Statue of Joan of Arc in her city of Orleans

Orleans France: Battlefield city of Jeanne d'Arc

The Gallic village of Orleans sat along the banks of the picturesque Loire River when it was conquered and destroyed by Julius Caesar in 52 BC. It became the seat of later kingdoms and wealthy because it possessed one of the few bridges across the river. The medieval city’s name became forever linked to that of French heroine, Jeanne d’Arc when she lifted an English siege during the Hundred Years War in 1429. The relationship has remained strong over the past 580 years and Orleans holds a Jeanne d’Arc fete every May with a local girl selected to portray Jeanne in a dramatization of her ride into the besieged city.

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Modern Orleans bears little resemblance to the city of Jeanne. Heavily bombed in the Second World War, the rebuilding process cost it much of its medieval appearance, and the city now looks like many other modern, commercial cities, including the attendant traffic, one way streets, and congestion.

Exploring the Old City

The Vieil Quarter, however, standing between the cathedral and the river retains numerous historic structures. The scale of central Orleans encourages exploration because it is small enough to walk but large enough for a variety of old buildings, especially near the Chatelet and the rue de Boulogne, where medieval-looking buildings remain. Parking convenient for the walking tour is available in garages near the place du Martroi or at Halles Chatelet.

The place du Martroi is in the heart of Orleans and is the logical starting place for tours. The place has been mostly pedestrianized and presents an open expanse at the intersection of three major streets. The square retains its classical 18th century buildings and the equestrian statue (from 1855) of Jeanne whose plinth is decorated with bronze plaques commemorating events from her life.

Leaving the place du Martroi to the southeast is the pedestrian-only rue Ste-Catherine. Its old storefronts and narrow passage present an image of what medieval Orleans may have been like.

Turn right onto the rue Jeanne d’Arc; the great Cathedrale Ste-Croix is visible at the eastern end of a street lined with buildings of classical design. The street runs from the place du general de Gaulle to the place Ste-Croix. We will return to the cathedral later in the tour.

Proceed south onto rue Royale, an attractive shopping street of upscale stores and restaurants. Arcades on both sides allow pedestrians to walk protected from the weather. The rue Royale leads directly to the Pont George V (built in 1760), renamed after the English king and French ally during the First World War. The nine graceful stone arches span the 339 meters of the Loire. The long-destroyed medieval bridge and site of the fearsome battle that liberated the city was 100 meters to the east. Les Tourelles were defensive towers located at the southern bank of the river and, after thirteen hours of repeated attempts to scale the ramparts, they were set ablaze by Jeanne’s forces and the English commander killed ending the siege.

After crossing the river turn left onto quai du Fort Tourelles, which shortly changes name to quai des Augustins. Sixty meters to the east is a small overlook which provides a viewpoint of the city back across the river. A wooden cross tops a stone column below which a very faded plaque identifies the location as the entrance to Fort de Tourelles. The shrub-covered islands in the river are all that remain of the foundations of the original bridge.

Forty meters farther along the Quay du Fort Tourelles is a triangular square with another bronze statue of Jeanne erected in the 19th century. Bounding the square is the rue Croix-de-la-Pucelle, at the far end of which a small cross-topped column marks the location of the Bastille des Augustins, one of the English siege works constructed to surround the city. Its plaque states, ‘In memory of Jeanne d’Arc, called la Pucelle, the pious heroine who on 8 May 1429 in this same location by her valor saved the city, France, and her king.’

Return across the Pont George V and proceed right on rue Jean Hupeau, then right on rue des Halles. In the 20th century, the 'Halles Chatelet' covered food market presents fresh fish, meat, cheese, and fruits among other delicacies. The individual stalls specialize in particular foods, and all are very fresh.

Leave Halles Chatelet by the northern gate and proceed north to rue de Bourgogne. Jeanne’s triumphant entry into the city on 29 April 1429 probably led down this street, then a major thoroughfare. Now it contains numerous restaurants and cafes offering a wide variety of local and ethnic cuisines. At rue Parisie turn left and continue into the place Ste-Croix in front of the Cathedrale Ste-Croix.

Explore Orleans France, the city of Joan of Arc
A church has been on this spot since the 7th century. After being destroyed by fire in 989, Hugh Capet, founder of the Capetian dynasty, ordered construction of a new cathedral. At least one king of France (Louis VI) was crowned here. After a partial collapse in 1278, a Gothic structure in which Jeanne celebrated her victory took its place. The 13th century church was burned by the Huguenots in 1568, and the reconstruction took over 200 years due to the later religious wars. Gutted by bombing in World War II, the building has been restored to its prewar grandeur.

The five great portals of the facade are surmounted by three rose windows. The structure is crowned with two square towers which complete the impressive, symmetric front. Peaking out from behind the towers is the central spire, which is sited directly over the transept crossing. Inside, the main aisle is flanked on each side by two side aisles. The tall interior roof is capped by a gothic vaulted ceiling. Extremely colorful stained glass windows depict events in Jeanne’s short career whereas the plain glass windows are a reminder of the Second World War’s destruction. The north transept to the left of the main altar has a statue of Jeanne supported by two lions. The altar is carved with battle scenes, including the conquest of Les Tourelles.

Upon nearby pillars are two plaques commemorating the more than one million dead from the British Empire who fell in the First World War and the more than one half million Americans who gave their lives fighting in two world war in France. Stone decorations on the side altars and ambulatory show time’s wear. Bullet holes at the rear of the nave are still visible. The foundations of the original 4th century structure can still be seen in the crypt. Tours of the church’s treasures and of the tower for views over the city are by official guide only (in French) and are arranged by the tourist office.

The old Hotel Groslot, a 16th century Renaissance building, is north of the cathedral in the place d’Etape. The red brick building was once a residence for French kings. Another Jeanne statue, depicting her wearing a dress rather than the customary military garb, is in front of the stairs. The building contains Jeanne artifacts and noted Renaissance paintings. If possible, walk through the building to a small park where the facade of the 15th century chapel of St-Jacques has been reconstructed after being moved from the Chatelet district.

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Robert Mueller is a retired scientist and businessman who developed a love of travel and an enthusiasm for visiting historic locations. He served his military service in the US Army Signal Corps during the Vietnam era. After five years of on-site research, he completed Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium, which has received three national book awards including First Prize in the Travel category. He is a member of the Midwest Writers Association and the Military Writers Society of America.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 23, 2016

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