1 11 2010

Chartres is one of those places, if you’ve studied French for a long time, that you’ve heard about over and over.  It’s home to the best-preserved cathedral in Europe, which is also one of the purest examples of Gothic architecture, built relatively quickly between 1206 and 1260.  And it’s only about an hour from Paris. But I had yet to visit, until last weekend.

The catalyst that finally got me to hop on the train was an invite to a salon from Domaine La Beille.  A small winery run by a couple (he’s Australian, she’s French) in the Languedoc, not far from Perpignan and the Spanish border.  They make some nice wines, and I especially like the way they buck traditions to make single varietal wines in a country where blends are the norm.

Since the train tickets were a little spendy (14 euros each way), Nick and I figured we’d make a day out of it.  I researched some places to eat and made phone calls from the train.  I got a reservation at the first place I called, the Brasserie La Cour at the hotel Le Grand Monarque.

Table setting at Braaserie La Cour

After a short but cold walk from the train station, we walked into the elegant lobby of Le Grand Monarque.  Straight ahead was the airy dining room of the Brasserie La Cour.  Thus named because it is actually situated in the courtyard of the building, the space is very light.  It almost felt like we were dining outside, save for the fact that it was warm and we weren’t getting rained on.  So, better.  I was immediately charmed by the mini-baguettes that were part of the place settings at each table.  I was also a big fan of the little butter crocks, which contained perfectly softened butter.  (It’s a pet peeve of mine when restaurants serve ice-cold, rock-hard butter.)

Butter crock

Of course I had found out the local specialties before we headed to Chartres, and topping the list is a special pâté.  Pâté de Chartres is a rustic, meaty pâté with a hunk of foie gras in the center.  It’s wrapped in pastry and baked, then any space is filled with aspic.

Pâté de Chartres

Here it was served with a salad and a few pickled cherries on the side.  I liked the way the tangy cherries played off the richness of the pâté, but Nick wasn’t a fan.  (Of the cherries.  He definitely liked the pâté, and he also lucked out and got the piece with the big chunk of foie gras.)

Given the gray, rainy weather, for my main course I opted for the “Cocotte du jour,” which happened to be pot au feu – a French classic that consists of slow-cooked beef and vegetables in a rich broth.

Pot au feu

It was just what I needed to warm my bones before spending the afternoon in a chilly cathedral.  It was also enormous – that pot it’s in probably held two liters.  And any culinary student, past or present, will appreciate this:


Lest you think that nobody tournés vegetables in real life, let me assure you that they do.  I was also delighted when I turned over one of the hefty bones in my stew and found a treasure trove of marrow.


Longtime readers of this blog will remember how much I adore this stuff.

Nick had the daily special, a tender piece of veal in a sauce of porcini mushrooms.

Veal at Brasserie La Cour

We failed to save room for dessert, so we got our coats and went back out into the cold, but not before having a little look around.  The hotel bar looked extremely cozy, and it was tempting to just curl up there with a couple of drinks.

Bar at Le Grand Monarque

But we had a cathedral to see.  Unfortunately, the front façade was covered in scaffolding, but there was plenty to look at inside.

Above the choir in Chartres cathedral

I absolutely love stained glass, and the windows at Chartres are truly breathtaking.  They are mostly original, which is to say that they date back to the 13th century.  So many cathedrals in France have been damaged over the years by religious zealots or bombs, but the residents of Chartres have preserved their cathedral very well.  They even took out the windows and covered the statues with sandbags during World War II.  One of the most stunning windows is the Blue Virgin.

The Blue Virgin Window

This one actually predates the cathedral itself – it used to be the centerpiece of the church that occupied the same site, which burned down in 1194.  Mary’s dress is a rare shade of blue due to the pure cobalt used to make the glass.  As far as I understand, they can’t make blues like this anymore.  I do know I’ve never seen another one like it.

