30 years ago today: Chartres by day, couscous by night.


Previously: 30 years ago today: Paris, and some time (and wine) with Mr. Mojo Risin’.

Day 97 …  Tuesday, July 21
Paris. Day trip, Chartres. Couscous at Yasmin.

Ever since our stay in Munich, I’d been sharing previous travel experiences with my two friends. Being a concierge was great fun, but on a Tuesday in Paris we three split for the day, with Barrie and Bob exploring the classic contours of the Paris city center while I took the subway to Gare Montparnasse for an hour long train ride to Chartres, and a look at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, one of Europe’s most renowned medieval structures.

Chartres Cathedral

Partly built starting in 1145, and then reconstructed over a 26-year period after the fire of 1194, Chartres Cathedral marks the high point of French Gothic art. The vast nave, in pure ogival style, the porches adorned with fine sculptures from the middle of the 12th century, and the magnificent 12th- and 13th-century stained-glass windows, all in remarkable condition, combine to make it a masterpiece.

On my early trips, I was invariably fascinated by these man-made mountains of piety, which always seemed to me to have a very secular aim of reinforcing the theocratic society. It would have been relatively simple to make the argument that the immensity and splendor of such cathedrals couldn’t be possible without heavenly sanction.

However, human engineers were the ones trying to determine how the weight and pressure of a stone ceiling several stories high was to be handled. They arrived at a solution.

Malcolm Miller was a prime reason I wanted to visit Chartres. His cathedral tours and lectures were legendary even in 1987, and as of July of 2017 — surely well into his eighties — Miller is still at it.

Medieval symbolism is more oblique to modern visitors, though, so I recommend the help of a good local guide to illuminate your visit. Historian Malcolm Miller has dedicated his life to studying the cathedral and teaching visitors its wonders. In high season, Malcolm and his understudy Anne-Marie Woods give excellent daily cathedral tours for a small price.

Imagine your life and career in one building.

I remember that moment: the afternoon of July 19, 1968. After nearly seven months in an English hospital and six operations, I took a train from Paris back to Chartres; I saw the cathedral and wept. I knew that this is where I should spend the rest of my life.

On the day of my visit to the cathedral, Miller spoke for at least an hour, maybe longer, on the history of significance of one group of stained glass windows. The erudition and passion was staggering, so much so that apparently I neglected to record any of it on film.

In due time I returned to Paris, and we reunited at Yasmin, the couscouserie where I’d dined on my way through the city in April. From the 1985 travelogue, here’s a description of the introductory magic, as undertaken with my cousin Don.

Note that Yasmin no longer operates on Rue Xavier Privas, if at all.

But in truth, we’d actually taken the trouble to spend seven hours on trains for a far too brief stop in Paris, and then to cut short our sightseeing in the city, for only one reason: To eat and drink. 

Specifically, we were to find a North African joint and eat couscous – strictly speaking, tagine (stew) with couscous, although I didn’t really learn the difference for many years.

Couscous, tagine, merguez … these were not staples of the diet in Georgetown, Indiana. A cultural sonic boom was about to occur.

Don knew where to look for sustenance, and so had Arthur Frommer of $25-a-Day guidebook fame. Both recommended the Rue Xavier Privas, a tiny, narrow street on the Left Bank named for an early 20th-century French poet and songwriter.

In 1985, several North African eateries were located on Rue Xavier Privas. Googling the area these many years later, I am encouraged to see that at least one of them still operates.

Whether the Yasmin couscouserie was Moroccan, Tunisian or Algerian is lost to me now. However, I recall the décor being simple, the patrons atmospheric, and Don’s suggested choice of communal meal absolutely outstanding. We ordered the least expensive menu option, which yielded a mound of granule-sized couscous pasta accompanied by an urn of tagine, and chose a liter bottle of house red wine to go with it.

When the couscous ran out, it was replenished as part of the dish’s asking price. The tagine seemed destined for an early exit, but proved richer than it first appeared, and every last drop was absorbed with the help of crusty bread.

The first bottle of wine was depleted and repeated, too, although we happily paid for a second, because after all, while constituting a splurge, I still spent less than $15 dollars for the meal. I was lucky, as the dollar was strong against European currencies in 1985.

By 1987, the dollar had noticeably declined in value against the French Franc, but couscous still was an affordable splurge — and this is an apt introduction to the Wednesday itinerary, because on the following day, we’d decided to explore the palace and grounds at Versailles.

Next: Exterior memories of the Palace and Park of Versailles.