CHARTRES, France — I was hooked on this small hilltop town when I heard about the river jousting.
Gazing down from the center of town, I was tracing the curves of a long-demolished Roman amphitheater. Then my digital companion, a CD audio tour guide I had picked up from the local tourist office, informed me that Roman Empire-era residents of the town packed the amphitheater not only for speeches and plays but also to watch floating jousting matches on the Eure River below.
I turned off the CD player and pondered this quirky historical tidbit: Two thousand years ago, Romans were waging mock battles on boats on this small, meandering river. This, I realized, was a town worth getting to know.
Only 53 miles southwest of Paris, Chartres is typically a day trip for visitors to the French capital. But a better idea is to spend a night or two away from the crowds that throng Paris and savor the calmer atmosphere of Chartres.
It is a small town--its economy is largely based on tourism centered on its renowned cathedral, along with agriculture--but its rich history, charming, walkable streets, interesting medieval churches, museums and galleries focusing on French art, history and stained glass provide ample diversion for an overnight traveler.
As in most European cities, the layers of history in Chartres sit unceremoniously on top of one another: A Roman amphitheater gives way to narrow medieval streets; Gothic churches sit beside 20th century houses. It's a town of so much history that officials dug up a Roman building site in front of the cathedral a few years ago and, after detailing its contents, covered it up again with dirt.
But the town's history wasn't the main thing on my mind as I left Paris in early March to spend three days here. I had become interested in labyrinths and decided to make a pilgrimage to see the cathedral and the labyrinth that graces its nave. My wife, who's not much of a labyrinth walker, agreed to stay at home in Baltimore with the kids.
I sat on the left side of the train and watched Parisian suburbs dissolve into forests and farmland. Finally, Chartres' cathedral--with its green copper roof and two utterly dissimilar towers--rose majestically in the distance above the Beauce countryside.
When I arrived in late afternoon, the town of 42,000 residents bustled with energy, students heading home from school, workers leaving offices. And everybody, it seemed, clutched a freshly baked baguette.
I made the easy walk from the station to Chartres' small, modern commercial district to drop my bag at the Hotel de la Poste. In minutes I was headed to the cathedral.
Chartres' spiritual heritage runs deep. Druids once worshiped here, and by the 8th century the town had built a Catholic cathedral, although it was destroyed by the Duke of Aquitaine after a dispute among nobles.
Another cathedral was burned by Viking intruders, and a splendid medieval church on the site was destroyed by fire in 1194. The townsfolk moved quickly, rebuilding the existing cathedral in only 25 years.
The Cathedral of Our Lady is considered by many to be the unsurpassed jewel of Gothic architecture. I entered through the Royal Portal--its extravagant west entrance.
Some of the entranceway's sculptures, which depict a range of biblical figures, have been replaced with models; others are pocked and eroded. A statue of Jesus over the center door has lost a chunk of its left arm.
Almost everywhere, dirt and soot obscure the beauty of its exterior, giving it a somber appearance. Thankfully, recent restoration work on the north facade has revealed the much more welcoming, cream-colored limestone the cathedral's builders used.
Henry Adams, an American writer, wrote in his 1904 treatise on Chartres: "The cathedral has moods, at times severe." Indeed, at first glance, the interior is severe--jaw-droppingly huge, dark and cool. Voices echo off the stone surfaces, and there's a faint smell of burning candles.
The interior was built on a superhuman scale. An oversized 18th century high altar in the style of Bernini dominates the view down the nave. The vaulted ceiling rises more than 10 stories. Massive columns stand like sentries up and down the church.
But, as Adams noted, "Chartres is all windows"--roughly three-quarters of an acre of stained glass in hundreds of panels spilling gentle, colorful light into the harsh space below. The windows include tributes to obscure saints and more familiar biblical references, including a violent depiction of the Good Samaritan story and a retelling of Noah's Ark, complete with a beautiful rainbow-colored sea and a pair of tusked elephants. Bring a pair of binoculars, for you could spend hours tracing the windows' stories.