Worship on the site of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, better known as Chartres Cathedral, goes back to before the Gallo-Roman period—the crypt contains a well that was the focus of druid ceremonies. In the late 9th century Charles II (aka "the Bald") presented Chartres with what was believed to be the tunic of the Virgin Mary, a precious relic that went on to attract hordes of pilgrims. The current cathedral, the sixth church on the spot, dates mainly from the 12th and 13th centuries and was erected after the previous building, dating from the 11th century, burned down in 1194. A well-chronicled outburst of religious fervor followed the discovery that the Virgin Mary's relic had miraculously survived unsinged. Motivated by this “miracle,” princes and paupers, barons and bourgeoisie gave their money and their labor to build the new cathedral. Ladies of the manor came to help monks and peasants on the scaffolding in a tremendous resurgence of religious faith that followed the Second
Crusade. Just 25 years were needed for Chartres Cathedral to rise again, and it has remained substantially unchanged ever since.
The lower half of the facade survives from the earlier Romanesque church: this can be seen most clearly in the use of round arches rather than pointed Gothic-style ones. The Royal Portal is richly sculpted with scenes from the life of Christ—these meticulously detailed figures are among the greatest created during the Middle Ages. The taller of the two spires (380 feet versus 350 feet) was erected at the start of the 16th century, after its predecessor was destroyed by fire; its fanciful Flamboyant intricacy contrasts sharply with the stumpy solemnity of its Romanesque counterpart (access €6, open daily 9:30–noon and 2–4:30). The rose window above the main portal dates from the 13th century, and the three windows below it contain some of the finest examples of 12th-century stained-glass artistry in all of France.
As spiritual as Chartres is, the cathedral also had its more-earthbound uses. Look closely and you can see that the main nave floor has a subtle slant. It was designed to provide drainage because this part of the church was often used as a "hostel" by thousands of overnighting pilgrims in medieval times.
Your eyes will need time to adjust to the somber interior. The reward is seeing the gem-like richness of the stained glass, with the famous deep Chartres blue predominating. The oldest window is arguably the most beautiful: Notre-Dame de la Belle Verrière (Our Lady of the Lovely Window), in the south choir. The cathedral's windows are gradually being cleaned and repaired—a lengthy, painstaking process—and the contrast with those still covered in the grime of centuries is staggering. It's worth taking a pair of binoculars along with you to pick out the details. If you wish to know more about stained-glass techniques and the motifs used, visit the small exhibit in the gallery opposite the north porch. Since 2008, the cathedral has been undergoing an ambitious €20-million renovation that will continue through 2017. To date, two major chapels (the chapels of the Martyrs and the Apostles) have been completely restored, as have the two bays of the nave and the lower choir and the transept windows. For those who remember these dark recesses before the restoration, the difference is nothing short of miraculous (or alarming, depending on your perspective); an estimated 160,000-square feet of original plasterwork is now visible, and many of the sublime details for which the cathedral is famous have been returned to their 13th-century state. The restoration includes a layer of creamy paint, gilding, and trompe l'oeil marble over the church's entire interior sandstone surface, but changes this sudden and drastic are inevitably accompanied by controversy. For some the transformation is transcendent, for others it's a travesty. It's best to judge for yourself. To help you do this, try to arrange a tour (in English) with local institution Malcolm Miller, whose knowledge of the cathedral's history is formidable. (He leads tours twice a day Monday through Saturday, April–October, and once a day November–March at noon. You can contact him at 02–37–28–15–58 or at email@example.com.) The vast black-and-white labyrinth on the floor of the nave is one of the few to have survived from the Middle Ages; the faithful were expected to travel along its entire length (some 300 yards) on their knees. Guided tours of the Crypte start from the Maison de la Crypte opposite the south porch. You can also see a 4th-century Gallo-Roman wall and some 12th-century wall paintings.