The city of Chartres is in the department of Eure-et-Loir, region Centre-Val de Loire, in south west France.
It’s famous all over the world for its UNESCO world heritage listed cathedral. No wonder, it is an extraordinary and wondrous gothic masterpiece, a major pilgrimage site to this day. It is the reason why most people go to the city though there are plenty of other attractions that visitors will love.
Just an hour from Paris by train, you’ll discover the past in its cobbled rues. There are great restaurants and it’s close to the chateaux of the Loire. Plus Chartres hosts one of the best light shows in the world – a city break you should definitely pop on your bucket list.
The Cathedral of course is no. 1 for any visitor to Chartres, and rightly so. No matter how many cathedrals or churches you might have been to, this one stands out. It has the most beautiful stained-glass windows and an extraordinary, ancient crypt, effectively an underground cathedral. There is also a mysterious labyrinth, the biggest and oldest in the world. And, an extraordinary 16th century astrological clock. Chartres is the only medieval cathedral in the world to escape war damage and its ancient walls have witnessed history for more than 800 years.
Centuries of history
The first cathedral was erected here in the 4th century. The oldest vestiges date back to the 9th century, a time when Vikings were invading England and Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of Rome. In 876, the French King Charles the Bald gave the town of Chartres a holy relic. It was said to be a piece of the veil worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. The fabric survived a fire but not the French Revolution when it was cut into pieces and dispersed. A few pieces were returned and you can see them displayed in the chapel. Regardless of whether you believe the fragile relic really came from a veil worn by the mother of Jesus, there’s no getting away from the fact that these fragments are more than 1000 years old and have been revered by millions.
The main building of the cathedral was built between 1194 and 1221 and you really have to see the architecture for yourself. No photo does justice to the incredible buildings skills of the medieval builders, glass makers and masons. The crypt is one of the longest in Europe at 200m long, and has welcomed pilgrims from around the world for hundreds of years and still does to this day.
Chartres Cathedral tour by candle light
Without a doubt, whatever your beliefs, one of the most extraordinary ways to visit the crypt is at night. Take a candle light tour with a guide who will share the history and secrets of this incredible place. Seeing the underground chambers by flickering candle is very special. As shadows move across the ancient frescoed walls and statues of Mary, you can easily imagine how it must have been for pilgrims who came here hundreds of years ago. I don’t want to spoil the surprise but when the singing started, the hairs on the back of my neck rose and I got goosebumps. There is a definitely feel of spirituality, of great age. It is a truly moving experience. It really doesn’t matter if you don’t speak French, it’s an astonishing way to experience the history of this majestic cathedral.
The tour, organised by the tourist office, also includes a tour of the Chartres light show. Take a candle lit vigil with a guide: www.chartresenlumieres.com
The Labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral
The famous Labyrinth was built around the year 1200 on the floor of the nave. It attracts the esoteric, the curious and the religious. It is a 261.5m long pilgrimage walk, though it is usually covered with chairs. However, each Friday from 10am to 5pm, Lent until All Saints Day, the chairs are moved off. It’s left free for pilgrims and visitors to walk. Some walk it slowly, others faster, some cross themselves as they go, achieving a look of beatification as they reach the centre. An astounding 1.3 million pilgrims make their way to Chartres each year.
Stained-glass windows of Chartres
The stained-glass windows are sparklingly exceptional – 172 of them in total covering an incredible 2,600m². Incredibly, Some of them date back to the 12th century. You can’t help but love the colours, especially “Chartres blue”, a deep blue used on the oldest windows.
For the people of that day, this richness of colour and art must have been one of the wonders of the world – it still is. There’s even a tea named after it “the Blue Tea of Chartres”. It’s a blend of black and green tea, citrus fruits and berries in a specially designed tea caddy – the perfect souvenir! Find it at La Brulerie Chartraine, tea and coffee Shop: 5 rue Noël Ballay. And while you’re there, nip into the Librairie L’Esperluette bookshop at no 10. To your surprise you’ll find the wall of a Renaissance house hidden away at the back of the shop, books piled around the centuries old windows and door…
Chartres is perfectly doable as a day trip from Paris with the train taking from 59 minutes. Chartres station is very close to the Cathedral.
Getting around in Chartres is easy. You can walk to most of the sites in Chartres or hire a bike. Or you can jump on the free shuttle bus (Monday to Saturday), or the Flilibus network (MyBus Chartres app gives you all the bus timetables, schedules and status).
There’s plenty of choice for hotels and B&Bs in Chartres. If you’re looking for luxury, splash out at Le Grand Monarque – pure indulgence and utterly lovely. By the way, you may see the name Grand Monarque everywhere in France, it refers to Louis XIV!