- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

Tributes to Joan of Arc can be found all over France in statues, streets, museums and restaurants, but there is no official network or integrated signage to promote cultural-heritage tourism to the sites associated with the country’s national heroine.

So much is known about Joan of Arc probably because the papers associated with her trial were preserved in London and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Scholars and writers have studied them for centuries, and there are many books and movies about Joan’s life, but I have a favorite.

I became interested in retracing some of Joan’s footsteps upon reading Mark Twain’s “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.” He originally published his work on Joan, as well as writings in Harper’s Magazine, under the pseudonym of the Sieur Louis de Conte — as if it were a lost manuscript discovered in the national archives of France and translated by a scholar.

Twain considered this book on Joan his most important literary contribution. He spent 12 years in research and many months doing archival work in Paris and London.

Twain wrote: “I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.”

In the past hundred years, Twain’s book has had several publishing lives and is available from Ignatius Press in San Francisco. This is one of the primary resources I used in planning my itinerary.

KEY PLACES

With thousands of namesake sites from which to choose, I confined my pilgrimage to the key places in Joan’s life. These include her birthplace in Domremy and also nearby Vaucouleurs; Gien, a natural crossroads during her travels through the French countryside and now home to popular earthenware of the same name; Orleans, which she recaptured for the dauphin Charles de Ponthieu — the future Charles VII — and France; Chinon, where Joan recognized the disguised dauphin; and, finally, Rouen, where she was imprisoned, tried and burned at the stake. I did this trip in eight days but would recommend a more relaxed approach.

ALONG THE MEUSE

Christened Jehanne, Joan was born on Jan. 6, 1412, during the Hundred Years’ War, a time when England laid claim, through conquest and marriage, to parts of France. This also was the era of the Great Schism, when the papacy was divided between Rome and Avignon, France.

She was born into a peasant family in the village of Domremy-la-Pucelle in Lorraine. The River Meuse cuts through the rolling hills, creating a beautiful pastoral scene. Domremy is a sleepy town known primarily for its connection to Joan.

As you enter the small, empty yellow house where she was born, it is hard to imagine what life would have been like so long ago.

Next door is an interpretative center, but most of the commentaries are in French, as it is not geared for international tourists. It was here that I learned that Joan’s given name was Jehanne. At the museum, you can see examples of her flamboyant signature.

HEARING VOICES

At 13, in a wooded area about a mile from the village, Joan started hearing the voices of Sts. Michael, Catherine and Margaret, inspiring her to take on the mission of freeing France from the English. On that site stands the Basilica du Bois Chenu. The church is not spectacular, but the view of the river valley from its steps certainly is.

About 12 miles north is the town of Vaucouleurs. There, Joan, the humble shepherdess, demanded that the governor provide her with troops to fight the English. The Musee Jeanne d’Arc in Vaucouleurs was one of my favorite spots.

It is full of posters that commemorate her battles or advertise movies about the Maid of Orleans.

My favorite piece of memorabilia was a U.S. government World War I poster: A triumphant Joan, wrapped in a halo of white angelic light and framed in a field of patriotic blue, is summoning the women of America to save their country by supporting the efforts of their men fighting overseas.

Gien, a quaint town on the Loire, was one of the main crossroads in Joan’s chevauchee, her horseback ride undertaken in the name of crowning the king in Rheims and liberating France from the English.

Her route crisscrossed through this little town three or four times. Today, Gien is home to a faience (earthenware) company of the same name. One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to the factory museum and outlet store.

Gien is sold in the United States in upscale stores, but imported patterns and pieces are limited. At the museum, you can see large exposition pieces from the 19th century; commemorative plates, some in honor of Joan of Arc; and all the patterns. The outlet store attracts natives and tourists alike. I bought a wonderful “pivoines” cake plate hand-painted with peonies.

My next stop was Orleans, where Joan’s army won its first major battle against the English. The siege of Orleans — Oct. 13, 1428, to May 8, 1429 — is commemorated every May 8 with the Fetes de Jeanne d’Arc, a major event since 1429. A parade passes through the town, by the basilica, and ends on the Place du Martroi, a square that is dominated by a towering statue of Joan on horseback.

The residence of Jacques Boucher, who hosted Joan, is now the Maison de Jeanne d’Arc. Another spot is the Centre Jeanne d’Arc, which compiles scholarly writings about Joan and memorabilia from around the world.

My son and I arrived on a Sunday and found the town fairly empty except for a few Japanese tourists. The museums were closed, so we hopped on a trolley in front of the Cathedrale Ste.-Croix for the city tour. It took us past the important spots and back to the cathedral. Inside, we found one of the largest paintings of Joan in France. The next day, we toured the museums and had a lunch of regional fare at Le Cafe du Martroi, a local gathering place.

Orleans is something of a dark spot on the route — unless, I suspect, your visit is synchronized with the Joan of Arc festival in May or the jazz festival in the summer. Though there are plenty of nice shops and restaurants, the town lacks upscale accommodations, so if I visited again, I would make it a day trip. Day trip or longer, don’t forget to pick up some souvenirs of quince jelly in wooden containers bearing Joan’s image.

CHINON

To get to Chinon, you must take a small detour out of the Loire Valley to a tributary called the Vienne. There, at Chinon Castle, is where Joan recognized the dauphin, Charles VII.

