I have vague memories of visiting the Chateau of Blois many years ago and watching the Son-et-Lumiere show, where giant coloured pictures were projected onto the main facades of the chateau. Certainly, the interior courtyard with its ornate external staircases is very memorable. Looking up, there is so much detail to be found, from the crowned porcupine to the grotesque gargoyles and dragon-head drainpipes.
A self-guided tour takes me into the cavernous state room, built in 1214 and used as a courtroom by the Counts of Blois. Inside are interactive screens giving more detail about the history, the architecture, the former inhabitants and the special objects of the chateau. Downstairs in the basement I find a collection of stone statues and architectural embellishments which have been rescued during the many restoration projects of the chateau. I find several symbols of the people who lived here:
The crowned porcupine – Chosen by Louis I, Duke of Orléans, probably to show the Duke of Burgundy (John the Fearless) that he would seek his revenge, as the porcupine points his quills, like arrows, towards its enemies.
The salamander – A symbol of fire and cold, this was the choice of François I. It is believed that the salamander can live in fire without being consumed, and can also extinguish fire due to the coldness of its body. The salamander represents “the just, who never lose God’s confidence in the middle of tribulations.” François I adapted this motto for himself: “I live among it and extinguish it”.
The swan pierced by an arrow – This is the “cygne transpercé”, an emblem used by Louise of Savoy. The symbolism includes references to the colour white, meaning purity. The meaning of the arrow is probably linked to love, like Cupid’s arrows. For Louise, it may refer to the loss of her husband. If this is the case then the white is also the colour of royal mourning.
On the first floor are the apartments of Francois I and Catherine de Medici. As well as the included handout with map and basic information about each room, there are panels with English language descriptions of each piece of furniture, painting, tapestry or ornamental feature. The detailed decoration is amazing: painted wooden ceilings, glistening ceramic floor tiles, wood panelled walls and huge open fireplaces. Apparently, Catherine de Medici hid bottles of poison behind the wood panels in her study.
On the second floor is Henry III’s bedchamber where the Duke de Guise was murdered. His death in 1588 has been depicted in many paintings and even a short film (1909) which can be seen in the nearby council chamber, I briefly wonder if his spirit haunts the chateau, but I’m quite sure that the cold spots in the room are due to a lack of 21st century heating rather than any ghostly presence.
In the brick stone ‘flamboyant’ style wing, above the main entrance, I find the Museum of Fine Arts. A series of rooms and a long gallery display numerous paintings and tapestries by well know local and other artists such as Rubens. Opposite, the ‘classic’ wing is empty at this time of the year, for the restaurant is closed and there are no temporary exhibitions housed there. However, I do venture inside to see the monumental staircase built by Francois Mansart, decorated with allegorical sculpture.