Chartres, France is an hour by train to the southwest of Paris, in the Eure-et-Loir area of France. Tourist traffic is centralized around the early gothic cathedral, which sports beautiful rose windows, offers tours of their crypt, and a labyrinth built into the floor of the nave. Chartres is also a destination for pilgrims, many of whom annually walk the 100km between Notre Dame de Chartres and Notre Dame de Paris.
Notre Dame de Chartres is the ecclesiastical seat of the Roman Catholic cardinal for the province of Tours. Although the best-known Notre Dame in the world is located in the Ile de Cite, I still think Notre Dame de Chartres is quite as beautiful. Pictures of course, capture only a hair's breadth of either cathedral's beauty. The true value of an inspired work of architecture can only be appreciated once you have stepped through the halls, run your hand up the columns and banisters, smelled the oiled wood and dust.
From the outside, Chartres Cathedral is smaller, but somehow more austere than her Parisian sister. Asymmetric towers frame the entrance, which is peopled with imposing figures of saints, demons, gargouilles and grotesques. I've always enjoyed the way a gothic French cathedral sort of spills herself, like a gown, into her footprint, with cast out ribbons. Inside, rose windows dominate the east and west walls, and the interior is filled with small wooden chairs, not pews. Walls that do not support the more important churchly features are home to banks of prayer candles, the kind you light yourself, after putting a franc in the slot. In a photograph, you see a unified sheet of flame.
But that's not really the story I wanted to tell here.
During my stay in Nancy, France, my roommate Sasmita and I traveled to Paris for a weekend of tourism, and hopped the train down to Chartres. My mother had lived in Paris during her own college education and told me that this little city was important to visit.
Sas and I wandered through the cathedral and walked the labyrinth, and still had a couple hours to spare before we could get the train home. Walking through the narrow streets, we found a small bakery(surprise! there's one on every street!) to lunch at, and friendly locals recommended we stroll by the Eure river. The banks of the river were dotted with houses, laundry flapping on clotheslines, and little rafts docked near houses. A welcome shift from the austerity of Paris. We happened upon an small glasswork museum and decided to check it out.
The ground floor was well-lit, flooded with natural light through a largely glass ceiling. February in Tours is really quite mild, and the temperature indoors was just balanced that we didn't feel cold, but didn't need to take off our sweaters. We wandered through the museum looking politely interested, and occasionally exclaiming to each other about how beautiful is this or that window, door, bowl. After about an hour of cultural enrichment, we headed out towards the door, but some unbidden interest snagged me and I stopped to shuffle through the pamphlets and fliers near the door, struggling with the vernacular French of students and artisans. We'd missed out on a museum of natural history, and one of fine arts, but I was so stuffed with art from our Louvre visit the previous day, that I wasn't craving any more paintings.
Sasmita decided to powder her nose before we headed back to the train stop, and I started making small, stunted talk with the attendant. She asked if we'd seen the rotating exhibit, and I responded that no, we hadn't. She grabbed my hand and pulled me over a staircase we'd missed, and pointed down. It looked dark.
When Sas got back, we decided to visit the exhibit in the basement, like the obedient international students we were.
It was dark, but once our eyes adjusted, we could see that the walls were draped in navy blue, and the center of the room was blocked by a floor to ceiling wall, sort of what you would expect from a high school gym haunted house.
There was ambient music softly filling the space above our heads, tuneless but comforting, and we attempted to read the exhibit information and descriptions. We lifted back the curtain to enter the blue tunnel.
Inside, perception shifted. Sas was standing in front of me on a wooden boardwalk, like you'd find at a beach, and to the sides of the walk( and under it, presumably) there was fine white sand, scattered with smooth stones. On each wall of the tunnel were small frames, each containing a poem, en francais. In front of each poem, in the sand-bed, was a cube, just under a meter on each side. As I moved toward one of them, it became clear that these were light-boxes, each topped with a study, in glass; a response to the posted poem.
The first one rendered the universe, pre-Big Bang, just blue. The next piece was a chrysanthemum, gold and white in the center of the previous blue-black field, the universe, becoming. I soon realised the intention of the exhibit was evolution, yellow light from a sea of blue. Sas was far ahead of me, but I took my time, examining each written piece and scribbling, into now-lost notebook pages, what I thought they meant. Periodic table of the Elements, Population Growth Model, Cellular Reproduction. Everything was gold and blue, and sprinkled with bits of red and green. I was bound by these swaths of nebulae, these sapphire forests and nephrite swamps. I reached out to touch the knobs and divets of glass, tiny archways and buttonholes- snatching my arm back, last second, like I always do.
When reality called us out of our reve, we wound our way out of the maze, following the exhibit to completion: present day. We breathed in the sunlight and the air full of bread. On the train trip back to Paris we played frantic charades with one out of a group of girls (avez vous un mouchoir?), who turned out to have a runny nose.
I went to IKEA on Saturday. Their logo is blue, white and yellow. I bought a gift certificate for my sister's engagement present. I left as quickly as possible.
My cheeks burned as hotly as if they'd been slapped.
http://www.centre-vitrail.org/fr/vitrail-chartres.php is the Museum of Glasswork.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartres is where I found the 100km figure.
images.library.pitt.edu/c/chartres/ has a large set of pictures of the town of Chartres, and of the cathedral.