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Report 926: My Dream Trip To Italy and France
By BGE from Fox Creek, Alberta, Canada, Spring 2005
Page 26 of 38: My Labyrinth Day in Chartres
Chartres Cathedral window with the irreplaceable Chartres blue colouring
Awake early, I cannot sleep for the excitement and the awe I feel this morning. So many years of thinking about and talking about and reading about this magnificent labyrinth and here I am… I’m going there today! This is awesome! Here’s how my morning shapes up… 6:34 A.M. cannot sleep
8:36 A.M. at the bus stop
8:38 A.M. on the bus
9:10 A.M. at Montparnasse
9:13 A.M. find my son, waiting for me
9:16 A.M. buy tickets
9:19 A.M. on the train
9:22 A.M. train departs station
This is cutting it way too close for me! I’m the original plan-it-for-weeks-in-advance kid, and my son more than likely lollygags along and eventually gets where he’s going, without all the self-induced stress that his mom creates for herself. Hmmmm, there are lessons to be learned for me here, maybe?
This train is immaculate.
It smells so nice inside this car. Watching the beautiful countryside passing by my window, I am so delighted that I’m actually making this trip. The houses look like dollhouses as we pass by. There are many small towns and villages and they are all beautiful to me. Versailles is stunning... definitely a double-wow!
We get off the train in Chartres and walk to the cathedral in a few minutes. This is a darling little city, very well-groomed and clean as a whistle. The buildings are quite ornate and the landscaping is beautifully done.
The cathedral simply blows me away. As we approach from the side street, it looms high and straight towards the heavens. My first impression is one of tall, tall spires, gargoyles upon gargoyles, amazingly ornate and detailed sculptures beyond imagination. We slip inside the front door…into a cold, dusky interior that is so huge. I just wanted to actually be in the cathedral for a moment, before we eat lunch. We leave the cathedral to get a small snack and another café crème for me, and we see a café across the street. Sitting at our table, looking across at the South Portal of the cathedral seems like a dream for me.
A café crème, grapefruit and avocado salad with frites, a baguette and a luscious slice of tarte tatin with crème fraiche for good measure… I’m stuffed. Still, I order another café crème, to prolong my stay at this table, as I try to absorb what I am actually doing here.
There is a darling woman, in her 70’s, sitting at the table beside us, and she asks to see our bill, when it arrives. She is so angry when she sees that the bill for us is over double what locals would pay! We tell her that Malcolm Miller, the resident cathedral expert, is giving a tour at noon, and we want to take it. She waves her hands as if dismissing the tour, says that he’s good, but that SHE has lived there all her life and she’d be happy to take us on a tour later in the day!
Now it’s on to the cathedral and my long-awaited labyrinth walk. I am paying total attention to each step I take now, so I will remember. The steps up to the doors are beautiful…wide, cream, grey and slate-coloured marble. There are so many, so many, so many. The exterior is stunning. Two small areas on this side have been restored and are creamy peach and white in colour, contrasting remarkably with the unrestored areas along side. The rest of the exterior is grey and a slate green colour, covered in places with a thick green moss. Small green plants are growing from the seams of the arches and from between the stonework. Delicate yellow flowers also grace the ancient stonework.
We go inside, finally… it really is so very cold and dark! It takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The stained glass windows are stunningly beautiful, the colours are brilliant and the intricacy of detail is unbelievable. The blue colour, known as Chartres blue, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. This colour has never been replicated since these windows were made. There are so many windows, and as I walk along the entryway, I am confronted with more and more and more gorgeous windows, one upon another.
And, there is the labyrinth. I have dreamed about this moment, in this place, for ages. I stop dead-still and look at the age-old stonework in the floor of the cathedral that delineates the pathway of this labyrinth. I walk to the foot of the labyrinth, and sit in a chair at the edge of the beginning point. My son sits with me and we are silent.
I watch… the people walking the labyrinth are each making their own pathway and in their own time. I am surprised that there are many people walking straight across the labyrinth, talking and laughing loudly without knowing what they are doing, without stopping to realize that this is such a Holy Site for some of us. Some are walking nervously around the perimeter, knowing that there is something special going on here and not quite sure what it is.
I leave my son sitting there, and I walk around the edges of the cathedral's interior, taking in the windows, the prayer stations, the sculptures and the tapestries. I trail my fingers along the stones, across the candle tables at each prayer station. It seems so unreal that I am actually here. I think to myself that I’ll get home and this will fade from my mind. I’m wondering how I can hold onto the memory of this day, as I return to where my son is standing. He is speaking with a cathedral guide who gives us bad news. Malcolm Miller is ill today and is not giving his customary noon-time tour. We are disappointed, as we’ve been looking forward to learning about the cathedral from him. after talking about this for a moment, we decide to see the cathedral for ourselves, and we’ll just ask for help when we need it.
It’s my turn to walk the labyrinth.
My son takes my bag and camera.
