Notre Dame de Chartres

Being a blog centered primarily around travel, it seems I’m lacking a post on churches and/or religious architecture. Wherever you travel, particularly around Europe and South America (composed primarily Catholic or Christian nations), there is a church around every corner and travellers are often urged to visit their monuments to religion. I clearly remember my travels around Europe in both 2004 and 2007, where I actually got to the point of saying, ‘OMG, not another church!’ Every town, city and village has at least one church, which is usually clearly highlighted in your average travel guides as an site of interested. And I, being the good little traveler, began visiting these churches, one by one, until they all turned into one mental melange of stained glass windows, vault, flying buttresses, spires, pews, alters, etc. If you asked me to describe a particular one, it would be somewhat difficult to distinguish one from the other. However, the cathedral at Chartres is one which stands out in my memory. Perhaps it was its grand size, its detailed and beautifully crafted sculpture work, or maybe even its magnificent stained glass windows. Whatever it was, it remember it being worth the visit. So if you’re staying in Paris for an extended period of time, or if you’re a history, architecture or art buff (I put my hand up here), I recommended taking a day out of the city and heading to this beautiful little town known as Chartres.

Being an art history student studying French in Paris, and having a love of architecture of any shape and form (ok, maybe not every shape and form, but I can appreciate most styles of architecture, from late antiquity to the present) I could not miss the opportunity of living so close to Notre Dame de Chartres and not visit one of the most amazing high Gothic cathedrals in the world. So one Saturday morning I jumped onto the train and headed towards the small town of Chartres.

The town of Chartres is located south-west of Paris – the easiest way to get there is to take a SNCF train from Le Gare de Montparnasse to Chartres station – the train trip is approximately one hour. Once you leave the smog of Paris and its bonlieu (the grey ‘working class’ outer suburbs of Paris) the surrounding countryside is a welcoming sight. Thick forests, cultivated farmland and quaint little villages flicker past the train window. Once you arrive in Chartres, breath in the fresh air and make your way to the cathedral. Being a small town, it’s difficult to get lost between the train station and the cathedral – just look up at the skyline and once you spot those tall Gothic spires framed against the sky, it’s rather difficult not to find the Cathedral.

Aside from visiting the cathedral, which is the town’s claim to fame, the town of Chartres is a rather pleasant place to spend the day. After the chaos of Paris, the small quiet streets and laid-back atmosphere of Chartres is rather welcoming. The town is very quaint – being set on the banks of the Eure River, parts of the town are connected by little bridges. It definitely is a ‘typical’ French rural town – with interesting little side streets, cobbled stone footpaths, beautifully designed and ‘cute’ picture-book houses and the twitter of birds flying by. For those gourmets out there, Chartres also has a great shopping precinct with an array of shops, cafes and fresh produce markets (if you want to purchase fresh produce, be sure to arrive at the markets before midday)!

And finally, the cathedral. Notre Dame de Chartres is absolutely breathtaking – the grand proportions of its stone columns and archways, the intricate and colourful stained glass windows, the impressive and tactile sculptural work… Just walking down the nave, one is awestruck by the shear size and magnitude of the structure – the space is just enormous. I once wrote an essay on Gothic and Romanesque religious architecture at university, arguing that one of the original purposes of these buildings was to subdue the populous by highlighting the power and might of the church. An being within the building, you surely get a feeling of the power and influence that the church once had over society.

To think that work on the present cathedral began in 1020 and after a number of additions and setbacks, it was finally consecrated in 1260. How amazing it is that such buildings were designed and constructed over 800 years ago! We think of the middle ages as being a period of simplicity, but we can see from buildings such as Chartres Cathedral, that they were quite technically advanced in some aspects. The building even impresses present day visitors. It is truly spectacular.

