Chartres Blue

IMG_6338The sun had just started to reach it peak when they opened the doors. It’s amazing to see the lines of modern-day pilgrims line up outside the cathedral, waiting patiently for visiting hours to start. Some were there to pray, others to marvel at the architecture, and some because a guidebook made a compelling enough case to spend a day outside of Paris.

I first heard about the cathedral in Chartres from a professor at my university. It was the way she described the stained glass that caught my attention, how the design of the structure allowed space for larger than usual windows, how the deep sapphire blue of its windows compliment the white interior. It’s a marvel to see on a slide show, so in person you’ll be left awe struck.

My hope was to arrive early to beat the crowds, unfortunately I arrived a little too early—doors were closed to the public until 11 a.m., leaving me plenty of time to wander ahead of time. Chartres is a perfect place to experience that small French town charm, without having to travel too far outside of Paris (it’s only about an hour by train, and trains run so frequently that you can easily make this a half day trip and return to Paris for more sight-seeing later in the day). Once you arrive, it’s easy to spot the cathedral towering over the other buildings, so use this as a marker if you find yourself getting lost.

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Wandering the streets of Chartres

From the train station, follow signs to the cathedral, passing a town square that celebrates its name in the same fashion as Amsterdam (perfect for Instagram!). Rounding the street corners, you’ll come to a small green park in front of the cathedral façade, with its contrasting Gothic and Romanesque spires casting a shadow over visitors. The square is surrounded only by a few shops and cafes, all of which remain closed until late morning. Since my particular trip was so early, I headed left of the cathedral, taking in the detail of the structure. Behind the cathedral lies the entrance to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Jardins de l’Eveche, a small green space that includes foot labyrinths and overlooks the L’Eure River. This area offered ample seating in the sun, but still eager to explore, I headed back towards the Stained Glass Museum and back to the cathedral.

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Mythologeny, seen in Chartres

To the right of the cathedral is the more vibrant areas of the town, with businesses, shops, and cafes. As I wandered, it felt in part like I was taking a step back in time, until by chance I encountered some exquisite graffiti art. It’s fairly obvious that Europe’s embrace of graffiti in certain cities has resulted in some amazing and thought provoking works. In Chartres, I particularly loved Noty Aroz’s Mythologeny series, which depicts modern comic book heroes and sci-fi characters in the form of mythological gods, similar to the traditions in Mexico, Greece, etc.

Of course, the highlight of a visit to Chartres lies in the cathedral itself. Even for the non-religious, this landmark is a wonder worth seeing. It is an UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best depictions of French Gothic architecture at its prime. No natural light enters the building, only through the 176 stained glass windows. As you walk through, take time to gaze up at these windows, as the trademark ‘Chartres Blue’ illuminates the white walls around the nave.

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Chartres Cathedral is famous for its blue rose windows.

For travelers heading to Paris, this is a great way to escape the city for a few hours without having to brave the crowds at Versailles. I recommend arriving between 10 and 11 a.m., taking time to wander the cathedral first, then stopping for lunch before exploring the city. If it’s warm out, enjoy a leisurely lunch at Le café serpent, with a perfect view of the cathedral.

Five Tips for the Solo Traveler

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Coffee: The solo traveler’s best friend.

I was sitting in a restaurant one evening in Paris—the dining room was snug, with tables packed in to fit as many people as possible. I was alone, jotting down details of my day in my journal and slowly sipping a glass of red wine. In the time it took me to go through my meal, I conversed briefly with three couples who came and went from the tables to either side of me. And with each conversation, there was one comment that all three made about my travels.

“You are traveling by yourself? How brave!”

Traveling by yourself isn’t that scary though, especially when in a big city. To me, solo travel offers me a chance to unwind and catch up on thing I love, all on my own time. Paris was a place that was high on my list, and to be able to experience it in a way that was perfectly catered to me, it made my experience that much more memorable.

Of course, there are times that traveling alone gets tough—eating on your own can get lonely, but you can also push yourself to be more outgoing (something I often struggle to do in my day to day routine) and make friends with other travelers. Solo travel gives you a chance to make an experience that is all your own, but it helps to have a few tips before you head out there.

1. Take Some Extra Time to Plan

When traveling alone, especially as a woman, I find it gives my family some peace of mind if I put together an itinerary so they know where I will be on my travels. This means including any hotel addresses and phone numbers, tour company information (if you plan to do a tour), and any train/plane information as you move from one place to another. Beyond that, when traveling solo you have a chance to see and do exactly what you want so researching your destination ahead of time and making plans makes the anticipation that much more fun.

2. Learn to Read a Map

I still travel like it’s 2008 (pre-iPhone, reliant on paper maps and the occasional Internet café). Technology has definitely made traveling easier, especially since now you can buy temporary international plans to use maps, text, post to Instagram, etc., and WiFi access in most hotels makes it easier to keep in touch with friends and family at home, but I still find it so appealing to switch my phone to airplane mode and use a paper map and guidebook to travel around a new city. This does require a moment of letting go—once you switch that phone over to ‘might as well be dead’ mode, you have to rely on your skills to navigate the old-fashioned way. Same goes if your phone dies while out for the day—it’s important to always know where you are, so learn the basics.

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Solo trips take you places you never expected. I fell in love with Bayeux on my last trip to France. 

