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Secret Blois #2 – Wars Wounds and Fountains

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At the end of Secret Blois #1, I left you in Place Louis XII, the most animated part of Blois and home to a twice-weekly fresh produce market. You may have noticed a certain uniformity in the buildings around you. During World War II, Blois was occupied by the German army which invaded the city on 18th June 1940. It was liberated by American soldiers during the last two weeks of August 1944. On both occasions, the town was bombed for several days particularly after the Normandy landings, destroying more than 1500 buildings, especially in the area around Place Louis XII, the railway bridge over the Loire and Gabriel Bridge.

The entrance to Rue Saint Lubin with the castle on the right
The entrance to Rue Saint Lubin flanked by two postwar buildings

The château was saved by a pragmatic decision taken by the local authorities. The German bombs started fires in the city and the chateau was in danger so some of the mediaeval houses around the chateau were deliberately blown up by the locals to form a firebreak to protect the château. The Germans were aiming for the bridge in order to stop people fleeing south. In those days there was a steady stream of refugees crossing at Blois and other places.

However, if you continue along the narrow street of Rue Saint Lubin keeping the Loire on your left and the castle on your right, you will find yourself in a much older area dominated by the 13th century Romanesque church of Saint Nicolas with its tall spires. Follow Rue des Trois Marchands noting all the little speciality shops along the way, many of which are on the ground floor of half-timbered houses that fortunately survived the war.

Continue along Rue des Trois Marchands to n°11. Initially called Auberge du Cigne, this inn, which was built in 1573, became Auberge des Trois Marchands in 1669 and gave its name to the street which was full of hostels and inns: l’Ecrevisse (opposite the pharmacy at n° 17), La Fontaine (the site of the Tuile d’Or, today n° 19), La Croix Blanche (n° 21) and many more which have now disappeared.

Fontaine de Saint-Laumer or Fontaine de Foix next to Saint Nicolas Church
Fontaine de Saint-Laumer or Fontaine de Foix next to Saint Nicolas Church with Laumer Abbey through the door on the right

On the right of the church of Saint Nicolas when you are facing the entrance, you can see a fountain built into the wall of the cloisters of the old Saint Laumer Abbey. Foix or Saint-Laumer Fountain was the only one not supplied by the Gouffre, a reservoir gouged out of rock to which a 529-metre long aqueduct brought rainwater and seepage water collected on the limestone plateau. The Gouffre is at the bottom of the staircase called Degrés du Gouffre which we will visit on another occasion. This is the third fountain we have seen so far out of the seven that still remain in a city once renowned for its “glorious fountains” to quote the historian Noël Mars, writing in 1646.

On the next corner on the right is the Musée de la Résistance, another reminder of Blois’ war history. Turn right in front of the Auberge Ligérienne Hotel and onto Place de la Grève to find the best-known and most elegant place to stay in the 17th and 18th centuries: Hôtellerie de la Galère. At that time, it was right on the quay, near the old river port of Grève. at 3 place de la Grève. It was first mentioned in 1611 and finally disappeared in 1825. Its illustrious guests include Nicolas Fouquet (Louis XIV’s finance minister who got too big for his boots and built Vaux-le-Vicomte), Madame de Sévigné, James II of England, Philippe V, the Prince of Wales in 1711, Mehemet Effendi and the Spanish Infanta. Sadly, all that is left today is a window with a balcony and a carriage entrance at 6 rue de la Grève.

The rear façade of Hôtellerie de la Galère on Rue de la Grève
The rear façade of Hôtellerie de la Galère on Rue de la Grève

Back on Place de la Grève, turn left to walk along the river towards Pont Gabriel bridge and past Saint-Laumer Abbey which now houses the region’s administrative offices.

A little further on, on Place Jacques Lob, you’ll see a building with two comic characters on the front – La Maison de la BD. A BD is a bande dessinée ou comic strip, an art form that is extremely popular in France among both children and adults. Blois holds a comic festival every year called BD Boum. This year (2016), it will take place on 17 and 18 November. The characters, Bill & Boule, first appeared in a Belgian comic book called Spirou in 1959.

