Sunday, 3 July 2011

Chartres, France

"Not another church!" They saying is true, wherever to travel in Europe you're bound to visit more than a handful of churches. They're everywhere! In every city, town or hamlet there is a church to be visited. And you do get a little tired of them too. It becomes increasingly difficult to remember and distinguish which one was which - in the end they all turn into one mental collage of stained glass windows, vaults, buttresses, spires and altars.

Although, being an art history student studying in Paris (who loves architecture - from Ming China to Romanesque to Baroque to Le Corbusier), I could not miss the opportunity of being so close to Notre Dame de Chartres and not visit one of the most amazing high Gothic cathedrals in the world. So one Saturday morning I jumped onto the train and headed towards the small town of Chartres.

The town of Chartres is located south-west of Paris - the easiest way to get there is to take a SNCF train from Le Gare de Montparnasse to Chartres station - it takes about 1 hour to get there. Being a small town, it's difficult to get lost between the train station and the cathedral, especially once you spot those tall Gothic spires framed against the sky.

The cathedral is breathtaking - the grand proportions of the stone columns and archways, the intricately colourful stained glass windows, the impressive and tactile sculptural work... Just walking down the nave, one is awestruck by the shear size and magnitude of the structure - the space is enormous. I once wrote an essay on Gothic and Romanesque religious architecture at university, arguing that one of the original purposes of these buildings was to subdue the populous by highlighting the power and might of the church. Being within the building, you surely get a feeling of the power and influence that the church once had over society. 
To think that work on the present cathedral began in 1020 and after a number of additions and setbacks, it was finally consecrated in 1260. How amazing it is that such buildings were designed and constructed over 800 years ago! We think of the middle ages as being a period of simplicity, but we can see from buildings such as Chartres Cathedral, that they were quite technically advanced in some aspects. The building even impresses present day visitors.

The town of Chartres is also a lovely place to visit. Being set on the banks of the Eure River, parts of the town are connected by little bridges. It's a typical French rural town - with interesting little side streets, cobbled stone footpaths, beautifully designed and quaint houses and has a serene atmosphere. Chartres also has a great shopping precinct with an array of shops, cafes and fresh produce markets (if you want fresh produce however, be sure to be there before midday)!

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