Travel

In search of France's supergirl

This tiny village is a piece of medieval eye candy, a 15th-century brooch of gray walls and russet roofs pinned to the pastoral folds of eastern France. But gazing over the town on a sunny September afternoon, we keep coming back to this question: Was there something wrong with Mark Twain's nose?

It is Twain who is our guide on this six-day tour through French countryside and cathedral towns. He had nailed the visuals of the “humble little hamlet” of Domremy, with its “maze of crooked narrow lanes” and “barn-like houses.” But he is silent on the heavenly scent of the place, an eyelid-lowering brume of cut wheat, tilled earth and just the faintest ecclesiastical whiff of incense drifting about the ancient village church.

No sense is more evocative than smell, and no smell could be more fitting for the ancestral hometown of Joan of Arc, the sainted savior of her country, Twain's hero and our reason for an autumn visit to France.

For me and my 12-year-old daughter, Isabel, Domremy is the first stop on a driving trip in the hoof prints of history's most remarkable girl-power hero, the 17-year-old illiterate peasant who contrived to lead an army, rout the English and orchestrate the crowning of a king.

Joan of Arc's amazing 18-month public career would take her, and us, on a rural loop around northern France, from her birthplace in Lorraine to the chateaux of the Loire Valley and the embattled city of Orleans and finally up to Normandy, where today you can dine at a delightful sidewalk bistro not 100 feet from the spot where a suspicious Church tied the young upstart to a pole and burned her to ashes.

Isabel's childhood fascination with Joan's story (particularly the burned-at-the-stake part) inspired this trip. Twain's little-known but remarkable fictional biography “Joan of Arc” (which he frequently cited as his best work) also spurred thoughts of a Tour de Joan.

But now Isabel is a seventh-grader, more consumed by middle school than the Middle Ages. She's still bookish and curious, but totally into Rihanna and increasingly prone to dismiss any advice or comment from her parents as “weird,” “boring” or “whatever.”

To be sure, there's not much about Domremy to shatter a case of adolescent ennui. The Lorraine countryside, like almost all of rural France, is deliciously lacking in obvious modernity. Within a kilometer of leaving Charles de Gaulle Airport in our little rental car (without our luggage, which Air France said we would have “soon”), we enter the miraculously unchanging world of rural France.

The voices of angels

Four hours later, we nearly zoom right past Domremy, so small and unassuming is the birthplace of the world's most famous girl warrior. We stop in the parking lot of a small 14th-century church next to a strangely angular old farmhouse on the banks of the Meuse River: Joan of Arc's childhood home, which looks like a half-carved hunk of cheese.

The church, where Joan was baptized, is still in service (although a much grander Joan-inspired basilica a mile away is the center of action for the JOA pilgrims who are more religious than we are). Her house and yard are also remarkably intact. It was here, in the garden, that the teenage Joan began to hear the voices of angels. They instructed her to persuade the local grandees, against all reason, to put a young maid who had never ridden a horse in charge of a troop of soldiers. Her celestial marching orders: Go fetch Charles VII, the cowardly heir to the French throne then hiding out in the Loire Valley, and take him to be crowned in the cathedral at Reims. Oh, and on your way, free the city of Orleans, which had been taken captive by the mighty English. A tall order for a teen, as I frequently remind Isabel.

OK, the angel part of the story will always be a matter of faith. (Joan was declared a saint in 1920.) But the rest of her story is amazingly solid, thanks to the detailed transcripts of two contemporary investigations into her life: the six-month interrogation that led to her execution as a heretic in 1431, and the official “rehabilitation” 25 years later that belatedly established her as a hero.

There are only a few other visitors at the house and the modest museum next to it. A small crowd of locals is taking the sidewalk sun at a cafe across the road. Other than their murmuring laughter, just about the only sound in town is the eternal hiss of the river and our own footsteps along the aged pavement.

Isabel doesn't have much to say about a pretty, sweet-smelling scene that invites a lot of serene musing. After we visit the house and church, she stifles a jet-lag yawn and takes my hand for a walk up to the brow of a hill for the long view. We count three church spires in the broad valley and one white horse grazing in a field beside the river. No cell phones. No iPods.

