Bourges. No one outside France seems to know where it is. "Where is it near?" they say. It's not really near anywhere. At least, it's not near anywhere you've heard of.
It's the capital of the old region of Berry. That's as in 'Les très riches heures du duc de Berry'. Which is significant, because the duke who commissioned that manuscript was a great patron of the arts here in Bourges. After he died, the rich merchant Jacques Coeur picked up the running, and his palace - rich with carvings, pinnacles and turrets - is one of the finest buildings in Bourges.
We stayed in a lovely little chambres d'hote (bed and breakfast) in the old town, Les Bonnets Rouges, with a view of the cathedral from our windows. The old town mixes fine half timbered houses with beautiful soft stone, cobbled streets with narrow flights of steps. And there's an incredible number of book shops for a town this size.
The great treasure of the town, though, is the gothic cathedral. Apart from one tower, the facade, and a few later side chapels, it's all precisely planned and exactly as it was the day it was finished; a work of impressive unity. A single style, a single mass - no transepts or crossing tower, just one long roofline from west front to apse. (So you can bet that I will be writing and recording a podtour of Bourges cathedral.)
The interior is breathtaking. The nave arcade is exceptionally high, and the inner aisle has its own triforium and clerestory - so that light enters from windows at three different levels. It seems almost as if the church has duplicated itself in this cascade of different heights.
The east end even has its original glass. Now I live close to Chartres so I'm used to a high standard of medieval glass, but this really is amazing. First of all, the glaziers were very clever with their subjects - they put a single huge figure in each of the high windows, but in the ambulatory, where you are close to the window, they created a whole variety of different designs and filled them with narrative episodes of great detail. And as we got to know the windows - we went back three separate times, at different times of day - we began to see how each one has its own distinctive colour scheme. There's one in hot reds, one with more yellow, one that is a deep rich blue, one that seems more a blend of blue and green. Some are hot, some cool. The sensibility that created this scheme has something in common with Rothko, an ability to make colour meaningful. And very cleverly, white glass is used in all the windows to pick out the main lines of the pattern.
Even the iconography is very different from elsewhere. There are some of the same stories - Saint Denis carrying his head, Saint Nicholas saving the three youngsters from the wicked innkeeper who chops them up - but the windows of the Apocalypse, the New Alliance, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are quite different from anything I've seen before. The format is interesting - the main story runs up (and in just one case down) the middle, but there are little comments on it in the glass to each side. It's like one of those printed Talmuds where the original Mishnah text is surrounded by Maimonides' comments; except that here, the comments are in the form of other episodes from the Bible which relate to the main story in various ways.
Bourges, medieval town par excellence, has another secret too - les Marais (the marshes). Just outside the historic centre, the river has been dammed and sluiced and canalised, to create an area of small gardens. Originally these were market gardens; now, they're mainly allotments.
It was an overcast day and that seemed to suit the flat, marshy land. Some allotment holders had come by car; others poled their way to their gardens in battered black punts. Even in midwinter, artichoke plants bristled, and bright green salads marched in their regulated lines on the fertile red soil. And behind this all, the silhouette of the cathedral, raised on its hill, brooded against the darkening sky.
Trains from Paris to Bourges take about 1 hour 45 minutes from Austerlitz station. Otherwise, the A71 from Paris/Orleans will get you to Bourges.
Les Bonnets Rouges: in rue Thaumassière: 00 33 248 657 992