For those of you who didn't know it, this tech entrepreneur studied Art History (yeah, the same major that President Obama smacked down when talking about skills in America). This means I sat in classrooms for hours looking at pictures of Chateaux. I loved every second , and as maligned as the major is, I would do this again in a heart beat. This year, Antonio and I finally booked a trip to the Loire mostly so I could check out some castles (and drink some wine - especially Cremant de Loire).
I started with Blois, since its namesake city was home base for that leg of our Europe 2016 trip. I am thrilled to say the visit did not disappoint. This was nothing like Versailles where one has to fight through crowds of people. The visit was comfortable, the guards vigilant but gentle and I would recommend a visit to this castle to anyone in the region. Note that this Chateau is not as grand or as ostentatious as other castles, but I loved the historical aspect of it. In my opinion, it is probably the most historically significant of the region and a must see.
Tips for Visiting the Chateau de Blois in the Loire Valley of France
Stay in Blois
With the Chateau of Blois, you also get to enjoy its city. Blois is pretty good place to stay during your Loire visit. There is a train station that takes you to many of the towns in the area with castles (pretty convenient) and is right off the highway, so if you have a car you can easily travel the region. While Blois is not a place I recommend for a long term stay (anything over a week), it is a great place if you are Chateau hopping. Even if you aren't staying in the Loire, you can take a train from Paris. It's quick and easy.
There is a charming Vieille Ville (Old Town). It's quite pretty. There are cobblestone streets, an artist's quarter, and perhaps what I liked best was the farmer's market. It takes place around the area of Place Louis XII. There is tons of local produce (which is awesome in the Loire). When you're done shopping, head over to Le Saint Lubin. That's the local pub. The oyster merchants set up shop right in front. Pick up a dozen (they are cheap and you pay by size - the bigger the more expensive - I paid 10€ for the medium size) with a bag of Crevettes grises (delicious shrimp), grab a seat at the bar, order some local wine and enjoy music. They play some great tunes, and if you are lucky, Georges Paltrie will be there with his guitar. His voice is like caramel.
You can also do as the locals do and bring your findings from the market (and a bottle of wine) to the tiny stairs next to the river. Sit and enjoy the view and the various birds and animals that frequent the area.
After lunch, work off your calories with a walk up hill to the castle. The hike will take you no more than 5 minutes from the bar.
The first thing you need is a pair of comfortable shoes. You need to walk up a very steep hill to get to the Chateau (unless you grab a taxi or Uber). The good thing about the Chateau is that it was not packed full of tourists like Versailles. It was an easy visit and quite comfortable.
Tickets & Pricing
Blois is not "cheap", but it is so worth it. You get to see not one, but four distinct architectural styles and learn lots about French history. A single adult ticket costs 10 €, kids pay 5 €, but if they are under 6 admission is free. If you don't want to pay to see the site, you can go for first Sunday of every month between December & March. I did one paid visit and one free one.
It is important to note that there is also a museum of fine art at the site. As soon as you enter the chateau, look to your right. If you go up the stairs, you will be in the museum. Entrance is included in the ticket price.
If you are going to see multiple chateaux, you may want to take advantage of the Loire Chateau Pass. Prices tend to change, so check the site for their current deal.
January 2 to March 31st: 9am-12:30pm & 1:30pm-5:30pm
April 1 to June 30: 9am-6:30pm
July 1 to August 31: 9am-7pm
September 1 to 30: 9am-6:30pm
October 1 to November 1: 9am-6pm
November 2 to December 31: 9am-12:30pm & 1:30pm-5:30pm
Go for the Night Show
There is a gorgeous sound and light show at Blois chateau. While it is not as impressive as what we have seen in Lyon during the Fete des Lumieres or in Strasbourg for the birthday of the Cathedral, it is still lovely.
Why You Should Visit Blois Chateau
I'm a bit of a history buff. Add art or architecture to it and I kinda geek out. This Chateau is the perfect combination of history and architecture. It's actually 4 Chateaux in one, a collage of French styles. There are actually four very distinct architectural styles at the castle which depict how the politics of the time affected architecture. You really see time move in this incredible building. You can learn more about the four architectural styles of Blois here.
When you are about to enter the Chateau, you will see an incredible opening. It was meant for both pedestrians and horses and is marked by (now a replica) of an equestrian statue depicting Louis XII, the Porcupine King (a lot of the original decoration was destroyed or defaced during the revolution).
You'll enter at the tiny door to the right of what used to be the main entrance. Once you're inside, you will be standing in the main courtyard. Since this castle, like the Louvre in Paris, was built at different times by different people, you will notice that it does not look as one would expect a castle to look. This is not Versailles which has a unified look. The courtyard feels regular, but it's not symmetrical. If you look (even with an untrained eye) you can even see where someone's building efforts stopped short due to a shortage of money. It's really cool how this castle tells the story of France, it's ruling class, and Blois.
This is the 13th Century Medieval fortress. This part of the castle was built by the counts of Blois starting the 10th Century. The counts of Blois had built a tower to start off, but it was expanded as time grew. Currently, there's only a tiny portion of this structure. This will be the plainest area in the complex and include the seigneurial room (the room for the Feudal lord), part of the rampart, three towers incorporated in the François I wing, and the circular Foix Tower.
