December 3, 2016, Saturday:
Loafing Around Loire Valley
Since Llew needed to be at Charles de Gaulle airport at 7.00 am for his 10.00 am return flight to the US, he left our place at Cite Universitaire at 6.00 am. I decided to wake up and leave with him and spend the day in the Loire Valley using the Rail Europe pass I had that was valid for one more day. I did not know what to expect in terms of my rail journey. Our previous attempt to get to the Loire Valley via a train from Gare Austerlitz to Orleans had been a failure. This time I did some research on the internet and discovered that I could take a train from Gare Montparnasse to Tours—which was another way to get to the Loire Valley.
Accordingly, I paid the 9 euro supplement to use the TGV train from Paris to Tours and boarded one at 7.11 am. I got off at St. Pierre de Corps where I had a one hour wait in a tiny one-horse town that offered absolutely no interest on a fairly wet day. While waiting for a connecting train to Blois, I bought myself a coffee and a croissant and had breakfast in the bar attached to the station. It gave me free use of the SNCF’s internet network and enabled me to read up on the places I would be covering that day. I was back on a train at 9. 27 am and arrived in Blois 20 minutes later. I took advice from the staff at the station on how to get to Blois Castle and on being told that it was merely a ten-minute walk away, I strode forward.
What Makes the Loire Valley of Interest?
The Loire Valley grew into one of the most affluent parts of France from the 14th century onwards when aristocrats began to build themselves extensive homes that came to be called ‘Chateaux’ (castles) in the vicinity of the river Loire. Within a century, most of the country’s most prominent families had a country estate that bordered extensive inherited lands that were used for hunting, shooting and other such pass-times. These chateaux are museums today stacked with architectural interest, interior decorative details and furniture and accoutrements fit for kings. Many of them can boast extensive landscaped gardens that are still beautifully maintained and come into their own in the summer.
Visitors could spend as long as three weeks in the Loire Valley and not see all the chateaux. Most visitors spent 3-4 days and see a couple of chateaux a day. Each of them offers two or three highlights that make them different from the other. I did not have the luxury of spending quite that long in the Valley—nor did I believe that I would be able to spend more than one day taking in tours of interiors. Hence, I made the decision to spend one day there and to see two chateaux as conveniently as I could without the advantage of a car or other form of personal transport. Considering that I relied only on public transport, I did not do too badly at all, for I found out from the Tourist Office, once I got to Blois Castle, that I could easily see the whole place at leisure, then return to the town square to take a bus at 12. 30 that would take me to the next castle, Chambord, that was not too far away at all. At 5. 15 pm, there was a bus outside Chambord that would take me directly back to Blois for my return train to Paris. I could not have been happier. It seemed that despite my apprehension, I would be able to cover two castles quite conveniently that day.
Exploring Blois Castle:
You enter Blois castle through a grand Gothic archway that is crowned with an equestrian statue of King Louis (who became St. Louis). I was also happy because they accepted my Met ID card at Blois—so all I had to pay for was the audio guide (4 euros). I gave myself about two and a half hours to see it—and off I went.
The castle of Blois was home to six kings and countless aristocratic visitors through a couple of centuries. As soon as you enter the central courtyard, you are struck by the fact that it has four distinct architectural styles: Gothic (13th century), Flamboyant Gothic (1498-1503), Early Renaissance (1515-24) and Classical (1630s)—based on the fact that different rulers had occupied it and had differing tastes. The most striking architectural feature is a spiral stone staircase that leads from one floor to the next. After I took pictures of the courtyard, I began my ascent up the stairs.
Inside, the castle took me a bit by surprise. I suppose I expected something more in the Baroque vein—as in the Louvre or Fontainbleu. Instead, I found that it was completely redesigned by Felix Durban in the 19th century who decided to make an empty castle a receptacle of 16th century decorative artistry. Thus, you will pass by pillared arches decorated with gilded paint, stained glass windows and stone motifs that sport the salamander—the logo of Francois I who spent a great deal of time here. On the ground floor, I went briskly through a museum devoted to stone sculpture that was salvaged from the castle. On the second floor, you pass through bedrooms that are well-refurbished. They contain Renaissance furniture, paintings and objets d’art. The salamander as a motif appears on mantelpieces of the many fireplaces scattered about the castle. The walls are thickly painted to resemble wall paper in close geometric designs that imitate the interior of Italian pallazos. The floors are formed of ceramic tile in elaborate designs and colors. There is a Long Gallery with a number of kingly portraits. One of the rooms that I found most unusual and interesting was one containing 237 wooden panels that are painted in such a way as to imitate 16th century leather tooling as found on book-bindings. The room was said to have been occupied by Catherine de Medici, mother of King Henry III, who is rumored to have hidden poison in the skirting boards to be taken in case of her capture. She died in the room in 1589, a few days after the most notorious murders took place in the castle (those compartments today hold Renaissance knick-knacks.).
