David’s Discoveries: A tale of two labyrinths: Chartres

Outdoors in a panoramic park behind the famous cathedral of Chartres a teenage girl skipped along the concentric pathways of a grassy labyrinth. Other kids shouted and kicked a soccer ball. Young lovers simultaneously pecked at each other and the touchpads of their handheld devices, observed by curious onlookers.

Most such onlookers in Chartres are day-trippers from nearby Paris: The capital is an hour’s ride east on a commuter train.

A hundred yards away from the sunny, lively grass labyrinth, silence reigned inside the looming stone cathedral of Chartres. The cool, echoing nave was lit by glowing stained-glass windows and held aloft by flying buttresses. An unusual procession was underway. Spiritual seekers shuffled, slid or crawled along the 850-foot-long, serpentine stone pathway marked out on the floor some 800 years ago. They were following the convolutions of the “real” labyrinth, the one that has made Chartres a pilgrimage site for labyrinth-walkers worldwide.

Chartres is the Queen of European cathedrals, with acres of stained glass. It’s among the world’s most astonishing ecclesiastical edifices in beauty and historical value. The cathedral also has one of the tallest naves and spires anywhere and the most original, wheel-like buttresses too. Atop a gentle rise overlooking the Eure River, the site where central Chartres spreads is magical: Ancient Druids, the priests of the Gauls, met where the cathedral now stands. Or so claimed Julius Caesar.Many of Chartres’ labyrinth-walkers are not Catholic and do not come to see the cathedral’s relics or participate in a mass. They’re nondenominational, New Age questers. They’re freethinkers and oddballs. What they’re seeking is an open question: Each has an individual set of unanswered queries. Though some come on organized labyrinth-walking tours, most arrive on their own, from places that run the spectrum from Amazonia to Zululand.

What unites the labyrinth-walkers of Chartres, distinguishing them from other visitors and the happy kids in the grass labyrinth, is simple enough: They believe or feel or sense there are questions to be asked. Big questions. The “what’s it all about, Alfie” questions: What are we humans doing here, what am I doing with my life, does God or something with a divine nature exist, and is she watching?

Unsurprisingly, of the 2 million or so visitors who tramp through the cathedral each year, only a fraction of them walk the labyrinth. It’s accessible – meaning the chairs are removed from the floor space the labyrinth occupies – on Fridays only, from April to October. Those who arrive on the wrong day or in the wrong season head outside to the grass labyrinth, where they mix with the locals.

Mixing with the locals in Chartres may not be such a bad thing. The historic center of town has 40,000 inhabitants. On average fewer than one in ten is an active Catholic if national statistics are to be trusted (the specific numbers for Chartres itself aren’t available). But that doesn’t stop locals from loving their cathedral or seeking answers in original ways.

Follow them on a Wednesday or Saturday to Place Billard, 150 yards south of the cathedral, and they’ll show you their gorgeous fruit and vegetable market, filled with the bounty of Nature or God or the serendipitous result of Big Bangs.

Walk along the scenic banks of the curving Eure River and you’ll see the locals rowing, feeding tame ducks, or sitting out at appealing cafés and restaurants, enjoying something. The mystery of life? The wise ones among them might even tell you – if you know to ask – that the labyrinths of Chartres, like those of Paris, New York, Rio, Rotterdam and Rome, are infinite in number and take on many forms. They can be grass. They can be stone. They can be asphalt or beaten earth or entirely virtual, in the mind.

Having walked both labyrinths at Chartres many times, not to mention the labyrinthine streets or hiking trails of countless cities and forests, from San Francisco to the Polar Circle, I know which of these two very pleasant, very tame mazes I prefer. Luckily they’re not mutually exclusive, and if you can’t fly to Chartres and join the labyrinth-walkers, with a little effort you can invent your very own labyrinth in the comfort of your home.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[Flickr image via Adrienne Serra]