- Places to Explore
- Travel Tips
- Fodor's Choice
- French Phrases
Cathédrale Notre-Dame Review
Worship on the site of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, better known as Chartres Cathedral, goes back to before the Gallo-Roman period—the crypt contains a well that was the focus of druid ceremonies. In the late ninth century Charles II (known as "the Bald") presented Chartres with what was believed to be the tunic of the Virgin Mary, a precious relic that went on to attract hordes of pilgrims. The current cathedral, the sixth church on the spot, dates mainly from the 12th and 13th centuries and was erected after the previous building, dating from the 11th century, burned down in 1194. A well-chronicled outburst of religious fervor followed the discovery that the Virgin Mary's relic had miraculously survived unsinged. Princes and paupers, barons and bourgeoisie gave their money and their labor to build the new cathedral. Ladies of the manor came to help monks and peasants on the scaffolding in a tremendous resurgence of religious faith that followed the Second Crusade. Just 25 years were needed for Chartres Cathedral to rise again, and it has remained substantially unchanged since.
The lower half of the facade survives from the earlier Romanesque church: this can be seen most clearly in the use of round arches rather than the pointed Gothic style. The Royal Portal is richly sculpted with scenes from the life of Christ—these sculpted figures are among the greatest created during the Middle Ages. The taller of the two spires (380 feet versus 350 feet) was built at the start of the 16th century, after its predecessor was destroyed by fire; its fanciful Flamboyant intricacy contrasts sharply with the stumpy solemnity of its Romanesque counterpart (access €3, open daily 9:30-noon and 2-4:30). The rose window above the main portal dates from the 13th century, and the three windows below it contain some of the finest examples of 12th-century stained-glass artistry in France.
As spiritual as Chartres is, the cathedral also had its more-earthbound uses. Look closely and you can see that the main nave floor has a subtle slant. This was built to provide drainage, as this part of the church was often used as a "hostel" by thousands of overnighting pilgrims in medieval times.
Your eyes will need time to adjust to the somber interior. The reward is seeing the gemlike richness of the stained glass, with the famous deep Chartres blue predominating. The oldest window is arguably the most beautiful: Notre-Dame de la Belle Verrière (Our Lady of the Lovely Window), in the south choir. The cathedral's windows are gradually being cleaned—a lengthy, painstaking process—and the contrast with those still covered in the grime of centuries is staggering. It's worth taking a pair of binoculars along with you to pick out the details. If you wish to know more about stained-glass techniques and the motifs used, visit the small exhibit in the gallery opposite the north porch. Since 2008, the cathedral has been undergoing an ambitious renovation—to the tune of a staggering €270 million (about $350 million)—that will continue through 2015. To date, two major chapels (the chapels of the Martyrs and the Apostles) have been completely restored, as have the two bays of the nave and the lower choir and the transept windows. For those who remember these dark recesses before the restoration the transformation is nothing short of miraculous, with an estimated 160,000 square feet of original plasterwork now visible and many of the sublime details for which the cathedral is famous returned to their original 13th-century glory. For even more detail, try to arrange a tour (in English) with local institution Malcolm Miller, whose knowledge of the cathedral's history is formidable. (He leads tours twice a day Monday through Saturday, April-October, once a day November-March at noon. You can reach him at the telephone number below, or at: millerchartresaol.com.) The vast black-and-white labyrinth on the floor of the nave is one of the few to have survived from the Middle Ages; the faithful were expected to travel along its entire length (some 300 yards) on their knees. Guided tours of the Crypte start from the Maison de la Crypte opposite the south porch. You can also see a fourth-century Gallo-Roman wall and some 12th-century wall paintings.
- Address: 16 cloître Notre-Dame, Chartres, 28000 | Map It
- Phone: 02-37-21-75-02
- Cost: Crypt €2.70. Tours €7.50
- Hours: Cathedral daily 8:30--7:30; guided tours of crypt Apr.--Oct., daily at 11, 2:15, 3:30, and 4:30; Nov.--Mar., daily at 11 and 4:15
- Website: www.chartres-tourisme.com
- Location: Chartres
Free Fodor's Newsletter
Subscribe today for weekly travel inspiration, tips, and special offers.
Fodor's Trip Planning Ideas
- Weekend Getaways: Fodor's Recommends the Best Weekend Escapes in the US
- Great American Vacation: Find Your Next U.S. Trip with Fodor's
- 80 Degrees: Fodor's Helps You Find Your Best Beach Vacation Spots
- Go List: Fodor's Top 25 Places to Go in 2013
- Hotel Awards 2012: Fodor's 100 Top Hotels
- Best of Europe: Fodor's Picks the Best Places to Visit in Europe
- $1799 -- 7-Nt. Luxe French & Italian Riviera Cruise, 70% Off Windstar Cruises
- $1799 & up -- 'World's Best': Luxe European Cruises, 70% Off — $1,799 Windstar Cruises
I recently returned from a long dreamed of trip to the French Riviera. Read more
Thanks to all who helped in the planning! Read more
We are a family of 4 Adults and 3 kids (aged 3, 4 and 9) will be arriving (08:15 am) at Frankfurt on 9th July 2013 as part of our Europe visit. Read more
· News & Features
The Swiss city of Basel is getting ready to host to the who's who of the art world yet again, with the... Read more
Do you suffer from Vacation Deprivation?... Read more
Steinbeck said it well—no matter how many plans you make, its the destination that scoops you up... Read more