After I left Vaux it was about a 2.5hr drive. The road out of Vaux for example is just wide enough for 2 cars, and its 90km\h. What the locals tend to do is drive right down the middle of the road, and they only move out of the way when it’s time to pass another vehicle. For my second day in Europe, it makes you extra cautious. This makes things nerve wracking, as I'm not used to the dimensions of the car, nor used to driving on the other side of the road, so I stay a bit below the speed limit, unless it's the motorway.
Once I got onto the motorway I pulled into a road house for drinks and a short walk. The rest of the way was basically all motorway, until I got to Chartres itself. I find the bigger cities stressful driving, as you’ve got people very close to the back of the car, pedestrian crossings everywhere, and positions of traffic lights that I’m not used to. It’s also hard to navigate around areas where you don’t know what to look for.
Because of that, I drove past the hotel once, then twice more whilst we looked for a park. Eventually I paralleled parked (or abandoned) the car whilst I unloaded my luggage and checked in to a pokey little room. I think three of my suitcases side by side would take up just as much space as the room offered – however it’s France, and you don’t usually find big rooms here. I was able to eventually park the car in a paid parking complex under the square opposite the hotel.
After I dropped the luggage off, I headed across the square opposite the hotel and to the Cathedral. The Chartres Cathedral is meant to be particularly special for a variety of reasons. The first is that the current version of the church has been largely unchanged since the year 1250. There were fires and previous churches on the site were burnt down, but this one has remained largely intact and unmodified.
Another reason the church is famous is because it is considered the best of the gothic churches in France, particularly the era of “high gothic” although I don’t know what that is really, so I’ll take their word for it. The next important thing about the church is the labyrinth in the floor of the church, I only got to see part of this, as there are restoration works going inside which means that the main part of the nave is not available for viewing – a pity as that means a lot of the famous stained glass windows aren’t on display.
Lastly, and most importantly, are the contents of the crypt. I had a guided tour underneath the church into the crypts. I didn’t know at the time, but the tour is French only. The tour guide seemed to be remarkably knowledgeable about the crypts – I could pick up a word here and there. However, it largely went over my head.
I did make out a few important things from the tour though. The first was that we were taken down into a very low part of the crypts, which had a large pillar. The pillar held up the column in the apse of the church. This column also had a nearby altar, which appeared to be a worship place from Roman times.
Upstairs we got taken to the well, which goes 33m below the crypt. This was installed so that people who were taking refuge in the church during the middle ages in times of crisis\war would have fresh water. We were then taken into a smaller church, which had a very old altar, and possibly the first dedicated place of worship to Mary in Europe. This leads me to the most important information about Chartres. It is said that Charlemagne was given a relic, from Emperor Constantine, which is believed to be the tunic that Mary wore when she gave birth to Christ.
The relic was put inside a gold ornament, and then locked inside a case in the wall. This artifact is known as Sancta Camisa, and there are pilgrimages each year to view it. Although the story is now thought to be a myth - as Charlemagne never traveled to Constantinople – it is now thought to be Charles the Bold who received the gift. The artifact was cut into pieces and there are 2 at the church, one on display. A small section of the cloth was carbon dated, and has been proved to be 2000 years old, and was worn by a woman in the Middle East. Whilst it is possible the artifact is real, I’m not 100% convinced. However, I guess I don’t need to be!
After I went through the Crypt, I took a quick walk through the church itself, as a service was about to start, then headed back to the hotel for dinner. The hotel is supposed to have a very good restaurant, which is part of why I picked it. I had a 3 course degustation\gourmet menu. I had a slice of a special pate and fois gras pie (it tastes magnificent, a whole lot better than it sounds), and a very, very nice steak with potato croquettes. For dessert I had a chocolate tart with infused jasmine.
After dinner I caught the tourist train, which takes you on a tour of the town for their special illumination show. I missed the first trip, so got tickets and walked behind the cathedral to have a look across the town, and to see if any lights were on the church. What I found was something amazing.
The town doesn’t just light up the buildings; it actually shows little animated movies from projectors. There was one playing on a building behind the cathedral, and another playing on the opposite side of that building. I stayed and watched those for a bit, then walked out the gates to see an even bigger display on the side of the cathedral. I’d grabbed the tripod, so I could take some photos at night, and found a corner with 2 other camera geeks who were doing the same thing. They show made it look like the church was bleeding and the picture changed, as if to tell a bit of a story.
After this, I walked to the front of the cathedral, where the entire front façade was used like a white screen whilst they showed their animations. I can’t describe it accurately enough, but they turned the front of the church into a giant jigsaw puzzle. It went from all illuminated with just normal light, to a mosaic pattern of two kings, then that changed to show the Virgin Mary on the façade. There were lots of people gathering around to watch it, and after the show was completed (it was on an endless loop, so it didn’t just play once), people clapped to show their appreciation.
After this, I finally got on the little tourist train. It went through the city, past the open air market, and down the bottle of the hill to another church, which looked breathtaking. I’m not sure if they put huge floodlights inside the church, or if the animations were so good, but it looked like you could see through the stained glass windows from the outside of the church. There was lots of religious symbology on display, in crimson reds and blues. We then moved on to see some buildings and bridges alongside the river with illuminations, as they were called, on them as well.
We came back to the smaller church again, only to the façade on the opposite side, only to see a completely different set of pictures and colours. It was brilliantly done. Unfortunately though, I couldn’t get any pictures, as I was sitting in the middle of the train. It moved too quickly through the tour, so I couldn’t get out, set up the tripod, and take a picture. I’m disappointed at that, as it’s something that impressed and moved me.
Many other buildings around the town had similar things, including a hotel in the main square near where the hotel was. One building looked like it was turned into an adult dancing venue, with silhouettes of women dancing provocatively in the animations. It was like a shadow version of the Moulin rouge, or at least what I’d imagine the Moulin rouge to look like.
The train got back to its pick up point about 45mins later, and I’d seen almost 30 different buildings or bridges with animations on them. I’ll put some pictures of these up soon. It’s definitely something I’d happily see again – as they change the theme every year (or so I was told). By the time the train had stopped, it was near 11pm. I went to the hotel and crashed for the night.