North Rose Window at Chartres

Even though one of the huge rose windows was covered by scaffolding, there were two more to enjoy.  Pictured above is the North window, which tells of Jesus’ ancestry.  It was donated by King Louis IX, aka Saint Louis, and his mother, Blanche de Castile.  Their coats of arms can be seen below the circle, his is blue with the gold fleur-de-lis, and hers is red with a yellow castle.  I didn’t realize before that the fleur-de-lis, now a symbol so closely connected with France, was originally the crest of Louis IX.

Choir screen at Chartres

A procession of statue-scenes rings the inner part of the cathedral.  There are 41 in all, and they illustrate the life of Mary before, during, and after that of Jesus.  Here are scenes 12 and 13, where an interesting transition takes place.  The sculptures were made over several hundred years, and reflect changes in style as the years progressed.  In scene 12, the arrival of the Three Kings, everyone is dressed in contemporary (for the 1500’s) clothing.  In scene 13, however, everyone has changed into Roman-style clothing, reflecting a later desire for historical accuracy.

An alcove in the Chartres cathedral

I don’t think photographs can ever really do this place justice.  The cathedral at Chartres is a truly breathtaking sight, and for anyone who’s ever studied art history or architecture, it’s an amazing example of the Gothic style.  We ended up staying longer than we intended, because there was just so much to look and marvel at.  I wasn’t sure how the cathedral would hold up to the years of anticipation I had built up, but I was not at all disappointed.  If anything, I was almost surprised at how much better it was in person than in pictures or my imagination.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.




11 responses

1 11 2010

I can’t believe that after that little itty bitty pot of pot au feu you didn’t have room for dessert! Ha! That was hugh! When did they start serving such hugh portions in France?
People do not realize that the secret reason the French are so thin is portion control. Sure they eat rich food – they just eat small ammounts.
I so want some of that Pâté de Chartres! I have never met a Pâté I didn’t like – and at least twice a year I just have to make one or two…
That cathedral does indeed leave a lasting impression…

1 11 2010

I love Chartres! Haven’t been there since the late 80’s.

2 11 2010

I think your photos *have* done a bit of justice to those stained glass windows – absolutely beautiful. Something about the blue feels very calming! I’d like to needle you about not having dessert, but I’m actually super keen on pate at the moment so I forgive you 😉 (My housemate was really confused when I came home one night with a pot of pate and proceeded to eat it all in one go while talking about how I want to try blood pudding. She couldn’t reconcile this with my usual distaste for meat. 😀 )

2 11 2010

Funny I’m not a fan of meat either, but i LOVE pate. Odd. Love your posts.

2 11 2010

Quel beau voyage culinaire et culturel ! Magnifiques photos, á table et dans la si belle cathédrale. Merci de partager toutes ces merveilles avec nous.

2 11 2010

Lovely lunch, lovely windows! I love how the stained glass shines like a beacon through the dark church. It’s truly heavenly (in more ways than one). Thank you for sharing!

2 11 2010

Nanan – It is unusual for a restaurant in France to serve such a large dish, especially at lunchtime. Oh, well, I wasn’t complaining. 🙂

CultureChoc – I loved it, too!

Hannah – Thank you, and you should definitely try blood pudding sometime. It’s particularly good with sautéed onions and apples, which I know will make you happy.

renée – Interesting. Maybe because it doesn’t have any bones?

isathreadsoflife – Merci beaucoup, je suis heureuse que tu l’as aimé tellement.

Ann – I know, it really is transcendent, isn’t it?

2 11 2010

What a beautiful place, I love the stained glass windows, they’re very impressive.

The pot au feu looks great, I love bone marrow too but you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find here. My butcher told me that no one likes haveing the bone in there meat any more so he always takes it out, they don’t know what they’re missing!

3 11 2010
hungry dog

Wow, what a lovely excursion. That cathedral is stunning. Your photos are great–I know what you mean about it being hard to capture something that magnificent but yours do a good job. And of course your lunch looks awesome. I want your life! PS I agree about cold butter.

3 11 2010

It sounds and looks like a delicious trip 🙂
And the cathedral looks amazing.

4 11 2010

Sam – That is a shame! (Although I think marrow bones are pretty cheap here, too. Try asking your butcher to save some for you!)

hungry dog – Thank you! And I knew you would. 🙂

Joyti – It was!

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