Julius Caesar was here. The English were here, and because of that, Joan of Arc was here. It seems throughout history, Orleans in the Loire Valley has established its place as a principal city in France (and it was the most important city after Paris during the 10th and 11th Centuries).
While today most people come to Orleans to seek out the legacy of Joan of Arc in the place where she was victorious in the Siege of the English during the Hundred Years War, there is a lot more to the city than the Maid of Orleans says Amy McPherson…
The road to riches
Cobbled roads Rue Bourgogne and Rue Parisie cross over just south of the famous cathedral. These old Roman roads led to Paris and Burgundy, showing that Orleans was already an important junction during the Roman conquest when they called the city Aurelianum.
French royals who based their homes largely between Paris and the Loire Valley, found the Orleans a convenient stopping off spot as the closest city on the Loire to Paris route.
Merchant boats would dock further downstream near the Atlantic Ocean and transfer their luxury goods onto traditional wooden boats more suited to sail on this unpredictable wild river before bringing them to Orleans for onward transportation to Paris.
Navigating the criss-cross of narrow medieval streets of the old town, Orleans exhibits signs of its once affluent past, especially through the varied architectural styles of the French Renaissance of the 16th Century. Merchants who settled here imported material and ideas that came with their ships, and built fancy, stylish homes. It is not uncommon to see timber frame house of pink and yellow wedged between limestone buildings with decorative carvings commonly associated with the Renaissance period.
The River Loire
Flowing for 634 miles through the country into the Atlantic, the Loire is the longest river in France. It was one of the most important trade routes of the 16th Century. For Orleans, the capital of the department of Loiret in the Centre-Val de Loire region, it was the river which brought wealth and prestige to the city.
“But, ever since they built the railway from Orleans to Paris, people have turned away from the river,” said Damien, my guide from the Orleans Tourism Office and a local to the city. “They seem to have forgotten it was the Loire that built this city.”
Today, the riverfront has been redeveloped. It is once again a vibrant area to hang out and enjoy the Loire. Visitors can hire traditional boats, once used for trade and transport. Flat bottomed and narrower than other riverboats, these are designed to endure the challenges of the Loire, the last wild river in Europe.
For someone who only spent 10 days in Orleans, Joan of Arc has a lot of presence here. “Of course when you come to Orleans you’ll want to visit the places related to Joan of Arc,” my guide says, “but there is so much more to the city than the Maiden.”
We stood at the main square, Place du Martroi, bordered by elegant Renaissance, Haussmann and Art Deco style architecture. Dominating my line of sight, in the middle of the square, is a large statue of Joan of Arc. Damien beckons me to steer my eyes away from the statue to look at the ground beneath her. Laughing at my confused expression as I gaze at a plain slab of concrete, he takes out a remote control and presses the red button. The slab opens up to reveal a spiral staircase. Just as he said, beneath the hype of Joan of Arc, there is quite literally another layer to Orleans to discover. “Welcome to Orleans Underground.”
Like all great cities, Orleans has been developed, expanded numerous times, things get buried and ground level gets higher. As I descend the spiral stairs, I find to my astonishment it leads to a 16th century moat. There’s even an old bridge that was once connected to one of the city walls towering over me. Uncovered while constructing an underground car park for the city, this is now proudly displayed through glass panels that separate the site from the car park that was built around it.
Ancient but lively streets
Back on the road surface, I follow Damien through the streets, tracing the invisible line where the city’s three walls once stood. En route we visit more underground treasures, such as crypts and underground chapels that were used to hide religious artefacts. We cut through Rue Bourgogne, lively with restaurants, cafes and bars, to arrive at Saint Aignan Church. “Ah! Here is someone from Orleans worth celebrating!” he cries.
Saint Aignan was the Bishop of Orleans. He was canonised for defending the city against Attila the Hun in 451 without lifting a weapon. Instead he threw a handful of sand towards the advancing enemy. His prayers turned the sand into a cloud of wasps which made the invaders flee without a fight. Today, besides this church, his legacy is mostly forgotten.
“Oh, except in one small part of Orleans lifestyle.” Damien digs into his backpack and produces a picture of the local football team whose emblem is a wasp with a football.
The Loire flows silently, streaming westwards toward the Atlantic in ribbons of sand and water. After I leave Damien’s comprehensive tour of the city, I hop on a small wooden boat. They were traditionally used for dredging the sand so that larger merchant boats could come through with their cargo. To my right and left, sand islands are thriving with bird life, bustling with herons, egrets, cormorants, ducks, geese and starlings. There are even resident beavers.
I look up towards Orleans – if I were in Aignan and Joan’s shoes. I’d be defending it too.
Must sees: in Orleans
Check out the Museum of Fine Arts next to the Tourism Office. One of France’s oldest provincial museums, artworks range from the 15th to the 20th centuries with paintings, drawings, sculpture and prints.
Across the road is the Cathedral, with unusual towers shaped like a crown. Joan of Arc’s story is told through a series of stained-glass windows. From May to September a Son et Lumière show takes place on the Cathedral façade.
Wine and Dine: Eugene, a Michelin listed restaurant tucked away in an alley near Place du Martroi, is a celebration of regional cuisine. Exquisite meals accompanied by attentive staff, the seasonal menu is a dining ceremony without the hefty price tag. (24, rue Sainte Anne)
Locals love: Le Restaurant 128 on the Olivet side of the river, local’s lunchtime favourite. The unpretentious set menu is served with friendly smiles in a welcoming setting. The restaurant also holds regular live performances and events. (128 Avenue du Loiret, Olivet)
Don’t miss: Festival of the Loire 2019
Visit between 18 to 22 September in 2019 and join in the fun at the Festival de Loire (www.festivaldeloire.com). The biennial event celebrates the Loire and its rich history, with a parade of traditional merchant and trade boats, music and performances that tell stories of the sailors who rely on this wild river.
Where to stay: Riverfront Empreinte Hotel Orleans is an elegant boutique hotel and historical mansion. Rooms are tastefully decorated and comfortable. It’s a great location for exploring the city. www.empreinte-hotel.com
Getting there: Orleans is an hour and twenty minutes by train from Paris Gare d’Austerlitz. It’s a good base for exploring the Loire Valley. There are regional train connections to major towns around the Loire and its Chateaux.
Orleans Tourist Office: www.tourisme-orleansmetropole.com
Amy McPherson is a London based travel writer whose work has been featured in international publications. Cats, cycling and food features heavily in her writing and her blog at: www.footprintsandmemories.com