Chartres is a small city in the Centre-Val de Loire region of France, approximately an hour south-west of Paris by train. Population is 42,000 although that rises to 100,000 when the surrounding towns are taken into consideration. The main attraction for most visitors to Chartres is the 12th century cathedral, considered by many art historians to be the finest surviving example from the High Gothic period. In the last couple of years a new mayor has overseen the modernization of the center of the town. There has provoked both positive and negative reactions from the "Chartrains", but there is no doubt that the town is undergoing a certain renewal.
From central Paris, take the A10, followed by the A11 - a driving distance of 91 km (57 miles). It's also possible to take the A13 (towards Rouen) and then at the Traingle de Rocqencourt to head south on the A12 to Trappes and the RN10. The RN10 is the "old" road from Paris to Chartres (and beyond) and there is no toll. Most of it is dual carriageway, although there are a few tricky 3 lane sections. Usually doesn't take any longer than the motorway and both arrive side-by-side in Chartres.
There are many daily direct trains from and to Paris Montparnasse. The journey to Chartres averages just over an hour each way and costs €24 1st class, €16 2nd class (adult fares). Prices are the same whether you buy in advance or last minute. Try to take one of the double-decked TER trains if possible, because they are more comfortable, and you have better views of the lovely countryside.
The SNCF station in Chartres has a good news kiosk, and sometimes there is a small cafe open. Bathrooms at the station are open intermittently, but you can find bathrooms in many other places around the city.
There are few "direct" trains and these are at commuter times. Therefore they are quite often "packed" and at peak-time prices. Most trains are direct from Paris to Rambouillet and then they stop at every station to Chartres. Travel time for one of those is 1 hour 15 minutes. Some trains stop only at Épernon and Maintenon (the small chateau is well worth a trip) and these manage the journey in 1 hour. All trains from Paris to Chartres (and beyond to Nogent le Rotrou and Le Mans) are TER (Train Express Régional)
More often than not, you will be taking the "Paris - Chartres - Nogent le Rotrou - Le Mans" line. The front of the train could read EITHER "Chartres", "Nogent le Rotrou", or "Le Mans," as these 3 cities always have the terminus.
If you are in France for a long period of time, it is worth it to buy an SNCF Fidelity card. For people 28 and under there is "Carte Jeune" where one can save up to 60% on ticket prices. There are also cards available for seniors and special vacation passes. These cards are only worth it when travelling extensively through France.
Free maps and information can be obtained from the great tourist information center. They are very helpful and friendly, and the center is on the road between the train station and cathedral. It is near the cathedral, on the north side of the gravel square in front of the cathedral.
- La Maison Picassiette in Chartres
- Walk around the city - there are fine half timbered houses including possibly the best, the Maison de la Truie qui File or du Saumon (Spinning Sow House or Salmon House) named after the carvings on the wooden uprights. Also try to walk down to the river- descend down through the streets to the remains of the old gate to the city. Then walk north about 0.5 km and turn left, taking the steps up which lead to the back of the cathedral.
- The Monument to Jean Moulin, one of the major leaders of the French Resistance during WWII. He was the regional mayor before the occupation of France.
- Chartres Arts and Crafts Fair (Les Artisanales de Chartres). The - held in 2005 from October 7th - 10th
- Take one of Malcolm Miller's English language tours of the cathedral, especially to learn more about the amazing stained glass windows in the cathedral.
- Find out when the choir and/or organist will be playing that day in the cathedral. The sound is ethereal in nature.
- Climb to the top of the north tower in the cathedral to see an incredible view of the town and countryside. On a really clear day, you can see the Eiffel Tower.
- Walk the Labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral, an 800 year old pilgrim path. Guided Tours depart from Paris most Fridays with Michelle Campbell, MFA LabyrinthExperience@yahoo.com
- The river Eure passes through the town and there is a hiking path that follows the banks in both directions. Both north and south, there are large parks.
- Do go to the cathedral square at night (after 10.15PM) and watch coloured lights play on the front of the cathedral, creating fantastic abstract effects. The whole (free) show lasts about ten minutes, and runs in a loop, so there's no hanging around. Go up to the front of the cathedral, (the gravel square) rather than attempt to view the illuminations from afar. Quite spectacular.
Chartres has many shops selling religious items. Most are located to the north of the cathedral, or along the streets between the cathedral and the train station.
For basic needs, there is a medium-sized Monoprix store located in the pedestrian area at the top of the hill. They sell groceries and other items useful for budget travellers.
