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La Cathédrale de Chartres
The church in Chartres two hours west of Paris, was famous for housing, as a holy relic, the veil of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. When the church burned down in AD 1194, the monks were amazed to discover the veil completely undamaged among the ashes. As a result of this miracle, money and donations poured in for the construction of a new church, and the result is one of the largest cathedrals in Europe. On April 23rd, we drove to Chartres for the night on the way into Paris.
Today, the cathedral is famous for its stained glass, as well as for more than 2,000 carved stone figures and bas-relief that decorate the altars. Despite its magnificence, Cameron and Joss complained that the cathedral was kept so dark that they could barely see anything. Overall we were glad that we had stopped here on the way in, as it would not have been worth a day trip all the way from Paris.
Le voile de la Vierge Marie
Of much more cultural interest was all of the activity going on outside of the cathedral. As we mentioned in a previous letter, the French primary elections were held over the last weekend. In what is considered a stunning surprise, the Socialists (liberals) were completely eliminated. The final election on May 5th will be between Jacques Chirac, a conservative, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, an ultra-conservative on the extreme far right. To give an idea of what the French voters are facing, Le Pen has promised that if elected, he will remove France from the European Union, eliminate the new Euro currency, and bring back the French Franc.
When we first drove into Chartres in the afternoon, traffic was at a complete standstill due to demonstrations in the streets by hundreds of students protesting against Le Pen. On the way to the cathedral they marched right by us. They carried signs declaring "Le Pen... J'ai honte" (literally, "I'm embarrassed"). The police stood by in full riot gear, but fortunately the demonstrations were completely peaceful. We were able to provide the boys with a civics lesson on liberals vs. conservatives, demonstrations vs. riots, France vs. America, and free speech.
Students demonstrating against Le Pen
We spent the night at yet another Hôtel Mercure -- we had picked up a directory at the last one and decided to call ahead to Chartres so we wouldn't have to worry about looking for accommodations. On this last night before our arrival in Paris, we used the time to completely empty out the car and make sure that everything fit into either a suitcase, a box, or the trash can. We cooked up the last of our pasta in the room, and Cameron and Joss played billiards against dad (the boys succeeded in getting to the eight-ball first, but then sank it into the wrong hole).
As a result of our repacking efforts, we stopped by the bureau de poste on the way out of Chartres to mail yet another three boxes off -- two full of "stuff" bound for home, and a third returning two books that we had inadvertently "borrowed" from the house in Crest those many months ago. Overall we got out ahead of schedule, so we were able to avoid the autoroutes once more and take the route nationale N10 all the way into Paris.
Returning to Paris after four months was an enlightening and eye-opening experience. First of all, it was sunny and warm. In an even bigger contrast, Gail was completely comfortable and relaxed driving into urban Paris for the first time ever -- we recalled how panicked we had been when we almost drove through the Arc de Triomphe by accident last December. Now we drove and navigated like pros, arriving at the Hôtel de Bretagne (Best Western) near the Tour de Montparnasse with no problems at all (Gail says that after driving in Italy, France is a piece of cake) -- we even found a parking space right in front of the hotel.
As planned, we checked into our room, unloaded the entire contents of our car for the last time, then drove to the other side of town to return it. The very friendly Renault agent was amazed that after six months of leasing a car, the only damage was a pinpoint pebble dent in the front windshield and a burned-out reverse lightbulb. With a single disclaimer form, he "bought" the car back from us. Joss burst into tears for the second time in two days. This time Gail cried with him, and we walked away from our six-month "home" for the last time.
21,157 km later: a last picture with the car and the boys' cardboard-box "car tables"
Returning to Paris is a major milestone in our world trip; it signifies the end of many adventures as well as the beginning of a few more. In the meantime, we will have five full days to enjoy Paris... without feeling like we're freezing to death.
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