Boule and Bill on La Maison de la BD
Boule and Bill on La Maison de la BD

If you take a short deviation left into Rue des Jacobins on the left, you will see the front entrance with a drawing by François Bourgeon. Millions of copies of Bourgeon’s albums have been sold. He’s particularly well-known for his heroines. The BD centre runs temporary exhibitions and comic strip classes for teenagers and adults.

Back on Quai de la Saussaye, you will come to Square Valin de la Vaissière on top of an underground parking lot. A black marble monument to Colonel Henri Valin de la Vaissière on the edge of the square closest to Place Louis XII is yet another reminder of World War II. Born in 1901, Vallin initially trained as an air force officer. After his unit was disbanded in 1942, he joined the ORA (Organisation de résistance dans l’armée) where he was known as “Valin”. Unfortunately, he was assassinated by a deranged subaltern in December 1944, after a regiment of Resistance fighters under his orders expelled the Germans from their barracks and liberated Blois on 16th August 1944.

War memorial to Valin de la Vaissière
War memorial to Valin de la Vaissière

Before the Germans left, they decided to blow up Jacques Gabriel Bridge which you can see on your right. Two piers and three arches collapsed but the rest of the 18th century bridge resisted. The only way that the daily traffic of 1000 vehicles and 4000 pedestrians could cross the river was by ferry. As a result, a temporary wooden bridge was built in less than 3 weeks. It was used for a year while a second wooden bridge capable of carrying greater loads was being built next to the stone bridge.

Despite enormous problems– flooding, lack of materials, very cold weather, etc., construction of the second wooden bridge began during the winter of 1944 and was completed on 2nd September 1945 on the 1st anniversary of the total liberation of the city. The new bridge was pronounced safe by the engineers but vehicles were asked to limit their speed to 15 kph and only trucks under 10 tonnes were allowed to cross. After three years of good and faithful service, the wooden bridge was finally replaced by the newly reconstructed stone bridge. If you cross over to other side of the road just to the right of the bridge, you can see the remains of the wooden bridge during low water periods next to the central arch.

You can see the remains of the wooden piers of the temporary bridge near the middle stone arch
You can see the remains of the wooden piers of the temporary bridge near the centre stone arch

Cross back again and turn left just after the Société Générale bank into Rue Emile Laurens. Take the first street on the right, Rue du Commerce, the main shopping street of Blois. On the first corner, you’ll see a couple of half-timbered houses that miraculously survived the Second World War.

At the top of Rue du Commerce, turn right into Rue Denis Papin and you’ll see a sunken fountain on your right on Place du Marché au Beurre, once the butter market. The original street level has now been raised, and the fountain is partially hidden by the terrace of the Saint Jacques Restaurant. It was given to the town by Louis XII under the somewhat uninventive name of “Neighbourhood Well Fountain” and renamed Saint-Jacques Fountain after a collegiate church that has now been destroyed. Since its construction, it has been fed by the Gouffre mentioned above. That is our fourth fountain.


The fifth is located further along Rue Denis Papin just before you get to the corner, on the opposite side of the street almost at the foot of the stairs. It has an interesting history. Called the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) Fountain, it used to be located on the wall of the old 15th century town hall, on Rue Foulerie. which was destroyed in June 1940. The fountain was found among the ruins and kept in the Lapidary Museum across the river in Vienne until a local historical association, Association des amis du Vieux Blois, financed its re-installation at the foot of Denis Papin stairs in 2005.

Now walk down Rue Denis Papin towards the river, staying on the right-hand side. You’ll come to three enormous metal keys on the corner of Rue des Trois Clefs (Three Keys Street), so named because of the many locksmiths who had their shop fronts on this once narrow street, widened after the 1940 bombings. It was in 1979, when the pedestrian precinct was created, that the municipal workshops produced the monumental metal sculpture consisting of three keys, 3 metres high and each weighing 420 kilos, in less than three months.