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Le Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

When people talk about art galleries in Paris, Le Louvre is always mentioned, usually closely followed by Le Musee d’Orsay. These two galleries attract millions of international tourists each year, wanting to see Mona Lisa’s smile, Gauguin’s Tahitian Women, works by van Gogh, Degas, Caravaggio, Delacroix, Ingres, Renoir, Monet, Vermeer, just to name a few. However, where do you go to see celebrated modern art (usually classified as art of the 20th century, post WWI art) in Paris? Where can you see the works of Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, etc.? Hidden amongst the Haussman-styled apartment buildings in the 4th arrondissement of Paris – well known for it’s cafes, shops and expensive real estate – is Le Centre Georges Pompidou, the hub for modern art in Paris. On weekends, the forecourt of the centre is usually filled with street performers of every shape and size, who seek the attention of visitors and passers by alike.

Note: For those who don’t know, Paris is broken up into 20 administrative districts know as arrondissements, each with their own mayor and council, as well as their own individual character and atmosphere. When Parisians talk about where they live, they always mention their arrondissement. Your arrondissement places you, socially speaking, into a box. It tells others of your social and economic standing, your interests and even your political persuasions. For example, the 16th arrondissement is know to be very upmarket, chic and conservative. In contrast, the 18th arrondissement is known to be very liberal, artsy, with a large population of North African immigrants and descendants.

The exterior of the Centre Georges Pompidou appears to be somewhat of an eye-sore when set in contrast to the surrounding neighbourhood. In a very ‘un-Parisian’ manner, the original buildings on the site were demolished in the 1960s to make way for this ‘hideous’ structure (Paris usually has a great reputation for retaining and transforming existing structures, which as allowed to city to retain its old-world charm – the Louvre Museum was originally a royal palace and the Musee d’Orsay is a converted railway station. On my first visit to Paris, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Parisian government created a new suburb on the outskirts of Paris, known as Le Defense, to accommodate a growing need to establish a business district in Paris, rather than demolishing the existing buildings and neighbourhoods). So, steering away from tradition, is Le Centre Georges Pompidou. The steel frame, the glass facades, the coloured pipes and the tres moderne look of the site ensure that no passerby fails to miss it. The design and construction of the centre has since become and has remained a topic of heated criticisms amongst many Parisians.

As you can see from the photos above, the view from the top floors of Le Centre Georges Pompidou is unquestionable Parisian. Seeing the unmistakeable rooftops of Paris and the Parisian skyline dominated by the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame from this perspective was a unique experience. The colours, the textures, the design of the structures, just thinking about all those hundreds of thousands of people who inhabit this unique city. All those individuals who glance through those little windows to see life in Paris unfolding day by day.

Ok, so the main reason people go to the Centre Georges Pompidou isn’t to criticised the bad town planning/architectural decisions of the then French President Georges Pompidou, nor to be bewildered by the beauty of the panoramic views, but rather to appreciate the amazing art which is on display in the light-filled, warehouse inspired, gallery spaces. The Centre hosts many temporary exhibitions throughout the year, but it’s their permanent collect of Fauvist, Cubist, Expressionist, Surrealist (to name a few) works which I found absolutely amazing, especially in comparison to the ‘poorly’ collections of many of the large, state-run galleries in Sydney. Le Musee d’Arte Moderne in the 16 arrodissement – just up the road from where I was living and which I frequented regularly – also has a great collection of modern art, it is no where near as impressive, in quality and quantity, as the exhibits at the Pompidou Centre. All the big names of 20th century art are there – everywhere you turn you see art works you’ve read about and the closest you came to seeing them was on the pages of a poorly printed high school textbook (or a better printed and much more pricey university textbook). Picasso, Kandinsky, Braque, Matisse, Dali, Miro, Wahol, Pollock….the list goes on and on and on.

As you gather, if you’re an art-buff, an admirer of modern art, or a art history student seeking cultural gratification in such a culturally rich city as Paris (I put my hand up here), then Le Centre Georges Pompidou is a must on your next visit to Paris.

– The Centre is located on the opposite side of Les Halles to Le Louvre, and take one of the many metro lines which intersect at Les Halles/Chatelet and exit here.

Photographs from my personal collection