high gothic to low western with a Frenchy twist

Here I am at a Mercure, just outside Chartres, where all beds were full, for a craft expo, having escaped Paris. J. has mastered the right-hand drive! I’ve successfully bitten my tongue to ribbons on the curbside, navigating, and putting in the odd palliative statement, like, Very good. Now back on our side of the road. Or: Stay in your lane. Or, my favourite: Curbing!

Our last morning in Paris passed too quickly, on another brilliant sunny day. We had the option of staying on at our little apartment, kindly offered by our gentil-homme host, gratis over the weekend of the festivities surrounding the grape harvest at the only vinyard left on the Montmartre. But with car booked, no chance we were going to drive back into Paris. We’d gone to some lengths to ensure we would be picking the car up on the outskirts of the city.

We left a little regretfully, but it was exciting to be setting out again. And we went to further lengths to reach Orly-Sud Aerogare, negotiating our baggages down the stairs, into Metro 12, out and up and down to Metro 6, and to the Orlybus station. Which is simply the airport bus, a stretchy number, articulated, with luggage racks.

Arrived with minutes to spare to be told by an officious bus-guard that we needed to pay in coinage for the tickets at a machine, only one of the three there of which was working. J. raced off to the bank thing he indicated to change a note. I queued sweating lest the bus depart without us; it was hot; and from the manhandling of baggages.

Many like us were bemused to find they could not purchase tickets either on board the bus or with bills at the machine. J. came racing back with tickets not change. Typically, it transpired tickets could be purchased at the place to which she was directed for change, making the intermediate step of acquiring coinage redundant. Somewhat.

We boarded. Took up space. Waited. Waited. More and more boarded. Some argued with the busdriver. A couple I am sure he let through without tickets. The bus was crammed. The aisle bottlenecked at the driver’s end.

We finally left after 20 or so minutes, not the seven we’d been bumrushed into believing lay between us and missing it altogether. More people boarded. The driver’s French seemed to be incomprehensible because no one moved down the bus at his bidding, shouting.

We hit the tunnel. The traffic in gridlock. Giving us time to admire the piles of waste in the lane under repair, or set aside behind bollards to gather it all up, concrete bollards, in places looking as if someone had ploughed into them, shattering them, scattering them, spectacularly. Rubbish, smelly, rotting crap, leaking onto and staining the concrete. Paris, the city of leaky smelly things. (J. has just said: Nothing romantic about Princess Diana coming to an end in a tunnel in Paris.)

At Orly-Sud, an hour after we were supposed to arrive, Algerian men crowded the pavement anxious to board, while we got off the bus, if necessary through, over, between us. Further mayhem.

The C3 people told us by phone where to be, were there quickly, had us signed up and practicing our right-hand manoeuvres under our own reconnaissance within a quarter hour. Chartres next stop.

The slow roads. Poplars, leaves turning, lining the roads through the flat lands of France’s major cereal growing area. Then, above the horizon, wind turbines!

Then, above the horizon, two spires!

Chartres Cathedral overwhelmed us with its dominance over what is in fact quite a large and very pretty town, the old part at least. We climbed the hill on which it floats. It really does. Past the half-timber medieval structures. The bulging walls, and overhangs, familiar now, from Italian towns. To the start of St. Jacques’ pilgrimmage.

Inside, the Cathedral gave us what Notre Dame could not, a religious experience occasioned by the grandeur, the age, the sense of the building, an ascent of weight in stone. Stone flying upward. Making mere bodily assumption seem quite plausible.

And the Virgin’s Veil there on display. I didn’t quite manage to photograph an elderly woman photographing the Veil – to show the attitude of photo-prayer – before my cover was blown and she scuttled away, clutching her digital blessing.

The choir was under repair. But the carvings on its exterior are extraordinary, in high relief, every scene having its turrets and minarets.

No rooms at the local Hostellerie, the purple-shirted receptionist tried ringing up other accommodation for us, with no luck. He explained about the craft expo.

Dusk. We raced down the hill.

Got as far as Bonneval before wondering whether we ought to cut our losses and return to a Mercure we’d seen earlier on. Nothing was giving except the downright parlousness of dirty truckstops and rooms over pubs. Which is how we came here. By retracing our route for about twenty kilometres.

And all hashed out after our ‘medium’ French beef burgers – raw mince – at Buffalo Grill, we find ourselves staying with the Spanish cycling team. Who are very quiet. Hopefully as gorged as we are on prime Limousin protein. The Grill an exercise in the old-fashioned roadside family restaurant. Although still people queuing to get in at ten at night. We had to wait twenty minutes. Before being ushered to a booth, luggage racks above our heads, and a red-tassled lampshade hung low over the table, the whole melange in gawdy red and shiny black and brown, with brass highlights. I ate a ‘Frenchy Burger’ – the Frenchy bit, goat’s milk cheese. The green salad side turned up in a sea of vinegary mayonnaise. The salad in the burger amounting to no more than a wilted leaf with a coin-sized piece of red onion. Q. loved it.

Starting the tour of the Loire on a cultural high. Chartres + burger & fries.