Our research into Chartres seemed to indicate it is difficult to park a motorhome in the city although there is an aire close to the river but that closes at the end of October. Looking around we found a free aire about 11km outside Chartres on a direct rail line at Courville-sur-Eure. The decision to stay there was a fairly easy one. With free parking, very easy to get to and just a 10 minute train ride into central Chartres it was ideal.
The aire was outside a campsite which, when open, does charge. However as it was closed for the season there was no fee. It’s set by a small stream with a lovely mill house in a pretty little town. We parked for the night aiming for an early start. A 10 minute walk to the station in the morning was interrupted by market day and a few minutes spent nosing around the stalls before going on. At 8.40 euro return the train fare was reasonable, although the morning was chilly, dry and misty the 5 minute wait for the train soon passed.
Chartres station is right in the centre and perfect for visiting the city. A short stroll took us to Place Chatetlet an open square with a large #Chartres sign sitting in the middle. Asking Marcella to stand by the sign it was only as I looked through the viewfinder that I noticed through the dense mist a big dark shadow, which after staring at it for some time I realised was the cathedral – one of the most important and well known Gothic churches in the world! Walking around the square and into the smaller streets towards the Cathedral the towers start to come hazily into view and we start to get some idea of just how big it is, deciding to head there first.
The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres) stands virtually as it did when completed in it’s current form in 1220, although much of the building dates back to earlier cathedrals built on the same spot. Designated a World heritage site UNESCO it’s stained glass windows are probably the finest you will see most of which are still intact from the original construction, the cathedral has undergone extensive renovation inside which continues today (not without controversy). Trying to get a good photo is very difficult as it sites in amongst small streets excepting for the front that opens out onto a small square laden with planning beds. Standing by the entrance looking up you cannot help but be amazed by the carving above and around the main door, flanked by 2 towers of differing styles the tallest and most ornate of which reaches 113m (372ft) into the enveloping mist giving it an ethereal feel.
Inside the building is equally impressive the vaulted ceiling stretching high up above you gives you a feeling of being very small but it is the windows that are the most amazing sight even on a cold misty day they beam their multicoloured light into the interior. With their beautiful intricate designs you can understand how people have been drawn here of the centuries. Moving through the cathedral down the aisles you get a sense of the purpose of this building that increases as you move deeper towards the stunningly ornate choir screen. This is currently being cleaned to reveal it’s true colour removing centuries of staining, as we explored I ended up going to the right of the screen and Marcella to the left eventually we crossed sides and were both dumbstruck me because what had been a dazzling white façade became black and grimy and Marcella because what had been black and grimy was suddenly brilliant white, both of us commenting on it. The screen is a stunningly intricate piece of work and certainly looks better cleaned up however we did feel that some of the renovation work had possibly taken away from the true feeling of the building, that said the windows alone are worth the visit so vibrant are they. As suggested to us we would recommend taking a pair of binoculars to be able to really study the detailing both inside and out.
Emerging from the cathedral it was still chilly and very misty, we did notice a souvenir shop across the road called Toilettes that must have been built in what was a public toilet and its trick nearly worked as we walked towards it with a view to using the ‘facilities’! Moving on we headed for the tourist information office finding it in a beautiful old timber framed building, gathering what little information was available which was actually very little about the city and a rather tiny hard to read map. We headed off enjoying the feel of the ambience, atmosphere and character of the narrow streets. Sometimes you get a good feeling about a place very quickly and this was certainly true of Chartres. It was pretty, cosy and felt warm and welcoming in a chilly day sort of way. We strolled around taking in the little streets and squares before opting on a little chocolatier café for a warming coffee, entering into that wonderful aroma you get from chocolate and fresh cake baking we were immediately assailed by the wonderful array of buns, chocolates, pastries and macarons on display. Suffice to say coffee did not come unaccompanied. Choosing a warm almond pastry we settled down to wait and when it arrived the coffee came with the pleasant surprise of a small sticky bun, both having a different one which was delicious as was the pastry. This was followed by a sample tasting of big squidgy raspberry macaron on offer at the counter. Feeling much happier, fuller and warmer we set off to explore once again.
With the mist lifting and the sun starting to shine the city was coming to life, the cafes and restaurants filling with locals and tourists alike. Following our map we made our way back past the cathedral through the leafy grounds and gardens of the Musee des Beaux-arts de Chartres down to the banks of picturesque river L’Eure which has split just upstream creating a small island. Turning right along the river towards Rue de la Tannerie you walk past an ancient mill house and some charming old houses and along the river to Rue de la Porte Guillaume and it’s old Roman ruins and bridge. From there we turned back and up to the city centre and back through the pretty shopping streets.
The rest of our day was spent exploring, getting some now mist free photos and slowly wending our way back to the station to catch our train back to Courville-sur-Eure and as is our way we nearly missed the train. Looking at the board we noticed that the Paris train came in just 2 minutes before our train, on the same platform both heading in opposite directions! Yes we did think it odd while waited inside the station foyer keeping warm, when the Paris train came in at which point I noticed it was going in our direction so peered out of the door curiously spotted a destination sign on the side of the train. At which point the penny dropped I quickly grabbed Marcella rushed outside jumping on the train just as the doors were closing. Yes unlike at home they had an arrivals board and a departures board, with the Paris train arriving 2 minutes before ours departed, it took a while but my feeble brain eventually got there.
Back at the aire we had a quick warming brew and prepared to move on continuing our adventure further north.