It was not the way I wanted to spend my last day in Paris.
On our first trip to France, in 2001, the lovely Art Boy and I had arrived with friends on June First, a Friday afternoon, and spent the rainy weekend visiting museums and discovering cafés. Our friends had bought an old stone millhouse on the banks of the Yonne River in Burgundy, and invited us on a three-week adventure. First stop: four days in Paris.
Our hotel was only a ten-minute walk from the Seine, from which we could walk everywhere. Straight across the bridge was the Ile de la Cité, , home to Notre Dame Cathedral and Sainte-Chappelle, with its legendary stained glass. A brisk hike upriver led to the Musee d"Orsay, the Impressionists paradise, which we were lucky enough to visit on the first Sunday of the month when most city museums are free.
Monday was our last full day in Paris. The six of us walked into the busy Montparnasse district to check up on the rental car we'd be driving to Burgundy the next morning. Armed with a street map and plenty of enthusiasm, we set off; the sun was out and there were plenty of fascinating old buildings to admire and shop windows to ogle. We didn't know why they were all closed, but we enjoyed peeking in at displays of soap, linen, tea, and antiques.
The Hertz office was on a corner of a huge traffic-congested intersection across from the train station. Our vehicle was already available, but our designated driver had left his paperwork back at the hotel. While they dashed back on the Metro, the rest of us gnawed on our least-distinguished meal in France, cold sandwiches in a cramped diner a few doors down from the Hertz office with a view of the snarling traffic. Not at all how I'd imagined my last day in Paris.
By the time we were all reunited and the car was ours, we wanted an adventure to salvage the rest of the day, and Chartres Cathedral was only about an hour away.
Away from the chaos of Paris traffic and out into green rolling countryside, we spotted the craggy profile of the cathedral under its twin needlenosed Gothic spires. The town of Chartres is a jumble of stone cottages, timbered houses and cinderblock apartments crammed together on the steep hills leading up to the cathedral. (All cathedrals in Europe are built on high hills to impress centuries of pilgrims and penitents with their proximity to God.) Cars and tour buses were parked every which way in every side street and alleyway.
Finally we found an available stretch of curbside and parked at the foot of a steep cobbled lane. Up we trudged in the late afternoon sun, the looming cathedral spires always visible up ahead in the space between the buildings crowding the lane on both sides. And as we trudged up, the heavenly music of medieval chants came wafting down. How atmospheric, I thought, they're piping out recorded music for the tourists.
But I was wrong—blissfully, rapturously wrong. As we gained the square facing the cathedral, we saw that the music was live; rows of robed choristers were singing outside the building as thousands of faithful crowded inside for the service. The cathedral grounds were overflowing with pilgrims carrying banners and crosses, so many that the priest inside was giving his sermon via loudspeaker so everyone outside could hear.
We had unknowingly stumbled into Pentecost Monday at one of the greatest pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe.
Pentecost is a moveable feast in the Christian calendar. Falling on the Sunday or Monday fifty days after Easter, it commemorates the moment the Apostles were seized by the Holy Spirit. It's a time for great communal rejoicing and Chartres was so packed that polite young tourist-wranglers were stationed in the portico to keep traffic flowing. Tourists were allowed 10 minutes to peer into crowded nave while the sermon continued, then diverted into the outlying corridors.
Eventually, we made our way back outside to the little row of cafés and postcard shops across the square. At an outdoor table under a shade umbrella, we sipped vin blanc and Heinekens and gazed up and up and up at the twin spires and astonishing craftsmanship of Chartres Cathedral against a brilliant blue sky, while sublime choral music soared into the heavens.
This is what we'd come to Europe for. You didn't have to be an Apostle, nor even a Christian, to feel a little Holy Spirit.