Druids & Stained Glass: A travel guide to Chartres and its fabulous cathedral

The French sculptor Rodin, after a dazed day sitting in the rain just staring at the sculptures on the facade of Chartres cathedral, dubbed the building "The Acropolis of France."

"Chartres is no place for an atheist," declared Napoléon upon laying eyes on this greatest of High Gothic cathedrals (still the fourth largest church in the world).

Perhaps the would-be emperor had been moved by the ethereal world of colored light that fills the cathedral on a sunny day, streaming through an awe-inspiring 3,000 square yards of 12th- and 13th-century stained glass, turning the church walls into quasi-mystical portals to heaven.

All this beauty can be yours for the low price of just a train ticket from Paris's Gare Montparnasse and less than an hour's ride.

The Chartres tourism office (tel. +33-(0)2-37-21-50-00) is right on the place de la Cathédral.

The Cathedral of Chartres

The first cathedral here was built in the 4th century atop a Roman temple. Many historians hold that the site was religious even before the Romans invaded Gaul (Celtic France), and there's evidence that Druids worshipped in a sacred grove here centuries before Christ. You could spend hours, like Rodin, just scrutinizing the charismatic 12th-century sculptures adorning the main Royal Portal, and their 13th-century cousins around to the north and south sides of the church as well.

That Royal Portal is part of the west facade, which, along with the base of the south tower, is the only part of the Romanesque church to survive an 1194 fire. The cathedral was quickly rebuilt in the 13th century, and the rest remains an inspiring tribute to High Gothic architecture.

Tear your eyes from the stained glass inside for at least long enough to admire the 16th- to 18th-century choir screen whose niches are filled with statuettes playing out the Life of the Virgin.

You can take an excellent guided tour in English (adm) Monday to Saturday at noon or at 2:45pm with Malcolm Miller, whose been doing this for over 40 years. Meet just inside the cathedral on the left side.

You can climb the tower (adm) for gargoyle close-ups May 2 to August 9am to 6pm, September to October and March to April 10 to 11:30am and 2 to 5pm, and November 2 to February 10 to 11:30am and 2 to 4pm (year-round, the tower opens at 2pm Sundays).

Elsewhere in Chartres

After the cathedral, make time to explore the cobbled medieval streets in the Vieux Quartiers (old town) and visit the 16th- to 19th-century paintings in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Chartres (tel.+33-(0)2-37-36-41-39) at 29 Cloître Notre-Dame.

Where to eat in Chartres

When hunger strikes, head to the second floor of 10 rue au Lait for the tasty bistro food of Le Buisson Ardent (tel. +33-(0)2-37-34-04-66).

Where to stay in Chartres

If you decide to make a night of it, rest your weary head at the Qualys-Hôtel Châtlet (tel. +33-(0)2-37-21-78-00), 6-8 av. Jehan-de-Beauce, where many of the antique-styled rooms have panoramic views of the cathedral and ring in aroudn €85. Full Story

Tours Under $995 G Adventures

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in April 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.