How Best to Contemplate the 800-Year-Old Heart of Chartres.

I’m staying at Le Grand Monarque here in Chartres and, just after breakfast this morning, I asked the woman at the reception desk if there was a photo store nearby. She looked at me, somewhat askance, and said, “Monsieur! C’est lundi aujourd’hui!” Yes, today is indeed Monday and that means just a few shops and restaurants are open, giving most of the local residents two full days off. Once again, at least in my opinion, the French have their priorities straight. Some of them, anyway.

 Unfortunately, being Monday also means there are only a very few tours of the massive and magnificent 12th century gothic cathedral being offered. I did see a group being led around by a guide, but he was speaking in French. Really, that’s OK. Most of these guides flood you with names and dates and facts and figures and, at the end of the day you’re left with an overall but blurry impression. At least some of the time, you’re probably better off on your own and getting a sense of the place with an overall impression. That’s how I “toured” le Cathédral de Notre-Dame today.

 The rest of my time was spent strolling around the old town, stopping along the way at convenient benches to let the sights and sounds of this medieval town soak in, even on a relatively quiet Monday. I did find a restaurant open and had a bite of lunch and a glass of wine at an outdoor table. 

 Once again I was struck by the French penchant for much more formal landscaping designs than we’re used to seeing. They plant trees in long rows lining both sides of country roads or, as was done here behind the cathedral, identical trees line a gravel pathway down the middle of a 500-year-old courtyard. It is serene and quite lovely.

Le Grand Monarque is an old building and here and there are signs of things needing a little work. A drain in my bathroom sink that gurgles noisily, for example. But the hotel still manages to be classy, has a first rate restaurant, and is wonderfully French. By that I mean the guest rooms are typically small, the decor is typically “big”, and the ascenseur (elevator) is typically tiny — only room for me and my one small rolling bag. When I checked in, the bellman set my bag inside the elevator, ushered me in, and waited for the door to close. When the door slid open on the 2nd floor, there he was waiting to greet me. Not even out of breath.

Tomorrow I’m headed for Switzerland on three trains: Chartres to Paris, Paris to Zurich, and Zurich to Chur … local trains before and after the high-speed run to Zurich. That’s a TGV Lyria service that will cover about 400 miles in four hours, including four stops.