There is a food market in the Place Billard every Saturday morning. Some professional traders, but plenty of local producers.
Stray away from the touristy areas for delicious meals. Next to the Hôtel de Ville de Chartres you can find some wonderful brasseries.
- Do go to the cathedral square at night (after 10.15PM) and watch coloured lights play on the front of the cathedral, creating fantastic abstract effects. The whole (free) show lasts about ten minutes, and runs in a loop, so there's no hanging around. Go up to the front of the cathedral, (the gravel square) rather than attempt to view the illuminations from afar. Quite spectacular. Note that this magnificent light show is only on late at night in the more temperate months. There are other historic buildings in the town that are also lighted.
- Saveurs et Plaisirs, Near La Place des Épars one can find a delightful Crêperie run by young local workers. Here they serve excellently priced Crepes, paninis, sandwiches, and "Kebab" sandwiches. Service is always top notch, the place uses fresh ingredients. English is spoken (and very well). WIFI is also available for free here.
- Le Grand Monarque : Place des Epars. Often said to be the best restaurant in town.
- Le Café Serpente - caters to tourists and prices can be hiked up there. They do, however, offer delicious desserts and Hot Chocolates.
Chartres has many small, wonderful restaurants at reasonable prices, especially compared to Paris. Of course, the establishments closest to the SNCF station are the more expensive ones.
There is an awesome macaroon store at the south end of the main town square, and the pedestrian-only streets heading to the west from the town square have many excellent patisseries and boulangeries.
- 017, 17 avenue Jehan de Beauce (leading from railway station up into town). The previous "Escale" was taken over by a young couple and they provide good food at good prices. The transition has been dramatic ! There is a set priced menu with some dishes available "avec supplément" of 1 or €2. Decent, but not exhaustive, selection of wine. Price of a starter, main course, dessert + wine = €30
- Brasserie Bruneau, 4 rue Maréchal Delattre de Tassigny (close to the Hotel de Ville / Town Hall). 1930s decor, with service on 2 floors and a terrace. Food is in the "brasserie" style. Service is fast, with perhaps a bit too much verve for a relaxing evening. However, the owner/waiter was born for the job (contrary to many French waiters) and he takes great care of his customers. A meal with starter, main course, dessert and wine can cost around €40, but it's worth it.
- Brasserie Henri IV, 31 rue du Soleil d'Or. Again "brasserie" style food. Opened late 2005 and so decor is totally new. Well placed in center of town. Prices are friendly (rumour has it that the owner runs the place for fun, not for gain !).
- Le Sully, 20 rue du Soleil d'Or. A new (2007) fish restaurant. Situated opposite the Henri IV and during the summer they share the same terrace. A "cohabitation" facilitated by the fact that they have the same owner.
- Crep'Salads, 7 rue Serpente (close to cathedral). "Pancakes" and salads. Plenty to eat and not expensive. To be avoided on Friday or Saturday nights because service is catastrophic. Lunchtimes or Sunday is fine.
- La Napolitaine, 27 rue de la Porte Morard (in the lower end of town, by the river Eure). As the name suggests, it's Italian, but the cuisine (pizza, pasta, escalope, ... ) may not be recognised on the other side of the Alps. However, the pizza are huge as are the salads. Contrary to many restaurants in Chartres, it stays open "late" (get in by half past ten). Moreover, it has plenty of room.
- Bistrot de la Cathédrale, 1 cloître Notre Dame (right beside cathedral). Run by the same people who own the "Grand Monarque" and another recent addition to Chartres' list of places to eat. Good "brasserie" type food. A meal with wine will easily pass the €30 mark.
- Au Petit Chaudron, 11 place des Epars. On the same "place" as the Grand Monarque, but not the same budget. The cuisine is "soignée", the service without reproach and the wine is very favourably priced. However, the place has no real atmosphere. Avoid the "terrace" at all costs as you'll find yourself on the pavement on what is the busiest "place" in town.
- Le Saint Hilaire, 11 rue du Pont St. Hilaire. Many would consider this as number one restaurant in town (although fans of the Grand Monarque might disagree). Needs to be booked in advance !
- Le Boeuf Couronné, 15 place du Châtelet. A hotel between the railway station and the cathedral. Always has a good "carte".
- La Cave aux Fromages, 24 rue de la Porte Morard. In the lower end of town. More of a winter restaurant, with its fondue and raclette. Not expensive.
