Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 02/14/13 8:29 AM

Travel: Chartres, France


Catatonic in Chartres

The beauty of the ancient cathedral as well as losing her wallet rendered SHEILA KUMAR utterly speechless in Chartres.

OK, first things first. The shrine is all it claims to be. The oldest and most beautiful cathedral in Europe, say the guidebooks.

On this chilly, late autumn morning, it stands in awesome majesty against a clear blue sky. Once a sacred spot for the Druids, it is now one of the most important pilgrimage centres for Christians the world over, dating back to the Fourth Century. Successive invasions of the town destroyed the original church and the new one was consecrated in 1260 AD.

Serene and beautiful

For us gawpers, 1230 AD is ancient enough. The interiors of the cathedral are serene, dark and awe-inspiring. The three Rose Windows are jaw-droppingly beautiful, the stained glass shining like gem inserts. The church has 172 glass windows, each one a perfect cameo. It comes as no surprise to hear that Chartres is considered the capital of the Medieval art of stained glass. Beneath the cathedral is the largest crypt in all of France.

Something is not fully synchronous about the exterior of the cathedral and the dissonance, if you could term it thus, comes from the two steeples. The one on the right as you face the cathedral, dates back to the middle of the 12th Century and stands a spiky 103 metres tall. The left one is a Gothic spire of 112 metres height, built at the beginning of the 16th Century. Mismatched yet yoked together, they make a striking pair.

Food and calamity

After a leisurely tour of the cathedral and with cricks in the neck from looking up all the time (it’s a very high church), we repaired to one of the bistros that line the stone pavement around the church, to have a bite of lunch.

Chartres specialities include duck pate, boiled chicken, macaroons and pralines but we settled for some French onion soup, thick and brothy, with the cheese bubbling on top. Having washed it down with some chocolat chaud (hot chocolate), it was time for me to settle the bill, since I was banker for the day. Which was when I discovered that my purse had been picked. In the purse had been some cash, my credit cards and horrors, my passport, too.

The moments immediately following the discovery were laced with panic and nausea. Our rambling path was retraced. Thorough searches of the cathedral, inside and out, were done, with extremely concerned church officials chipping in.

No go. Some introspection led me to believe the wallet had been lifted from my handbag on the train to Chartres.

Cops to our aid

The next stop was the tiny little police station where we hit the infamous language hurdle. Thus far into our trip, we had managed with next-to-no French, and had found people helpful and quick to pick up on hand gestures.

Here was reality. Chartres, for all its tourist influx, lacks the sophistication of Paris and the policewoman on duty, a lovely young woman named Ozanne Virgine, had less than little English… actually, she had no English at all. In our trinity, my sister and I had no French while my friend M had studied French back in school, and that’s more years now than we care to count.


Part pantomime, part dance of desperation

What followed was part pantomime, part dance of desperation. Just about everyone in the station was called to help. No one spoke English and M’s French didn’t seem to get across. Finally, Virginie put a call through to the last station of the train we had been on, the famous Formula One spot, Le Mans.

More confusion. At any rate, the train would be back in Chartres by 5 p.m. in the evening.

Emanuel, the young guardian of the Church who had brought us to the police station, mentions the famous Labyrinth in the church, where people go to commune with God.

I need some divine intervention badly, and so, we head back to the cathedral, this time to the Labyrinth. Built around 1200 AD, about 40 feet in diameter and laid into the floor in a pavement maze style, it is supposed to lead man from earth to God, walked as a pilgrimage and/ or for repentance. There is a particular way to walk this Labyrinth and I had to watch the silent, rosary-kissing men and women for a while before I caught the pattern myself.

We have time to kill and the suspense of the wallet is threatening to kill us. So we walk through the utterly captivating townlet of Chartres, with its cobbled lanes, old maisons, Italian style piazzas, haute shops and the Eure flowing gently, even a little murkily, at the base of the town.

To get to the Eure, you find yourself descending ramps and stairs; once by the river, you spot several humpback bridges, tanneries, quaint wash-houses and watermills. And of course, still more views of the ubiquitous cathedral.

As in almost every town in Europe, Chartres, too, boasts of several museums but I’m sure the reader will understand when I say we weren’t really in the mood for museum-hopping that day.

The cathedral tends to overshadow everything else in this picturesque town but there are some other fine churches around, the Saint Pierre (some more wonderful stained glass windows here), Saint Andre, Saint Aignan, Saint Jean-Baptiste and the Saint Lazare, all built between the 11th and 16th centuries.

All`s well that ends well 

I’ll cut to the chase. At 5 p.m. on the dot, the train drew up at the Gare du Chartres and a smartly uniformed official stepped off bearing aloft a familiar brown wallet in his hand. I’d got my purse back and wonder of wonders, with my passport intact. Of course, I’d been cleaned out of all the cash and credit cards. But hurrah, I could now go home… and maybe come see more of Chartres another day!

This ran in THE HINDU of 18 Apr 2004.

All photos by Sheila Kumar and subject to copyright.

Related Links:

Travel: Versailles, France

Feature: Walking a virtual Camino

Travel: Lyon, a moveable feast – In between bites

Travel: Paris from the River Seine

Feature: Gargoyles galore!

ChartresChartres cathedralEure riverFranceLabyrinthunmatched steeples

Sheila Kumar • February 14, 2013

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