The Three Keys sculpture in Rue des Trois Clés
The Three Keys sculpture in Rue des Trois Clés

We’ve come to the end of our second tour of Secret Blois. Next time, we’ll cross Denis Papin and explore another old quarter of Blois with its many mediaeval façades, winding streets and staircases.

If you’re looking for something to eat or drink close by, you can go to Appart’Thé for tea/coffee or lunch at 12-14 rue Basse (Rue Basse forms a triangle with Rue Denis Papin when it turns the corner), dinner or lunch at Au Coin d’Table, 9, rue Henri Drussy or for lunch, dinner or a drink at Le Douze which is a cellar, restaurant and wine bar, Place Ave Maria, 12 rue du Poids du Roi, or F&B opposite, all of which are on the other side of Rue Denis Papin.  


Secret Blois #1 – Around the castle

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If you are like me, when you visit somewhere new, you don’t just want to see the main attractions. You want to see the hidden face behind the castle or the museum, the little details on the way. You want to eat in the sort of restaurants the locals go to. You want to understand how the town or village grew and developed, what sort of people live there. My husband and I chose Blois as the place we wanted to live in after his retirement and have set about discovering its every nook and cranny. Because we love it so much, I’d like to share with you our secret Blois by taking you on a personal guided tour. If you have binoculars, I suggest you take them with you!

Steps leading up to the royal garden Steps leading up to the royal garden

Let’s start at the train station and discover the historical centre together. We’ll be walking down Rue Gambetta towards Blois Royal Castle and for those you are joining us by car, we’ll meet you in the open-air parking lot on the corner of Gambetta and Chanzy. Across the road from the parking lot is a high stone wall and at the top is the King’s Garden (Jardin du Roi).

The first thing you will see when you enter the garden is a statue of Diane of the Chase by Anna Hyatt Huntingdon. An article in our local paper, La Nouvelle République, tells the story of how the Salon de Paris art exhibition in 1910 refused to give first prize to Anna Hyatt for the statue on the pretext that “It’s far too big and beautiful for a woman to have made it!” How wonderful to be a female in those days!

Diane of the Chase Diane of the Chase

Born in Massachusetts in 1876, Anna Hyatt Huntington lived to the ripe old age of 97, and is one of American’s greatest 20th century sculptresses. She was very popular in France. A copy of her Joan of Arc was presented to Blois with great pomp by the patron of the arts, J. Sanford Saltus. It met with considerable success and Anna became famous. I’ll take you to see it a little later on. It’s in the Bishop’s Garden.

Anna had such good memories of France that Hubert Fillay, president of the Ecole de la Loire Academy of Art, learnt in 1933 that she wanted to donate a statue of Diane to the city of Blois. The 2.5 metre high statue, which is stunningly beautiful from whichever angle you look at it, was eagerly accepted. Anna Hyatt even paid the 1,000 dollars needed to erect it. “I would be happy to find a place in the château’s beautiful historical gardens”. And so are we!

If you look over to your left after going past Diane, you’ll see a very pointed slate roof atop a little brick and stone pavilion. With the Orangery, which you can also see, the Anne de Bretagne pavilion is the last trace of the royal gardens of Blois Castle. Built in the “lower gardens” it is a unique example of early 16th century construction. Despite the presence of a private chapel, it was probably a royal pavilion with various purposes relating to the gardens – a place of meditation, a venue for private meetings, romantic trysts, etc. It is no longer open to the public but you can sometimes see inside when there is an exhibition.

Anne de Bretagne pavilion on the left Anne de Bretagne pavilion on the left and Saint Vincent de Paul’s church in the middle

From the end of the garden, you have one of the best views of the rear façade of the castle. The Royal Castle of Blois is a real mixture. It consists of four castles comprising four different eras and four architectural styles around the same courtyard: 18th century gothic; flamboyant gothic and introduction of the Renaissance; 16th century Renaissance with François I, the Renaissance superstar, and the classical architecture of the 17th century.  This is the Renaissance façade with its Italianate galleries.

