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