Château d’Ussé and the legend of Sleeping Beauty

We hadn’t planned to visit the Château d’Ussé. Instead we’d headed to the more famous and picturesque Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, only to find that it was undergoing major restoration work – always check the website before setting off. In this part of the Loire you need never worry about finding an alternative château to visit though, there seems to be one every few kilometres.

We hopped back into the car, looked at the map, and decided the Château d’Ussé ticked all the right boxes: it was nearby and was generally in the same direction as the Netherlands. We drove down quiet country lanes through beautiful Loire landscapes following the course of the Indre River, until we reached the tiny hamlet of Rigny-Ussé, above which towers the fantastical looking Château d’Ussé.

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

The château sits on the edge of the Forest of Chinon on a terrace that overlooks the vast sweep of the Indre Valley below. It makes a dramatic sight, white Gothic towers built in the 15th century rising into the blue sky. This is the ultimate fairytale castle, and is credited with inspiring Charles Perrault’s classic tale of La Belle au Bois Dormant, or Sleeping Beauty as it’s better known in English.

It’s also one of several château that lays claim to being the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s ‘Cinderella Castle’, an actual fairytale castle which has become an iconic global brand. We could see the resemblance as we waited with a large group of leather clad bikers for the château to open – providing a nice juxtaposition between the home of Sleeping Beauty and the modern world.

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Our guidebook was a bit ‘sniffy’ about the château, going as far as to imply it wasn’t really worth visiting. In the wrong mood you might think it was a bit kitsch, but we loved it for that very reason. Walking through the main house the rooms are populated with wax mannequins in period dress from La Belle Époque. I can imagine that it’s a little creepy at night.

The route through the château ends in The King’s Chambers, a fabulous room where the Sun King, Louis XIV stayed. Other luminaries to have stayed here include, Haile Selassie, the Last Emperor of Ethiopia. To be honest we were a bit disappointed, for a €14 entry fee not much of the château is open to the public. We found ourselves back outside in the courtyard with only one more thing to visit … the Sleeping Beauty tower.

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Sleeping Beauty rooms, Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Sleeping Beauty rooms, Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Sleeping Beauty rooms, Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Sleeping Beauty rooms, Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Sleeping Beauty rooms, Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Sleeping Beauty rooms, Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

It’s difficult to imagine the level of kitsch on display in the Sleeping Beauty rooms, in fact, I think only Disney have managed more kitsch. There are rooms with dubious looking wax figures representing the most famous scenes from the story. My favourite was the scene when the wicked witch curses Sleeping Beauty while the great and the good look on helpless.

At first it was just a normal scene, but then the room darkened and was bathed in flashing red lights for added drama. Blood curdling.

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley, France

Château d’Ussé, Loire Valley, France

The kitsch didn’t stop there though, after we visited the beautiful small church in the grounds, we went to the wine caves where there were yet more mannequins depicting typical scenes of country life. This included a rather debauched looking group of drunks in one of the cellars. Truly wonderful. After all that excitement we got back in the car and headed north east, our destination … Arras.

Chinon, a Royal English castle in France

Imposingly built on an rocky hill, and towering over the Vienne River and the medieval town below, the fabulous Château de Chinon is an impressive and picturesque sight viewed from the banks of the river. The views from its ramparts and towers are even more impressive, with sweeping vistas over the surrounding valley and down the Vienne as it stretches into the distance.

More than its location, the history of Chinon is the history of the bitter Anglo-French rivalry that consumed this region for hundreds of years. This was the main residence of Henry II, the Plantagenet King of England, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Nantes, Lord of Ireland, and ruler of Wales, Scotland and Brittany. It represents the high watermark of ‘English’ power in France.

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

After three decades of fighting Louis VII, the King of France, and having successfully defeated an alliance of his own sons against him, Henry died at Chinon in 1189. At the time of his death, the Angevin Empire that he’d founded stretched across four countries, including the western half of modern-day France. It wasn’t to last.

Henry’s crown and titles passed to Richard I, the Lionheart, who spent most of his time crusading in the Holy Lands, as a prisoner of Saladin, or fighting to hold on to his French possessions. Richard’s rebellious brother John inherited his title as King of England, but his French possessions refused to recognise his claim on them. Bit by bit, the Angevin Empire fell apart, and Chinon was lost to French King, Philip II in 1205.

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

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Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chinon, Loire Valley, France

This wasn’t the last time Chinon played a role in the rivalry between England and France. During the Hundred Years’ War, the future Charles VII of France installed his court here – Paris and much of north-west France was under English control. Here, in 1429, Joan of Arc visited Charles for the first time to persuade him that she was God’s messenger. She went on to lead the King’s army to defeat the English at Orléans.

