I am visiting the cities of Orleans and Chartres to see the Cathedrals and I wonder which will be the most spectacular.
I start in Orleans, on the north bank of the River Loire. It was a city that witnessed the turning point in the Hundred Years War when Joan of Arc assisted in the lifting of the siege of Orleans in 1429. She is an ever-present figure in the city, cast in bronze or featuring in the stained-glass windows of the cathedral.
The present Sainte Croix Cathedral actually dates from well after the time of Joan. Rebuilding started in 1601 by Henry IV and the gothic stone structure that emerged is striking. Outside two delicately-carved towers rise above the city, restored after they were damaged during bombing in WWII. I take the time to look up at the gargoyles that adorn the higher reaches. Some are weather-worn while others are well preserved and uniquely interesting.
Inside there are many traditional stained-glass windows depicting the story of Joan of Arc, as well as some more modern designs. Carved stone friezes show the story of Christ and the feint hues of coloured paint still decorate the columns of the chapels. The woodwork of the choir stalls is detailed and aged a golden amber colour.
Moving on to Chartres, I get a 360 deg view of the Notre Dame Cathedral as I circle the city looking for a place to park. It is an impressive site, sitting on the highest point and surrounded by narrow medieval streets. The tourist office is housed in an old wooden-framed building that looks as if it might fall over. However, the stone built cathedral looks strong and sturdy even at 800 years old. It was built very quickly which has ensured the harmonious nature of its features, though one striking abnormality is the difference between the two steeples. One ornate and the other quite plain.
Once through the beautiful portals, I find that the interior decorations are even more captivating than Sainte Croix in Orleans. The stone carvings are breath-taking and the windows more intricate and colourful in their design. Especially beautiful is the “Blue Virgin” window which utilises cobalt oxide, known as “Chartres Blue”. There are also the additional attractions of the “Virgin Mary’s veil” (though there is little evidence to support this as being a true relic), a restored Black Madonna (which is no longer black) and a labyrinth on the floor of the nave that is hidden by chairs.
So which Cathedral is the best? They are both beautiful and have many interesting features but, for me, the location and sheer size of Notre Dame, plus the other unique (if not authentic) items, make it the winner.