3. Make New Friends

You’re traveling solo, but you don’t have to be alone. For younger travelers, hostels are a great way to make new friends and meet fellow solo travelers. Taking a day tour is another great way to interact with people. For me, in my day to day life I tend to be more introverted, but when traveling alone I have to force myself to be more social. Surprisingly, that little push has led to some lifelong friendships, and it makes my travel experiences so rewarding.

4. Reach Out to Old Friends

Even if you haven’t spoken in years, when traveling to a city where you know someone, take the moment to reach out. I guarantee 95 percent of the time they will be thrilled to meet up. Whether they live there, or in some cases, happen to be traveling there at the same time as you, it gives you a chance to catch up and get some good advice for when you are exploring the city later on.

5. Enjoy Your Time Alone

Solo travel isn’t for everyone, but if you decide to take a trip on your own, you will learn more about yourself than you ever thought possible. Take advantage of the time alone to see and do what you love—this trip is just for you, so make the most of it.

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A rare photo of the author, jet lagged but excited to be here 😀

A Walk Along Paris’ Left Bank

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The Ponte Alexandre III is a popular photo spot for travelers in Paris. Shown here from the right bank, you can capture all the highlights in one shot.

Essential to any trip to Paris, the classically romantic stroll along the Seine River offers travelers picturesque views of the city’s top attractions. During my travels in France earlier this year, I heard time and again a conversation comparing Paris’ left and right banks. Both have certain qualities to offer, the right contains a more upscale experience of the city with highlights including the Champs d’Elysees and the Louvre, while the left offers top attractions including the Eiffel Tower and the Musee d’Orsay. It’s a city-wide opinion similar to New York’s uptown vs. downtown—some simply prefer one more than the other.

I found myself wandering the Seine’s left bank regularly during my stay. Part of it was scheduling, as for a foot traveler, I tend to use walks to explore and to kill a bit of time, but overall I found that walking this strip of the city was most relaxing. For this tour, we start at the entrance to the Eiffel Tower, heading west where we will end at the Musee d’Orsay. We will walk along the riverside promenade, which includes dockside cafes, small parks, river cruise pick up locations, and bike paths–perfect for walking without ever having to cross the street. This offers travelers brilliant views of the Seine’s right bank, with exit points to visit some of the highlights along the left.

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If it’s photos of the tower you want, take a short detour to the Champ de Mars, the public green space behind the tower. Here, you can relax and have a picnic, share a glass of wine, or snap a selfie with the tower before heading back over to the river.

Eiffel Tower: We start our walk at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Built from 1887 to 1889 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, this structure has become an iconic symbol of the city with over 6 million visitors annually. For those interested in going up into the structure, I recommend making reservations online, and early, unless you don’t mind waiting in lines (TIP: Waiting in line is part of the journey. There are ways to avoid lines, including purchasing the Paris Museum Pass, but still expect that in some places you will deal with large crowds). Also, unless it is a must, taking the elevator to the very top isn’t necessary—you can actually get better views of the city from the second tier for a cheaper price.

Seine River Cruises: As you walk along the promenade, you will notice multiple starting points for river cruises along the Seine. This option is part for those who prefer a more leisurely experience of the river, with another part for the romantics. While most services are about the same, leaving from its starting point near the Eiffel Tower and looping past the Notre Dame Cathedral and back to the starting point, these cruises give travelers a view of the major sites in one hour. I recommend skipping this during the day if you intend to walk—you can still see everything without paying the ticket price. However, if it’s the experience you are looking for, then I recommend waiting until after the sun sets to see the city lit up. Most services run until 10 or 11 p.m., so you can easily squeeze in a long dinner before ending your day with the river cruise.

Bridges: As we continue along the promenade, you’ll cross under nine beautiful bridges connecting the two banks of the river. Each has become its own symbol in the city, with some gaining more attention over others. One of my favorites on this stroll was the Ponte Alexandre III, an ornate white and gold bridge connecting the Avenue W. Churchill to Avenue du Marechal, and leading onto the Hotel des Invalids. Here, you experience the true glamour of the city with the bridge’s over-the-top décor.

DETOUR: If you have a museum pass, I highly recommend stopping by the Hotel des Invalids to visit Napoleon’s extravagant tomb and to walk the grounds of this former veteran’s hospital-turned military museum. You can easily access the museum from the Seine by walking above the promenade towards the grandiose structure (you can’t miss it!).

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Inside the Musee d’Orsay you get a glimpse of the former train station as you browse the extensive collection of impressionist art. It’s a must-see when in Paris!

Musee d’Orsay: The promenade roughly ends here at the entrance to a rail station-turned museum dedicated to the French art of the 1800s and 1900s, specifically housing the masterpieces of great impressionists including Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Degas and more. While viewing the exterior is part of the experience of this walk, I recommend dedicating at least a half day to exploring inside. (TIP: Keep an eye out for free museum days. If you don’t mind waiting in line and don’t already have a museum pass, this is an affordable way to see one of the city’s best museums. For the Orsay, the first Sunday of every month is free.).

A word of warning, this walk is not short. For me, strolling along the river from the Eiffel Tower to the Musee d’Orsay with minimal stops took about an hour. You may want to end your walk here, but if you are not pressed for time and looking for shopping or a café, then head down the Boulevard St. Germain and into the Latin Quarter.