After a very laid back morning, including our last visit to the outdoor food market, we took a train ride out to Chartes…a beautiful medieval cathedral town that is dominated by the huge cathedral that dates back to the 1190’s (although there was a church on the site before that…and a Roman pagan monument before that).

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We were to depart from Montparnasse train station, but when we arrived, we had a hard time getting tickets…the machines would not accept our antiquated US credit card (we don’t have the European chip and pin card).  So, we had to see a ticket agent to get our tickets.  With time to kill, we decided to do as the other folks in the station and have a picnic right there on the station floor.   Soon, it was time to board the train, so we picked up a cafe and a treat and got on board.

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It’s very common to have to pay to use the bathroom here. The Men’s Room had a female attendant?!? What a job for her.

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Our train was old school.

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A cafe to go, and some sort of custardy muffin-like concoction that was sweet and bitter.

After leaving the suburbs of Paris, the train rode through what is called the “granary” of France…large fields of golden wheat…little old villages with a town church.   After about an 90 minutes, we arrived in Chartes, where we were greeted with what else? RAIN.

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French country side with storm clouds brewing (just in time for our visit).

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Side note: Josette and I have laughed the whole trip that we feel like contestants in the Hunger Games.  It’s like we are in the Arena, and the game makers are having a ball making this trip a challenge.  Example, “The Joneses are leaving their apartment for the market, lower the temperature outside and turn on the rain.  Relocate all of the food tents that they had planned to visit”….”Joneses have arrived at train station, disrupt ticket machine to reject payment…family is boarding train…turn on heat & humidity and make train car stuffy…cue sunshine outside of the train to make them think it will be a nice day…..train is arriving at destination…cue storm clouds and create thunderstorm…add puddles…change orientation of map to wrong direction.”  Yep.  That has been our weather luck for the past 10 days. 

My one and only history lesson for this post is just to explain why Chartes Cathedral is so important.  It’s old.  Super old.  And massively large. The original church was from 847 AD and burned down in the late 1100’s.  The only thing to survive was the front facade and the south tower (the more plain looking one).  The cathedral had been famous because they held a very special relic…the shroud that the Virgin Mary supposedly wore while giving birth to Jesus.  Miraculously, it survived the terrible fire in the 1190’s…and the townsfolk saw it as a sign that they had to rebuild the cathedral.  So in a matter of 30 years (which is unheard of in cathedral building) they rebuilt the cathedral.  First services in the new church began in 1224.  With this massive new church, taller than anything anywhere in Europe, and possessing this famous relic, it became super popular amongst pilgrims who came to see the holy relic and visit the church.  The town began to prosper and Chartes became an important scholarly city, as well.

IMG_2379Chartes Cathedral is also important because nearly ALL of the stained glass is original.  Twice it was saved from destruction…once before the French Revolution, when the townsfolk removed it and hid it from revolutionaries and then again during World War II, when an American General saved the church from being bombed by Allied Forces.  The Americans were told that the Germans were using the cathedral for stragetic look-outs…and were ordered to bomb the building.  But the American General didn’t want to destroy such a sacred, important church, so he went on a spy mission, himself, to discover that the Germans were not at the church…so it was saved from being blasted into oblivion.

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When you look at the pictures, imagine a pilgrim coming from some tiny little French town, traveling hundreds of miles…and then arriving at this massive cathedral.  During it’s heydey, there would have been food markets, fairs, and the cathedral would have been full of pilgrims camping out…a make shift hospital would have been inside for ill pilgrims (a lot of sick/disabled folks came to pray to Mary and/or the relic of her shroud).

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They are currently restoring the interior of the cathedral. On the left is the soot-filled limestone walls…on the right are the refurbished, white washed walls.

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The stained glass on the left is original…on the right is post-revolutionary glass..it was clear for the free thinking era.

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The Holy relic…the shroud of the Virgin Mary

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You were allowed to climb the south tower, so of course we did!  Amazing views from the top.

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The medieval town of Chartes was quite important throughout French history.  Remind yourself that it wasn’t a postcard little town…it was a busy, crowded, smoke-filled, bustling town with water mills on the river, chickens and cows on the streets, washerwomen in the river, etc.   While we were there, it was quite active with families and people shopping, coming home with their baguettes.  It’s still a thriving tourist town.

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Pretty much all of the structures in the old town are half-timbered…but at one point when the town became too dense, in order to prevent a massive fire, they coated the exterior with plaster for fire-prevention. In the past few years, to boost tourism, the town is encouraging home owners to restore the facades back to the original look.

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St. Pierre church from the 1100’s. This is where the townsfolk would worship…the pilgrims would go to Chartes.

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This church still has it’s bright green and gold interiors…most medieval churches were painted with these bright colors.

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We think it is a doll repair shop?

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Chartes is one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever seen.  Beautiful and seemingly frozen in time yet still alive.

After a nice dinner in a quaint little restaurant facing the cathedral, we headed back to Paris. Of course, on the way to the train station, it POURED buckets…we got soaked and rode home totally drenched.  As soon as we got on the train, the sun came out and it was gorgeous.  Thank you Game Makers, touche.

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We are the Jones Family from New York City's vibrant East Village neighborhood. My wife and I are both architects...we love art and architecture... and I love photographing all aspects of our travel expeditions. Our 9 year old is already filling up her passport and enjoys discovering the joys of Europe. We caught the international travel bug a few years ago, and now we love to explore different cultures and to see the great big world that is out there!

3 Comment on “Afternoon in Chartes

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