Tip: Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is closed, Chartres Cathedral is perfect alternative, fun day trip from Paris.
Cathedral exterior -
Before entering the cathedral through the Royal Portal, walk around the church clockwise, looking up at the flying buttresses that provide support for the building, stop by the North Portal to look for any birds nesting (we saw a bird making a nest above the statues of the sleeping Wise Men above the left door), around the end of the church, passing by the South Portal, and back to the Royal Portal.
Royal Portal (West Portal)
- On the Royal Portal are three doors, elaborately decorated with sculptures. On the columns are sculptures of the kings and queens of Judah (queens wear long braids, crowns, and tiny pleated robes) and other Old Testament figures. Above the middle door, Christ is surrounded by four symbols of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the twelve apostles below.
Cathedral interior -
Inside the cathedral, it feels very different - soaring arches to a very high vaulted ceiling, luminous stained glass windows in sapphire blue, red, yellow, and green, glowing limestone walls (originally colored yellow and white).
- Climb up the North Tower
on winding spiral stairs. Kids will see a gargoyle or two, peer over at the eight-sided spire of the South Tower, then look down over the green copper roof over the cathedral nave, in the shape of a cross. From the North Tower is a panoramic view of the ancient town of Chartres.
Stained glass windows -
The Chartres stained glass windows tell stories from the Bible - Noah's Ark, Good Samaritan, Nativity, Wise Men, life and resurrection of Jesus, but there are also many scenes of medieval life. Windows also show people making a wheel, shoeing a horse, selling fish, harvesting wheat, sitting by a fire, picking grapes, signs of the Zodiac, Charlemagne and his knights on crusade.
Noah and the Flood
- Next to the North Tower stairs is the story of Noah's Ark. Different sections of the window show Noah building his boat, animals arriving two by two, the flood, dove with an olive leaf, and rainbow at the end.
Tree of Jesse
- This is one of the oldest original stained glass windows in Europe. At the bottom is Jesse, above him a tree grows around four kings of Judah, then the Virgin Mary, and Christ at the top of the window.
Rose windows -
Check out three dazzling rose windows (West, North and South) in the cathedral. In the center of the North Rose window, Mary and the baby Jesus are surrounded by eight angels and four doves (symbol of the Holy Spirit).
- The Blue Virgin window in the south aisle is one our favorites, and is also quite old, the central portion is 12th century. Mary sits on a heavenly throne with the Christ child in her lap. On either side angels hold candles and wave containers of incense.
- The Zodiac window, next to the Blue Virgin, has the twelve signs of the Zodiac and scenes of daily medieval life throughout the year. Look for a peasant sitting by the fire, woman holding flowers, workers picking grapes, butcher and a pig, a farmer harvesting wheat.
- Go around the ambulatory (rounded end of the cathedral) for scenes of Charlemagne and his knights on crusade. Charlemagne wears a crown, his knights in full armor, carrying lances and shields, fight battles on horseback.
Tip: The stained glass windows are very tall; bring binoculars so kids can see the amazing detail.
Renaissance choir screen - In the center of the church is a stone choir screen, added much later in the Renaissance; scenes portray the stories of Mary and Jesus. Also, on the choir screen are scallop shells, the symbol of religious pilgrims.
Lady of Chartres images - The Virgin Mary is a central figure in the cathedral, and she appears many times in sculpture and stained glass. Mary is often featured wearing blue and with the Christ child on her lap. Kids can look around inside and outside the cathedral to find their favorite Lady of Chartres.
Lady of the Pillar statue (Black Madonna of Chartres) - the faces of Mary and Jesus are now white, years of black candle soot has been cleaned away.
Tip: Chartres is a great place for kids to count e.g. the number twelve. Twelve apostles on the Royal Portal, twelve months of the year on the Zodiac window, twelve doves and angels on the North Rose window, twelve circles surrounding Christ on the West Rose window, twelve Old Testament prophets, etc.
Old Town -
The old town of Chartres is beautifully preserved, it's quiet and peaceful, and uncrowded, even in summer. Visiting Chartres with kids, in addition to visiting the cathedral, allow time for a walk, or stay overnight to enjoy the ambiance.
Walk though the old town
- There are signs for the "Circuit touristique" (tourist trail), or you can just wander around on winding streets around Place de la Poissonnerie (fish market) or Place St. Pierre, then walk along the Eure River. Kids will see 15th and 16th century half-timbered houses, painted doors for walled gardens, and limestone houses right on the river.
Rent pedal boats
or canoes at Petite Venise ( Parc des Bords de l'Eure) along the Eure River, there's a snack bar with crepes too.
- If you have little ones, take a ride on the white tram that goes around the town; pick up the tram at the cathedral square.
(and grass to run around) at the garden, at the Jardins de l'Eveche, on the northeast side of the cathedral.
Getting to Chartres - It's an easy day trip, one hour on the train from Paris, Montparnasse station. The cathedral is easy walking distance from the train station, or in summer there's also a "navette" tourist bus to the cathedral.