Just 50 miles southwest of Paris, you will discover the small sleepy town of Chartres. Many know of this lovely town because of its world famous Notre Dame Cathedral. But what many visitors may not be familiar with, is that Chartres is much more than a small town with a famous cathedral where Henry IV was crowned king. Chartres is a quintessential French town that is steeped in history.
Chartres for the History Buff
I first heard of Chartres from a book called “Band of Brothers” By Stephen Ambrose. It tells the tale of a parachute infantry company in the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. The story mentions that Easy Company (part of the division), was scheduled to parachute into this small town, only to have the mission cancelled because the people of Chartres liberated themselves. This inspired my inner history nerd; I knew I had to visit Chartres.
Chartres was a force to be reckoned with during World War II, and the town is fiercely proud of its past. On the Espl. De la Resistance plaques are displayed recognizing the resistance fighters who helped reclaim the city. The most celebrated is Jean Moulin, who was the town’s Prefect during the time of the occupation, and was a key member of the French Resistance. A breath-taking monument of a broken sword honours this brave man who refused to betray the French armed forces.
Across the street from Espl. De la Resistance, you will notice the public library called Mediatheque L’Apostrophe. Some tourists confuse this beautiful building for the cathedral or think it is a chateau. Easy to see why as it draws its architectural inspiration from the Middle Ages and new gothic.
The Cathedral is of course a must-see. It is magnificent, a spiritual place that takes your breath away at its beauty. Read more about the Cathedral here.
The beautiful half-timbered Saumon House was once a place where medieval folk would buy their fish. Located on rue de la Poissonnerie, the fish carvings give its origin away. You would never know it, but the building was heavily damaged during the 1944 bombings. It has been restored to its previous glory with some of the original timber and now functions as the tourist office.
On cool summer nights, enjoy the city-wide sound and light show, rich in colours accompanied by splendid music.
Accessible Walking Tours (Self-Paced!)
Don’t miss the Episcopal Palace of Chartres. This quaint and sweet museum houses a wide variety of artwork. You can even see puzzles the Resistance fighters used to pass messages.
One of the great things about Chartres is it is a very pedestrian-friendly town. You can easily take a lazy stroll through the city, or along the river where you’ll find ducks floating and boats slowly drifting along with the current.
Should you want to enjoy a lazy river paddleboat journey, La Petite Venise is the place to go. Located just a short walk from the city center, there’s also a shaded restaurant where outdoor concerts are held. Trust me, after peddling for an hour, you’ll be ready for a bite and a drink.
My favourite site is at the mouth of the city and along the river, where you will find Porte Guillaume. Built between the 12th and 15th centuries, this great stone gate was the main entry to Chartres for those travelling from Paris. Destroyed in 1944 by German bombings, this historic area is now being restored and it’s a lovely place to sit and contemplate the grand history of this town.
Fun Fact: Chartres is known as a ville fleurie, meaning you will encounter flowers pretty much anywhere you go in and around the city!
Make your way to the house of Maison Picplat. The owner Raymond Isidore, a council worker, began his mosaic journey by picking up random pieces of glass and crockery whenever he was out on his walks. He used the little bits and pieces to decorate the house and furniture. Following his death, the city of Chartres acquired the home and turned it into a historical monument that you can now tour – it is quite extraordinary.
Fun Fact: Chartres is home to the Cosmetic Valley where many famous perfumes are made. Each year in May, the Cosmetic Valley hold a perfume festival.
For the kids, or the kid at heart
Want a bit of adventure? Take a walk around the city, where you’ll discover medieval walls and towers. Go a little further, and you’ll discover the lovely Parc Andre Gagnon. Here, you can zip-line through the tall trees and complete a suspended obstacle course.
Chartres is much more than a town with a glorious Notre Dame Cathedral. It is a place to immerse yourself in French culture and history.
By Christina Queen.