My husband and I have a pact: we try to get away from Paris for short trips at least once every month. Given that Paris is so centrally located and so well connected to many beautiful places, it is really not a tall order anyway. So, that is how we ended up in Chartres this January.
I think Chartres has the perfect things-to-do versus size ratio, so you can spend a lovely chill weekend without feeling the pressure of too many must-dos. Chartres is therefore, also an ideal day-trip destination from Paris.
Below I have a photo essay for you with some useful information on Chartres.
If you love nature, culture and history, Chartres will not disappoint. It is a small commune on the banks of the river Eure and it is most known for its large 12th century Gothic cathedral and its well-preserved stunning stained glass windows. The cathedral of Chartres is considered the prime example of French Gothic architecture, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Personally, as soon as I read about Chartres’ significance for the art of stained glass in France, it didn’t take much to convince me to go. The iconic cobalt blue stained glass windows of Chartres are an incredible vision to behold.
Besides this, it is also home to many well-preserved medieval era houses, which are quite distinctly recognisable since they are half-timbered with the visible black timber criss-crossing across the facade of the houses.
How to Get to Chartres from Paris?
One can get from Paris Montparnasse Station to Chartres easily via SNCF, the regional trains. The journey takes only a little over an hour and the trains are pretty frequent.
However, SNCF trains have a reputation of being delayed often. I got a bitter taste of this as our train got held up in Versailles for 30 minutes due to ‘technical difficulties’. We were then requested to kindly get out of the train since the issue could not be resolved. We had to wait in the station for the next train, which was to arrive in 45 minutes. And let me tell you, it was not a fun time, as the cold winds of January swept through the open train station. Especially, because on top of everything, I also forgot to pack snacks. Never again!
The first impression of Chartres that visitors have, is definitely the huge CHARTRES sign erected in the middle of the town square, flanked against the backdrop of the city and the huge cathedral up above. It is definitely a statement and a cool photo-op!
In the garden next to the square, there is a beguilingly beautiful sculpture of two figures trying to reach out to each other. In the era of Covid, it is hard not to interpret the image through the lens of our near-constant alienation and physical separation. Someone had even put a mask on one of the figures!
Walking around the city, it is quite evident that the city council has done a lot to preserve its heritage. The historic buildings have been maintained well, while providing space for newer forms of artistic expressions such as street art and frescoes on walls in public spaces. One of the not-so-obvious but cute touches in the city, were the quirky tiled art accompaniments to street signs (photo below). The art always corresponds to the name of the street. I wish I clicked more photos of them! I really appreciated the idea of a city being dynamic in expressing itself, while trying to preserve and live among the vestiges of its history .
The piece de resistance of Chartres is of course, the Chartres Cathedral. It graces over the whole city and there are some really beautiful vantage points created as a result of the combination of the river water flowing across the city, and the small docks whose steps lead the eye in the direction of the Cathedral. Chartres also has many postcard like houses perched right next to the river. It will give you some serious house-envy!
The visual appeal of the city and its historic centre has been magnified through the careful addition of strategic illumination at points of visual interest, all over the city. Indeed, walking around Chartres in the evening was a treat, with the sound of the river water and the beautifully lit archways, walls, and trees of Chartres framing the city in a very picture-ready way. All in all, I am very impressed with the beautification of the town by its city council.
What Not to Miss in Chartres
Apart from the Chartres Cathedral and Musee des Beaux-Arts (which are both monuments not to be missed), my favourite part of Chartres was visiting Centre International du Vitrail or The International Stained Glass Centre. Here, you get to learn a lot about the history of stained glass, the incredible pains taken to preserve and restore them in Chartres and a lot about its chemistry and composition. You can also join one of the classes here to learnt how to make stained glass!
I did not know it beforehand and hence, didn’t check class timings and availability before going to Chartres. But this is now on my list of things I would like to do in the future.
Also, when you are in Chartres Cathedral, do not miss the Chartres labyrinth in the middle of the cathedral. It can be easy to overlook since it could be covered by chairs for people attending mass. It is one of the most recognised religious labyrinth in the whole world. Seeing it in person is very surreal, especially considering it significance for the believers. It is usually open for walking every Friday from 10 AM to 5PM, and from Lent (between February 20 and March 20) till All Saints’ Day (November 1).
There are two other things I missed out on and would love to go back to Chartres for:
Every year, from April to October, the city of Chartres hosts a light show, where 20 of the most important of Chartres’ monuments are transformed to living canvasses show-casing a spectacular sound and light show. Since we went in the winter, we missed out on it. But I will definitely be back sometime later this year to catch this show!
This is house which has been transformed into a mosaic fairytale-like wonderland by Raymond Isodore. Unfortunately, this was closed for repairs during my visit.
Dining in Chartres
Chartres has a good selection of restaurants and cafes at all price ranges. The area near the Chartres Cathedral are full of cosy cafes and restaurants which are frequented by locals too. Sipping coffee in one of these cafes with a view of as magnificent as the cathedral, is quite an experience.
I would definitely like to recommend dining at Le Moulin de Ponceau. This gourmet restaurant is perched atop the river and once upon a time, it used to be a windmill! You can still see the well-preserved equipments inside the restaurant. The food and service here are excellent but it is definitely the ambience which elevates the dining experience to another level. You are definitely unlikely to forget the experience of dining in a windmill with a view to die for.
We stayed there for 2 nights but Chartres is also a popular day trip destination and by all means, it can be easily done. We just wanted to take a slow weekend and enjoy ourselves and opted to stay the weekend. Towards the end, I wanted to stay longer actually.
We booked an AIR BnB near the Eure riverside with a clear view of the river and the magnificent Église Saint-Pierre (pictured above).