During our recent trip to France, we stayed near Charles de Gaulle airport and the convention center where my husband was spending the week. While my husband headed to work, I spent each morning making my way into downtown Paris via RER B where I’d transfer to a large train stations that would shoot me off on day trips to new-to-me places throughout France and beyond.
We arrived on a Sunday evening so I decided to ease my way into my day trip schedule, spending my first day in Chartres just outside Paris. I took the RER B from the airport to Gare Montparnasse via some metro changes, acquiring one of the new Navigo Freedom transit cards to cover my week of travel.
It was a lovely day to explore a new city – sunny and a little overcast, the perfect temperature, and not too busy. Here are a few of my favorite moments from Chartres.
Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral
Probably the main reason people visit Chartres is to visit Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral, or ‘l’autre notre dame’ as I tried to cleverly reference it on Instagram (no one got it – they thought I was in Paris).
I found the gift shop to my left upon entering where I was able to rent an audio guide. The tour began in front of the building and wrapped around the sides of the exterior before moving to key points inside the cathedral. There were a few guided tours underway while I was there as well, but I like that the audio guide allowed me to go at my own pace. I hadn’t experienced this before, but this audio guide also had additional recordings within certain sections so you could dive deeper and listen to even more information on a particular attribute or architectural element that piqued your interest.
Several things impressed me about the cathedral as I made my way around the exterior. First, the west façade and original 12th century entrance and picture windows. It’s incredible how many of the carved statues and other elements are still intact so many years later. The large, stained glass rose window above the west entrance is from the 13th century and depicts the last judgement. The two towers rising above the entrance do not match: the smooth south tower dates from the 12th century while the gothic spire of the north tower was built in the 16th century.
The other pictures below show the equally impressive north and south facades, which each have their own 13th century rose window as well.
Once inside the cathedral, it was hard to know where to look first and I was happy to have the audio guide lead me around in a circle.
One of the most unique features inside was the 12th century labyrinth on the floor of the nave, pictured in part below. According to the guide, it is made of flagstones enclosed by bands of black marble and has never been restored. The floor is still cleared of pews certain times of year so people can walk the labyrinth as part of a symbolic journey to the holy land.
The stained glass windows were breathtaking, and as I walked along either side I was taken aback by the clear distinction between which areas have been cleaned and restored and which have not. You can see the difference in the white and black columns pictured below.
The eastern section of the interior houses all of the antechambers that wrap around the sanctuary and choir areas.
I could have spent days trying to appreciate the details of all the carved stories, but I kept moving along until I found the antechamber that displays a 2,000-year-old veil, supposedly from the Virgin Mary’s birthing gown, before wrapping up my visit.
Lunch at Le Café Serpentine
After several hours wandering around the cathedral I was ready for a light lunch. I didn’t have to journey far to Le Cafe Serpentine, which looks directly on the south façade of the cathedral.
I ordered an asparagus custard soup, baguettes and white wine – yum! It was a delicious break before exploring more of Chartres.
Self-guided Walking Tour
Happily my Rick Steves travel guide included a self-guided walking tour of many other main sites. I enjoyed walking around the old vegetable market, checking out several of the beautiful frescoes, and seeing St. Aignan church, which was originally built in 400!
The main portal in its front façade is all that remains of the original structure – several fires and other incidents throughout the years required the rest of the building to undergoing reconstruction.
St. Pierre Church
The final church I visited was the Gothic style St. Pierre church, re-built in the late 12th century after a fire in 1134. It’s considered to be the second most important church in town and is known for its 13th century stained glass window collection.
There was no one around when I entered and I had the place to myself for the duration of my visit. I captured one really lovely photo of the light shining in through the stained glass.
Lower Town and Eure River
While many of the sites are in the upper section of town where the well-to-do lived, steep lanes and stairways lead down to the lower town where the tradespeople lived. As I learned later in the day when I had to climb back up to the top and over to the train station, it would have been quite the uphill journey to work for those who were waiting on the nobility each day.
The lower section along the Eure river is idyllic and still looks like its set in its medieval past with hump-backed bridges, water mills, and restaurants overlooking the water. There was construction on the road to the east of the river, but I found the footpath along the western side that wound through small parks and green spaces, occasionally coming out along one of the bridges where I could snap some photos.
I wrapped up my time in Chartres walking across town to 29 rue Chantault – the oldest inhabited house in Chartres. Like sections of the churches, the house dates from the 12th century and has incredible detailed figures still apparent in its window wells. Unbelievable!
Chartres has been on my list for many years, and I was thrilled to spend my first full day in France exploring this beautiful and quiet city.