Travel: Day trip from Paris: Notre-Dame de Chartres

Attracting pilgrims since the Middle Ages and still one of France’s most revered monuments, the World Heritage-listed Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral kicks off our day trip from Paris.

Almost every hour, direct trains run between Montparnasse station and old Chartres.

The regional service sweeps us southwest through 80 kilometers of countryside.

Along the way, our guides describe the inspiring story of the Gothic masterpiece: “In 1194, a raging fire destroyed the ancient market town of Chartres, including its beloved place of worship.

Despite overwhelming devastation, hard work and determined fundraising have helped committed townspeople to rebuild their cathedral in a remarkable 30 years.

Arriving at Chartres train station in about an hour, a stroll past the pretty town’s shops and patio bistros leads to a sculpture-filled plaza with welcoming benches. The two very different bell towers of the cathedral welcome us soon.

To the right, the sober “older” spire and the tallest Romanesque-style bell tower in the world contrast dramatically with the “newer” lace, flamboyant to its left.

The daring climbs its 300 worn stone steps to achieve panoramic views. Near the main entrance, an embellished facade dazzles.

Astonishing realistic figures frame the three doors of Royal Portal. Kings, queens, priests and prophets stand atop decorative columns, marvelous lifelike faces contrasting with their rigid, elongated bodies.

Above the doors, carved panels represent the holy story of Christ. On the left, angels lift him up on a heavenly cloud. In the center, the apostles gather around Him.

On the right, Mary is seated serenely on the Throne of Wisdom, the Child Jesus on her knees.

Inside the hushed cathedral, the 12th century windows generate rainbow light from all sides. Donated by wealthy merchants and royalty to inspire hope, 172 stained glass windows mainly illustrate Bible stories; some, medieval everyday life.

Like us, many bring binoculars to better appreciate the fine details of the scenarios.

Above the west entrance, the original windows radiate wonderful shades of blue. Surviving the Great Fire, the 700-year-old glittering glass strikes us as exceptionally exquisite.

Around the ornate 100-meter-long stone screen of the choir, 40 sculpted scenes depict the life of Mary and Jesus.

Representing the glorious ascension of Christ, columns of pink marble speckled with gold frame a magnificent white angel rising behind the altar.

At one time, all of this masonry, stained glass representations and other works of art transmitted the story of Christ to much

illiterate population.

Eventually, the multi-storey cathedral became affectionately known as the Stone Bible.

Additionally, artifacts and paintings fill the recessed chapels throughout the cathedral.

Dozens of believers once traveled to the Chapel of the Martyrs to contemplate a legendary pale yellow relic. Considered to be the tunic worn during the birth of Jesus, the veil of the Virgin would offer protection.

Even today curious travelers visit this precious sacred relic, also known as Sancta Camisa.

In the middle of the nave is an inlaid labyrinth, an element of personal reflection in many 13th century cathedrals.

Typically an hour-long meditation, today’s devotees walk the same labyrinth-like path, some barefoot as they slowly turn towards the flower-shaped center.

Exiting through the south gate, flying buttresses on three levels dominate the exterior.

One of the first churches to use them, these striking reinforcements allowed architects to double the structural height and add larger windows. Spacious and airy cathedral interiors with better lighting resulted.

Under a walled-up terrace behind the cathedral, we observe the people of the Jardins de l’Eveche.

The Museum of Fine Arts exhibits a collection of art from the 16th to the 20th century and old harpsichords.

In a shaded alcove, we relax on a stone bench to savor our baguette picnic in the magnificence and tranquility.

Soon after, soft music begins to fill the air.

Singing old French parables, a costumed street performer gradually approaches, a supple chicken puppet tucked firmly under his arm. As he serenades, the wacky hen mimes her delicious songs.

On the northwest side, grotesque gargoyles perch boldly on the gutters of the Gothic tower.

In addition to warding off evil spirits, their beaks divert rainwater away from the wall.

Nearby, a pavilion houses a gold 24-hour astrological clock. By indicating 4 pm, it is already time for us to return to the station.

But first, we salute our wonderful immersion in architecture, art and history with double blackcurrant gelatos.

Visiting the famous Notre-Dame de Chartres turns out to be an extraordinary journey.

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