Blois

Clinging prettily to hills overlooking the Loire, Blois makes a perfect touring base, small enough to be accessible and situated for exploring both up- and downriver. Its steeply winding streets, lined with half-timbered buildings, alleys, and hidden courtyards, have preserved both the architecture and the atmosphere of the town’s illustrious past. The surrounding farmland and the game forests of the nearby Sologne area keep restaurants supplied with fine ingredients.

Blois is still dominated by its magnificent chateau. The great 13th-century Gothic hall and tower remain from the original fortress. Subsequent additions present an extraordinary mix of architectural styles. Louis XII (R. 1498-1515) transformed it into an opulent palace (his emblem, the porcupine, is everywhere). His son, Francois I (R. 1515-1547), created its greatest feature, the octagonal open spiral staircase that forms part of the dazzling Francois I wing.

The cabinet of Catherine de Medicis is intriguing for its secret closets in which she reputedly hid her poisons. The chateau is also notorious for the murder of the Catholic Due de Guise at the instigation of his Protestant brother, Henri III (R. 1574-1589), fearful of the growing power of the Catholics. Henri was himself murdered only six months later

The Louis XII wing of the chateau houses the Musee des Beaux-Arts Decoratifs and Musee Archeologique; the terrace gardens offer a good view of the town, the Loire, the 18th-century bridge over the rivei; and the 12th-century church of St.-Nicolas. A fine restaurant is set in the Orangerie