The Loire River originates in the Massif central, towards the south of France. It heads north as far as the important city of Orleans, after which it heads west towards the sea. Orleans is perhaps best known as one of the cities visited by Joan of Arc.
Orleans is the capital of the 'Centre' region and is at the eastern end of the Loire Valley. Orleans city itself lost many buildings during the destructive World War II, but is now an attractive tourist and university centre.
Orleans centre is reasonably compact and contains some historic sights as well as a centre of elegant white stone buildings and a number of older half-timber buildings.
The key building is Orleans Cathedral, which stands on the site of an existing church that was founded in the third century by the Bishop of Orleans, Saint Euverte. Destroyed by Protestants several times in the 16th century during the wars of religion it was later rebuilt and embellished by many of the Kings of France (Henry IV [1553-1610], Louis XIII (1601-1643) and Louis XIV [1638-1715]).
In typical Gothic style, it has very tall (80 metres) towers with a central spire of 100 metres. The interior is a soaring structure, with slender columns and vaulted ceiling, lit by stained glass windows with scenes and episodes from the life of Joan of Arc.
The figure of Joan of Arc is present everywhere in town - in Place du Martroi there is a huge equestrian statue of Joan of Arc, a work in bronze by Denis Foyatier [1793-1863] (1855). This is the main square of Orleans and its misting fountains are particularly welcome in the summer.
Joan of Arc is also evident in Place General de Gaulle where you will find the 'Maison de Janne d'Arc' (House of Joan of Arc) where she stayed in 1429. In fact the building was rebuilt after the Second World War, and contains various objects depicting Orleans during the siege from which Joan of Arc saved it.
Orleans is rich in history and art and the Museum of Fine Arts is well worth a visit. The Museum houses a masterpiece by Velasquez [1599-1660] (called the 'Saint Thomas'), and some landscapes by François Boucher (1703-1770). The museum also has a rich collection of works by 16th century Italian painters Correggio, Carracci, Annibale, Agostino and Ludovico, and modern and contemporary art by Jean Hélion, Paul Gauguin and Picasso. In the Great Hall you can admire a painting by Simon Hantai (1922-2008), of nearly 17 metres, a landscape by Olivier Debré (1920-1999) and a picture from the Chinese painter Zao Wo Ki (born in 1921).
Another key building in Orleans is the Hotel Groslot, built in the 15th century and formerly residence of the local magistrate Jacques Groslot (who died in 1560). The building was then used as Town Hall during the French Revolution. Several famous people passed through here, including King Francis II (1544-1560). The interior, in which you can admire the medieval style bedroom, contains various objects that recall Joan of Arc and it is decorated with precious paintings dating from the eighteenth century.
Whilst in Orleans try some of the traditional recipes, such as the 'brochette de lotte', 'andouillette artisanale', 'pavé d'ane' and other French regional dishes, like braised rabbit with wild mushrooms.
(The story of the name of the city has been much disputed over the centuries, and experts continue to disagree today - see the history of the name Orleans.)
Orleans is to the east of the main Loire Valley attractions but Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire and the Abbey of Fleury are nearby.