France: Orléans, City of Bikes and Cross-Dressing Joan

What? 
Orléans is a delightful Loire Valley town, a great day trip or overnight destination from Paris.

Why visit?
Orléans offers plenty to see and do.

There's a charming medieval quarter with several magnificent historical buildings and cobblestoned streets.

There's a wide-open riverside that's great for cycling or picnics.

And then there's the story of the world's first convicted cross-dresser. Yes, we're talking about good old Joan, the Maid of Orléans.

Where? 
About 100km south of Paris, a one hour train ride away. Map.


ALTHOUGH ORLEANS IS the first town in the popular Loire Valley, you won't find many tourist buses here. That's because it lacks what attracts most people to the Valley: chateaux. Unlike its siblings downstream, like Blois, Amboise and Tours, there is not a single chateau in sight.
Yet historically Orléans was the most important of the Loire towns. It was the Loire river port closest to Paris, so back when the river served as an intercity highway, goods and people alike would travel upstream on barges as far as Orléans, where they would alight to continue their journey to the capital.
With this strategic importance in mind, French royals have always had special affinity for the town, and the title of Duke of Orléans was traditionally bestowed upon the king's second son, putting Orléans close to the heart of royal power.

These days Orléans is just a short train ride away from Paris, yet far enough to allow you to escape the crowds and smog of the capital and swap them for some fresh air.

Given its history, Orléans is not short on charm nor sights.




Joan the cross-dresser

The one downside of a trip to Orléans is the risk of OD'ing on The Maid, as the local tourist authorities try to milk their connections with Joan of Arc for all its worth. You'll run into Joan everywhere you turn- there's no escaping her, in particular during the annual Fêtes de Jeanne d'Arc, a 10-day Joan-fest culminating in the first week of May every year.  

It's worth spending a few minutes reading up on Joan- she wasn't born in Orléans, nor did she go up in smoke in the city. But she did deliver the town from the evil English during the 100-year war, at least for a short time.

Few people know that when Joan was burned at the stake in 1431 the charge levelled against her was cross-dressing. She had a penchant for dressing in soldier's clothes normally reserved for men. Charges of heresy (Joan claimed to hear divine voices) were hard to prove but her sartorial transgressions were easy for anybody to see. And so Joan became an early icon of LGBT persecution, murdered for being too butch.
The visual highlight of the Joan-fest is Joan (dressed like a man, of course) on the facade of the Cathedral.  


On your bike!

Vélo'+ plus Cathedral.
When the risk of Joan-overload sets in, escape!

The Loire Valley is famed for its 800km long bike trails, and bike rental is available throughout the Valley. However, from Orléans it's a good 50km to the first 'big' chateau, Chambord.

If you're not that sporty, Orléans offers a bike-sharing scheme similar to Vélib in Paris, called Vélo'+, which allows hassle-free bike rental for a short period.

The town has a glorious Loire-side promenade, which is an excellent starting point for two-wheeled trips. Cross the Loire, and you're in bonafide countryside. 

Picnic spots abound- instead of crossing the river at Pont de l'Europe you could stick to the north bank of the river where there are some quiet parks laid out just a short ride from the town center.



You wouldn't want to complete a Tour de France on the tank-like Vélo'+, but for a 2 hour trip they are perfectly fine- and cheap to boot.









Baroque Gothic and other architectural marvels

The old town has everything you expect from a French historical center: cobblestone streets, half-timbered houses, and the inevitable kebab shops.

The visual focal point is the Cathedral of St Croix d'Orléans. It looks like an outstanding example of flamboyant Gothic... but if you look carefully you'll see something is amiss. The facade was rebuilt in the 18th century, at the height of the Baroque, and it's actually an interesting mash-up of Baroque-meets-Gothic.
















The best example is the flying cherubs holding a coat of arms over the main entrance- not something you'd find in a Gothic design manual. 

Baroque-meets-Gothic
Kitty-corner from this sorta-Gothic church you'll find the Renaissance Hôtel Groslot, whose main claim to fame appears to be that king Francis II died here after a sleep-over that didn't end well. His mom, Catherine de Medici, subsequently camped here for several months, severely outstaying her welcome. 
No, It's not Joan this time... way too feminine. 
In front of the Hôtel Groslot you'll find... right, another statue of Joan, looking extra butchy with her pageboy haircut.  Note the bullet holes: Joan got shot at during the liberation in 1944. 
There she is again: taking pride of place in front of the Hôtel Groslot.
Hidden behind the Hôtel is a delightful secret garden, that makes a great place to chill or picnic.  Or, if you are an enfant Orléanais, to kick a ball.
The garden of the Hotel Groslot. Peaceful and hidden. And devoid of any Joanesque statuary.
And yes, there's the main square, Place du Martroi, where you find the city's shopping district, and its 19th century architecture, like this wedding cake-confection of a Beaux-Arts building. Oh lala!


Getting there:
Trains depart frequently from Paris Austerlitz station. If you buy your ticket in advance they can be as cheap as €10. The train takes about an hour, so a day trip is eminently doable. Spending a night before returning back or moving on is also worth considering.

If you want to use the Vélo'+ bike system, be sure you understand the rules.
You'll need a credit card to sign up, you buy a day pass (€ 1), and will be given a code that can be used at any station to use a bike. The first half hour is gratuit. After that you start paying. For a few hours it's very reasonable: €1.50 for the first two hours, then €2 for every subsequent hour. If you return the bike to a station, you'll start again with a free half hour.

Useful links:
Fêtes de Jeanne d'Arc official website.
City of Orléans Tourism website.


2 comments:

  1. Dear Michiel, your wonderful website is really great ! Your advices on my town are pertinent, right and kind for us. We live in a great town, and yes our local Vip Is Jeanne d'Arc, and we suffer of a lack of castle to be as attractive as on other chateau de la Loire town. Nevertheless we are labeled town of art and history and it's here that beats the heart of French royal kings. Reason of the Angels on the cathedral entrance door tympan that you noticed. We are here famous also for our Roses and nurseries. In the neighborhood of Orleans several kings married themselves in small churchs...so all that you have written is great and Next time you come in Orléans, take your bike, follow the Loire edges, or take the train and stop at "Fourneaux Plage" ( long time ago this was a Parisian villegiature village, as you said one hour from Paris) and have a delicious breakfast at home : home made marmalade from my neighbor's 18th century garden, tea from "café Jeanne d'Arc", country bread, apples from famous Orleans's orchards, and you're right : no way to escape to the Maid ��, tea towel from my studio Atelier Piccolo ! Have a great day everywhere you are in the world and keep us dreaming of our beautiful world !!! Many thanks Adeline or @sardinedeloire

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Adeline, thanks for your kind words! Always great to hear from a local. You've got a beautiful town and we look forward to visiting again and having breakfast as recommended by you! Thanks'

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