Breathtaking beauty of Chartres Cathedral nourishes the soul

Bikers following Carl Clancy’s 1912 route nourish their bodies with lunch at La Toque Blanche in Marboué

          Chartres Cathedral: “One could stay for weeks, months even and still not notice everything or feel one had done justice to the achievement of the architect, builders, masons and stained-glass makers who had created it.” Photograph: Alain Jocard

Chartres Cathedral: “One could stay for weeks, months even and still not notice everything or feel one had done justice to the achievement of the architect, builders, masons and stained-glass makers who had created it.” Photograph: Alain Jocard

Fri, Apr 5, 2013, 19:30

Carl Clancy rode away from Paris alone after his erstwhile partner, Walter Storey, returned to the United States, without explanation in Clancy’s account of their motorcycling together.

Soon, Clancy was in Chartres, as were we: Geoff Hill, Gary Walker and me.

A man in jeans, trainers and a zipped-up windcheater paused to examine our machines, as do so many people when we stop. “Where you guys from?” he asked.

We told him and what we were about: re-creating the motorcycle trip taken by Carl Clancy in 1912, starting in Europe.

Then he told us he was from Buffalo, upstate New York. Did Paris yesterday, London a day or two before that, a couple of chateaux were on the itinerary for tomorrow; back home the next day.

Ah yes, Americans and their grand tours of Yurp . . . What did he think of the cathedral? Awesome! came the sadly inevitable reply.

On the other hand, awesome is not the worst word to apply to Chartres. Truly, it is awesome – massive, magnificent, astonishing; all of these things and more, and perhaps the most amazing fact is that it was built in about 65 years. It has been a place of Christian worship from at least the 4th century, though the present building dates from 1194 and was dedicated in 1260.

Gothic cathedrals
Most gothic cathedrals in Europe took hundreds of years to complete. Even Antoni Gaudi’s enchanting and eccentric Sagrada Família has entered its third century without completion. Clancy played to type when he came to Chartres after two months of rest and recuperation in Paris, noting in a report for the Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review that he had spent “a solemn half hour” in the great church to Our Lady.

One could stay for weeks, months even and still not notice everything or feel one had done justice to the achievement of the architect, builders, masons and stained-glass makers who had created it.

First, the outside. Twin steeples, one 103m high, the other 115m, spear the sky, rising far above the patinated copper roof. A squadron of flying buttresses flanks either side of the nave. The royal portal, the main entrance and the porch entrances of each transept are simply festooned with statues, religious and secular, and carved gothic intricacies.

Inside, the floor is covered in marble flagstones, polished by the millions of feet that have passed over them for 1,000 years. The walls and pillars of the nave sheer upwards into vaulting arches that support the ceiling.

Wondrous windows
But it is the windows that truly take one’s breath away. A staggering 176 stained-glass windows illuminate the interior in a flood of coloured light.

Rows of tall, lancet arch windows stand guard on either side of the nave, transepts and ambulatory (itself lined by a most intricate choir screen of 41 carved panels) and are crowned by rows of small – a relative term – rose windows and, of course, three giant rose windows above the portal and both transept porches.

Much of the detail of the stained glass is visible from the ground, though many tourists use binoculars.

My favourite is the zodiac window, which is full of delightful and mischievous characters, such as the curious eight-legged crab-like cancer or February, warming his toes on a fire and with a face probably that of the man who made the glass, or a friend perhaps on whom a small joke was being played.

A few miles farther along the road, lunch beckons in Marboué, a strip village cut in half by the A10 which, like most heavily used roads, kills that through which it passes.

French lesson
M Mousset is waiting for our order in his slightly dour, old-fashioned living-room style restaurant, La Toque Blanche, which clings to life opposite a dead Spar, trucks and cars whooshing past every few seconds. I opt for the plat du jour; Geoff inquires, in flawless French, about a cheese salad; and Gary asks hopefully after un petit omelette, peut-être?

M Mousset does not do omelettes and, with an expression that surely speaks of earlier encounters with slightly incoherent foreign tourists, effects to suggest we leave it to him . . .

There arrives in succession a tasty appetiser of barley salad in a tiny glass, followed by a slice of chunky pork and pepper terrine with side salad, a main course of steak and pepper sauce, broccoli and a mousse of carrot and celeriac, and finally dessert of chocolate mousse with a delicate coating of crème anglaise.

The price? €15 a head!

Stuff the omelette, M Mousset knows his customers. Those French with their cathedrals and their food – body and soul satiated.