This month we went more local and traveled to Chartres, home of Our Lady of Chartres, of one of the most important and well preserved Gothic cathedrals in Europe. A one-hour train ride from Gare Montparnasse train station, Chartres is in the Loire Valley region on the left bank of the Eure River, near Blou.
A legend among tour guides, Englishman Malcolm Miller has been giving tours of Our Lady of Chartres Cathedral for over 60 years. Aging gracefully with a full head of silver hair and an irresistible British accent, Miller is the foremost expert on the cathedral. In addition to leading daily tours to public and private groups, he also travels worldwide to give lectures at prestigious universities and cultural institutions. A true lifelong scholar, Miller admits that even he doesn’t know all there is to know about the cathedral and still has a thirst for learning, which propels his tours. His daily public tour starts at 12 p.m., and the duration is approximately 90 minutes. His focus on the day we took the tour was on the richly detailed stained glass windows, and he explained in explicit detail their history, meaning and symbolism, along with the general history of the cathedral. The last third of the tour explored the identities of select statues adorning the outside. At the end of the tour, Miller encouraged guests to return the next day or another time because he alternates the information on his tours to various sections of the cathedral on different days. Miller has received two of the highest civilian honors in France, Knight of the National Order of Merit and Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.
We lunched at a casual bakery café and tearoom, Le Comptoir de Sarah, absorbing all we learned from Miller. All baked goods are made on the premises, paying close attention to gluten free and vegetarian products, such as brownies, scones, cheesecake and cupcakes. Le Comptoir de Sarah also serves sandwiches, soup and salads, and a specialty of the house is a savory scone sandwich served with a side salad.
In the afternoon we visited an off the beaten track attraction that is well known by locals, but not usually listed on Chartres tourist sites. Maison Picassiette, a modest cottage home and garden located on a quiet lane about 10 minutes from the old center of Chartres, is an astonishing combination of an arts and craft home, museum, sculpture garden and chapel, built by hand. Raymond Isidore, a local resident born in 1900, bought a piece of land in 1930 and built a house for his wife and family. A few years later he discovered discarded remnants of glass, ceramics, glass bottles and tin bottle caps in an open field, and perhaps in an unconscious early act of recycling, he started to decorate his house with his findings. It became his obsession over the next 24 years and he devoted a prodigious 29,000 hours, plus 15 tons of found objects, to transform his home. Not only were we amazed by the intricacy and beauty of the mosaics; we also appreciated the painting talents of Isadore with the impressive murals in the chapel and other walls throughout the house. It was a sunny, blustery day, and the sculpture garden was a heavenly delight of spring flowers, including tulips, hydrangeas, and Queen Anne’s lace surrounded by intricate mosaic sculptures, including one of the Eiffel Tower. On a sidewall is a replica of the rose stained glass window of the Chartres Cathedral and another panel with an ancient windmill. Isadore died in 1964, only two years after he completed his home, and in 1983 it was declared an historic monument, which is now owned by the city of Chartres.
Nighttime is the right time in Chartres from April to October, when the mesmerizing and all-encompassing Chartres en Lumieres light show runs. Now in its 15th year, Chartres en Lumieres is a major tourist attraction, with over a million visitors a year, an economic boon to the small town. Capitalizing on the draw of the cathedral, Our Lady of Chartres is the starting point of a dazzling and stunning display of light, color and pattern. There are 23 illuminations across the town center projected on buildings, public plazas, bridges and other churches, and each are clearly marked on a special map, along with blue sensor lights embedded in the streets when one is close to one of the illuminations. Stretching over a 5-kilometer radius, we opted to take a slow tram to see the illuminations, and also to learn the history of the rest of the city. The tram stopped at almost all the illuminations, leaving us enough time to photograph and take videos.
Since Chartres en Lumieres didn’t start until 9:45 p.m., we enjoyed a leisurely dinner at Brasserie la Cour in The Grand Monarque Hotel. Located in the airy courtyard enclosed in glass, we took in the relaxing setting while sipping on a fine glass of Chinon 2015. The duck burger with foie gras with an exotic black bun made of black curry and vegetables, was sensational, followed by a le Rubis, a formidable dessert made of red seasonal berries and a thick layer of vanilla mousse. The four-star hotel has a spa and a one-star Michelin restaurant, Le Georges.
Originally constructed in 1930 as an Art Deco hotel, Jehan de Beauce was refurbished in 2014. Feeling like a 1930s nightclub from a Fred Astaire film set, the elegant lobby bar was decorated with Champagne colored leather club chairs, handsome, round cocktail tables and leopard patterned carpet. Our inviting, well appointed room had plush, white terry robes and slippers at the foot of the king-sized bed, a velvet couch, and Art Deco-inspired carpeting in a pattern of bold black circles against a beige background. Jehan de Beauce has 35 rooms, a spa, fitness room and sauna, and also Swedish, California and Ayurvedic massages. Every Wednesday night the lobby bar Le Fitzgerald presents a tribute to the great Ella Fitzgerald with a musical trio.
Although Chartres is a great day trip, we highly recommend staying overnight to see the illumination show if you are visiting between now and October 13.
Malcolm Miller Tours of Notre Dame de Chartres
Daily at 12 p.m. except Sunday; meet in front of the gift shop of the cathedral
Tel: +33 (0)2 37 28 15 58 Email: [email protected]
Le Comptoir de Sarah
6 Place Billard, 28000
Open Tuesday 2 p.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Sunday
22 rue du Repos, 28000
Open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.-5 p.m., closed Tuesday
Hotel Grand Monarque
22 Place des Épars, 28000 Tel: +33 (0) 2 37 18 15 15
Hotel Jehan de Beauce
1 Place de Semard, 28000 Tel: +33 (0) 2 37 21 01 41
Chartres en Lumiere
Until October 13; every evening starting at nightfall