May 12, Chartres

This is another of those really long, long touristing days that you’ve come to dread reading about. Bear with me.  It was a lovely day.

I’ve signed up for breakfast at the St. Yves Hostellerie. It’s in the basement, and has a goodly supply of yogurt and granola and fresh fruit, which is all I really needed. They also had a nifty little push-button espresso machine, which emitted a plausible approximation of fancy coffee drinks. It sometimes also made a terrible mess. I still can’t understand people who get an espresso, just three ounces or so, then down the entire thing in one gulp, like bad-tasting medicine. I mean, what’s the point?

After breakfast, I wandered around looking for La Maison du Saumon, Salmon House, a beautiful half-timbered early 16th Century three-story building. Finally found it. It was entirely shrouded in netting, preparatory for renovation. Nothing to photograph there. En avant!

Next was Le Centre International du Vitrail, the Stained Glass Museum. Since upkeep and repair of the gorgeous cathedral windows is an ongoing chore, like repainting the Golden Gate Bridge, it makes sense to have a school and gallery on site. It was wonderful to see stained glass up close and personal—I think the ones on display had been removed for repair work from the cathedral or other churches. I found myself admiring the delicate perfection of tiny fingernails, toe wrinkles, eye pupils. Truly amazing. I also fell instantly, totally, in love with one particular window. It didn’t give any information about it at all. And it wasn’t in a glass frame, so I was able to carefully touch the window itself. There. I did it. Then I went in search of an attendant for a round of Stump the Docent. I showed her the photo from my camera, and she took me to a stained glass expert, working on-site, whose English, amazingly, was worse than my French. We had a great chat, nonetheless. The window, you’ll find it in the photos, was from the cathedral at Orleans. It’s not that old, 19th Century, but the last repairs were made about fifty years ago, and the original and repairs were made to look very medieval. I think it works perfectly, though the subject matter seems very modern. Sorry the photos aren’t great.

Then a quick stop at the open air farmers’ market. I found the perfect gift for Pat. The oranges and clementines I bought were from Spain; I guess, like in Eugene, it’s still too early for a lot of local produce. Most of the stands were doing a pretty brisk business.

Back to the hotel for a pit stop and e-mail check, then off to the Cathedral for the noon tour in English. The guide, Malcolm Miller, is a Brit, rather snarky, and the author of the book on Chartres that I bought in preparation for the tour. Also, he’s been doing this for 53 years. I decided it was NOT a good time for playing Stump the Docent. We were equipped with hearing devices, he had a microphone, and we sat for most of the tour. Rather than show the entire cathedral, he would sit us down in front of one set of windows, and carefully go over everything in the windows, teaching us what to look for on our own. I’m so glad I had my binoculars with me. He was extraordinarily informative and thorough. I really enjoyed his discussions of word origins. He talked about the “cleansing” implications of the number forty: 40 winks, 40 lashes; 40 days of rain for Noah; 40 days fasting for Jesus; 40 years in the desert for the Jews. Even the word “quarantine” is from the French word for “forty.” Then we would move to another bank of windows. He showed the amazing difference in the parts of the cathedral that have been cleaned, and invited us back in five years, to see the entire building as it was when new. I’m going back tomorrow to look again, trying to see through his eyes.

Living with this Cathedral must be like having a really famous relative. It is so big, in every aspect, that it must be impossible to ignore, even for longtime residents. It’s just so hugely, magnificently, THERE. What’s the point of trying to get away, of doing something else? Nothing will ever quite measure up to what it already is. I keep rounding a corner, and it’s there, waiting for me, from a new angle. And all over again I’m transfixed, staring and amazed.

Then was lunch at Le Serpent, right near the Cathedral. I had a lovely toasted chicken and cheese sandwich. It was, wonderfully, on pain de campagne, whole wheat bread, almost impossible to find. Lots of lettuce made a salad, and a chocolate hazelnut something and café crème for desert.

Then, to burn off lunch, it was time to hit the road again. I finally found, after some enthusiastic directions from a rather tipsy guy at an outside café, the Church of St. Pierre. It was very old, and had some really interesting 13th century windows, but the only photo I got was of the Tenth Century bell tower, the oldest building I’ve found so far.

Then it was on to the Church of St. Aignan. I loved it! It was riotously painted in a whole range of brilliant colors that my photos don’t do justice to. It’s a very old church, the parish church of the Cathedral.  The first building dated around 400.  A fire early in the Sixteenth Century destroyed much of the church, and it was rebuilt in a pastiche of various architectural styles and fiscal constraints. And it’s fabulous. The main vault is pure Romanesque barrel vault, but the side aisles have the Gothic quartered vaulting.  Some of the windows are simply chips of old destroyed windows put together, and that works, too. During the Revolution, the church became a military hospital, then a prison and an animal feed store. It was reconsecrated in 1823.

Think  I’m done yet? Hah! Off now to La Musee des Beaux Arts, the fine arts museum, located in the old bishop’s palace. Again, I found the fabulousness of the setting distracted from the exhibits. The Bishop of Chartres would have lived very well, indeed. I was getting a little burned out on religious art, which was most of the collection. But there were darling little enameled religious paraphernalia from 13th Century Limoges. (That city later became very famous for its fine china. It was obviously good at enamelware, too.)  There was an almost life-sized wooden statue of St. Lawrence, clutching the grill he was roasted on, and I feared getting too close to. There was something so alive, so utterly primal about the carving that I almost saw him blink. There was also an interesting display of old piano-fortes and clavichords that would have been fun to noodle around on.

Six p.m. Was escorted out of the museum, wandered around town, FINALLY, with the help of a cute local couple, found the Escalier de Reine Berthe, Queen Berthe’s Staircase. It was totally dismantled and in the middle of major repairs. Nothing to see there. I did find part of the old city wall, and the Porte Guilliame. The “Guilliame” was a noble who had ruled Chartres. This became an unacceptable name after the Revolution, so it was renamed “Porte Guilliame Tell.” Really. It was in wonderful shape until the German blew it up as they retreated from Chartres in 1944. Stops at the charcuterie and the patisserie for dinner, then home to write about my wonderful, exhausting, exhilarating day. And so I did.


One Response

  1. Ohh. I like all the desserts mentioned. And that first stained glass!

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