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