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Escape to the empty city

July 15, 2009

Courtesy of Hadrien Gaudouen.

Yesterday was the 14th of July, the French equivalent to Independence Day. There’s a large parade, fireworks and so on. But hardly any actually French people celebrate the holidy. So instead of going to the défilé (which I had done last year), Hadrien, Madame Gaudouen and I decided to celebrate with a visit to Chartres, a town about an hour outside of Paris. This being my first real trip anywhere (I wouldn’t let myself while I didn’t have a job), I was excited to see something a little different from Paris. And “different” doesn’t half seem to cover it.

When you first saw the city’s architecture, you might not think so, though. There are still narrow buildings with painted shutters and the occasional balcony — and there’s definitely still restaurants and boulangeries on every corner. The main difference between Chartres and Paris was its desertedness. As we walked through the streets at 11 a.m., there was hardly a sound apart from the occasional lone passing car and our own voices. At first I didn’t even realize it, this being so similar to the streets in Overland Park (the town in Kansas where I grew up), but when Mme Gaudouen mentioned it, I suddenly caught the unshakable feeling that I was in a ghost town. After all, nearly all the shutters were closed up, and hardly a soul walked along the streets.

Courtesy of Hadrien Gaudouen

The cathedral at Chartres

The feeling cleared up, though, as we neared Chartres’s famous cathedral, which was at the highest point of the city. As we moved closer, the stray tourists in the city grouped together, and we made enough noise among us to shake off the feeling that we were the only people in the town.

Chartres’s cathedral has two non-identical towers (one of which was constructed much later than the first. If you speak French and you want more information, check this out. If you don’t, you’ll have to settle for the lesser Wikipedia article here). We were lucky enough to have brought binoculars (In French they call them “jumelles,” the word for twins), which were so powerful we were able to see even the details of some of the tallest stained-glass windows.

The binoculars wound up acting as our ambassadors. Two women visiting from England asked to borrow them. They had brought a small black-and-white spotted dog with them, forcing them to visit the inside by turns while the other stayed outside with the dog.

Courtesy of Hadrien Gaudouen

Stained glass windows at Chartres

Nearly all cathedrals in Paris seem to have a few things in common, as far as I can tell, and Chartres was no exception. There are always tour groups (though this time they were uncommonly quiet and respectful. I saw only one flash picture taken the whole time I was there). There is also always construction, and Chartres really went to town on this one. The whole back wall behind the alter had been covered by a sort of curtain that mimicked (not well) the walls of the cathedral behind. We could still walk behind this to see the stained glass windows, but the scaffolding and covering of certain windows made for a twinge of disappointment. Finally, all cathedrals (and really just all churches) have throngs of lit candles next to boxes of unlit ones (marked “bougies”) for tourists to buy for about two euros (this varies depending on the size of the candle and the ambitiousness of the cathedral. I’ve seen the same candles for one euro or 50 centimes in lesser-known churches). One of my favorite parts of visiting cathedrals is lighting these candles. I always like the idea that they’re burning there with candles from hundreds of other people. The thought gives me a sense of unity with the world.

Courtesy of Hadrien Gaudouen

The candles at Chartres

We took lunch outdoors at the Parvis. When we arrived, the host was having a problem with an English-speaking man on the phone. The English-speaker needed directions, but the host didn’t understand English, so I wound up on the phone dictating directions I wasn’t familiar with to a man I didn’t know.

The whole thing wound up being well worth the effort, though. At the end of our meal, the

Courtesy of Hadrien Gaudouen

The restaurant where we had lunch

waiter brought out two extra desserts (rectangular chocolate cakes with a little crunchy layer at the bottom) for Hadrien and I and said that the cook had made too many. Madame Gaudouen smiled and me and explained, “He must have done this because of the help you gave them on the phone.” I’m not sure if that’s the real reason, but either way, it was delicious!

In the afternoon, we took a walk around the town and wound up going down the Eure River (which winds through Chartres) on pedal boats (which are called “pédalos” in French). The area around the river was almost insulated with greenery, to the point that we hardly realized we were still in the city.

The type of boat we used to travel down the Eure.

The type of boat we used to travel down the Eure.

By the end of the afternoon, after paying 40 centimes to use the restroom in a shop that was literally named TOILETTES (despite the fact that it also sold souvenirs and changed money), I was ready for home, so we came back to the train station and took the next train back to Paris (which left 5 minutes later).

All in all, a lovely low-maintenance voyage and the perfect (if incredibly unorthodox) way to celebrate the 14th of July!

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