Thursday, October 1, 2009

Trip to Chartres

Trips often take unexpected turns. The slightest detour, side track or even meeting an interesting local, can make a sightseeing excursion the journey of a lifetime.

On a brisk September morning I found myself looking up at the two gray stone spires of the ancient cathedral in Chartres. I had just arrived from Paris and had made my way along the Avenue Jehan de Beauce towards the cathedral. The ancient cobblestones and the modern glass store fronts were a sharp contrast between modern France and it’s medieval past. I imagined a simple peasant making his way over these same stones on his pilgrimage to the new cathedral dedicated to Our Lady more than 7 hundred years ago. Standing in the square I felt the same awe and inspiration a faithful traveler, of long ago, must have felt seeing the white sandstone spires of the cathedral rising stoically towards the bright, crisp, blue morning sky. As a student of architecture in my mid 20’s, I had made this pilgrimage not for reasons of faith, but for reasons of inspiration.

The cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres is considered one of the earliest and best examples of Gothic architecture in Europe and is still a Mecca for students of architecture. I came expecting to sight see but I never expected to experience the adventure in store for me.

I stood gazing upward at the front fa├žade replete with ornate stonework, effigies of saints, and demon grotesques silently reminding any wayward soul of the glories of faith and torments of damnation. A feeling of sublime smallness overwhelmed me.

I was too early for the first tour of the day so I found my way to a coffee shop, ordered coffee, and waited. A young man sitting at the next table was reading a book on how to speak English. I asked if he was learning English. He enthusiastically said yes and asked if I was from America, I nodded and he responded with a wide grin. I mentioned I was waiting for the cathedral to open and his grin widened even more. He stood quickly, and in broken English said, “come, I show you the cathedral.”

We walked the few blocks to the square where he led me up the marble steps of the cathedral. I followed him inside struggling to keep up with his hurried pace as our footsteps echoed in the dark interior of the cathedral and seemed to fade into eternity.

The expanse of the cavernous interior, so detailed that every square inch of wall or ceiling was filled with intricate reliefs, instantly froze me where I stood as I tried to take in its grandeur. Shafts of light shot across the center aisle of the church from stained glass windows spilling into a multicolored spotlight effect on the stone floor; save for a few chandeliers, it was the only light in the cathedral. The dusty, ancient smell of cold, unmoving air was heavy in the darkness. My eyes instinctively followed the lines of slender columns as they arched overhead disappearing into the darkness as if into the night sky. I had seen countless pictures in textbooks but they all paled in comparison to what I was seeing.

We walked to a small door no more than 4 feet high guarded by a monk in a brown tunic. He sat cross-armed on an old stool that seemed old as the church. The friar discreetly took some Francs from my guide in much the same way a maitre d accepts a bribe for a prized table; he stepped aside and allowed us to enter. I crouched to avoid hitting the stone lintel as we stepped through the door into the spire and began climbing the worn, spiral marble steps. A spectacular view of Chartres and its surrounding country side greeted me at the top, and an eternity seemed to pass in an instant as the view took me back to a medieval time and place: Time, had indeed, stopped.

I was high enough in the main spire to where I could walk out onto the narrow stone gutter. I dared a glance over the side to see the tops of the flying buttresses; their massive bulk arching upwards propping the laced walls almost delicately. At my feet, the monolithic copper roof with its green aged patina angled steeply toward the ridge of the cathedral like the spiny back of a mythical dragon. This was the essence of gothic architecture and it was literally at my feet.

Standing on that ancient wall, a place few people ever go, I felt I had become part of its history. What began as sightseeing became an unforgettable experience; a once in a lifetime journey.

1 comment:

Passionatewriter_95 said...

You told me that story. You seemed to have left out a few details though.