- Published: Monday, 01 June 2015 15:20
Early on a bright May morning, 13 of us boarded a coach in Beaulieu. Destination - Chartres, France.
We had an unexpectedly good ferry crossing from Portsmouth - Caen, high winds had been forecast, but thankfully did not materialize. We were greeted by a spectacularly black sky and a shower of hailstones. We drove through very green spring countryside, the typical Columbages of Normandy, little half-timbered farmsteads, with cows, sheep, and orchards
In the late afternoon, after several hours of travelling, we saw the imposing bulk of the Cathedral from many miles away, like great ship on the horizon. We soon arrived in Chartres, about 6.30pm, a journey of over 12 hours. .
The next day after a relaxed breakfast in the Hotel, we sortied out into the bright but still unseasonably cold morning. In contrast to the previous evening we found the town alive and buzzing. We went exploring and first of all found a wonderful food market in progress, under a beautiful Belle Époque wrought iron structure. The presentation of the food was exquisite; the cheese stall had many different types and shapes of cheese; small heart shaped Neufchatel, little round goats’ cheeses, wedges sandwiched together with a layer of walnuts, how we wished we could have taken them all home. The fish, meat and vegetable stalls were all equally tempting, another highlight were the thick bundles of blanched asparagus.
We then descended down steep lanes and flights of steps on the circuit historique. This led to the old town past half-timbered houses and down to the river. In the lower town, the names of the streets,” Poissoniers,” “Tanneries” are reminders of the trades of the past. Views from the riverside are very picturesque, hump backed bridges, the ancient Lavoirs and water mills, and looking back up to the town, a stunning view of the Cathedral.
At last It was time to enter the Cathedral! Inside it was very dark, and felt subterranean, filled with blue light from the stained glass. To our surprise the front and middle section of the Nave was shrouded in dust sheets and scaffolding - a 5 year restoration and cleaning plan was in progress. The famous labyrinth sadly was covered up for protection from the clanking and hammering of the workmen above. Parts of the church that had already been cleaned revealed walls and pillars that are light and windows like jewels that let in much more light. Centuries of blackening and staining, from candles and the atmosphere was being removed.
At last we met the famous Malcom Millar, the reason we had gone to visit Chartres. Now 82 years old, he had gone to Chartres as a postgraduate student, and never left. He is a leading authority on the Cathedral and we were lucky, thanks to Lucie Lewis, our tour leader, to have him as our Guide. His knowledge was mesmerizing and he immediately had us under his spell, and explained to us that to the 12th century Pilgrims, in a world before printing and paper was invented, the Cathedral was there to be read like a book, the statues, the windows all imparting a pictorial message. A world of symbolic meanings, loaded with deeper, sub-texts. He was a fascinating interpreter of this world, and we hung on every word. At length we had a tour of the Crypt, with another Crypt below, sites of the first two of five subsequent Cathedrals.
When not in the Cathedral, we had plenty of leisure time to explore the charming little city. We found a perfect Brasserie on the corner of the square by the Cathedral, characterized by it’s collection of hundreds of teapots. It became “our” cafe where we went for hot chocolate, and later french onion soup (it was cold in the cathedral) and later still dinner.
After dark, we were treated to the most amazing digital light show projected on to the facades of the Cathedral on buildings, bridges, fountains and many other architectural features around the town. What an ending to a fabulous day, full of new sights, sounds and sensations. The imposing grandeur of the Cathedral, the charm of the medieval town and its’ stunning architecture and above all the pleasure of being in France; the exquisite presentation of food, the poldered trees in the square, the chic little boutiques, the little cafes, the vin, and the good company of our fellow travelers.
With thanks to Sue Nicholas who organised the trip, together with Lucie Lewis, our Leader!