Cheval (in the south of France), the Maison
Picassiette is altogether just as quirky and interesting.
Courtyard of the Maison Picassiette
International Stained Glass Centre
- Centre international du Vitrail. Housed in a historic
medieval building, this is a small exhibition centre close to the
cathedral, explaining the story of stained glass. It gets mixed reviews.
- Le Compa,
agricultural museum : a fitting museum for a town whose
wealth has come from the agriculture of the surrounding Beauce region.
Le Compa tells the story of agriculture, and particularly of the
evolution of agriculture over the past two centuries. The museum
contains a rich collection of historic agricultural machinery, notably
tractors, and will be of interest to the whole family.
The chateau de Maintenon
1. Within 30 km of Chartres
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,
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.
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
English Remembrance of
- 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
Léonie, where the author spent happy childhood holidays
1877 and 1880.
2. Less than 50 km
- Half an hour down the N10 road in the direction of
Vendôme and Tours is Chateaudun, another small town that is
a visit. Two attractions stand out in particular. The château of Jehan
de Dunois, perched impressively on a rock beside the river
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
a remarkable geological site including large crystalline geodes.
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