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In search of Joan

Tunnel vision.

There's a giant poster on the wall at the Gare d'Austerlitz in Paris proclaiming that Orleans is now only one hour from the capital by train. After a three-hour glide from London by Eurostar, and 15 sticky minutes crossing Paris by Metro, I am grateful at least for confirmation that I'm at the right station.

I'm looking forward to spending five hours in a city that gripped my imagination when I was about eight, via an illustrated life of Joan of Arc. I fell for Joan, page boy haircut, chain mail and all. By association, it seemed to me that Orleans must be the ideal French medieval city.

Now the former rival to Paris is being promoted as a potential dormitory town for Parisian commuters. So I'm surprised to find that, despite the poster, Orleans doesn't appear on the train departures board. I ask, and am told that of course trains go there: you have to change at Les Aubrais.

The latter turns out to be a suburb a couple of miles outside Orleans, as close as the main line gets to the city. You change into one of those corrugated metal local trains - the 2CVs of the French railway system - which, with much clanking and grinding, delivers you into Orleans proper.

You do not have to go very far to encounter the city's biggest and most recent tribute to its saviour. The station has been almost entirely engulfed by a huge new shopping mall, the Centre d'Arc. It's the sort of place that could keep a bargain-hunting Brit, tanked up on the 10 francs-to-the-pound exchange rate, happy all afternoon.

Outside, I count a dozen further Joan references in shop, restaurant and hotel names in the short walk to the main square, the Place du Martroi. I warm to the notion of a Joan of Arc dry cleaning service. Well, it's preferable to the bland 19th-century statue of Joan at the centre of the square.

From this square, Orleans appears to be a city of wide avenues, handsome 18th-century terraces, and arcaded shopping streets. Pleasant, civilised, spacious. The teeming medieval city of my dreams? No.

Fine. I can ditch images of a fantasy Orleans and begin to enjoy the real one. Starting with a drink at a cafe facing the huge, battered mongrel of a cathedral. I'm in France, so I can take my time and watch the people passing by. Except that there are very few passers-by. Three youths skateboard-jumping the cathedral steps are enjoying the attention of all the pavement coffee-sippers.

Around the corner is the old town hall, a beautiful though much-restored 16th-century building. In its courtyard is another, far better, bronze statue of Joan, riddled with what are said to be Second World War bullet holes.

It's a reminder that the English were not the only enemies Orleans has faced. Most of Europe's top marauders, from Attila the Hun to Adolf Hitler, have left their mark here, attracted by the wealth, strategic position and prestige of what was once a thriving river port, a centre of power and learning.

If you are prepared to seek it out, Orleans can reveal traces from each of the great upheavals of French history over the past 2,000 years. But today I'm sticking to Joan-related sites. As I wander downhill towards the Loire, the narrow streets reverberate to the crash of falling masonry.

A cloud of white dust rises and there's an acrid smell. A poster announces that the municipality is improving this bit of old Orleans. They're gutting an ancient vinegar factory and warehouse to create new accommodation for students.

Somewhere in this rubble-strewn improvement zone there's the house in which Joan's mother came to live after her daughter's death. The demolition men won't let me in, so I'm off across the Loire via the magnificent Pont Royal to find the site of Joan's most famous victory.

The Loire, on this day, is not so much a river as a couple of reed-choked streams separated by sandbanks. I find a plaque marking the southern end of the fortified bridge on which the battle was fought, then look down. The bases of some of the piers of the old bridge are visible in the shallow water.

For some reason this simple revelation brings the scene alive for me. Look up again, and the city of Orleans across the river is now looking just a little like that ideal medieval city.

Return fares from London to Orleans start at Pounds 89 Contact: Eurostar, telephone 0345 30 30 30

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