Loiret lies at the heart of the Loire valley, an area of woodland, heaths and lakes which is a paradise for nature lovers. The great city of Orleans is the largest city and the most northern point of the Loire river, and is easily reached by L’Aquitaine autoroute from Paris. It is a big busy city, much bombarded by the Germans in World War II but with an old quarter that has been painstakingly restored. Place du Matroi is at the centre dominated by a statue of Jeanne d’Arc, heroine of the city. On Place de Gaulle is the Maison de Jeanne d’Arc, where she stayed in 1429, now a museum devoted to her life and military achievements. The Cathedrale Ste Croix has been ravaged and restored several times since it was first built in the 13th century, but still has a lovely rose window, a window depicting Jeanne d’Arc and a rich treasury. Also worth visiting is the Musée des Beaux Arts, on Place St Croix, with a fine collection which includes works by Chardin and Velasquez, and the Musée Historique et Archeologique, where you can see remarkable Celtic statues. Orleans is famous for its gardens, in particular the huge Parc Floral de la Source, a 100 acre nature park on the outskirts. It is particularly splendid seen in May and June when over 900 varieities of irises come into bloom!
Beaugency, downriver from Orleans, is a charming town with a celebrated bridge of 23 arches spanning the river – also badly damaged in World War II. A huge 11th century keep dominates the well restored centre of the town, next door to which is the Chateau Dunois, with a museum devoted to local traditions. Opposite is the Romanesque church of Notre Dame. To the south the department skirts the marshy misty forests of the Sologne, once the favourite hunting ground of French nobility and still jealously protected. The many etangs, little lakes, are full of fish and attract migrating birds and waterfowl, along with birdwatchers.
Heading upriver from Orleans are several sights worth seeking out; Saint Benoit-sur-Loire is famous for its magnificent 11th century Romanesque abbey church, with its beautiful arched façade and carvings and a crypt containing the relics of St Benedict himself. The monastery has still got a community of monks and is best appreciated by hearing evening vespers or Gregorian chant in the atmospheric ambience of the church. On the other side of the river is the fine chateau of Sully-sur-Loire, a splendid sight with its pepperpot towers.
Gien is another town which has benefited from restoration after the depredations of World War II, resulting in a charming ensemble of riverside quays with a 16th century bridge and lovely houses built round the chateau. This now houses a hunting museum. A new church was built after the war to replace the old Eglise Ste Jeanne d’Arc, and stars stained glass windows by Max Ingrand. At Briare-le-Canal is a bridge canal designed by Gustave Eiffel, which carries water from the Briare-Long canal to the Canal Lateral across the Loire itself. It is an extraordinary sight and you can stroll across it, or take a bateau-mouche along its length.