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Inspired by Chartres

Beyond its cathedral, the town's tapestry reveals museums and layers of history.

June 09, 2002|TOM WALDRON

I was delighted to find windows depicting the 12 signs of the zodiac and aspects of life in the 13th century--a barebacked man threshing wheat, winemakers stomping grapes, a farmer preparing to slaughter a pig with an ax. For a congregation that couldn't read, these surely would have illuminated the services in the awe-inspiring cathedral.

Somehow the windows survived the fires and wars that rocked Europe. Chartres officials protected them during the last century's world wars by removing the stained glass for safekeeping elsewhere.

Another survivor is tucked inside a gold case in a small chapel: a tattered remnant of the cathedral's relic, a piece of white cloth said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. The relic was considered to be a symbol of divine protection for the town and, so the story goes, miraculously survived the 1194 fire.

After exploring the cathedral, I was ready to walk the labyrinth. Chartres' reputation as a destination for spiritual pilgrims has been revived in recent years, thanks to the labyrinth that was inlaid into its stone nave around 1200.

Labyrinths are circuitous paths that lead the walker into a center space and out again. Hundreds of years ago, pilgrims traveled the stones of Chartres' labyrinth--often on their knees--as a substitute for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Today, interest in the labyrinth as a meditation tool has surged, and Chartres has the best known of the surviving ancient paths. But the people of Chartres seem to care little about theirs. Except on most Fridays, the labyrinth is covered up with folding chairs.

Although I had seen many pictures of the labyrinth, I hadn't expected its sheer aged look. Made of two colors of stone--a lighter one for the path and a darker, blue-black marble for the borders--the labyrinth is cracked and rutted, a twisting moonscape.

I moved through the path alone and pondered the countless walkers who had gone before me--monks, nobles, soldiers, nuns--feeling a sense of communion with pilgrims across eight centuries.

That evening I took a long walk through the labyrinthine streets of the old town before settling in for dinner at the Brasserie Chatelet. I enjoyed its specialty: a large bowl full of mussels and fries, accompanied by draft Belgian beer. A steaming, velvety tarte Tatin concluded a perfectly fine--and inexpensive--meal.

The next morning, Saturday, I went to the huge open-air food market in the Place Billard. It seemed every resident of Chartres was there, each toting a basket or pulling a shopping cart.

I was sorry that I had eaten breakfast at the hotel when I saw the array of fruits and vegetables, as well as crepes, oysters on the half shell, breads, cheeses and pates. Nearby, on the Rue des Changes, where centuries ago bankers aided pilgrims by exchanging currencies, farmers were selling live animals--ducks, geese and chickens.

Next I spent several pleasant hours retracing Chartres' history, using the well-produced CD audio guide. It led me on a rigorous trek down the hill from the cathedral, through winding alleys to the banks of the Eure, where mills and tanneries once flourished, and back up again.

More than 2,000 years ago, Chartres was a settlement of the Carnutes--ancient Gauls for whom the town is named. It later fell to the Romans, who called it Autricum. As I followed the walking tour, I saw little visible evidence of Roman occupation. But along the way I glimpsed the long-gone medieval wall that surrounded the cathedral to create a religious city within the city. There was also a trace of the Porte Guillaume, the massive medieval city gate, which was blown up by the German army as it retreated during World War II.

The CD guide led me to three other churches in town. St. Andrew's, which dates back to the 1100s, sits cozily by the Eure. In the 13th century, when the church needed to expand, it simply built an addition over the river. Although the addition is long gone, you can still see portions of supporting arches of this piece of audacious civil engineering.

Slightly higher up the hill rests the Church of St. Peter, a dank Gothic stone masterpiece, which features 29 impressive stained-glass windows from the 13th and 14th centuries, and St. Aignan Church, an airy, barrel-vaulted structure with an interior of brightly painted wood. Both need significant restoration, and my head spun as I contemplated the financial burden these historic structures--and the cathedral--place on this small town.

One stop that left me dissatisfied was at the Rue aux Juifs, the center of the town's onetime Jewish ghetto. Chartres was no kinder to Jews than the rest of medieval Europe, expelling them entirely in 1394 after years of persecution. But the matter-of-fact audiotape gave no glimpse of the life they led here.

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