Gothic art and architecture are Europe’s bread and butter. Visitors from around the world put in the miles to connect with the past, many chalking up arched windows, stained glass, and flying buttresses as notable Must-Sees on their To-Do Lists. This applies in particular to France where French gothic cathedrals are counted among the best.
French Gothic Cathedrals
A type of architecture born in 12th century France, the Gothic style touts stained glass, elaborate vaulted ceilings, and vertical designs as the epitome of architectural design in the Middle Ages. In Paris, most heed the siren song of the Notre Dame, congregating in the wide stone square in front of the iconic Gothic masterpiece. While a Notre Dame tour is not to be missed, there are a handful of hidden gems of Gothic architecture just outside France’s sparkling capital.
Iconic Gothic – Rouen Cathedral
Called the City of One Hundred Spires, Rouen is also the home of another Notre Dame—Cathédrale Notre Dame de Rouen, a classic among French gothic cathedrals. While a day trip from Paris to Rouen is postcard worthy in itself, the town is also home to several notable locations referencing Joan of Arc, and a number of Gothic buildings. Rouen’s main feature is its Gothic Cathedral. Boasting the highest spire in France, Notre Dame de Rouen has quite a few things to offer. Built with the funds raised from wealthy residents eager to eat butter despite the ban on rich foods during Lent, the Tour de Beurre remains a monument to gluttony. While the tower is ornamented with eye-catching, lacy stonework, this iconic Gothic Cathédrale as a whole is certainly worth a visit. Perhaps one of the most famous artistic renderings of Notre Dame de Rouen is the series by Claude Monet. The impressionist painter explored the play of light and shadow on the cathedral’s façade in his 28 painting series.
Just beyond the périphérique, Paris’ ring road—take a tour of Basilica St. Denis outside of Paris. Known as the very first of French Gothic cathedrals, Saint Denis is certainly worth a visit. Known as the birthplace of the Gothic, the Basilica of Saint Denis is a must-see for the architecturally inclined visiting Paris. The Basilica is named for Saint Denis, who supposedly picked up his head post-beheading and wandered his way from Montmartre to the present-day site. The Basilica was chosen during the 7th century as the final resting place of the Kings of France. Then-King Dagobert chose the Basilica as his final resting place, decreeing that his successors should do the same. Since then, the remains of his predecessors have also been moved to this royal burial site by subsequent Kings. Stone tombs, often featuring a sculpted image of the King or Queen adorn Saint Denis, making a wander through the Basilica more than simply cataloguing the stained glass windows of this iconic gothic basilica.
Last but not least, Chartres makes for a delightful day-trip from France’s cultural capital. After just over an hour on the train, you find yourself in the middle of the scenic French countryside. The cathedral plays host to the Sancta Comisa, a religious relic thought to be a scrap of cloth once worn by the Virgin Mary. For architecture buffs, one of the main draws remains the three sculpted entrances which show us the stylistic transition from the early to the high Gothic period. Similarly, the unique stain glass windows provide an additional draw, as the lower panels display the lives of tradesmen—an unconventional choice for a church. Here, we see the shoemakers, furriers, butchers, and bakers who made up secular life in the Middle Ages. There’s even a labyrinth laid out in tile, which can be seen occasionally throughout the year, making the unusual details of this French gothic cathedral worth the train trip.