Bourges, the chief town of the region of Berry, is some way from the Loire valley proper but linked historically. It has one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in France, rising gloriously out of the well-preserved medieval quarter, which provides enough reason for making a detour.
Renovation work on the roof is due to be completed in 2016, but despite the scaffolding, Cathédrale St-Étienne still captivates. The exterior of the twelfth-century cathedral is characterized by the delicate, almost skeletal appearance of its flying buttresses. A much-vaunted example of Gothic architecture, it’s modelled on Notre-Dame in Paris but incorporates improvements on the latter’s design, such as the astonishing height of the inner aisles.
The interior’s top feature is the twelfth- to thirteenth-century stained glass. The best windows, with their astonishing deep colours, surround the choir, and were all created between 1215 and 1225. You can follow various stories – the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, Christ’s Crucifixion and the Apocalypse; binoculars come in handy for picking up the exquisite detail. The painted decoration of the astronomical clock in the nave celebrates the wedding of Charles VII, who married Marie d’Anjou here on April 22, 1422. On the northwest side of the nave aisle is the door to the Tour de Beurre, which you can climb for fantastic views over the old city. There are guided tours of the crypt (same hours and ticket; tours roughly every hour), which shelters the alabaster statue of a puggish Jean de Berry, a small bear, symbol of strength, lying asleep at his feet. The same ticket allows you to climb unsupervised to the top of the north tower, rebuilt in flamboyant style after the original collapsed in 1506.