- Le Pichet, 19 rue du Cheval Blanc. Touristy, but it's always open. Honest cuisine and it's just over the road from the Académie de la Bière (see below). [Investigation needed. This was closed at 20:45 on Sunday 1/3/2009]This is a lovely family owned restaurant with delicious food and charming decor. Try the menu of the day for a three course meal.
- Le Tripot, Rue Colin d'Harleville. Spacious restaurant with "ancient" decor and good solid tables and chairs. Local cuisine. Honest prices, but not cheap. Like most restaurants in Chartres, empty during the week and full at weekends.
When in Chartres, you should try some of the local brew, a beer called Eurelienne. There are 4 sorts - white (blanche), "blonde", red (rousse) and brown (brune). It is brewed just outside town, in Chandres, by a local farmer and the "brewery" can be visited during the first weekend of every month. Unfortunately, the beer is difficult to find, although some shops do a "tourist" package. Strangely, enough, it can be bought in a "Gamme Vert" garden center (behind the theatre) ! The Madrigal bar of the Grand Monarque hotel sells all four types.
- Académie de la Bière, 8 rue du Cheval Blanc (close to the cathedral). Very old bar, with wooden beams etc. It has dozens of beers from all over the place (including Tahiti) and about 9 beers on tap (including good quality Guinness). There is a "garden" during the summer months. Ownership changed hands in October 2007 and, although the style stayed the same, custom has fallen off.
- Bahia Café, 2 place de la Porte St Michel. More of a whiskey and vodka bar although several Belgian beers have made their way in recently. It's very popular, especially with fans of rugby. The owner is very vocal, very friendly and very generous with the "nibblies" (which is always a good sign).
- Le P'tit Bar, 18bis, boulevard Chasles. (just opposite the theatre). A new wine bar (April 2010) which also offers beer and coffee. Open afternoons and evenings up to about 9pm. For the moment, it is shut on Sunday and Monday, but this may change. It is possible to order a small (or large) plate of cheese to accompany the wine.
- Welcome Pub, 37 rue des Changes (center of town, next to Place Billard market). This is supposed to be a pub, but it lacks interesting beer. Decor is OK.
- Dicken's Blues, 13 place Châtelet (next to Le Boeuf Couronné hotel and restaurant). Very similar in structure/décor to the Welcome, but has a more varied clientele. Often has a jazz concert on Sunday. Nothing special to say on the drinks front. "Standard" beer and cocktail fare. Has changed hands 3 or 4 times over the last few years, but the latest owners (2007) seem to be making something of it. (I'm sure that they are not au fait with the laws on the use of the apostrophe so we won't go into the misspelling of the name).
- Le Jungle Café, 42 rue Saint Pierre. Spacious, with a real garden out back. Busy at the weekend (when students return home) but can be quite empty during the week. More of a cocktail bar than a beer bar.
Chartres suffers from a lack of hotels so it is definitely worth booking in advance. Below are a few hotels in the center. There are a few on the ring road to the west and south of town. The good news is that a hotel Mercure has been built in the centre of town, about 50 metres from the Grand Monarque.
- Grand Monarque, 22 place des Epars. Tel : 02 37 18 15 15. Center of town (600 yards from railway station) and a "Best Western" hotel. Prices start at around €110.
- Jehan de Beauce, 19 avenue Jehan de Beauce. Tel : +33 2 37 21 01 41. 2 stars, about 50 yards from the railway station. Prices start at around 60 Euros.
- Hôtel Chatelet, 6 avenue Jehan de Beauce. Tel : +33 2 37 21 78 00. 3 stars, about 100 yards from the railway station. Prices start at around €75.
- Boeuf Couronné, 15 place Châtelet. Tel : +33 2 37 18 06 06. 2 stars, about 200 yards from the railway station. Prices start at around 50 Euros. Has a good restaurant and it is possible to arrange a room/meal price.
- Hôtel Ibis, place Drouaise. Tel : +33 2 37 36 06 36. About 1 km from the railway station. It is down on the banks of the Eure river so that means a walk uphill for those wanting to visit the center of town. Part of the "Ibis" chain of hotels so there are no surprises. Midweek prices are €75, but it is possible to get €50 at the weekend.
- Hôtel Mercure Chartres Cathédrale, 3 rue du General Koenig. Tel : +33 2 37 33 11 11. 3 stars, about 600 yards from the railway station. Part of Accor's "Mercure" chain of hotels so there are no surprises. The hotel opened late February 2010 and it offers 67 rooms. The lowest price on opening day is €75, but this will rise to €102.