An incredibly easy day trip from Paris, Chartres is a gorgeous small "chocolate box" town, with the feel of the French countryside.
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If you're looking to pop out of Paris for a day or half day trip, consider Chartres - certainly off the main tourist track, you'll escape the crowds for the day to wander the streets and visit the stunning Cathedral (which you certainly studied in school at some point, even if you've forgotten!)
You can take a direct train from Paris, which only takes about an hour and twenty minutes (some trains are longer, some shorter). As Chartres is close to Paris, the trains leave from a variety of stations. Attempt to leave from the smallest (read: most manageable) station that has a train to Chartres. French train stations can be a bit confusing, as they contain both metro, light rail, and high speed trains, and do not clearly differentiate between them (more to come on this in my next post - France by Train). That said, if worst comes to worst, show your ticket to employees and they'll point you in the right direction (and if you look confused enough, someone will take pity on you).
One thing that French train systems absolutely have going for them is that they are cheap - you'll be able to get to and from Chartres for around 18 - 20 Euros/person.
Trains to Chartres are in the middle category - they are not high speed, but they are not in-Paris or metro trains. Don't forget to stamp your tickets at the yellow machines before you get on the train!
Today, Chartres is a relatively small town of less than 50,000 inhabitants, many of whom work in Paris.
Chartres rose to fame as a "Cathedral Town," like so many of Europe's historic town, and has remained so, ever since. Pilgrims have flocked here for hundreds of years and the town continues to be oriented around the Cathedral's square, and most of its visitors are there to see it. Unlike some churches, the Cathedral maintains a very active religious practice (when we were visited, a group of pilgrims were at prayer). With the history of pilgrimages, and due to its size and similarly relaxed atmosphere, Chartres is reminiscent of a smaller Canterbury, Kent.
Certainly the main portion of your visit will be dedicated to the stunning Chartres Cathedral - constructed by 1193 and 1250, and, without exaggeration, almost perfectly preserved. And yes, as with Strasbourg Cathedral, they did intend to build a fully-sized second spire.
A fact I learned only while writing this post : the Cathedral was set to be destroyed by the American Army, as it pushed through France after D-Day in 1944, taking the French countryside back from the Germans, city-by-city. Believing the Cathedral to be a German base, an American commander ordered the Cathedral destroyed. Welborn Griffin, Jr., an American Colonel and West Point graduate, understanding the incredible historical significance of the Cathedral, intervened and offered to recon the Cathedral to determine whether the shelling was necessary. Finding no Germans during his scouting, Griffin was able to persuade the commanding officer to retract his order. Tragically, Griffin was killed that very afternoon during the liberation of the surrounding countryside at Leves, about two miles north of Chartres. Griffin received the Distinguished Service Cross, posthumously.
Some of the Cathedral's renoun is due to the attraction of the Sancta Camisa, the shawl believed to have been worn by Mary at the birth of Jesus, which is on display behind the altar.
And, of course, if you're braver than me, you can do the rooftop climb and see the view from on high (though it is part of a guided tour, so keep that in mind, when planning your day!)
Continuing past Le Cafe Serpente, we took a quick walk around town - down past Eglise catholique Saint-Aignan, a stunning specimen, on which construction began in the 13th century.
Then, continue your walk down the surprisingly large hill and along the Eure River, circling back up toward the Tourist Office. Many of the bridges across the river were destroyed either by the Germans or the Americans during the occupation and recapture of Chartres in WWII, though the thought of the fighting seems incredibly distant, as you stroll the nearly empty (but perfectly maintained) streets. Historic architecture remains - with lovely, quaint displays of half-timbered houses at every turn.
As you can see, when I say it's off the tourist track - I mean it! There were some people in the Cathedral and the surrounding shops, but the walk around town was largely just us! It's definitely relaxing after the busy crowds of Paris.
Thanks so much for stopping by! If you're interested in other day trip from Paris, please check out the articles below, on Strasbourg and Fontainebleau!
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