I stand at the entrance to this magnificent and ancient place, focus on what has brought me here and I’m saying to myself, “Here I am… 3000 miles away from a little town in Alberta. I’m standing on stones that are over a thousand years old, in the footsteps of generations of pilgrims who have walked this labyrinth, sometimes on their knees, in penance. They have walked it in good times and in war… and I’m about to follow in their footsteps.” This makes me feel incredibly humble.
First a turn to the left…
I watch where my feet are going and don’t look up at all.
Focus, I tell myself. Focus.
Pay attention to every second that passes. I think about what I am doing now.
I notice the stones that I walk on are cratered, cracked, riddled with tiny holes, missing pieces here and there, worn smooth by a million feet over a thousand years…
I am aware of other people walking the labyrinth. Some are walking quickly, as if to get it over with, or in deference to an impatient spouse who waits at the side, tap-tapping their toes. Some are walking it with hands clasped in prayer.
Children are walking the pathway like kittens at play... hopping, skipping, joyfully and happily, bouncing along, raising their hands in the air and singing to themselves. The children reach the center of the labyrinth and applaud and cheer for themselves and their success! They are so unaffected by the attention of the audience around the labyrinth.
I am walking this ancient pathway, taking three steps and then a pause to reflect...
Three steps and pause…
three more steps and pause…
I’m lost in thought now, not really mindful of where I am or what is going on around me. This is very meditational, extremely soothing, calming, trance-inducing. I look up for a moment and see that my son is videotaping my walk. How amazing! It is so special that he cares enough about me to care about what matters to me.
I walk, and then I begin to cry.
My tears surprise me.
They come so swiftly, I am caught off-guard. I’m surprised at the deep emotion that wells inside of me, creating these tears of gratitude. Gratitude that I feel for all that has happened to get me this far in my life. I’m so grateful for whatever has allowed me to come to Chartres, to help me heal and move past my illness over the last number of years. I am totally grateful for the magic that has allowed me to come to Italy and France this spring, and most of all, I am grateful for whatever has surrounded me with such beloved family and friends.
I have an overwhelming realization about how much I have been blessed in this life and tears roll down my cheeks…”Thank you so much!”, I whisper. I pass a woman going the other way on the stones. Her hands are steepled in prayer and she also has eyes filled to overflowing with tears. It seems that tears are a mainstay of this labyrinth.
I reach the center!
“It is like standing in the Eye of God,” I think. I have no idea what that means, I just know that those words are in my mind right now. There are lumps in the center of the labyrinth underneath the thick black stuff that covers the center. The lumps look like large knuckles buried under a thick layer of black tar. I stand on four of them, with two under each foot, and I can feel the heads of these metal protrusions through the soles of my shoes. Kneeling, I kiss the floor in the center of the Eye of God.
Then, I begin to walk out of the labyrinth, along the same path that brought me to the center. I am thinking how much this walk is like life. We walk faster in youth, hurrying to get to the next place. As we get older, we walk a little slower, hoping to absorb some of what is going on around us. We walk more methodically and with more awareness as we age. Sometimes we walk our path alone, sometimes with a few people for company and support, and sometimes with a large crowd. Sometimes the path is rocky and irregular, full of broken stones and uneven surfaces. There are holes to avoid, cracks to walk over…
Once you begin this path of life, once you are born, there’s no going back. You must complete the walk to the end and see what happens along the way. My walk, going into the center of this labyrinth, seems to me to represent my journey coming here, coming from where I came from before I was born. Standing in the center of the labyrinth represents the moment of my birth, and the reverse path walking out of the center of the labyrinth represents my life from the time I was born. In the end, this is all one large circle, with all of us walking it together, just like in life.
I’m near the end now…there are no more tears, just an incredible sense of lightness, like a weight has been lifted.
I am at the end. I stop.
I look back over my shoulder to see where I’ve just been and then I leave the circle. My son is waiting for me and we walk to the gift shop in silence.
Later, I learn that the center of the labyrinth was covered with a copper plate until the French Revolution. The lumps in the center that looked like knuckles are actually the studs that held the plate in place. The copper plaque and the cathedral's bells were melted down in 1792 during the Napoleonic Wars to make cannons.
At 2:00 P.M. we have arranged to take a tour of the crypt underneath the cathedral. This crypt is the remains of the original cathedral. There is a fresco of the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus on her lap. The guide tells us that Christians today reject a smiling Jesus and Mary… they demand a sorrowful Virgin Mary and a crucified Christ, instead of the happy, loving smiling people in this fresco. This is why people call this Virgin Mary ‘Our Lady of the Basement.’ This distresses my son and we talk about this insane world that would accept a tragic and painful image over one that is happy and loving.
The original stained glass windows, the pulpit, a few columns from the original cathedral are all sheltered here in this crypt. It is amazingly dark, dank and cold. I can’t help but think of the incredible discomfort that long-ago Christians put up with in places like this. We have no idea of the struggles they went through, I think.
It amazes me that this structure has survived fires, bombings, pollution, man’s stupidity… and I marvel at how these craftsmen long time ago managed to create this incredible structure. With all of our computers, sky-cranes and electronics, we cannot make a building that lasts over a hundred years. Yet, here is this place that three or four generations of people built, and it still stands today. I think that those people long ago had a sense of community that we lack today.
