Keen to escape the city for a Sunday excursion we swotted up for a visit to Chartres to see the famous stained glass windows at la Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Chartres. With a sunny forecast – the windows are apparently seen at their best on a bright day – the planning was finalised; departure time, metro route, train station, walking route from train to cathedral all checked and memorised. Only the weather required confirmation.
Our apartment is so close to other buildings that we can’t actually see the sky just by glancing out the windows, a weather check is accomplished by leaning out the window and looking up – sky: blue or grey? Clouds: white, fluffy, grey, threatening?
Instead of blue sky we had a thick dose of the grey fog that is one of the less desirable characteristics of Paris, but as both on-line weathermen promised sunshine by 11am we felt confident with Plan A and set off according to the run sheet timetable.
The planning was perfect; the weather forecast was not. The fog did not clear all day, in fact it was one of the coldest days so far this winter, but we needn’t have worried, the cathedral and its stained glass windows were beautiful anyway.
After only a few minutes walk from the station at Chartres the cathedral appeared above the town centre, its huge shape emerging rather eerily out of the mist. On the outside the colour scheme is grey; age-old, weathered, blotched with moss and lichen grey. Handsome grey? Or forbidding grey?
Inside, the dominant impression is anything but grey. We arrived just as the Sunday morning service was finishing. We snuck in quietly with a stream of other visitors, immediately impressed by the congregation in full song their voices filling the vast interior of the cathedral. A vivid array of colour burst from the majestic stained glass windows high above the polished stone floor. The three large 13th century rose windows, dull on the outside, blazed with reds and blues. The most famous of the windows here is the Belle Verriere depicting the Virgin Mary wearing a blue robe, her child sitting on her lap. This window is one of three that remain after a major fire in 1195 which destroyed the earlier cathedral on the site.
Aside from catastrophes like fire and world wars, industrial pollution is the most significant enemy of historic buildings, (and their stained glass windows). The present day restoration programme is obvious; scaffolding, boarded up areas, the difference in colouration of the stonework between the before and after cleaning sections. The works-in-progress didn’t diminish our enjoyment of the visit; if anything it affirmed the preciousness of the treasures we’d had the privilege to see and we’re glad to see the effort going into their preservation.