Some of Joan’s men, upon arriving at the castle, noticed that things were not as they should be, that an imposter was sitting on the throne. Twain describes what happened:

” ‘They have taken advantage of the hint in her letter to play a trick upon her! She will err, and they will laugh at her. That is not the King that sits there.’ Then I glanced at Joan. She was still gazing steadfastly toward the throne, and I had the curious fancy that even her shoulders and the back of her head expressed bewilderment. Now she turned her head slowly, and her eye wandered along the lines of standing courtiers till it fell upon a young man who was very quietly dressed; then her face lighted joyously, and she ran and threw herself at his feet, and clasped his knees, exclaiming in that soft melodious voice which was her birthright and was now charged with deep and tender feeling: ‘God of his grace give you long life, O dear and gentle Dauphin!’ ”

This scene played in my head as I toured the ruins of Chinon. The great hall where the historical event took place is now open to the elements. I was told that over the centuries, the bricks of Chinon Castle had been confiscated for other building projects. Much is gone, but there is still plenty to see, including another Joan of Arc museum near the entry gate. This one is four stories high, and from the top, you have a wonderful vantage point to view the city.

Isolated and remote, Chinon was unscathed by the bombing during World War II. As you walk the quaint city streets, you can see many-centuries-old half-timbered houses where people still live. The stone staircase from the town to the castle is still open and in popular use. The renowned writer Francois Rabelais called Chinon home, a fact evidenced by street and restaurant names. The Loire region is a major winegrowing area, and Chinon wines are some of the best, so consider taking home a bottle or two.

ON TO NORMANDY

Perhaps one reason why there is no unified presentation of Joan of Arc sites in France is the great distances one must travel, through several political regions, to visit them. Even a rudimentary course encompasses Lorraine in the east of France, the Loire Valley in its midsection and Rouen, Normandy, in the north.

It takes several hours to drive from the Loire area to Rouen, so you might want to stop in the city of Chartres on the way. Chartres is famed for its cathedral — and specifically its windows and the labyrinth, which was laid in the cathedral floor around 1220. Wooden chairs cover it most of the year, so I was unable to walk the labyrinth as I had hoped. I consoled myself with lunch nearby at Le Grand Monarque. The restaurant of this privately owned Best Western hotel gets high marks and served one of the best meals I had in France.

Rouen, about 1 hours north of Chartres, was the site of Joan’s imprisonment and death. There she was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, at age 19. Most of the Joan of Arc sites are in or circle the Place du Vieux-Marche, the old public marketplace. In the center of the square is the Eglise Ste.-Jeanne d’Arc, a beautiful modern church of Scandinavian design. Nearby is the site of her death, known as “Le Bucher.” A flower bed marks the spot, and there is a constant trail of visitors.

Yet another museum sits across from the church. Dioramas tell the story of Joan, taking the visitor on the same trail I had just driven, albeit more rapidly. The manager was keen to have me see everything, including Twain’s “Joan of Arc” in French. I was happy to hear that he gave it high praise, as some French have dismissed it as inaccurate.

I was inspired here to ask for insight into a phenomenon I had noticed along the trail — many Japanese girls. Without skipping a beat, he answered: “Don’t you get it? Joan was a samurai. She gave her life and energy to protect and honor the king — just like any true samurai. Hence, the admiration and attraction.”

Next door to the museum is what is claimed to be the oldest restaurant in France — La Couronne (the Crown), established in 1365. According to Darwin Cauvin, the sophisticated and congenial owner, this is the restaurant where the Julia Child had an unforgettable meal that inspired her to research and write about French cuisine. The result was a classic: “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

I had finished my lunch when Miss Cauvin came by the table to chat. She told me of the meal that inspired Mrs. Child, including oysters on the half shell, a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse; sole meuniere; a salad; creme fraiche and coffee.

Rouen has many historical half-timbered houses and a local pottery. Notre Dame Cathedral, made famous by Claude Monet’s paintings, is a stroll away from the Place du Vieux Marche down the Rue de Gros Horloge, the town’s main street. Be sure to visit a delightful confectionery shop called Anzou. It sells Larmes de Jeanne (Tears of Joan), a commemorative sweet consisting of a toasted almond encased in caramel, then chocolate, and finally dusted with cacao. Regardless of whether these candies have anything to do with Joan’s life, they are wonderful.

WHAT WAS MISSED

Driving to Lorraine from the airport, I sped past Rheims, Joan’s ultimate destination on her ride through France. Rheims was where all French kings had been crowned for centuries, and Joan resolved to get Charles VII there for coronation so he would be viewed as a legitimate king. She achieved this goal and fought on — but soon faltered.

I also wanted to visit the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. The transcripts of Joan’s trial are housed there but are not open to the public. Twain pored over these papers while researching his book. Advance arrangements would have been necessary, and I am not sure a visit could have been accomplished unless I were a scholar.

A longer stay in Rouen would have given me time to visit several other sites, such as the cemetery of the abbey of St. Ouen, where Joan was pressed to recant her divine calling, and the tower where she was imprisoned before her execution.

Other worth-visiting destinations throughout France with Joan of Arc connections include Patay, the site of another decisive battle; Poitiers, where she underwent a fortnight of formal inquiry by clergymen into her orthodoxy and chastity (upon winning their approval, she returned to Chinon to meet the dauphin); and Compiegne, where she was captured by the Burgundians and imprisoned for seven months before being turned over to the English.

With thousands of historical and namesake sites in France, the job of visiting everything to do with Joan of Arc is daunting, if not impossible. A return trip can help cross more of them off a must-see list.

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