“It's so quiet here,” Isabel says. Approvingly.

Displaying mystical powers

The next day we head west, keeping one step ahead of our suitcases and settling into a road-trip routine of French pop radio, light lunches and colossal dinners as we chase Joan from town to town. Isabel assumes a shotgun role of deciphering Google maps and reading passages of Twain, keeping us literally and historically on track.

We spend hours at the Chateau de Blois, a fantastically preserved house with a pedigree stretching back to the 1300s. A few miles south is where Joan caught up to the would-be king at Chinon, another of the dime-a-dozen castle towns in the Loire. Joan had never laid eyes on Charles VII, and he tested her mystical powers by putting a double on the throne and hiding his royal self in the crowd. But the young zealot picked him out instantly – it's in the documents! – knelt before him and said, more or less: “Pack your bags, Chuck. It's time to be the king.”

She had to plead with him for days to authorize an attack on the English at Orleans.

He finally permitted her to gather an army at Blois, where we now stand in a delightful autumn chill. The mansion is really three houses, from Gothic to Renaissance, built over the ages around a vast courtyard overlooking the cobblestone labyrinth of the village. After testing the echoes in the hall where Joan was received by the baffled local nobility, we walk the warren of tiny streets in search of hot chocolate and croissants.

Joan's next, and greatest, escapade was 40 miles upriver at the cathedral town of Orleans. For her, “Orleans was a delirium of felicity,” Twain says. For us, it's a chance to buy Isabel some pants and a warmer shirt. (According to Air France, our bags were now in the hands of the postal service for delivery. Who was next in the chain of efficiency? The motor vehicle administration?) Hotel bathrooms in France are actually quite handy for light laundry (so that's what bidets are for!), but Isabel is ready for a change of clothes.

We visit a train station mall a few blocks from our creaky and comfortable Hotel de L'Abeille (where breakfast is served in a lobby packed with JOA posters, statuettes and other Joan-alia). Twenty minutes later, a pair of Bizzbee jeans and a black hoodie add a little runway swagger to Isabel's walk up Rue Jeanne d'Arc, until we come under the shadow of an even greater visage of our girl hero. The massive equestrian statue of Joan, armored and short-haired, looms over the city's main plaza just a few blocks from the spot where she unleashed her troops in May 1429. Leading them herself (and taking an arrow in the shoulder), she broke the English hold on Orleans and began the end of the Hundred Years' War. It's a feat Orleans still celebrates with street parties and re-enactors each spring.

If JOA remains a pop star in Orleans, she's at least a “Medieval Idol” runner-up in Reims, the Roman-era city in champagne country where she went next. The equestrian statue of Joan (a sleek bronze number from the 1890s) in the Reims plaza is a bit smaller than Orleans'. But the town has its own boisterous summer Joan of Arc festival, marking her triumphant delivery of Charles to the cathedral, where he was promptly crowned king of France.

A towering cross

Rouen, in Normandy, is the most touristy of the towns on our Joan tour, but pleasantly so. We welcome the chance to load up on knickknacks. The 12th-century Gothic cathedral is one of the most famous in the world (painted more than 30 times by Monet), and a throng of camera-wielding Brits and Germans gathers every hour to see the keeps-on-ticking 16th-century clock do its thing.

It's a festive place, but our round of Joan sites is somber: the remains of the old tower where she was held prisoner (still visible in the lobby of a dentist's office), the cathedral annex where the inquisitors debated her destiny and the towering cross that marks where she met her fiery fate on May 30, 1431.

Luxuriating in fresh clothes (the bags caught up with us that morning, five days after we left America), we spend the better part of a day hanging around the Old Market, where Joan's remarkable life came to an end. We shop, we nosh, we linger in the delightfully graphic JOA wax museum in the basement of a 14th-century row house.

The last dinner of our all-Joan week is at Les Maraichers, a bistro overlooking the Old Market (and an annex of the much pricier La Couronne, a restaurant that was already 100 years old on the day Joan died outside its door). We take our time over dessert, reviewing our days, comparing our notes to Twain's. Isabel tells me about some of the crazy dynamics of seventh grade. I tell her some horror stories from my own school days. We share a chocolate mousse.

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