A Picturesque City with Castles and Monsters
The most famous feature of the chateau in Blois is the very graceful, elaborately carved exterior spiral staircase that can be seen from the central courtyard. This was commissioned by Francois I, who apparently had a real thing about elaborate spiral staircases, since he had several built at nearby Chambord. After taking a couple of pictures, I visited what I excitedly – and mistakenly – took to be the oldest part of the castle, the Hall of the States General. This was the room where the early earls of Blois dispensed justice and received homage from their vassals. It was the oldest part of the castle, built originally around 1210, but I learned from the guidebook I purchased that it has been reworked several times, including an extensive restoration in the 1860s. However, in the otherwise empty Hall there stands a wonderful old print of the States General session held in this room in 1588 – the States General being a early form of the present-day French parliament – and it would seem that the restoration of the 1860s did a good job of replicating how the place looked in 1588. It was evidently a jubilantly colorful room, with the arched, deep royal blue ceiling covered with gold fleurs de lis, the support columns running down the middle of the room alternating red and blue, topped with multi-colored capitols, the arches that the columns supported painted with colorful stencils.
I’d already learned in earlier visits to Europe that it’s extremely difficult to find authentically old monuments anymore. So many buildings everywhere you go were destroyed or badly damaged in World War II – this is certainly true throughout picturesque Blois – and were rebuilt to look as much like they did before as possible. Even places that were spared the assault of that particular war’s fires and bombing raids have usually been redone at various times during their history, as royal whims and political securities have changed.
You can pass from the central courtyard of the chateau to a little graveled garden with a lovely view of the town below – like all good medieval castles, this one was built on a promontory – and the Loire River beyond. The most noticeable structure to be seen is the Church of Saint Nicolas, a former abbey church (when there was an abbey – it was destroyed by Protestants during the religious wars of the fifteen hundreds) which I visited the following day. What made this church so striking were its three pointed steeples, that looked like the tall, conical tops of towers on fairy-tale castles, which stood out in silhouette against the pale sky, while the setting sun bathed the lower walls in gold. I loved visiting this church next day, to a large extent because I was the only soul there. Nothing like having a big, silent church to yourself.
There is a small art museum in the section of the castle built by Louis XII – Francois I’s father-in-law, and cousin (oh those interbreeding royal families) – but I didn’t visit it; having arrived in Blois so late in the day, I simply ran out of time. But what hurried me out the door even faster than the advancing hour and fading light were the mysterious sounds coming from a large house at the opposite end of the large square that stretches out in front of the castle.
This large house is the House of Magic, and the bizarre noises I was hearing were coming from huge, golden, lizard-like heads that, twice a day, slowly emerge from the long, shuttered windows on the second and third floors, and proceed to peer about, writhe, and make deep, bellowing, squawking noises. Children gather there with their parents to watch this “monster” show, as do not a few non-children like myself. Indeed, I was so taken with this magical display, which lasts about twenty minutes, that I made a point of going back the next evening, after I returned from my day trip to visit two other castles in the vicinity.
At that time, after watching the monsters do their thing, I decided to pay my forty-eight francs and go inside, where a magic show was about to begin. I found the magician – who looked like a grown up version of the fat kid with glasses that everybody makes fun of – disappointing. He did only four tricks, which while O.K. (it is pretty amazing seeing a rope turn into two ropes, then three, then back to one again, with no apparent tying taking place ) went on way too long. And I was appalled at his treatment of two children he pulled from the audience as assistants for one trick. When he was through with them he literally pushed them out of the way and back to their seats, without so much as a word of thanks, or a “let’s give them a big hand.” He also made an adult “volunteer” appear foolish, which is surely a no-no in the world of audience participation. I decided he might be an O.K. magician, but lacked people skills.
However, if the magic show was a bit disappointing, the fascinating Hall of Illusion that I visited after the show was not. It definitely brought out the kid in me, and made me wish I had a fellow “kid” to share it with. One of the illusion boxes – that all the little boys in the place loved – you put your head in, at first seeing your face dimly mirrored in a dark glass opposite, then gradually your reflection “melted” into the hideous visage of an old hag. Or there was the large, mirrored, triangular box, about two inches deep, full of tiny white lights. When you stood at the edge of the box and looked down, you seemed to be looking down into the universe, a dizzying, vertigo-inducing effect. And there was the “Prisoner in the Tower.” You looked through a window at what seemed to be a room of giant chess pieces on a board …and there was your face looking out a window in one of the pieces! You could look through two different windows, and see yourself in two different “towers.”
In my favorite illusion box you poked your head in, expecting to see your face reflected in the mirror opposite – and what you saw were your feet. I laughed and laughed at this one, which drew an elderly woman to it, but she all she said was, “Pas mal.”