Today, this history is inventively told through a combination of video and written text throughout the castle and grounds. It’s a really pleasant place to wander around, with a nice cafe in the grounds, before either walking or taking a free lift down the hill to the medieval town below. The staff at the castle were really friendly, and you’ll find lots of activities taking place throughout the day.

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Vineyard, Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Vineyard, Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Vineyard, Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Vineyard, Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Vineyard, Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Vineyard, Chinon, Loire Valley, France

From the castle’s battlements you can see vineyards stretching off into the distance. This is one of the Loire’s main wine regions, rightly famed for the Chinon Rouge wine made from Cabernet Franc grapes. Around the town, and throughout the region, are plenty of wine caves and cellars; had I not been driving I’d definitely have been tempted to try a glass or two.

The town of Chinon, home to around 8,000 people, is a sleepy place that exudes history. It’s full of ancient buildings, some dating from the medieval period, other from the 17th and 18th centuries. We wandered around, exploring the narrow streets, churches and squares, but couldn’t stay for too long as we were at the start of our trip back to the Netherlands and had another Loire château to visit.

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

Chinon, Loire Valley, France

A confluence of history in Tours

It was during our fifth circuit of its tightly packed city centre that I began to regret coming to Tours. How hard can it be to find a parking space? To be fair, our sat nav’s determination to take us down pedestrianised streets wasn’t helping, but it really shouldn’t be this tricky. We finally found an underground car park and, emerging from the stairwell into a fantastic food market, all was quickly forgiven.

Walking through the streets on the way to our hotel, it was clear that Tours was a vibrant and attractive place. Around 25,000 students add to the vibrancy, and painstaking reconstruction following the Second World War has restored Tours’ architectural splendour. No mean feat, around a quarter of Tours was destroyed during the German offensive in 1940 and the Allies’ counter offensive in 1944.

Cathedral of Saint Gatien, Tours, France

Cathedral of Saint Gatien, Tours, France

In June 1940, Tours was briefly home to the French government, led by Paul Reynaud, as it retreated south in the face of the German advance. It saw an extraordinary meeting between Reynaud and Winston Churchill. Fearing isolation, Churchill was desperate to ensure that France remained in the war and didn’t negotiate a deal with Germany.

Taking place only a few days after the Dunkirk Evacuation, with the victorious German army bearing down upon Tours, those must have been tense, chaotic days. Paris fell to the Germans during Churchill’s conference with Reynaud, on June 14. Eight days later France had no choice but to surrender, but not before much of Tours had been burned to the ground by incendiary bombs.

Tours was also central to another major turning point in Western European history, the Battle of Tours in 732. It was here that Charles Martel, the ruler of the Christian Frankish Kingdoms defeated invading Muslim armies advancing from their Spanish heartland. Although it would be a long time before the Reconquista in Spain, it’s considered the battle that prevented the further advance of Islam across Europe.

The outstanding sight in Tours is undoubtedly the Cathedral of Saint Gatien, a truly magnificent building begun in the 13th century and completed in the 16th century. The overwrought Gothic frontage towers over the surrounding streets. The interior is equally glorious, with fabulous stained glass windows and ornate tombs, including that of two children of King Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany.

The cathedral is considered to be one of the finest in France. Perhaps not quite on a par with Reims or Notre-Dame de Paris, it’s an astonishing building all the same and alone worth the effort of making the trip to Tours. Plus, it only attracts a fraction of the number of tourists, which makes the experience far more rewarding.

Tours, France

Tours, France

Tours, France

Tours, France

Tours, France

Tours, France

Ancient buildings, Tours, France

Ancient buildings, Tours, France

Tours, France

Tours, France

The heart of the old city is Place Plumereau, a small square surrounded by wonderful half-timbered 18th century houses. It’s home to several good cafes and had a lively atmosphere day and night. The Friday night we were there seemed particularly lively. Spiralling off Place Plumereau, several streets lead you further into the warren of the historic old town. This area, the Vieille Ville, is pedestrianised and great for leisurely strolling.

We only had a day in Tours, so we didn’t see everything we’d hoped to. That said, wandering the city streets was a genuine pleasure, and it’s a place that we’d definitely go back to, if for no other reason than that it’s the perfect base from which to explore the villages and château dotted around the western Loire Valley.