Late 1400's (1498-1501) Louis XII
Louis XII is responsible for this part of the chateau. He made it so the fortress became a more suitable living area. This is the area that has the entrance with the equestrian statue. The Gothic area of the building has an open arcade (a series of arches) that leads to two stairways that allow you to reach the 2nd floor (these are the ones that lead to the Fine Arts Museum. Louis did quite well in the Italian wars and was even the king of Naples for a time. It should come as no surprise that this area of the chateau has some Italian influence. Louis XII loved the Chateau de Blois.
Louis XII died in without a male heir. Francis of Angoulême became his successor.
1515-1520 Francois I & Queen Claude
This is my favorite of all the styles of the chateau de Blois. This is some serious Renaissance vibe here all thanks to Francois I. The crown jewel of this area of the Chateau is the spiral stair case. It has gorgeous buttresses, tons of windows and openings. You can't miss it. This staircase is no longer protective and built to hide its denizens. The staircase pushes out demanding that you look at it. Visitors would climb up the stairs proudly, since this meant they were privy to the court. These stairs are a stage, the visitors are the actors. How cool is that! The staircase may have been inspired by those of the Palazzo Contarini in Venice.
The facade (you see this from outside the castle) was inspired by none other than Bramante (the architect of the Vatican). Just imagine what it must have felt like being in Francois' court and having a conversation while overlooking the city from these lodges.
Francois I's wife Queen Claude was the one who is truly responsible for this site. She was the one who convinced Francois to move the court there. You can see her symbol, the ermine throughout the structure. Sadly, after she passed in 1524, Francois left the Chateau.
Also very cool is that when you walk through the Francois I interior, there are pieces from the original chateau that have now been replaced, so you get to see the details of roofs, reliefs and gargoyles up close. Blois castle suffered a lot during the revolution. A lot of the original decoration was destroyed. Stones were removed from the facade and they stand a testimony of what can happen when politics affects art and architecture. You can see some of these details at the castle.
1635-38 Gaston of Orleans
Louis XIII's brother, Gaston, Duke of Orleans was the last to have a hand in the Chateau.He chose this Chateau because it was close to Orleans and because it had a history of royalty with which he wished to be affiliated. He commissioned none other than Francois Mansard (one of my all time favorite architects) to create the new wing. This wing is the one that faces you when you enter the chateau complex. Gaston felt that the Francois I wing (the one with the super cool staircase) was old and dated. He did irreparable damage when he demolished a part of the wing. Lucky for us, he ran out of money and was not able to finish. This part of the castle is the most like Versailles. It focuses on symmetry. It has columns, pilasters, capitals and pediments that are elements of classic Greek architecture.
Things Not to Miss in the Chateau de Blois
The Portrait of Tognina Gonsalvus
There is quite an interesting painting in the chateau. This young lady was afflicted with hypertrichosis (or as it is crudely known, werewolf syndrome). The portrait shows her in a loving way, not as a freak, but as a respected member of society.
The Secret Chambers of Catherine de Medici
Marie de Medici was another notable resident of Blois, although not by choice. She was married to Henry VI with whom she had a son, Louis XIII. While her husband was alive, she stayed out of politics. But when he was murdered in 1610, she changed her stance and became an active regent. When Louis turned 16, he decided to get rid of mom. He started by removing her council and exiled her to Blois where there is a room with beautiful wood panels. These panels contain secret niches where lore said she kept poison. Most likely, she kept other things than poison, but this is still something that is really cool to see.
You won't miss it once you go inside, but make sure you go up the staircase. It's an incredible experience.
There is an incredible look out by the chapel. You can get a gorgeous view of the entire city from here.
Where to Eat Near the Chateau De Blois
Unlike most other places that I have been to in France, I was not blown away by the food in Blois. I had my best meals at the Saturday market, but there were a few restaurants that stood out. The first two are within walking distance of the chateau. The last, you'll need to take a taxi or Uber to.
L'Orangerie Du Chateau
Just a word of warning. This is a Michelin starred restaurant, so it is pricy. But it is absolutely wonderful and they offer a pretty good lunch deal at 39 €. It's the Menu de Confiance which gets you three courses. This place is worth the splurge. Just make sure you're wearing a reasonable nice outfit. No jeans, shorts, or sneakers.
While it ain't pretty, this place is cheap and it is good. Make a reservation because if you don't you may not get in. The food is a mix of Japanese and Vietnamese. The Pho is as good as you'll get in this area of France and the formulas are quite generous. For example, their Japanese menu is just 8.80€ and comes with a soup, veggies, and rice AND four skewers AND beef with melted cheese.
Les Banquettes Rouges
This was a perfect place if you're looking for a fairly priced Loire style restaurant. It's tiny, quaint, and the service and food are great. Menus start at 17.5€.
Not so far from the chateau and a great place to pick up a Jambon Beurre and some sweets. They also make a sausage bread that is to die for and they have takeaway lunch specials. This place is highly recommended.
This one is not within walking distance (I walked there - but I love to walk). It has one Michelin star, but still has issues to work out service wise. The food was lovely. If you need to choose between Orangerie and here, choose Orangerie. If you have already visited Orangerie, Assa is a good alternative. They offer 7 menus, starting at 36 € for 2 courses.
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