The Château de Blois was home to six kings, and countless more aristocratic and noble visitors. The impression given is one of grandiloquent splendour, mixed with awe-inspiring spectacle, especially the way in which the predominantly Renaissance north wing is dominated by a superb spiral staircase. The grandly Classical west wing was built in the 1630s by François Mansart for Gaston d’Orléans, the brother of Louis XIII. Turning to the south side, you go back in time 140-odd years to Louis XII’s St-Calais chapel, which contrasts with the more exuberant brickwork of his flamboyant Gothic east wing.
Mansart’s breathtaking staircase leads you round to the less interesting François I wing; the garish decor here dates from Félix Duban’s mid-nineteenth-century efforts to turn an empty barn of a château into a showcase for sixteenth-century decorative motifs. One of the largest rooms is given over to paintings of the notorious murder of the Duke of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine, by Henri III. As leaders of the radical Catholic League, the Guises were responsible for the summary execution of Huguenots at Amboise. The king had summoned the States-General to a meeting in the Grande Salle, only to find that an overwhelming majority supported the Duke, along with the stringing up of Protestants, and aristocratic over royal power. Henri had the Duke summoned to his bedroom in the palace, where he was ambushed and hacked to death, and the cardinal was murdered in prison the next day. Their deaths were avenged a year later when a monk assassinated the king himself.
The château was also home to Henri III’s mother and manipulator, Catherine de Médicis, who died here a few days after the murders in 1589. The most famous of her suite of rooms is the study, where, according to Alexandre Dumas’ novel, La Reine Margot, she kept poison hidden in secret caches in the skirting boards and behind some of the 237 narrow carved wooden panels; they now contain small Renaissance objets d’art. In the nineteenth century, revolutionaries were tried in the Grande Salle for conspiring to assassinate Napoléon III, a year before the Paris Commune of 1870. You can return to the courtyard via the vast space of the Salle des États, where the arches, pillars and fireplaces are another riot of nineteenth-century colour.
Across the courtyard to the ground floor of the François I wing, you’ll find the archeological museum, which displays original stonework from the staircase and dormer windows, as well as carved details rescued from other châteaux.
French-speakers may want to take the two-hour guided visite insolite, which explores parts of the château you won’t normally see, such as the roof and cellars. You can usually just turn up at the gate for the son et lumière – it’s one of the best in the region, rising above the usual mix of melodrama, light and musical effects by making the most of the château’s fascinating history and lovely courtyard setting, and thrillingly re-creates the murder of the Duc de Guise.