day 5 :

friday, 1 may

We awoke in darkness this morning. The château has the traditional wood shutters that block out all light inside, so it's easy to sleep longer than planned. Eric tracked down another sèche-cheveux for Dawn, and then Madame and Monsieur prepared an absolutely enormous breakfast in the grand room for us: tea, coffee, juice, breads (a housemade type plus ficelle, brioche, croissant), eggs to order from our hosts' daughter's farm (an omelette for Dawn, oeuf sur la plate for Eric), fresh cheese and two kinds of butter (also from the farm), six different confitures (all made by Madame), caramel beurre sale (made locally in Bellême), fresh strawberries, yogurt, and bananas. We were stuffed at the end! The homemade confiture de mûres (blackberry jam) tasted like the best jelly donut filling ever; Eric put some in a croissant, and declared it the evolution of the filled donut. When we told Madame that we loved the confitures, she smiled, did a little jig, and pointed to herself saying that she made them.

Luck was with us for our day trip to Chartres: the morning clouds parted and we enjoyed sunny blue skies all day. We had a bit of a false start, where we had to turn around to get a spare memory card for our camera. That detour only took a few extra minutes, so we made it to Chartres Cathedral in an hour, just before noon and in time for the English-language tour. We had visited Chartres once before in 1997, and were amazed by its high Gothic architecture, beautiful stained glass windows (in fact, the most complete collection of medieval stained glass in the world), portals, and intricately carved statues. The church also contains an enormous labyrinth (walking maze) in the center of the nave, dating to the twelfth century; it's fun to watch people of all ages and backgrounds navigate the labyrinth.

On our last trip, we purchased a book about Chartres signed by the author, Malcolm Miller. Mr. Miller is considered one of the preeminent scholars on the history of Chartres Cathedral, having studied the church and given tours there for 51 years now. Today, we were fortunate to be able to take a tour with him. Speaking very articulate British English, he explained how the church has been built and rebuilt a number of times since the 400s, and was nearly destroyed in WWII a few weeks before D-Day, when the Allies bombed a nearby German airfield. All of Chartres's stained glass windows (some dating from the 1100s) were removed during the war and stored in a secret location to keep them safe. The windows and the carvings are all part of an elaborate comic book (as he tells children) or an iconographic programme (as he tells university students). We spent nearly an hour and a half on tour, with him explaining the depictions in some of the windows (you read the windows bottom-up, left-to-right), etymology of various words (crypt, from the Latin for "hidden"), and numerology (40 being a significant religious number: days and nights of rain, years the Jews were in the desert, number of lashings in Islam law, the French word "quarantine" derives from keeping someone isolated for forty days). His tour was not only informative, but quite humorous. He described a tourist who once asked him, "'So, did you say that Christ was a Jew?' 'Yes, that's right.' 'So when did he become a Christian?' I considered telling him he was born again, but decided against it, what with there being one in the White House and all at the time."

We took a break for a late lunch, and because we didn't have reservations anywhere in this small, touristy town, we only found seats at a somewhat expensive restaurant Eric had seen recommended online, La Vieille Maison. But the food was quite good, and Dawn got to use her newfound phrase juste en fond ("just on the bottom") to tell the waiter that she only wanted a little wine in her glass.

Back at the cathedral, we took a tour of the massive crypt – something we hadn't seen on our previous trip. The tour was in French, so we tagged along in the back of the group and just enjoyed it for the sights. Then it was back to the château for some rest before dinner.

Our host had made a reservation at Les Pieds au l'Eau, a small restaurant several towns away at the end of a single-lane road, next to a pond. (Close enough for them to call it "feet in the water.") Despite the fact that he had drawn a map for us, we would have never found this place without a GPS, and even then we doubted the directions and considered turning around. But fortunately we stuck with it, and were rewarded with a three-course prix fixe meal while John Coltrane tunes and other classic jazz played throughout the evening.


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