Cathedrale Notre Dame de Chartres

On our way into Chartres on the N10, we found lots of signs directing us to the cathedral. It was hardly necessary, however, as we could see the unmatched spires towering over the city from almost every corner. The parking lot, however, was more difficult to find, and ended up being a spiral-shaped garage that goes straight down into the ground. Here’s a picture of the parking lot, from the vantage point of the cathedral.

We parked, found our way up to the street, and started keeping our eyes peeled for flying buttresses. Chartres was our first town of any size that we visited in France. While the modern areas of these towns stretch out in all directions, the old historic areas cluster around the cathedrals. Near the cathedral itself were lots of charming little narrow streets with little shops, cafes, cobblestones, and always the window boxes full of flowers on the second story. With the city right up on it, there’s really no great place to sit and regard the cathedral “from a distance” and we weren’t able to figure out exactly where Rodin famously sat in the rain on the sidewalk for hours, absorbing inspiration from the shape of the cathedral.

Inside, the dimensions were insane. It made our beautiful church at home look like a chapel. It’s really impossible to communicate the enormity of the space without being there. In fact, the children were almost incapable of interacting with the space as a whole – they seemed to focus on small things: the lit candles, the small niches, the little carvings. It is fascinating how the cathedral exists both in large and small proportions at the same time, from the tiny niches with little altars and kneelers, the small details on the carvings, and the giant stained glass windows, the huge arches, etc. I found myself wondering what effect the architects intended for the visitor -- to feel small in the vastness of all that empty space up there, and then to feel grounded by connecting with a smiling face on one of the stone saints? I don’t know.

We walked all around the inside of the cathedral, and listened to the organ concert that happens there every Sunday afternoon. The organ was very very high in the wall, and the music was fantastic. Then we located the tower, paid our Euros, and began to climb.

The guy who was manning the desk at the tower was very brusque with us, as I faltered through my introductions in French, he barked “Deux adults, et deux enfants! At six clock, CLOSE THE DOOR.” Meaning, if you’re not down by six o’clock, we close the door on you and you can spend the night in the tower. I’m sure they don’t, but… he seemed adamant. We went around and around the stone steps, each one creased with a little dent left from all those feet climbing. The lower section of the tower has a rope attached to the middle pillar, and the upper section, where the stairs are much narrower, has a stone handrail as part of the staircase itself.
About halfway up there is a walkway where you can go out and look at how far you’ve come up. Looking down, from this position, was already pretty breathtaking. We were right on top of the flying buttresses – an exciting gothic moment! Sadie was anxious to keep climbing, and Benny was probably already at the top at that moment, so I had to grind on. I guess the stair climb at the Dominion Tower in Norfolk was good preparation for this trip – there were a lot of stairs. When we neared the top, the bells began to ring for 5:30, and we could see them in their wooden casings, swinging away. This was very exciting for the children, and they wanted to take lots of pictures with their DSi cameras. Finally at the top of the tower, we looked out over the whole landscape, and it was amazing. Sadie and Benny were completely unafraid of the height, but I was a little shaky, especially when Sadie asked Dan to pick her up so she could look over. Throat-closing anxiety on my part, total joy on her part.

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