Which French cathedral, for the stained glass?
August 31, 2021 9:13 AM   Subscribe

Chartres or Metz: imagine that you can only visit one, for the cathedral. Which do you choose? Which town is better (or worse) to visit, otherwise?

Theoretical travel filter, unfortunately; at least for the coming months and years. But I can still plan, and dream!
posted by Rash to Travel & Transportation around France (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have not been to Metz, so sorry this is not 100% helpful but Chartres was jaw-dropping, just insane. very very worth the visit.
posted by supermedusa at 9:25 AM on August 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

Chartres comes with added amazeing "meditative labyrinth". Although you may not be able to do a walking meditation if the chairs are all over it.
posted by BobTheScientist at 10:01 AM on August 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Came in to say Chartres as well, for added labyrinth.
posted by nathaole at 11:12 AM on August 31, 2021

I have not been to Metz either, but Chartres was one of the highlights of our trip many years ago and I would go back again in a heartbeat.

It was 15 years ago, but the only bad meal I had in France was in Chartres, so consider packing a picnic lunch.

(Seriously, it takes work a genius to simultaneously create a dish that is stone cold in the center and completely burned to a crisp on the outside.)
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 11:23 AM on August 31, 2021

Best answer: Another vote for the cathedral at Chartres -- the impression of which blots the rest of the day from my memory. (Which is to say, who cares about the town? That stone and glass still glows in memory, 30+ years later.)
posted by wenestvedt at 11:32 AM on August 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Metz was bombed to smithereens in WWII and what was built back is ... not especially attractive. So if you are not going only for the Cathedral, Chartres is jaw-dropping.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:36 PM on August 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

In 2019, my cousin and I spent two weeks driving around northwest France. (We're from Portland, Oregon and know no French. We just made it up as we went along.) My cousin loves stained glass and cathedrals, so we happened to see a few. We liked Chartres, but then we expected to like it. But you know what was really fun?

About 90 minutes south of Chartres in a town called Blois, we visited the Église Saint-Nicolas on a whim (my cousin is named Nick). It's not a big place and, like many churches, the windows were bombed out during WWII. But the modern stained glass replacements were amazing. And apparently there's a cathedral nearby in Blois that also has some impressive windows.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that I recommend that you do what we did: Make a day of it, and see both the Chartres cathedral and the church of St. Nicholas in Blois. The best photos I have from our entire trip came from that church in Blois.
posted by jdroth at 1:57 PM on August 31, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Chartres is great. The town itself isn't that large--it just happens to have a Masterwork of Western Civilization towering in the middle of it--but it's perfectly fine. Very easy to get to by train from Paris, which makes a wonderful, inexpensive day trip.

There were some crowded, touristy restaurants on the main drag when I was there, and a big souvenir shop with a big grumpy guy, who had possession of a couple of the only public restrooms in the area. I walked a couple of blocks over, and there was a pleasant, ordinary, small-town bakery with a nice woman selling baguette sandwiches stuffed with ham and cheese. The cathedral is the only tourist item in town, so you can get away from the bustle pretty easily.

Be sure to climb the tower, bookmark the Orson Welles monologue from "F for Fake", and remember Col. Welborn Griffith--we're able to see the cathedral today because of him.
posted by gimonca at 2:13 PM on August 31, 2021 [4 favorites]

Chartres is also home to a stained glass museum, which is separate from the church but from my memory a neat visit as well: https://www.centre-vitrail.org/en/
posted by saramour at 5:32 PM on August 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Metz has the advantage of being a regional rail hub. I’ve only ever transferred there, so I can’t comment on the town itself.
posted by wnissen at 7:33 PM on August 31, 2021

Best answer: I love Chartres so much I wrote a blog post about it in 2006. Aside from the cathedral the town is lovely and has plenty to do at least for one night. I greatly enjoyed my short stay at Le Grand Monarque: among other things they have a Michelin 1 star restaurant that will serve you a very special dinner. There's plenty of good less-ambitious restaurants too, the second restaurant at the hotel was quite good when I was there fifteen years ago, FWIW. The river is quite beautiful, too.

One of the special treats for visiting Chartres for English-speakers is a tour by Malcolm Miller. This man has spent 50 years of his life giving expert guided explications of the stained glass and its meaning. While searching for info about him I expected to have read that he'd retired or worse but it looks like he may still be guiding? I haven't found any post-Covid info; if anything would have made him retire, it would have been that. Still worth trying his email; if he's still doing tours it's worth planning your visit around that.

Whether you get his tour or not I strongly reading a copy of his book (in stock on Amazon) before you visit. It has excellent photos of all the windows and explains in detail what they mean. I can't emphasize enough how important this is. Before I read that book I'd look at medieval stained glass and think "oooh, pretty". Now I look and think "oh, that's a Jesse Tree, and over here is a very interesting depiction of the life of Saint Eustace see the stag there. And look, it's an oven in the corner of that window, perhaps the local baker's guild helped fund it". It's amazing how much more rewarding a visit is if you understand the meaning of things.

To get to Chartres you will very likely go through Paris. If you're serious about stained glass and haven't visited Sainte-Chapelle you must do that too. The classic pleasant visit is a sunset concert; you get to sit quietly for 45 minutes and listen to beautiful music while contemplating the jewel box. But I also had a great time visiting once with a private tour from a graduate student at the Sorbonne - that's a pretty common side hustle. Like Chartres the stained glass at Sainte-Chapelle has a lot of symbology and meaning and it's quite rewarding learning about it.

I feel like Metz got short-changed in this discussion, like maybe many folks haven't visited it. I haven't either so I can't correct the record.
posted by Nelson at 6:58 AM on September 1, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I brought up Metz because 'they' say its cathedral has even more stained glass than the Chartres. And I have been inside Sainte-Chapelle on a sunny day, incredible; but a long time ago. Thanks for the enlightenment, everybody!
posted by Rash at 9:31 AM on September 1, 2021

Nelson: It's amazing how much more rewarding a visit is if you understand the meaning of things.


If you're a traveler without much of an art education, Rick Steves has a book titled "Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler" that's a cheerful survey of art history that will help you understand some of what you're looking at.

It's super unpretentious, and a fun read.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:22 PM on September 1, 2021

I second touring with Malcolm Miller. After my art history professor spoke about him, I took a special trip to Chartres and did two tours with him in one day. They were completely different and amazing.
posted by Sukey Says at 3:42 PM on September 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

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