On the left, is the beautiful church of Saint Vincent de Paul. It was built between 1625 and 1660 on the site of an old chapel and is part of the Catholic Counter-Reform movement in Europe. Construction progressed slowly until Gaston d’Orléans stepped in. His initials, like those of his daughter Anne-Marie, are inscribed on the façade. After falling into disuse during the French Revolution (which often happened to churches), it was used as a stable and fodder storage area before being rehabilitated in 1826 and restored between 1847 and 1877.

You can now walk to the right and down the steps until you are on the same level as the castle. In front of you is a grassy patch with a view of the Loire River and the 14th century church of Saint Nicolas on the left.

The road leading down to the castle The road leading down to the castle

Walk down the hill towards the castle and then up the ramp that runs along the Renaissance façade. You’ll see the tourist office down on your left and can get yourself a map of the town. Next door is a little restaurant called Les Forges du Château which has become very popular but is often full. What I like best about it is the 15th century wine cellar downstairs on the right has you enter. It has dust-covered vintage bottles behind iron grids and is worth a visit in itself! You can buy some of the local Touraine, Cheverny and Cour Cheverny as well.

Now walk up the stairs to the Place du Château. I will let you visit the inside of the castle on your own (you can refer to http://www.aussieinfrance.com/2012/04/easter-sunday-in-blois/ and the official documentation for more information) but I’d like to point out a couple of interesting features outside.

The hexagon and compass rose, in the middle of the court of honour will be helpful in understanding the different parts of the castle. Clockwise from left bottom: TERRACE – Panorama and tower 13th century; GASTON D’ORLEANS 17th century; FRANCOIS I 16th century; STATE ROOM 13th century; LOUIS XII late 15th century; CHAPEL late 15th century.

Hexagon in the castle courtyard Hexagon in the castle courtyard

Now follow the direction of the SALLE DES ETATS and look up at the window on the brick wall to the left of the staircase entrance. You’ll see two little figures called cul-de-lampe.

Sculptors of public and religious buildings often used local dignitaries as models for faces, sometimes rather humouristically. The face on the right is easily recognizable to locals as Jack Lang who was the mayor of Blois from 1989 to 2000. The rest of the body has not been changed. Jack Lang was also the French minister of culture from 1981 to 1991 and is known by many people as being the founder of the “Fête de la Musique“, the very popular music festival held in France on the summer solstice every year around 20/21 June. Jack Lang’s face appeared during restoration of the castle in the 1990s opposite another local figure Martine Tissier de Mallerais.

Tower with Jack Lang's cul-de-lampe on the first floor window Tower with Jack Lang’s cul-de-lampe on the first floor window in the middle of the photo

Madame Tissier de Mallerais became curator of Blois Castle in 1967 at the age of 27, a post at which she excelled up until 1991 when she succumbed to Jack Lang’s determination to change the main cultural officers after his election in 1989. Finding themselves opposite each other on the façade of the castle must have been somewhat of a shock.

Now go in the direction of the chapel and, leaving it on your left, walk through to the round Tour du Foix, which is a vestige of the 13th century feudal fortifications. It offers a panorama of the city of Blois, the Loire River and the church of Saint Nicolas. In the middle ages, the tower defended the south-west corner of the castle and the Porte du Foix entrance at the foot of the rocky spur.

Note the fat squat looking animal near the tower. I’ll point out a similar one a little further on.

Mysterious animal near Tour de Foix Mysterious animal near Tour de Foix

When you leave château you might feel like an ice-cream. The Marignan on the left is practically the only place in Blois where you can find an after-dinner take-away ice-cream – but only from May to September and not too late! During the day there are several vendors in the streets off Place Louis XII.

Opposite the castle is La Maison de la Magie or House of Magic Museum in honour of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the famous French illusionist born in Blois in 1805. “Was he Houdini?”, I can hear you say. Houdin had a theatre in the Palais Royal in Paris where he was highly successful. However, it was a man called Ehrich Weiss born in Budapest 1874 who took the pseudonym of Harry Houdini after emigrating to the United States at an early age and became one of the leading magicians in the world.

