'Spring' In Blois

photo: rue du palais, blois

Some back-streets of Blois, between showers.

Bring An Umbrella

Blois:- Wednesday, 21. March 2001:- The weather is - well, nobody can do anything about it. I take my little stabs at it by attempting to interpret the TV-weather news, but this is not only third-hand but usually wrong too.

I have decided to take my responsibilities seriously - as 'Internet Reporter for Paris' - by coming to the Loire, to the three-star town of Blois, expressly to be present for the arrival of spring today.

The TV-weather maps generally show France divided into two distinct climates. The one south of the Loire is the soft France of yours - and mine! - imagination, and the other one north of the Loire is simply northern Europe, with its chilling greyness and guaranteed-to-be-tardy spring. Paris, through no fault of its own, has chosen to be in the northern sector.

In order to be totally ready for spring's arrival in Blois, I arrived here yesterday. The first view from the train station - being renovated, but the buffet is open! - was not encouraging. Simply put, it was pouring rain in large buckets.

Also, because of the renovations, there was no town map in sight, and few taxis. In one of them the driver said that Blois' centre was a ten-minute walk from the station - which seemed to require a 15-minute drive.

The town-centre hotel, booked through the SNCF's 'train+hotel' scheme, was undergoing renovations too. Its 1923-model elevator worked fine though and after figuring out how to make phone calls, so did the room's heat.

The room contained a brochure called 'Zen' which said the hotel's staff could fix anything within 15 minutes. The heating lady arrived within three minutes - she must have leapedphoto: centre blois up the stairs - so I called her attention to the 15-minute period of 'Zen' - which could allow tenants a decent period of contemplation before getting 'fixed.'

One of Blois' central pedestrian streets, but without the usual boutiques.

As soon as this was accomplished I went out. Being totally ignorant about the town, it seemed to be a good idea to look it over for suitable spots to record the arrival of spring. This was begun by having lunch.

If you happen to be in France and you want lunch somewhat after the 'official' lunchtime, brush off all protests that 'lunch is over.' Even if the cook is having a siesta, somebody can always make an omelette - and in France omelettes can contain everything from soup to nuts - even if the kitchen is 'officially' closed.

I have never tried this in Paris, which is different from France, so this note ends all practical 'tips.' Read no further if you expect more of them.

Blois is not a big town. Most of its 50,000-odd residents live on the north side of the Loire, which flows from northwest to southeast, to conform to TV's weather maps. This river flows through a wheat growing region, so the north side of the town is on a slope, unsuitable for growing wheat, and also unsuited to floods.

The south side of town seems to have expropriated some wheat fields, so it has a good view of the sky - unlike the town's north side which has good views of the sky and the flat south side. This means there are views for every taste.

The town's commercial centre has been made largely pedestrian, with patterned pavements - and a great many brand-name boutiques. Although severely damaged by bombardments in WWII, there are still some very old half-timbered buildings that escaped and remain in place.

A final research stop is made at Blois' tourist centre, which is easy to find because it is opposite the Château de Blois. I am assured that each of the four officially-sanctioned 'walks' is no more than 700 metres long - which means that an average visit may need be no longer than a day, unless the visitor climbs stairs slowly.

Although asparagus is a local specialty, I chose to have the best pizza the town can offer. This involved going up a 20-degree street and sitting down in a large, rambling place, whichphoto: terrace chateau de blois had one table placed in a whole gondola and a couple of other half-gondolas scattered about. There can not be too many of these near the Loire.

From the terrace near the château, the Saint-Louis cathedral is on the left - on another 'walk' too.

Today, after last night's 'night-on-the-town,' the first day of spring, dawns for me about 10:30 with a hopeful-looking sky - featuring actual spots of blue. From the middle of the Loire on the Pont Jacques Gabriel - which is old but seems to have no history - there are more patches of dark grey than blue, but there's still time.

From this spot, Blois on its slope is not an overpowering sight. Only the Saint-Louis cathedral on the left is prominent. The river banks are high walls and have no features other than one dry-docked disco barge and a number of recklessly parked cars near the rising waters.

According to confidential information I have acquired, Blois began as a Celtic camp in the area of the château in Roman times about 200 AD. Clovis extended his control to it in 485. Around 950, Thibaud le Tricheur - the 'Trickster' - established it as the seat of the counts of Blois.

In 924 the Saint-Lomar abbey was founded and it got its Romanesque parts added to it from 1128 to 1186. This church is known as Saint-Nicolas today. Louis-the-First was around in 1196, and 40 years later local control passed to the counts of Chatillon. Another century quietly passed until Blois was menaced by the 100 Years War.

After another 38 years, in 1391, the Chatillons sold Blois to another Louis-the-First, this one of Orléans, and brother of Charles VI. This Louis - known variously as the 'seducer,' or plain depraved - actually borrowed so much money from the wife of the old count of Chatillon, that he ended up owning Blois.

But 16 years later Louis d'Orléans was bumped off by Jean Sans Peur in Paris. Louis' wife, Valentine de Milan, died of heartbreak in Blois a year afterwards.