Place Plumereau, Tours, France

Place Plumereau, Tours, France

Place Plumereau, Tours, France

Place Plumereau, Tours, France

Tours, France

Tours, France

The Royal Citadel of Loches

The plan had been a morning exploring the delights of the Château de Chenonceau, followed by a drive through beautiful Loire Valley countryside, and a leisurely lunch in the ancient royal town of Loches. We managed most things except lunch, which had to be postponed due to the sudden onset of a 24-hour stomach bug. It was a great shame, Loches’ narrow cobbled streets are home to some good restaurants.

Undeterred, but somewhat less enthusiastic than usual, we walked through a lovely public park alongside the River Indre with views over the town and citadel; then we plunged into the winding streets and made our way uphill towards the imposing walls of the medieval citadel.

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France (courtesy of Ville Loches)

Loches, France (courtesy of Ville Loches)

Loches is something of a backwater in the Loire region and, comparatively, doesn’t receive so many tourists. After the craziness of the Château de Chenonceau this came as a relief. Walking through the quiet streets was a real pleasure. We found our way uphill and passed through one the imposing gateways into the citadel; it was a hot day but at least at the top of the hill there was a breeze.

Loches is a sleepy place today but, standing looking out over the Loire valley from inside the citadel, it’s possible to appreciate the turbulent history that has swept over the town. It’s a place that played a critical role in the centuries-long conflict between the royal houses of England and France.

In 1194 Richard the Lionheart, the King of England who spoke French and very little English, captured the town from Philip II of France. In the 12th century the Kingdom of France was a small feudal state, and this was less an English attack on France than a power struggle between French nobles. Richard Coeur de Lion was also Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony, Count of Poitiers, Anjou, Maine and Nantes, as well as Overlord of Brittany. A job title that wouldn’t easily fit on a business card.

Jardin Public, Loches, France

Jardin Public, Loches, France

River Indre, Loches, France

River Indre, Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

The English only controlled Loches for a decade before it fell to Philip II after a year-long siege. Loches would play another, far more significant, role in Anglo-French relations 235-years later. It was here, in 1429, that Joan of Arc sought a meeting with King Charles VII of France to persuade him march north to fight the English, and to be crowned King of France in Reims – a symbolically important act.

Loches was also home to the stunningly beautiful Agnes Sorel, mistress of the same Charles VII. At one time religious and ascetic, Charles fell head-over-heels for Agnes, who is credited with turning Charles onto a path of lust and debauchery. He gave her the Château de Loches as a gift, presumably a gift that had great significance given this was where he’d met with Joan of Arc.

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Church of St. Ours, Loches, France

Church of St. Ours, Loches, France

Church of St. Ours, Loches, France

Church of St. Ours, Loches, France

Agnes is regarded as the first official royal mistress in France’s history – a true trail blazer. She was clearly ahead of her time in many ways, pioneering naked shoulders as a fashion statement – something that shocked society and one of the reasons she was despised by many in the royal court. She died tragically young, almost certainly poisoned.

Paintings of Agnes often show her with bared breast, including Jean Fouquet’s exquisite Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, which I was lucky enough to see last year in Antwerp. Noted for its ‘icy eroticism’ by some critics, it’s still pretty risqué today. Agnes is depicted Venus-like, and she wears a crown as if she’s Queen.

Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, painting of Agnes Sorel, Antwerp, Belgium

Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, painting of Agnes Sorel, Antwerp, Belgium

Church of St. Ours, Loches, France

Church of St. Ours, Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

Loches, France

While we were discovering this epic history, I was getting progressively sicker and had developed a fever. I sat in the cool interior of the Church of St. Ours hoping for a miracle, none was forthcoming. Dragging myself back into the sunlight, I felt like I couldn’t walk another step, unless it was towards a bathroom. This meant we wouldn’t be visiting the Château de Loches.

Now, anyone who knows me, or has had the misfortune to follow this blog for any time, will be painfully aware of my great love of castles, forts and other old ruins. I would never willingly turn down the opportunity to spend time wandering around an historic pile of rocks, but the Château de Loches was beyond me. I was clearly at death’s door … time to beat a hasty retreat to our hotel in Tours.

Château de Chenonceau, the castle of the six ladies

If there is a more exquisite sight anywhere in the Loire Valley than the Château de Chenonceau in the early morning sunlight, I don’t know what it might be. Draped across the tranquil River Cher, its white stone brilliantly reflected in the slow moving water, this has to be one of the most sublime and graceful château to be found anywhere in France … and that’s saying something.

You approach it along a tree lined avenue that culminates in beautiful formal gardens. A path through the flower garden brings you to a riverside walk along the Cher, and leads into sun-dappled woodland where more paths diverge amongst the trees. It is as perfect as it is possible to get … at least if you get here before the tour buses start arriving.

