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Chartres' cathedral, Beauce : Click to enlarge picture
About 80km southwest of Paris, CHARTRES is a small and relatively undistinguished town. However, its Cathédrale Notre-Dame (May-Oct 8am-8pm; Jan-April & Nov-Dec 8am-7.15pm) is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Europe and, built between 1194 and 1260, perhaps the quickest ever to be constructed. It's best experienced on a cloud-free winter's day when the low sun transmits the stained-glass colours to the interior stone, the quiet scattering of people leaves the acoustics unconfused, and the exterior is unmasked for miles around. Searching for a Cityhotels. , this website has a lot of choice.

For a medieval pilgrim, the cathedral would have been a glistening, fabulous jewel with all the exterior sculptures brightly painted and the walls inside whitewashed and covered with a myriad of refractions from the stained-glass windows. These, too, in their original pristine state would have been so bright they would have glittered from the outside along with the gold of the crowns and haloes of the statuary. For the contemporary visitor, however, there are more than enough wonders to enthral: the geometry of the building, unique in being almost unaltered since its consecration; the details of the stonework, especially the Renaissance choir screen and the hosts of sculpted figures standing like guardians outside each entrance; and the shining circular symmetries of the transept windows, virtually all of which are original, dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. On the floor of the nave is an original thirteenth-century labyrinth comprising a path over 200m long enclosed within a 13-metre diameter, the same size as the rose window above the main doors. It's a great rarity, since the authorities at other cathedrals had them pulled up as distracting frivolities.

Among paying extras, the crypt and treasures are relatively unimpressive but, crowds permitting, it's worth climbing the north tower for its bird's-eye view of the sculptures and structure of the cathedral (Mon-Sat 9am-12.30pm & 2-4.30pm, Sun 2-4.30pm; May-Aug open until 5.30pm; E4). There are gardens at the back from where you can contemplate at ease the complexity of stress factors balanced by the flying buttresses. And if you hear a passionate and erudite Englishman giving guided tours as you're wandering around, it's probably Malcolm Miller, almost an institution in himself and a world expert on Chartres cathedral. He does two tours daily from April to November at noon and 2.30pm (E10), starting just inside the west door.

Pages in section ‘Chartres’: Practicalities, The city.
Alternate spellings:: chartres, chartre, chartes, charte, chatres, chratres

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