There Are Places We’ll Remember All Our Lives: Chartres.

Posted on January 11, 2014 by

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      Kenneth Clarke, in his book Civilisation, raves over Chartres. The first cathedral in France dedicated to the Virgin Mary is, he said: ‘The epitome of the great awakening of European civilisation’. High praise indeed from The Master, who himself epitomised civilisation. He goes on to say that ‘…the portals have the best carved figures in the world…sculpted by a genius’ and ‘the interior is one of the two most beautiful covered spaces in the world (the other is St Sophia in Constantinople)’. After Chartres, all the great cathedrals of France were dedicated to the Virgin, including those at Rouen and Amiens.

      Fortytwo trades unions (bakers, butchers, carpenters, weavers, shoemakers, farriers, fishmongers, armourers, water carriers, wine merchants, vintners, masons, furriers, drapers et al) paid for stained glass windows depicting their crafts. They can still be seen today.

      One pupil of Chartres Cathedral School, Henry II of England, became infamous when he begged to be rid of ‘this turbulent priest’, one time best friend Thomas Becket, who he had murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. Fellow pupil, John of Salisbury, who was devoted to Becket, witnessed it. John ended up Bishop of Chartres. To be fair to Henry (who was anything but fair) Becket was determined to be a martyr and goaded Henry into making him one. He was so insufferable that if Henry had not done for him someone else would have.

      Chartres Cathedral is special on many counts: Thousands of volunteers from all social classes, including the gentry, arrived from all over France to harness themselves to carts taking the places of oxen, to drag stone to the building site from quarries miles away. The spectacle has been called The Cult of Carts. Thanks to all this free labour, Chartres took a mere thirty years to complete: This was the first cathedral built in the new Gothic style. Against all the odds, despite Reformation, Revolution and two world wars, Chartres is still intact.

      Following the French Revolution, when the old religion, Christianity, was replaced with a new one, Nature, plans were drawn up to demolish the cathedral at Chartres and replace it with a so called Temple of Wisdom. Talk about oxymoron. Narrow escape. Thank you Someone.

      The Son et Lumière is, as you would expect, superb. Not content with that, Chartres offers a spectacular tour every night in summer. Buildings are illuminated until 1 am. Lights in the pavement lead from one gem to the next. Twenty-nine must sees include the Portals of the Cathedral, Fine-Arts Museum, Bishop’s Gardens, churches, hotels, picturesque streets and squares, Les Halles (covered market) the banks of the Eure (bridges and wash-houses), the Theatre, the media library and Chartres Gallery. One of the best free attractions around. If you want to save your legs, Le Petit Train awaits you. Enjoy!

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