When I was a little boy, I used to live in Orléans, a small city (approximately 100,000 inhabitants) that is one hour by train from Paris. I don’t have many memories from those days, since I left Orléans when I was 5. However, since I arrived in Paris, spending a day in Orléans has always been on my to-do list.
I never took time to do it, though. I must confess I have a pretty nasty tendency to procrastinate, and find many excuses not to do what I really want to do. But two weeks ago, I decided that I had postponed this visit too many times, so I booked the train tickets for a ride to Orléans on Sunday online, closed my computer, sighed, and thought “At last, this is it, no more running away”. To think I’ve lived 6 months in India and another 6 months in Shanghai during my college years…
When Sunday arrived, I was ready with my brightest smile, an adventurous mindset, and a kind of cheerfulness at the thought of seeing Orléans again, 25 years after I had last been there.
When I arrived at Gare d’Austerlitz, which is the train station from which the trains heading to Orléans leave, I started having some doubts, though. What if I would be disappointed? What if it were a boring place? With this bright blue sky, would it not be better to stay in Paris and enjoy the city? These thoughts kept circling in my mind for the whole train trip to Orléans, until the train arrived at its final destination and I left the train station.
But as soon as I arrived, the big grin that came back to my face made me realise all these were just some foolish negative thoughts. There’s a very specific kind of happiness that comes when you visit a place you’ve not seen for a long long time. A kind of feeling of belonging, of finding back some old roots you had somehow forgotten. This was what I felt when I left the train station.
As I had expected, I didn’t remember the city at all. In spit of this, it still felt familiar. As I almost always do when I visit a new city, I rushed downtown. The surroundings of the train station were nothing to talk about (it seems in the 60s, in France, leaders though train stations had to bland if not ugly), but as I approached Place Martrois, which is the main square of Orléans, the buildings got older, more decorated, the streets got narrower and more lively, and the city got a lot more charming.
Orléans is not a big city. It’s what you would call a “human-sized” city. Or provincial, if you’re from Paris. The buildings are rather low (no six-storey building), the streets are not large due to the medieval past of the city, and it’s far from being crowded. It’s actually pretty calm on Sundays, especially since many shops are closed then.
The highest building of the city is Cathédrale Sainte-Croix, which is bigger than Notre-Dame de Paris, and also more modern, since it had to be rebuilt after the Huguenots burnt it down during the French Religious Wars which opposed the Catholics and the Protestants. It is very impressive, with its high towers and its bright white walls. The symmetry of the building is almost perfect, and the crowns of stone that sit on top of the two towers like Breton lace bonnets give the cathedral a unique look that make it quite remarkable. The inside of the cathedral are nothing short of stunning, though I must confess it was quite cold in there.
The city also has many remnants of its medieval time, and you can find old belfries and many half-timbered houses in the old city. It’s a pleasure to walk down the streets and try to spot all the tiny details on every house that are as many reminders of the city’s glorious past.
Like many other cities in France, Orléans has given back the banks of the Loire to pedestrians, and walking along this turbulent river which has been a natural frontier for France for so many times in History, and where Jeanne d’Arc fought the English during the Hundred Years War is definitely sparking imagination.
After a long visit of the city, and a bit exhausted I must confess, I decided to go to the Cathedral one last time, to admire it at sunset. On the square facing the Cathedral’s entrance, there was a small pub where I took a local beer to drink, and waited for the sun to set. Quite fortunately, as the sun set, I realised the moon was also rising, and would align perfectly with the cross at the top of the cathedral’s spear in no time. This was the last shot I took of Orléans, and a pretty good memory to end my short journey there.
All in all, I can only advise you to visit Orléans. It’s a city I’ve loved to visit, and take photos of. It has a rich history, and some culinary specialties that are worth discovering. And of course, it’s only one hour by train from Paris, and much less crowded.
As for me, it gave me back my will to discover the regions around Paris. I had already visited Rouen, which I found breathtaking, some years ago, and since my little trip to Orléans, I’ve already gone to Chartres (I’ll write an article about this soon), and I’m planning on going to other cities in the next months (I’ll write about them too). I actually can’t wait.