Orléans Place du Martroi
france,  travel,  year abroad

Orléans, or how I escaped the big city | France

I had been in Paris for almost two months before I actually managed to go on a proper day trip beyond the limits of my Navigo pass. And my choice of a first day trip was one which confused my colleagues, who met my response to “que’est-ce que tu fais ce weekend?” with a slightly bewildered expression. I was going to Orléans.

They probably had good reason to be confused. Orléans, 69 miles south of Paris and the capital of the Loiret department, is not the place people tend to go when visiting northern France. It is like what Ely is to Cambridge. But for someone who is used to living in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, a break from the sprawling chaos that is Paris was refreshing. “It’s so calm and quiet, I love it,” I told my friend multiple times, with undeserved excitement, as we shivered beneath winter coats and took photos of an impossibly blue winter sky. Indeed, the fact that it was 10am on a Saturday morning, with none of the warmth we have been spoilt by of late, probably explained the peace and quiet. Yet even as the afternoon wore on and (warm) shops became more populated, the pavements remained empty enough to navigate and I didn’t nearly get run over even once.

Place du Martroi, Orléans, with a statue of Joan of Arc

“Joan of Arc, Orléans’ historical heroine”

However, we hadn’t gone to Orléans just to give me a break from Paris. The main historical attraction of Orléans is its connection to Joan of Arc who was instrumental in its liberation from the English in 1429, during the Hundred Years’ War. Just off the main square, we found “la Maison de Jeanne d’Arc”, a small reproduction of a medieval house, though, as a passing local was keen to tell us as we stood outside taking photos, “ce n’est pas la vraie”. The interior – containing a short animated film about the heroine’s role in the city – was underwhelming. The real oldest houses in Orléans (‘La Maison de la Coquille’) were surreptitiously tucked away down a back alley we struggled to find, with not a tourist or information board in sight.

Maison de la Coquille, Orléans, France

If the Maison de Jeanne d’Arc was underwhelming, not all was lost; the same ticket (€3 for students) can be used to enter two other museums in the city for no extra cost. We went to the Musée des Beaux Arts, a museum which might not boast the big names that most tourists flock to, but which held an impressive range all the same. Their temporary exhibition, boasting a lot of severed heads and pained facial expressions, was particularly enjoyable. I also found the museum a lot more accessible to people not well-versed in the history of art (me) as a lot of the paintings were accompanied by a description of their context or what they depicted, rather than just their title and date of composition.

“Cathedral views and walking shoes”

Very close to the Musée des Beaux Arts is the Hôtel Groslot, with free entry and a pleasant half-hour’s worth of rooms to stroll around. The building was built in the 15th century and has seen centuries of wealthy French guests, before now being a public building often used for weddings.

As in most cities with a scattering of tourism, a visit to the cathedral was also a must. Turning the corner to find ourselves staring at it left us stunned for a moment before our numb fingers could reach for our phones to take a photo. Inside was gorgeous, too; I especially loved the night-sky blue ceilings in the apsidal chapels.

The top of the Cathedral in Orléans, France

The city is small enough that you can walk pretty much anywhere of interest, so wear some comfortable shoes! If you’ve got some spare time, go for a walk along the river and take in the tranquil water and the boats which sit at its bank. Wander up to the Église de Saint-Aignan, where there is apparently a crypt (it was closed when we went) and note the strange window which makes you wonder if they ran out of money when building the church…

Église de Saint Aignan, Orléans

Behind the Cathedral you’ll find the Campo Santo, and the remnants of an old city rampart. But if it’s cold (which it was) and you’re tired (which we were), then feel no shame in passing a few hours taking in the “culture” of the shopping arcade next to the station while you wait for the train home…

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