The story of the murders are to be found in a room devoted to the gruesome murder of the Duke of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine by Henry III. Their deaths were avenged a year later when a monk assassinated the King himself. The story is depicted in large and very realistic paintings that left me spellbound as there is very little I know about French Renaissance history. As you walk through one bedroom after the other, you marvel at little details: a painting of a hirsuit young child who suffered from an illness that produces hair all over the face is of special interest. The beds are pretty interesting themselves—if you peer under their drapery, you will see paintings on the inside of their canopies. Finally, if you have the energy, you can spend a whole afternoon studying the various paintings in the extensive museum of fine arts which is also a part of the castle. I was not only tired by this point but found my sense of aesthetics saturated by an overdose of splendor. Thus, I merely marched through the museum and took in carefully just a couple of paintings by Rembrandt. Blois offers a lovely platform with a parapet that provides a lookout point for a panoramic view of the city and the river Loire upon whose banks it has been built. From the platform, I nipped into the chapel—which is quite small and plain but for its stained glass windows--but it was once the center of all religious activity.
Off to Chambord:
Following instructions, I arrived at the bus stop at 12. 15 for my 12.30 bus to Chambord. It arrived on the dot and for 3 euros (paid to the driver) ferried me to Chambord. Often when one travels, it is the least exciting elements of one’s journey that provide the greatest interest—this was certainly the case here as the 20 minute bus journey took me into the tiniest, quietest villages filled with small cottages that I adored. When we did arrive at Chambord, we drove along an allee of trees (similar to the castle of Vaux le Viscount) near Paris that I had visited four years ago.
Chambord is gigantic—it is probably the largest of the castles in the Loire Valley. A part of it was under scaffolding as renovation on so huge a place is constantly on-going. If you can believe this, this humongous place was the “hunting lodge” of King Francois I—he of the salamander motif. It’s owner’s motive in building it was to outshine the buildings of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who was known as the greatest builder in the universe. There are more than 440 room and 85 staircases—and only a fraction of these are open to the public on the self-guided tour.
Here, too, I was permitted to enter sans entry fee as I had my Met ID card. However, I did rent an audio guide for 5 euros that hardly worked at all. It was governed by a sensor which was most insensitive. The end result was that I missed out on a lot of details.
The first thing that strikes the visitor at Chambord is the double-helix staircase that is said to have been designed by the great Leonardo da Vinci who died in 1516 in nearby Amboise castle. The ingenuity of the design lies in the fact that although one climber might occasionally pass someone going in the opposite direction, they will never be able to see each other despite the existence of windows cut into the staircase. On each floor, there are a multitude of rooms to be explored and I grew deeply fatigued as I tried to see them all. Some rooms are practically empty, others are full and the level of grandeur in each one is different. Furthermore, the castle was simply freezing (even before the onset of winter) which explains why the Marquis of Poland who was offered refuge here from his enemies, did not stay very long! The few fireplaces had fires going—and they were very welcome too as visitors stopped to warm their frozen fingers at the embers. Some of the more striking rooms here was the Hunting Trophy Room hung with gorgeous paintings of wild life and surrounded by vitrines filled with stuffed animals and birds. The Chapel was also a large, double-storied room, rather stark in decoration, but pretty piously atmospheric. Chambord had marvelous wrap-around balconies that connected the various wings and bedrooms that were quite spectacularly furnished. One of its star attraction is the rooftop, which you reach through a winding staircase, up several tiring floor, to arrive at a sheer confection of domes, cupolas, pillars, arched doorways, etc. all decorated thickly in Gothic stone tracery. There is a bell lantern or cupola which is also very visually interesting. You can visit the kitchens on the ground floor, if you have the time and energy. Chambord also has massive gardens that are all landscaped in the formal Italianate style—but in the autumn, there is not much to do except walk in them for exercise. As for me, I was so tired by this point that I could barely muster the energy to take a look at the adjoining church which was, perhaps fortunately, closed. I browsed about some of the shops at the entrance before I caught the 5. 15 pm bus back to Blois station (passing once again the pretty village vignettes of the morning) and arrived on the 6.02 train back to Paris about an hour later.
The Loire Valley had been a revelation and I was absolutely thrilled as it ticked one more item off my Bucket List---I had been desirous of seeing this region forever.
Grocery Shopping in Paris:
I badly needed groceries for the week, so although I was ready to drop, I soldiered on to a small Monoprix for basic items. I bought a bag of chocolate brioche for breakfast, a bag of salad, a bottle of cream dressing, a packet of smoked salmon, a round of blue cheese and a baguette. With these basic food items, I would have enough to eat for days—because I was delighted to find a small refrigerator in my room! I took a shower and did a bit of washing of my clothing and went to sleep at about 10.20 pm when I was ready to drop.