Because they worked for a common goal and poured their whole lives into the creation of a cathedral like this, they had little time for the stuff that we worry about today. Generations of families worked to construct this amazing cathedral. If the family craft was stonecarving, and the family task was to create the stairs to the top of the cathedral, it might take several generations of craftsmen to complete the stairs that we can walk today.
A father might have started carving the stairs, and after his lifespan of 35 – 40 years, he dies and his sons take over where he leaves off. Sons take on the tasks that the fathers began, and many generations will work on this structure before it is completed. There is also a common goal within the community…to build this cathedral. That also creates a sense of purpose in the community, binding the families together over generations, while they build a great cathedral. That kind of purpose is absent in today's world, I think.
The guide sees that we are deeply interested in this crypt, and tells us to come back at 3:00 P.M. when his next tour starts. He will let us inside the crypt on our own, and we can take photos of it, if we like.
What an honour! We tell him we’ll be here.
We go back inside the cathedral and I tell M. that I want to walk this labyrinth again. I want to soak up all of this experience that I can. This time, I walk it knowing what it will provide. I take time to reflect on my life, my family and my friends. At one point, I say a silent prayer of thanks for all the blessings that I have been given, and I start to recite the names of the people who matter to me. I hear, as clear as a bell, “Oh, for Pete’s sake! I KNOW that already! You need to GET it that your job is to reach out and touch all of the people that I put in your path.”
I listen closely, to see if there is more.
I start to pay attention. I begin to notice that, where there was no one in the labyrinth when I started to walk it this time, now there are more and more people coming in to walk with me. I catch a young girl’s eye. She looks at me from where she is standing at the side of the labyrinth, and asks me what I am doing. I tell her that this is a labyrinth, and point out the beginning to her. She asks her mom if it’s ok if they try this. The mother nods and they both begin to walk. More and more people come, until it is crowded. This is totally cool!
A young guy watches me from the side, and then asks me what this is. I explain to him, point out the entrance and he begins to walk. The next time I see him, he’s standing in the center with his eyes closed, his arms outstretched. As he turns to walk out of the center, I give him two thumbs up, and he smiles at me as he wipes the tears from his cheeks.
At the end of my walk, I see this young guy sitting in the front pew, talking earnestly with a very pretty young woman. I walk over to them and shake his hand, as he thanks me for showing him how to walk this labyrinth. He is crying and as I walk away, he whispers to her, “There! That’s the one who showed me.”
I meet M. and we race to the crypt, arriving just in time to slip in at the end of the line-up. The guide smiles at us, starts his guided tour and once we are underground, we turn left as the rest of the tour goes to the right. It is so quiet in here, so cold and damp in this crypt. There is an original baptismal font, dating from the 12th century, and we have heard that it is still used today for christenings. Imagine having your children christened from this ancient font today!
We also find the original fresco that was discovered in 1976. It represents a seated Virgin, with Baby Jesus on her lap. Standing to Her left are the three magi, adoringly watching over the Baby and His Mother. Standing to Her right side, St. Savinien and St. Potentien, the first bishops of Sens. Legend has it that they were sent to evangelize the Chartres region.
From one area to the next, this stunning crypt is steeped in a history that we in North America can only imagine. I think how blessed the people are who live in an old country, with a rich tapestry of history like this. This cathedral was originally built in the 4th century, then rebuilt in 743 A.D., only to have it destroyed by the Vikings in 858 A.D.
This is where the robes of the Virgin Mary enter the picture... the cloth was given to the cathedral by Charles the Bald to help finance the reconstruction of this Carolingian church.
Another fire destroyed a large portion of the cathedral again, and in 1020 A.D. Bishop Fulbert commissioned the cosntruction of this Romanesque structure. It was one of the largest in its day and the crypt foundations have survived to this day.
Again in 1194 A.D another fire took all but the west front of the cathedral and the crypts. That was when construction began on the present chathedral that we see today. It was built in the new Gothic style, and this cathedral in Chartres influenced the architecture of the next number of French cathedrals that were built, especially the ones in Amiens and Reims.
It is almost time for our train back to Paris, and as we are walking out of the cathedral gate, we meet a large group of young people, singing and chanting, and playing guitars, flutes and harps. They weave their way through the large numbers of visitors to the cathedral, and make their way into the sanctuary as we leave.
One more stop for a take-along snack and a juice at the bakery, and then we walk along the street to the train station. On the trip back to Paris, we are uncharacteristically quiet and reflective... only as the train begins to slow at the station do we begin to talk again. It has been a magical and mystical day for us.
Best Things Today:
~ my excitement this morning, knowing I am finally going to
~ meeting my son at the train station
~ seeing the spires of the cathedral high above the horizon
~ my first look at the labyrinth
~ a delicious, if costly, lunch at the little café beside
~ the experience of walking the labyrinth twice!
~ having my child here with me as I walk through today
~ knowing that it will take a long time to process this
whole day and all that has happened to me today
~ feeling that I have been changed somehow, deep inside, by
Worst Thing Today:
~ the day ending.
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