Nine hundred years ago stonemasons and glaziers created a miracle of rock and glass in Chartres, inspired by the Sancta Camisia, the cloak Mary wore when she gave birth to Christ.
Chartres Cathedral is the largest, most beautiful gothic cathedral in France, and it's just a day trip south from Paris. At first glimpse it floats on a hill above grassy fields in the Eure River valley.
Chartres city's cobbled streets and medieval buildings are a delight of pointed witch-hat roofs, tiny doorways with ancient carvings and windows with diamond panes of old warped glass.
The square buzzes with people nattering over coffee and croissants. The locals casually accept the cuteness of their city and its magnificent cathedral.
I exit a tiny street and am amazed by the size and beauty of the cathedral's sunlit Royal Portal and spires, and its masses of intricately carved stone.
Two spire-topped towers have an interesting lack of symmetry. One is relatively modern, built after lightning struck the original in 1513 by Jean Texier, who favoured the ornate and flamboyant style of his day. The other spire, circa 1144, is far more sedate.
Surrounding the three great wooden doors a crowd of tall slender people with flowing robes, cunningly carved into stone columns, welcome visitors. There is beauty in the detail, with fine carved crosshatching in a nun's long plaits and swirls of silk in stone. Inside there are rows of saints and some sinners. Woe betide those destined for hell because the devil is a nasty-looking piece with claw hands, cloven hooves and a terrifyingly weird face.
The stained-glass windows throw daggers of rainbow light into the body of the cathedral, hundreds of candles flicker on altars, the organ's polished pipes stretch heavenward and a massive wooden cross points to the arched ceilings vaulting high above us.
It's dark, cool and serene. Gregorian chants play softly, adding ambience to an intense experience of visual beauty. They knew then, those men of heavenly vision, master masons and glaziers 900 years ago, what made a spirit soar.
The windows all tell stories. In medieval times only societies' cream were literate and the windows were read as picture illustrations of Bible messages.
Chartres was once a thriving Roman market town, with an amphitheatre and a couple of aqueducts. The first record of a church here is in the 700s and, in 876, it seriously began to claim fame when Charlemagne's grandson, Charles the Bald (love the name!) gave Chartres its famous holy relic, the Sancta Camisia.
It's held in the reliquary - in the crypt - and seen through modern bullet-proof and thief-proof glass: a crumpled, faded cream cloth held upright by two gold angels.
I wonder if it's the real thing and if so, was it drenched with amniotic fluid and other gore during the birth process? Aside from the miracle of the virgin birth, there is the miracle of the cloth's 2007 years of longevity and survival of numerous cathedral attacks and burnings by Reformation zealots.
Fires came and went, burning the cathedral and the town, but not the cloth. Though Sancta Camisia put Chartres on medieval Europe's pilgrimage map, its reputation was enhanced when the philosopher Fulbert arrived in 990 to teach at the cathedral school.
This is, on reflection, the best of my Paris days. Who knows if the cloth is the real deal? It doesn't matter; that the architects and stonemasons of yesteryear believed in it, it inspired Chartres' creation, which remains the truly glorious queen of gothic cathedrals.
Cathay Pacific offers a daily one-stop service from Auckland to Paris via Hong Kong. For more information, visit www.cathaypacific.co.nz.
Chartres is 90 minutes south of Paris by bus or train (the latter arrives in the town centre). It's well worth a full day trip to explore the town and cathedral, and it's great to get out of the hustle and fug of Paris into a quiet, serene place.
- Detours, HoS