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Chenonceau’s spectacular location alone would be reason to visit, but this is also a castle with a history to match its magical location. The peaceful surroundings belie five centuries of intrigue, revenge and decadence. Its also unusual for the fact that its most influential inhabitants were all women, which is why it’s nicknamed the “castle of the six women”.

Chenonceau was built in 1515 by Thomas Bohier, the finance minister to French King Charles VIII. It was his wife, Katherine, who tore down the original castle, chose the new design and oversaw the building work. Chenonceau became a royal château when King Francis I seized it upon the death of Bohier. Francis was quickly succeeded by King Henri II who indulgently gave the château to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.

Unfortunately for Diane, Henri II was married to one of the Medici’s, not a family with which to trifle. Catherine de Medici was a woman of iron will who clearly subscribed to the theory that revenge is best served cold. One of her favourite sayings was “hate and wait”. Which is precisely what she did to get her hands on Chenonceau and dispossess Diane.

Vibrant, fun and renowned for her athleticism, Diane de Poitiers was everything Catherine wasn’t. She had been Henri II’s governess when he was a child and, although 20 years his senior, Henri was clearly obsessed with her. God only knows what this says about his state of mind. Catherine despised her, but powerless to challenge her while Henri lived she waited.

In the meantime, Diane became a successful businesswoman and turned the estate into a financial success. The profits were used to add the bridge across the river – so she could go hunting in the woods on the far bank. Then Henri died in a jousting accident and Catherine made her move, forced Diane out and took Chenonceau for herself.

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Donkey, Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Donkey, Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

It was Catherine who added the two galleries on top of the bridge that completed the building you see today. She was making a fortune from farming silk and used the profits to build the house and to throw some of the most decadent parties the 16th century ever saw. Catherine was the first person in France to have a fireworks display, but her parties also included naked ‘nymphs’ and transvestites.

When Catherine’s third son, King Henry III, was assassinated in 1589 Chenonceau passed to his wife, Louise de Lorraine. Filled with grief, she turned the castle into a living mausoleum. She had her bedroom decorated in black and took to roaming the corridors in white mourning clothes. When she died in 1601 she was the last royal resident Chenonceau would have.

During the French Revolution the castle was in the possession of Louise Dupin. It was Louise who made the château fashionable for Parisian society darlings, including the Enlightenment’s most famous thinkers, Voltaire and Rousseau. Aged 83-years old when the Revolution erupted, she managed to save the castle from the mob.

One final historical footnote, during the Second World War the River Cher formed the boundary between German-controlled France and Vichy France. Chenonceau, and its galleried bridge, were used to smuggle Jews and French Resistance fighters across the river away from Nazi hands.

It’s a glorious place. The only down side is its popularity. In summer up to 6000 souls – groups, families and individuals – pour into the house and grounds. It wasn’t that bad when we were there, but the house was uncomfortably crowded and we almost didn’t visit the kitchens due to a long queue. Go early.

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

Château de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

A walk through 18th century Orléans

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.

Hôtel de Ville, Orléans, France

Hôtel de Ville, Orléans, France

Orléans, France

Orléans, France

Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d'Orléans, Orléans, France

Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans, Orléans, France

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.

Historic centre of Orléans, France

Historic centre of Orléans, France

Historic centre of Orléans, France

Historic centre of Orléans, France

Loire River, Orléans, France

Loire River, Orléans, France

Loire River, Orléans, France

Loire River, Orléans, France

Loire River, Orléans, France

Loire River, Orléans, France

Loire River, Orléans, France

Loire River, Orléans, France

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.

Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d'Orléans, Orléans, France

Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans, Orléans, France

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.

Exploring the legend of the Maid of Orléans

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.

Statue of Joan of Arc, Place du Martroi, Orléans, France

Statue of Joan of Arc, Place du Martroi, Orléans, France

Joan of Arc projection, Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d'Orléans, Orléans, France

Joan of Arc projection, Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans, Orléans, France

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.

Marianne, Orléans, France

Marianne, Orléans, France

Place de la Republique, Orléans, France

Place de la Republique, Orléans, France

Timber-framed buildings, Orléans, France

Timber-framed buildings, Orléans, France

Timber-framed buildings, Orléans, France

Timber-framed buildings, Orléans, France

Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d'Orléans, Orléans, France

Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans, Orléans, France

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…

Joan of Arc projection, Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d'Orléans, Orléans, France

Joan of Arc projection, Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans, Orléans, France

Joan of Arc projection, Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d'Orléans, Orléans, France

Joan of Arc projection, Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans, Orléans, France

Joan of Arc projection, Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d'Orléans, Orléans, France

Joan of Arc projection, Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans, Orléans, France