The day before Chartres

Come November I made a swift and functional circuit to Chartres and Le Mans for two dealer’s markets. I stayed in budget hotels near the exhibition parks, where the parking spaces filled overnight with white vans.

It was a straight forward drive down from Le Havre to Chartres. As I walked across a narrow stone bridge into the medieval town, a kingfisher flashed along the river Eure and sat for a moment on an overhanging branch. Half-timbered buildings stood by the water and flat bottomed boats were moored up alongside decks and low balconies. Cobbled streets had taken the names of the spinning, hide tanning and dyeing trades once established there: rue des Fileurs, rue des Tanneurs, quai des Teinturiers.

The magnificent cathedral pulsed with so much history and emotion that I could only gaze and breathe it in. Inside, much of the cathedral was caught in deep shadow except for metal racks of votive lights, bright in blue or red containers. A handful of dark silhouettes wandered around. The deep, resonant echo of a chair scraped back bounced around the cold fourteenth century pillars. A whispered conversation became ageless in this soaring space.

I emerged into dusk. Through tall, gilded metal gates, the lights were still on in the Musée des Beaux Arts, once the Episcopal Palace. I was too late though, the museum would be closing in a few minutes. Walking around the Musée onto the parvis, the terrace overlooking the old town below, I managed a glimpse through large illuminated windows of beautiful paintings hanging in the museum offices. Then, at a couple of minutes after five o’clock the lights were flicked off and that was that. I stood for a while on the terrace, haunting in its simplicity with its allée of lime trees and rows of park benches, until night settled in. Nearby stood Le Serpente. I was glad of the warmth and brightness of this cosy brasserie opposite the cathedral with window cills, lintels and shelves full of vintage coffee pots and teapots. Making my way back, down cobbled, traffic-free streets, I peered through security grilles into the windows of closed antique shops, and drank in the quiet atmosphere of the place.

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