You can easily spend all weekend just discovering the splendours of Chartres' Gothic cathedral. But there's much more to this pretty French city
Chartres cathedral is well known as one of France's great Gothic cathedrals – according to some authorities, the greatest. But there's far more to Chartres than just the cathedral. Still, it is what dominates the city. Whichever way you arrive, you'll see its twin spires crowning the hill above the river Eure. If you come across the wide open cornfields of the Beauce, you'll see it from miles away, as if it's floating above the corn.
Chartres cathedral has its moods. During the summer, it's often open for free musical events late into the night; with almost all the lights off, it's a huge, shadowy space full of mystery. On sunlit days it glows with the intense fire of its medieval stained-glass windows, rich blood red and deep azure. Best of all, when there's a storm coming, and the sun is shining but the sky is black, the creamy stone of its carvings seems to glow with light. Or there's the Chartres en Lumières festival, every night from April to September, when the cathedral, as well as other buildings in the city, is lit up – not just floodlit, but brought to life with animated projections. The whole city becomes a place of magic.
The dilemma with Chartres cathedral is whether you should start inside or outside. Inside, you have majestic Gothic architecture, and the marvellous stained glass. Some of the windows were given by the guilds of the medieval town, and show the members of the guild at the bottom of the window, engaged in their daily work. The bottom of the window wasn't the most prominent place – but it does happen to be the easiest to see. There are furriers and drapers, shoemakers, moneychangers, carpenters, bakers, stonemasons and sculptors – even a wine carrier driving his cart with a huge barrel loaded on the back, and whipping his horse eagerly to make it go.
But the carvings outside are equally splendid, from the royal doors of the west end to the covered porches of the north and south transepts. The figures of saints and prophets that flank the doors are very fine, but I always like to look at the smaller carvings that fill every space – Jubal with his lyre, the labours of the months, the signs of the Zodiac. If you know your bible, this cathedral is like an encyclopaedia – every king, patriarch and prophet from Abraham to Zephaniah. Even if you don't, the sculptures' sheer profusion is impressive.
Last of all the mysteries in the cathedral is the famous maze or labyrinth pavement in the centre of the nave. Unfortunately, it's nearly always covered by chairs – except on Fridays in summer (from Lent to the end of October) when it's exposed fully to view, and you can walk the whole pathway from the outside to the middle, and back again. It's a unicursal maze, the whole point of the experience being the slow spiralling around the centre and the frequent changes of direction, weaving your way in and out.
Enough of the cathedral! Head south and downhill to the old town with its steep cobbled streets and half-timbered houses. Many of the houses had fine carvings on the biggest beams; the best is the House of the Spinning Sow (La Truie qui File) and House of the Salmon, a single range, with criss-cross timber patterns and a huge wooden fish on the front. Further down the hill is the house with the escalier de la reine Berthe, a fine wooden turret containing a spiral staircase.
The slope between the cathedral and the river is steep, criss-crossed by 'tertres', pedestrian stepways that make short cuts while the streets run the long way round. From the tertres, you get a different view of the city – not cobbled streets, but hidden gardens and secret corners.
Down by the river Eure is probably the most charming neighbourhood in the city. Houses backing on to the river have overhanging lavoirs, little shacks where the maids would wash the laundry; there are watermills, tiny bridges, and riverside restaurants. There's even the Pont des Massacres, a bridge whose name promises a gory story – in fact, though, this is where the abattoirs of the medieval city were located, close to the river, which would wash the mess away.
Back uphill, the city to the north of the cathedral has a different, quieter feel; there are ancient medieval houses (the oldest, in Rue Chantault, dates from the 12th century) and elegant classical mansions. If you look carefully, you'll see some of the doorways are similar to arches in the cathedral – the cathedral masons occasionally did private work, using the same templates and even the same stone. That's one of the little secrets this city hides so well until you get to know it.
Chartres has one marvellous surprise left – the International Stained Glass Centre. It's housed in the cathedral's ancient tithe barn, where a tenth of the corn harvest of the Beauce would be brought every year; a fine half timbered construction. Inside, though, it's the cellar that most impresses – a wide, aisled space whose vault rests on such slender arches you wonder how it stays up.
Many people visit Chartres as a day trip from Paris. But it's worth spending the weekend – particularly if you're coming while the Chartres en Lumières show is on. Then you can spend the evening, till midnight, wandering the illuminated streets.
The one thing Chartres seems to be missing is a really nice boutique hotel. Best placed, particularly if you're coming by train, is the Ibis Chatres
– it may be a soulless chain hotel, but it's placed right by the banks of the river so you can walk the steps of the Terte Poissonerie in the morning.
As for restaurants, you're going to be spoiled. But my favourite is Le Mughal on the rue Clouterie. You can't miss it: the street frontage has been entirely decorated with fine Indian-style woodwork. The tiny restaurant is beautifully decorated, and the set lunch is particularly good value.