Before descending the steps to the right of the House of Magic, walk to the edge of the terrace and up the stone steps to get a magical view of Blois with the cathedral in the distance. Below is Place de la Vaissière where the excellent Saturday morning market is held.

Follow the path down through an archway to the steps. On the left, almost at the bottom, you’ll see another archway with a blue door, once a chapel.  Dedicated to the hermit Saint Calais, the Chapel, consecrated in 1508, was the private place of worship for Louis XII and Anne of Brittany. The nave was demolished in 1635 during the construction of the Gaston d’Orléans wing of Blois Castle. The painted vaults and tiled flooring date from 1869. The present-day stained glass windows by Max Ingrand, dated 1957, replaced those destroyed during the bombings in 1944.

Saint Calais chapel Saint Calais chapel

In front of you, at the bottom of the steps and if it’s not market day, you can see a swan pierced with an arrow on the pavement.

Called a cygne transpercé, this emblem was used by both Louise of Savoy and her daughter-in-law Claude of France. The symbolism is complicated and now poorly understood. It includes references to the white colour, meaning purity. Claude’s most commonly used emblem, the ermine, is also white. Louise often used wings because the word for wings, ailes, is pronounced like ‘L’, her initial. The meaning of the arrow is the most obscure part. It is probably linked to love, like Cupid’s arrows. When Louise uses it, it may refer to the loss of her husband. If this is the case then there is a link to the white colour of the swan, white being the royal colour of mourning. Louise sometimes used a swan emblem to refer to her daughter Marguerite too.

Saint Martin's fountain Saint Martin’s fountain

On the right, you’ll see Saint-Martin’s fountain, very similar to the squat fat animal near Tour de Foix.  It has a crown while this one doesn’t. The name “Saint Martin” refers to a parish church built in the 13th century that has now disappeared. After the second world war bombings, the square was reconstructed and this fountain, consisting of an old gargoyle and a small pool, was designed.

There is another interesting fountain a little further on your left on one side of Place Louis XII. The Fontaine de l’Arsis des Comtes de Blois, known as the Louis XII fountain, was reconstructed in 1511 by the distinguished engineer Pierre de Valence. Up until the 19th century, it was located a little further away, on the corner of Saint Lubin and Bourgmoyen streets. However, when the houses behind it were destroyed to build the Louis XII square in 1820, it was transferred to the southern corner of the square which is why it looks a little out of place. After being damaged during the Revolution, it was restored in 1890. It is one of seven fountains in Blois, all supplied with water from the same reservoir, called a “gouffre” and located under Saint-Vincent’s.

If it’s market day (Saturday), I suggest you read my two posts describing our favourite vendors: http://www.aussieinfrance.com/2015/05/why-i-love-the-market-even-when-its-cold-or-rainy-1/ and http://www.aussieinfrance.com/2015/05/why-i-love-the-market-even-when-its-cold-or-rainy-2/.

By now you’re ready for a break anyway! If you are looking for lunch or coffee and cake, Douce Heure on the other side of the Place with its red awnings and chairs will probably do the trick, especially if you like hot chocolate! For lunch (but you will have to get there early!) you can join the local lunch crowd at Le Coup de Fourchette by walking left towards the river, then left again. They are my closest recommendations. You’ll find other suggestions at the end of each Secret Blois post.

Les Forges du Château, 21 Place du Château, 41000 Blois. Open 11 am to 10 pm from June to August, 11 am to 9 pm April to November and 11 am to 6 pm November to April. Closed on Wednesdays. 02 54 78 33 70.

Douce Heure, place Louis XII, 41000 Blois. Open all year round. 12 noon to 7 pm. Closed Sundays.

Le Coup de Fourchette, 15 Quai de la Saussaye, 41000 BLOIS, 02 54 55 00 24. Open Monday to Wednesday, lunchtime only and Thursday to Saturday, lunchtime and evening.


All_About_France_blog_linky_xmasI’m entering this post in Lou Messugo’s All About France montly link-up. For other entries click here.

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