Surrounded by thousands of years of warring religious history, the crypt below Chartres Cathedral is the stuff of legends.
The crypt hidden beneath the church was actually the original first floor of the cathedral, which was built between 1194 and 1220. (The majority of the building’s stained glass windows date back to the 12th century, making it the most complete collection of medieval stained glass in France, possibly Europe.)
But these grounds have been sacred for over 2,000 years, going back to the Carnutes, a Druidic tribe living in the area whose sacred sites were destroyed or repurposed when they were defeated by Julius Caesar. The ancient well in the crypt, which is over 100 feet deep, shows the square bottom that was typical of wells from millennia ago.
There are many stories (and some documentation) of people having been thrown to their deaths in the well. Possibly the most gut-wrenching is that of Modesta, who was said to have been flung into its depths by her own father when he learned of her conversion to Christianity. Her statue adorns the portal to the cathedral.
Excavations beneath the cathedral have only revealed approximately one-third of the space. Medieval and Renaissance-era walls were erected, tunnels bricked or earthed in, but the crypt that is visible is impressive in both scope, design, and history. One section shows the reinforcement given to several columns to bear the weight of a massive marble monument on the main floor; side chapels from different eras are open to the public.
One fascinating feature that is not visible to the eye is the acoustic design. The entire crypt resonates with the voice of a singer who stands in a few particular spots. Make sure to book ahead for a tour (you’ll need one to get into the crypt at all), and if you’re there on a Friday, come for the labyrinth-uncovering (2-5 p.m.) and later that night for the candlelight crypt tour.
Know Before You Go
There are crypt tours every day, but only one a day is in English. The cathedral has recently started candlelight crypt tours, which are exclusively in French, and feature the resonant voice of the guide, standing in the places designed for maximum acoustic impact.
Candlelight tours are only on Fridays, like the labyrinth's limited open period. Everyone carries a candle, and you traverse the crypt late, primarily in darkness, guided on and off by the disembodied, ringing chants of your guide. Be sure to book ahead and come early for guided tours; they sometimes do leave early and it can be hard to find the starting location. The crypt is VERY cold, even during the day in the middle of summer. Bring a coat and wear solid shoes.