We’re in France, for a holiday.
The autoroute from the channel port takes us to Chartres; a convenient stop on our way to the Vendée coast. Chartres is a delight – the centre of the city with its small streets clustered round the Cathedral; one feels connected with the mediaeval. This is probably enhanced by the city having placed all its major car parks underground; the rush of the modern buried beneath the feet of the ancient.
The market in the sunshine is a riot of colours; there is a sense that there is food everywhere, from the market stalls to the dozens of restaurants. The Cathedral may be several centuries old, but the realities of life – the need for physical as well as spiritual sustenance – have not diminished.
Chartres Cathedral is a jewel; relatively untouched by the attentions of reformers and of wars, it retains a full suite of saints and angels in its carvings; its unmatched towers strive for the heavens. Inside there is more colour, at times rivalling the market; the stained glass in the windows catching the high sun and spreading a pattern of gem-like light across its floors and the ranks of chairs. On its floor is a famous labyrinth, said to have been used by the monks as part of their life of prayer – could they not have used the maze of streets outside? – but no, for they were monks, and aware of the labyrinth of daily life as well as the internal labyrinth of the soul.
There is a major programme of cleaning and restoration going on, meaning that part of the interior is clothed in scaffolding and plastic sheeting. Looking up one can see where the clean stone meets the stone still carrying the grime of centuries in an inadvertent parable of purgatory; one day, we too shall be as clean as this, having been as grimy as that. In the cleaned area, the light is more intense, the darkness is seen as an artefact of time. We must return when it is complete (in 2014); to appreciate how this cathedral (and presumably most mediaeval cathedrals) were in fact places of light and air, not the dark and heavy places they now so often seem.
We pay our money and climb the bell tower – I have too much respect for man-made heights to venture too near edges, but there is space here to stand a little back. On the roof of the transept a stone angel blesses the town, and from the bell tower stands out against the fields of the countryside, making its own urbi et orbi, as it has for hundreds of years, and will no doubt continue to do for many more.