26 March 2008

Blois on a foggy day in March

The Loire, the bridge, and the cathedral at Blois

Blois is the big town closest to Saint-Aignan; it's 25 mi./40 km north. Because you have to make the trip on little roads and either drive the direct route through a half-dozen villages or take a much less direct route through open countryside to get there, the going is slow. It takes a good 45 minutes to drive the 25 miles to get there. We don't go very often.

The population of Blois is only about 75,000. While that is 20 times bigger than Saint-Aignan, Blois is a small city compared to nearby Tours and Orléans. But as an old royal town, Blois has historical and cultural significance much greater than its importance as an urban center. It's also the administrative city for our département, the Loir-et-Cher. In other words, the national government has its offices and services there.

The towers and spires of the 12th-century Eglise St-Nicolas
seen from the south bank of the Loire through fog


In the Middle Ages, the Counts of Blois ruled over two large territories in France. One was the area that includes Blois, of course, but also Chartres to the north, closer to Paris and Normandy. The other territory they controlled was Champagne, where the wine of the same name is made, east of Paris.

The cathedral rises high above the streets of Blois

One of the Counts of Blois married William the Conqueror's daughter, all those centuries ago, and their son became King Steven of England in the year 1135. The most powerful of the Blois counts was Thibaud IV, who died in 1152.

Two years later, Henri II Plantagenêt, count of Anjou in France, became king of England. At the same time, the House of Blois turned its attention to its territories in Champagne, leaving the Blois area under the thumb of the Plantagenêts, who held the lands down the Loire River toward Chinon and Angers, as well as the English throne. Henri II Plantagenêt was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine (southwest France), so his French holdings were vast.

The old bridge at Blois seen from the cathedral above town

Some 250 years later, in 1392 during the 100 Years War, the last of the counts of Blois sold his territories in the Loire Valley to the Duke of Orleans, who was the brother of the French king Charles VI. The French royal court moved to Blois for a time. Charles VI, who was known as Charles le Bien-Aime — the Beloved — later became known as Charles le Fol — Mad King Charles — because he went insane.

The Eglise St-Nicolas seen from
the terrace of the château in Blois


A couple of generations later, in 1498, King Louis XII, who was born in Blois, moved the French royal residence there again. When Louis XII, known as "the father of the people," died and his successor the great king François Ier rose to the throne, he set up his residence in Blois and built a new wing onto the château. He also began construction of his masterpiece, the château/hunting lodge at Chambord, nearby. Those were the real glory days of Blois, at the beginning of the French Renaissance and before the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants ravaged the country.

Window shopping on the narrow streets in old Blois

As you can see, Blois played a main role in French history, with the actors being the descendents of William the Conqueror and the Plantagenêts, who gave England several kings, and finally several great French kings.

In more modern times, Blois has been known as the political fiefdom of the Socialist Party "heavyweight" Jack Lang — one of the éléphants of the party, as they have been called. Lang was mayor of Blois, member of parliament, and Minister of Culture under President François Mitterrand in the 1980s and '90s. He is still a major figure among French socialists.

A wing of the château in Blois: La Façade des Loges

Lang's father was an Americanophile, evidently, and that's how he came to name his son Jack instead of Jacques. As a national figure, Jack Lang was a major force in Blois, bringing big changes to the city. Many were viewed as positive by the local people — new museums, renovated gardens and monuments, pedestrian shopping streets downtown, for example — but some were not.

"Main Street" in the business district of Blois

One more controversial contribution Mayor Lang made to Blois was the construction of major housing projects for low-income residents on the west side of the city. Nowadays Blois has a greater proportion of its citizenry living in subsidized, low-rent housing than any other city in France except Marseilles, my friends from Blois tell me.

Looking across to the Blois neighborhoods
on the south bank of the Loire


Outside its historical interest, we find Blois to be much less "useful" as an urban center than Tours, which is not much farther from us and which is a much bigger city. Blois seems to have a lot of the problems of modern cities, one of the greatest of which is heavy traffic, but not many of the advantages of a major urban center. We more often go to Blois to do special shopping or to go to concerts.

The cathedral of Blois rises above the rooftops of the town

Blois is very picturesque, as you can see from these photos I took one day in March two years ago. The town sits on the banks of the Loire at a point where there are high bluffs on the north side of the river. The cathedral sits high above the town. I've published other pictures of Blois here and here. I seem to have spent a lot of time in Blois in March 2006.

4 comments:

  1. Ta Dum !! I have an answer from the RHS about the mystery tree: it is Cedrus deodarus Deodar or Himalayan Cedar. Shoulda gone with my initial reaction to it !

    Blois is lovely, but soooo easy to get lost in - we haven't got the hang of it at all.
    We once spent a happy hour sitting on the wall on the south side of the river by the bridge, eating pastries and watching the endangered Little Terns flying to and fro. The gravelly banks in the Loire are a vital stronghold for this lovely bird.
    Susan

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  2. Has it really been two years? Your photos were a lovely reminder of the time we spent with you and Walt.

    ...Susan

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  3. Yes, Susan M., it has been two years. Can't believe it myself. Blois and Vendôme were fun that day.

    Susan W., are you sure it's not a Cedrus libani. I was hoping to fit into that "look what I own and my grandchildren will enjoy in a generation" category.

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  4. I love the foggy, bluish-grey (sp?) cast of these photos. It's so much more "real" than the sunny postcard shots.

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