Europe,  France

Colour and lights in Chartres

Today we headed south west from Paris and drove for miles and miles through a mostly flat, uniform landscape, enormous fields of wheat and corn stretching out as far as the eye could see. A lot of the wheat had already been harvested and the farmers were out in the fields bringing in the next crop, their huge tractors sending great clouds of dust up into the air behind them.

We were headed for a small town called Illiers Combray, in the Eure valley, about 30 minutes south of Chartres for a quick 2-night stop on our way to the Loire region.  It is still incredibly hot and so we spent a while when we arrived trying to work out where the best shade would be on our pitch later on in the day. We used a compass and did a reasonable job, but the sun didn’t track exactly where we expected and so we didn’t get quite as much shade as we hoped. As it turned out it didn’t really matter since we spent the afternoon in the swimming pool and then, after a huge storm overnight, the following day was rainy and overcast!

Although a small municipal campsite, Le Bois Fleuri benefitted from being next door to the town’s substantial outdoor municipal swimming pool. So we spent the afternoon mixing with local French families and children enjoying the last few days of their school summer holidays. It was great fun, and dipping down into the cool water was so welcome in the heat!

[Update: since getting shade is so important to us when it is this hot, we (well, Andy actually) set about finding a better way to determine exactly where the sun will come up and go down. He has a ‘night sky’ app on his phone that allows you to identify star constellations when you hold it up to the sky and he discovered that it will do the same for the sun. You can even set it to a future date and time and it will show you where the sun will be then. Brilliant!]

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The Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres – notice its two different spires, one Gothic and one Romanesque

Cathedral Notre-Dame de Chartres

The cathedral in Chartres is described by the Lonely Planet as ‘One of Western civilisation’s crowning architectural achievements’ and it is certainly very impressive, in a lop-sided kind of way. The main, western façade has two very different steeples – one Gothic and one Romanesque in style. As we drove towards the town, we could see these spires from miles away, towering above everything else in the landscape. The cathedral is huge – 130m long – and is renowned for its brilliant-blue stained glass windows and sacred holy veil. The current cathedral was built in the early 1200s, to replace the one that had been burnt down in 1194, along with much of the town. It is France’s best preserved medieval cathedral and alongside it is a charming old town, full of half timbered medieval houses, narrow streets and steps leading down to the River Eure.

Inside the cathedral, you are instantly struck not only by the dazzlingly bright colours in the stained glass of the windows but the fact that every one of them, three storeys of them in places, is decorative – there is not a single pane of clear glass in the whole building. The glass in the west portal is the oldest and dates from the mid-12th century, having survived the fire of 1194, along with the Romanesque steeple. Apparently the glass is one of the most important collections of medieval stained glass in the world, and the steeple is the tallest Romanesque steeple still standing.

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Chartres cathedral – I’m not sure our photographs do it justice, but the stained glass was so incredibly bright, particularly the blue, known as ‘Chartres blue’

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Our exploration of the church was extremely atmospheric, accompanied as it was by beautiful, haunting singing and a short service being read in French. As well as the stained glass, there were beautifully carved scenes in the stone around the choir and exquisitely intricate detailing everywhere you looked. We had hoped to see the famous Sainte Voile (Holy Veil), said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to Jesus, but as we approached the north end of the church in which it is kept, we were told that the cathedral was closing.

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Chartres cathedral – the exquisitely detailed choir with carved scenes beneath and a beautiful lunar clock

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Chartres en Lumières

After dinner, it was time for Chartres en Lumières – a very special illumination of the town that happens every evening during the summer. And what a spectacle! Chartres’ illuminations were classy and sophisticated, subtle and artistic. The magic all started at 9:45pm, in the square in front of the cathedral where a hundred or so people had gathered. The music began and then, very slowly, lights started to creep up the ancient façade of the cathedral and define its outline, together with the rose window and spires above until the whole edifice was glowing with colour and light. Not only that, but this spectacle was animated, and suddenly there were dozens of tiny figures lowering themselves down the front of the cathedral on ropes, and then giant figures of saints began to grow from the floor up the façade. It was spellbinding!

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The cathedral changing from fire to ice
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Chartres en lumières – you can just make out the little figures underneath the rose window, bringing the two halves together.

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The whole thing kept moving and changing as we watched; first thousands of stars and a solar system passing by, then figures climbing up with blocks and windows, literally building the cathedral from blocks of light, finishing off with a spinning rose window. Next fire crept up the front and then ice. We gathered that it was perhaps telling the story of Chartres and the cathedral, but we weren’t sure. And it didn’t matter – it was enough that it was beautiful and mesmerising to watch. You couldn’t take your eyes off it. After a while, the cathedral went dark and everyone clapped in appreciation of what we had just seen.

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Chartres en lumières – the colourful north side of the cathedral
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A tale of the sun and moon, played out on the walls of the old Bishop’s Palace as part of Chartres en lumières

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Then the whole sequence started again and we moved off to find some more of the magic. Because it is not just the cathedral that is part of this spectacle, but the whole of the town. Apparently there are 27 landmarks in Chartres that are lit up each evening from mid-April to mid-October. We followed the crowds around the side of the cathedral and watched again as the north façade was brought to life. Then it was on into a park to behind the cathedral where the side of the former Bishop’s Palace was alive with another story being told in lights and music, this time involving the sun and the moon. Down at the river, the riverbank and a bridge were alive with fish and sea creatures and further up in town, the theatre building was also lit up. The whole town was buzzing with life and there was such a lovely atmosphere with lots of families strolling around in the warm evening air. All together a magical experience and one we would highly recommend if you are ever in this region.

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One of the bridges illuminated with fish, coral and other sea creatures
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The south portal of Chartres cathedral as you have never seen it before!
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Chartres en lumières – the front of the theatre building

Campsite: Camping Le Bois Fleuri, Illiers Combray

What we liked:

  • Good municipal swimming pool right next door
  • Convenient for a short stop on the way to the Loire

What we didn’t like:

  • No toilet paper or hand soap
  • Quite shabby campsite and facilities – toilet block very dark with broken tiles, grass and hedges not cut so everywhere bit overgrown


    • Sarah

      It was amazing, Liz! We were so glad we made the effort to get there. It was a VERY late night for the girls, but worth it. Sarah x