We arrived in Orléans around midnight after a long drive, and a detour around an industrial estate on the outskirts of the town thanks to a sat nav error. Midnight is never a great time to arrive anywhere, but crossing the River Loire and driving through the centre of town we could already tell Orléans was a lovely place. This didn’t stop me wondering how safe Orléans would be for an Englishman?
This is, after all, the spiritual home of the Maid of Orléans, better known to the world as Joan of Arc. Sworn enemy of the English, she is credited with defeating the English armies besieging Orléans in 1429; a pivotal moment in the Hundred Years War which many would say saved France from complete collapse. Shortly afterwards the English army was in retreat and town-after-town fell to French forces led by Joan.
Not bad for an illiterate farmers daughter who claimed to be guided by the voice of God. Joan was captured a year later – presumably God was busy that day- found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake. In fact she was burned twice to make certain there weren’t any body parts left which could be used as relics. The English weren’t taking any chances.
Joan is a massively popular heroine in these parts, and Orléans honours her with a huge statue in the main square. We hadn’t planned it, but our visit coincided with the final preparation for the Fêtes de Jeanne d’Arc, a big festival celebrating Orléans’ favourite daughter. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stay for the big parade … besides, that might have been pushing our luck.
History, and urban planners haven’t been kind to Orléans. Many of its medieval buildings were knocked down in the 20th century, while both German and Allied bombing during the Second World War did further damage. This has now been partially reversed by a decade-long restoration of the fabulous Vieille Ville, Orléans’ old medieval centre.
In fact, central Orléans is a very attractive place. It has two focal points, the vast pedestrianised Place du Martroi, and the equally vast Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans, which sits dramatically at the eastern end of Rue de Jeanne d’Arc. On our final night in town the front of the cathedral was illuminated with a multicoloured projection of Joan. It was beautiful.
Orléans sits picturesquely on a large bend in the legendary Loire River, which snakes its way south-west from here through this extraordinary region. Dotted as it is with numerous, glorious château and historic towns, the entire Loire Valley has been given UNESCO World Heritage status. Perhaps it’s the popularity of these other attractions, but for some reason Orléans doesn’t seem to get many tourists.
That’s a shame, it’s an interesting place and makes for a good base from which to explore the eastern part of the Loire Valley. It also has one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed in in recent times, the Hôtel de l’Abeille. In a town with a reputation for mediocre hotels, it’s a real find. After our late arrival we greeted the new day keen to explore our first stop in France, and headed for a coffee in the Place du Martroi…