Day return to Chartres, please

18th July 1997 at 01:00
Sean Coughlan heads off under the Channel

What are you going to do today? What do you want (really, really want) to do with tomorrow? If you're like me, you'll have a few vague ideas and a masterly gift for not really doing anything, except watching junk television, getting irritated because there's nothing in the papers and rueing the passing of another summer's day.

But at the risk of sounding like one of those hyped-up self-motivation books, there's so much you can pack into a day. Take travel for instance. In a single day, you could catch a train to somewhere beautiful or interesting or quirky, not only in this country but on the continent as well, and still be back in your own bed in time for the late-night shipping forecast.

So imagine fast-forwarding yourself to tomorrow afternoon and finding yourself in a cafe in the warm French sunshine, a cold drink resting on a Gauloise table mat, a tricolour sleeping on a flagpole in a provincial town square, a massive cathedral filling the horizon.

That's part of what I found when I went in search of what could be done in a day, starting off at Waterloo Station in London and taking a daytrip to the cathedral city of Chartres. Leaving London just before half-seven in the morning, I caught a Eurostar to Paris, where I changed trains and arrived in Chartres soon after one o'clock.

I'll spare you the trainspottery details, but it meant that without any queuing or hassle I arrived in Chartres, about 50 miles outside Paris, with six hours or so to explore the town before making the return journey to London.

Chartres itself is a fairly small, fairly ordinary northern French town, but what makes it a place for visitors from around the world is its spectacular cathedral, one of the acknowledged masterpieces of Gothic art. I get my first view of this massive piece of medieval masonry from the train window, a sight that impresses both for its beauty and its sheer bulk, rising up high above the rooftops of the town.

What makes architecture fans so excited about Chartres is its purity of design - while many medieval cathedrals have become a hotch-potch of alterations and renovations, Chartres has much of its original shape intact. Built between 1194 and 1260 (a mere blink of the eye in cathedral-building terms), the Cathedrale Notre-Dame has survived religious schisms, world wars, plans by French revolutionaries to blow it up and 700 years' worth of visitors.

Walking around the cathedral on a sunny July afternoon, it's a remarkably soothing sight, combining huge space and delicate detail, with high columns, towering vaulted ceilings and a stream of blue light coming from a ring of stained-glass windows.

The cathedral alone is worth the daytrip, but if you still have a hunger for culture, there's an art gallery and an old town to walk around. But if your hunger points you in a more temporal direction, as mine did, there are cafes, bars and restaurants in the town centre, filled with people unhurriedly watching the day pass.

Half the fun of travelling is taking note of the small details of life and as I sit, watching the traffic, I notice that as well as being famous for its cathedral, Chartres, in a burst of civic pride, has the most modern-looking, space-age traffic lights and pelican crossings that I've ever seen.

As I admire the design, there's a squeal of brakes and the sound of horns, as a combination of cars and pedestrians ignore the style-conscious lights and just miss each other. Then five minutes later it happens again. And then again. I take a perverse pleasure in this, observing the locals' indifference to the new signals and the super-smooth road layout.

Having dipped my toe in the everyday life of another town, I head back to the station and the Paris train, reaching London as the pubs are emptying. While Londoners stagger out of their locals, I feel rather smugly that I've made something of the day.

Eurostar. Tel: 0345 303030

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