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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*Post updated, July, 2019
If you're looking to pop out of Paris for a day, or half-day, trip, I'd highly recommend considering the iconic French city of Chartres. Surprisingly off the main tourist track, given its historical significance, 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!
Getting to Chartres from Paris
You can take a direct train from Paris, which only takes about an hour and twenty minutes. Do check the time tables, though - 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 metro, light rail, and high speed trains, and do not clearly differentiate between them. For more on train travel in France, check out 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 buy train tickets to and from Chartres for around 18 - 20 Euros/person. Yes, you read that correctly.
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!
History of Chartres, France
Today, Chartres is a relatively small town of less than 50,000 inhabitants, and of course it's far more connected to Paris than it was historically.
Chartres rose to fame as a "Cathedral Town," like so many of Europe's historic towns, and has remained so, ever since. Pilgrims have flocked to Chartres for hundreds of years and, even today, the town continues to be oriented around the Cathedral's square. Chartres Cathedral maintains a very active religious practice, in addition to the tourists who visit the Cathedral for its historical and architectural history. When we were visited, a large group of pilgrims were engaged in an active prayer walk inside the church. With the history of pilgrimages, and due to its size and similarly relaxed atmosphere, Chartres is strongly reminiscent of a smaller Canterbury, Kent.
Visiting Chartres Cathedral
Certainly the main portion of your trip to Chartres will be dedicated to exploring the stunning Chartres Cathedral, a true gem of European architectural history and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Constructed between 1193 and 1250, and, without exaggeration, almost perfectly preserved, Chartres Cathedral would be significant for either of those attributes, independently. The original church was constructed in the 11th century after an almost Ken Follett-level series of misfortunes befell each structure that was built on the spot. The bishop actually solicited donations from the great houses of Europe - and they sent money! Getting by with a little help from his friends, he started on the original Gothic structure, portions of which are still visible inside the church we see today.
In addition to the fire and natural risks to the Cathedral, it survived one of many threats to its existence during the Revolution when it first was stormed by a mob intent on destroying it who were stopped by residents of Chartres. And then, the Revolutionary government marked it for destruction. The architect employed for this bizarre task was able to save the Cathedral by reminding the government what a giant mess this would make and laying out how long it would take to remove all of the rubble, which would prevent people using the roads in the center of town.
And after all of this, the vast majority of the stained glass that you will see today is original, which is almost unbelievable. Of course, with its solitary spire, it's certainly reminiscent of Strasbourg Cathedral. And yes, as with Strasbourg, they did intend to build a fully-sized second spire. Spires are expensive!
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 personally 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 and saved Chartres Cathedral.
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 religious 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. It is set back a bit, and there are a number of other relics displayed in the same manner, so it is easy to miss - we actually had to walk back again because we had walked right by.
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!)
One of the notable aspects of Chartres architecturally is that it has 3 significant facades. The back displays the flying buttresses. Take time to walk around the entire Cathedral and view each facade - they are intricately carved with depictions of characters and stories from the Bible.
Where to eat in Chartres
After our time at the Cathedral, we enjoyed a lovely, lovely meal at Le Cafe Serpente. It's located in the first building on the corner in the picture below - the Cathedral is immediately behind and to the left of me. It has a casual, relaxed atmosphere, outdoor dining, and great views of the Cathedral - not to mention the giant artichokes! My recommendation would be to take your time both at the Cathedral and at lunch - the purpose of this trip is to relax a bit, and it's quite a small town - easily manageable after a long lunch!
Walking Tour of Chartres
Continuing past Le Cafe Serpente, we took a quick walk around town - down past Eglise catholique Saint-Aignan, yet another a stunning, historic church, 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. Though, I will admit there is not much in the way of historical "sites" to enter or tour - it's more of a stroll and explore type of day trip!
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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