Orléans is most famous for its association with Joan of Arc and, judging by the number of statues of the Maid of Orléans around the city, it’s not a relationship the town is going to underplay any time soon. Yet there is much more to the town than the events of 1429. This is the city, after all, that gave its name to France’s new colonial venture on the Mississippi, New Orleans.
Orléans is best explored on foot, it’s a relatively small town and the centre is very walkable. The cathedral aside, genuine attractions are few and far between, but that’s not the main appeal of Orléans. A day or two spent wandering its lovely squares, broad avenues and narrow lanes, is rewarded by discovering an historic and authentically French town that barely features on the tourist radar.
The town suffered damage during the Second World War, and large parts of its ancient centre were destroyed. A concerted effort to preserve what was left, and investment in restoration work, has recreated this area as it would have been in the 18th century. Everywhere you look there are timber-framed houses, often painted in bright colours, that are just as they would have been 300-years ago.
This area stretches from the northern bank of the Loire River to the Rue Jeanne d’Arc, and you can happily spend an hour or two roaming its cobbled streets. Mostly it’s pedestrianised, which makes the walk far more pleasant. Dotted around the area are lovely cafes with outside seating, but running through the centre of the area is the vibrant Rue de Bourgogne, full of restaurants, bars and life … particularly at night.
It was a relief to be back in a country that takes lunch seriously – take note the Netherlands! – and after a leisurely lunch we headed for a stroll along the river front. The longest river in France, the Loire is a legendary waterway. It was an economic superhighway by the 18th century, carrying goods around the country. The port of Orléans would have buzzed with activity and the river brought great prosperity to the city.
It still feels prosperous today and, although it has been through some tough times over the centuries, it’s an industrious place with a sizeable university population. There were certainly plenty of people at the pavement cafes, and in the many restaurants and bars.
We visited the cathedral, which was in full preparation-mode for the upcoming Joan of Arc Festival. Someone was practicing their routine on the organ, and the glorious sound filled the cathedral’s immense space. We decided not to visit the Joan of Arc museum after reading some damning reviews, and headed instead to the Musee des Beaux Arts, which felt a little like entering a tomb.
I’m not sure they get too many foreign visitors, or even French visitors for that matter, and to be fair it’s not the most interesting Musee des Beaux Arts I’ve been to in France. There was a fascinating temporary exhibition on the First World War, lots of British troops were stationed here or nearby, but we were followed around by a bible-carrying member of the staff.
I wasn’t sure if she thought we looked like we might be about to steal a precious piece of Orléans’ cultural history, or if she was planning to convert us. It was all a bit weird. Back out in the sunlight we strolled a bit more and had dinner in the old quarter, tomorrow would be an early start and big day … our first Loire château.