Somewhat later, Jeanne d'Arc was in Blois, preparing to attack Orléans in 1429. Everyone knows this story so I'll just skip it. In 1441 Charles d'Orléans - the 'Poet' - took upphoto: chateau, francois 1er stairway residence. He co-mismanaged the French part of the Agincourt fight and ended up spending 25 years as a POW in British hands, but upon his return to France he married Marie de Clèves who was 14. The future Louis XII was born 21 years later.

By the beginning of the 16th century Blois had become officially 'royal,' and was a court residence - which indirectly resulted in the construction of its château in stages, from the 13th to 17th centuries.

Blois' famous château's famous spiral staircase - trod by many famous feet.

In one of its many chambers there are a series of large paintings depicting the assassination of the Duc Henri de Guise here, on Friday, 23. December 1588, on the orders of Henri III - who only lasted eight months before he was bumped off too.

Louis XIII banished his mother, Marie de Médicis, to the château for two years beginning in 1617. She escaped by sliding down some bedsheets and this impressed her son so much that they made up. This Louis also sent his brother, Gaston d'Orléans - the 'Conspirator' - to Blois in 1626 to get rid of him.

Since Gaston thought he would become a future king he made plans to entirely rebuild the château. However, the future Louis XIV was born and the smart Cardinal Richelieu cut off Gaston's subsidies, and this is why the château is merely grand without being colossal like Versailles.

The château is included in one of the modest '700-metre' walks. If you skip its interior, you might easily fit the other three walks around Blois into a day's visit. But if you bother to take a good look inside the château, you'll do well to spread your visit over two days.

For example, if you are surprised at the brightness of some colorful floor tiles in some queen's or countess's chambers - and you ask about them, the young ladies standing around to make sure you don't pocket any - are only too willing to explain much more about particular aspects of the château than you will find elsewhere, such as the brochure I'm copying most of this out of..

The tiles are, in fact, authentic - even if they look like they were chosen by Mondrian. Whatphoto: maison des acrobats, blois the young ladies do not know, is exactly what the other furniture may have looked like. Apparently, a lot of it was travelling trunks, because royal people used to move often.

The château is full of paintings. These include interior scenes, but many of them were executed 200 years after whatever 'fact' they are supposed to depict - such as the murder of Duc Henri de Guise. But other paintings are remarkable for one reason or another, so the lack of mundane domestic details is not serious unless you are as nosy as I am.

Part of Blois' Maison des Acrobats is for rent.

Now, for a reason I no longer remember, I have put the château in before I have done my tour of Blois - so here we go back in time to the morning and to the middle of the Loire on the Pont Jacques Gabriel.

After giving the featureless waterfront a once-over once, I pick any alley and wind my way around medieval streets and it seems when these go up and are composed of steps, they are called 'Degrés.'

The somewhat proud-sounding mention I've seen about allied bombers using the Saint-Louis cathedral and the château as reference points, fails to note that most of the old town was missed - unless it has been cleverly restored. My guess is most of the bombs went into the river and missed the bridge entirely.

So, Blois is a fine place to be, even not being on one of the 'official' 700-metre walks, if you've got the time to just take a look around at its up-and-down and winding streets, alleys and stairways - and its lanterns, half-timbering, dormer windows, views over roofs cluttered with chimneys - and through stone doorways into hidden courtyards filled with modest houses or mini-townhouses.

Somehow it is my impression that many of the 15th or 16th century house fronts have not been restored after being bombed into matchsticks - it seems more likely that they have been carefully maintained.

One of these is the completely exposed - to bombs! - Maison des Acrobats, facing the Place de Saint-Louis. According to people who know more than me, its hand-carved exterior decor is typical of the late 15th century. The shop on the ground floor is also for rent - yes! - right now in the 21st century.

The brochure from the visitor office mentions quite a bit about all of this, as I find out after the fact. This means that if you don't speed-walk the '700-metre' tours from major sight to major sight, you will likely get hung up for hours on hundreds of details.

On the other hand, going at medium speed will let you see quite a lot while not costing a lot of time. Itphoto: detail acrobat, blois is interesting to think, that the domestic stuff long gone from the château, may be inside some of these ordinary residences.

Blois has its monumental side too. This is represented by the staircase that has been made out of a steep section of the Rue Denis Papin. From its top you can't actually see the stairs, but the view extends straight through town to the bridge and across the plain beyond to a slot in a forest on the horizon.

One of the Maison des Acrobats' original, old, wooden acrobats.

It must be one of the longest views around. Add it to all of the 'short' views, and Blois might just be worth three days. This is if you can be satisfied with a mostly unpretentious trip to the past. If 'son et lumière' spectacles are your thing, then pick another season.

What it turns out to be worth as a place to be for the first spring day of the year, is only so-so.

About Blois

Blois is a hour and a half SNCF train ride in the direction of Tours, from the Gare d'Austerlitz in Paris. For more information, contact the Office de Tourisme de Blois, 3. Avenue Jean Laigret, 41000 Blois. Email: blois.tourism@wanadoo.fr or try the Web site, Loire des Château. To see everything in Blois you do not need a car.

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