Located to the north of the country and part of the Centre region, visiting Loiret is very much like a trip into the distant past, with the department's communes preserving a thoroughly medieval atmosphere enshrined in the personage of Joan of Arc.
Loiret is well populated, with well over 600,000 inhabitants across a large land area of 6,775 km². The largest city, by some distance, is the prefecture of Orléans, but there are a number of other important communes:
One of the original 83 departments established in March 1790 during the French Revolution, the territory's history actually stretches way back to the Celtic Carnute tribe. Eventually supplanted by the Romans, this set the tone for Loiret as an area flavoured by military conflict.
This is epitomised in the example of Orléans. Burnt to the ground in 52BC after a failed revolt against Julius Caesar, the city suffered assaults by the Visigoths and the Huns in the aftermath of Rome's collapse before coming under Frankish control. However, the city would again prove critical to France, as the Siege of Orléans in 1428-29 inaugurated the legend of Joan of Arc and changed France's fortunes during the Hundred Years' War.
It is therefore little surprise that much of Loiret dwells on its medieval heritage, particularly as the department's past exploits continue to draw in tourists. That said, with the Loire River running through much of the department and excellent food and drink, there is plenty more to recommend Loiret to visitors and home-seekers.
Loiret's climate can be best described as maritime, with slightly cooler summers than southern France and relatively wet, but calm, winters. Orléans is representative of average quarterly temperatures:
Average temperature in Orléans
|Period ||Celsius ||Fahrenheit |
|January-March ||5 ||41 |
|April-June ||13 ||55 |
|July-September ||18 ||64 |
|October-December ||7 ||45 |
With a population of over 100,000, Orléans is the premier spot for tourists seeking the city life. It is also home to unquestionably the most beautiful building in Loiret – the Ste-Croix Cathedral. There is evidence to suggest a cathedral in Orléans as early as the 4th century, but the first building on this site was constructed in the 7th century. Reconstructed in 1287, the Cathedral suffered at the hands of pillaging by the Huguenots during the 16th century Religious Wars. Restoration work was initiated by Henri IV in 1601, but only completed in 1829. Nevertheless, the finished product is truly awe-inspiring, with a superb Gothic-style façade topped off by two 82 metre-high towers. The interior also doesn't disappoint, with highlights including the 17th century organ, artworks by figures such as Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the cathedral's crypt and the Byzantine enamels. If you only see one thing in Loiret, make sure it's the Cathedral.
That said, you will find other impressive edifices in Orléans. Especially noteworthy is the Church of Saint-Aignan. Although the current façade stems from construction work between 1439 and 1509, there are elements of its 10th and 11th century Romanesque past still intact. Saint Aignan purportedly saved Orléans from Attila the Hun in 451 AD and the consecrated church also contains a crypt with the relics of the saint.
The fractious religious past of the department is no better illustrated in the Protestant Temple. Built in 1599 originally, it was destroyed in 1685 and only rebuilt in the early 19th century and is remarkable today for its circular design, recalling the layout of Greek and Roman temples.
Moving away from religious architecture, the Hôtel des Créneaux is also well worth a glance, built between 1445 and 1513 and a fine mixture of Gothic and Renaissance design.
Outside of Orléans, Loiret contains a number of outstanding chateaux. The best of these are the Château de Beaugency, the Château Saint-Brisson-sur-Loire and the Château de Sully-sur-Loire, all of which display medieval architecture at its finest and attest to Loiret's extensive appeal to culture lovers.
It has to be said that Loiret is not the best for activities. However, there are a few options such as the Astrolabe concert hall in Orléans, which also contains an ice-skating rink, canoeing in Lorris and a number of sporting facilities in both Orléans and Montargis.
Museums, galleries and culture
Situated in a delightful 16th century Renaissance-style building, the Musée Historique et Archéologique de l'Orleanais is arguably the best in the department, specialising in Antiquity and the medieval period (with Joan of Arc unsurprisingly prominent). This is complimented in Montargis by the Musée du Gâtinais, which focuses more heavily on prehistory and Antiquity.
However, Joan of Arc takes centre stage in Orléans' Maison de Jeanne d'Arc. Constructed as a duplicate of the house of Jacques Boucher, which Joan of Arc genuinely stayed in, it today acts as a repository for materials on the legendary figure.
Art in Loiret is represented both by the Musée des Beaux-Arts and its collection of European art between the 16th and 20th centuries (including pieces by Velázquez), and the Musée Girodet in Montargis.
Science-lovers will also be drawn to the Muséum d'Orléans, a very impressive establishment that focuses on the natural sciences in general.
Orléans is home to a number of local craftworks and decent high-street shopping, but the real bargains are to be found at the many markets across the city. Possibly the best of these is the local goods market every third Wednesday of the month in the place de la République.
Montargis also hosts a couple of markets, one focusing specifically on crafts every Wednesday morning in the place Girodet, and a food market on Saturdays in its own place de la République.
Loiret isn't fruitful territory for hikers, but there are a number of decent parks in Orléans such as the Parc Floral de la Source (some 35 hectares) and the Parc Pasteur.
Similarly, in Montargis you will find pleasant areas for a stroll like the Jardin des Expositions, the 100-hectare Arboria park and the Parc de la Colline.
Loiret is something of a golfer's paradise, with seven top quality courses. The best of these are Blue Green Golf de Limère in Ardon, Golf des Aisses in la Ferté Saint-Aubin and Golf d'Orléans in Donnery.
The vast majority of vineyards are situated around Orléans and Giennois, taking advantage of the Loire Valley to produce some fine gamay, pinot noir and gris meuniers wines. The Orléans' vineyards are made up of the villages of Mareau-aux-Près, Cléry St. André, St. Hilaire St. Mesmin, Mézières-les-Cléry and Olivet. They specifically offer a range of Orléans whites and rosé, and the Orléans-Cléry reds.
Food and drink
Loiret enjoys a number of local and regional speciality produce such as cotignac d'Orléans (a type of paste made from quince jelly), Jargeau chitterling sausage, freshwater fish from the loire, cheese from Orléans and all types of game. Desserts are also well represented by Orléans macaroons, Montargis pralines, Loiret Gormand cake (macaroons, semolina cream, almonds and apricot filling).
Ease of access
The proximity to the French capital means the best option for travellers outside France is Charles de Gaulle International Airport or Paris-Orly Airport, the latter of which is slightly closer. The train network, as well as linking up the major communes in Loiret, is connected to Paris, and a train ride from the capital to Orléans takes roughly an hour.
Value for money
Considering the excellent location, accommodation in Loiret is very reasonable. The chief tourist centre of Orléans has plenty of hotels, gites and youth hostels at good prices. The average cost of a double room per night in a 3-star hotel is around 60-70 Euros.
If you'd prefer to stay outside of Orléans, Montargis is another very good option.
By no means the most glamorous department in France, Loiret still has some prominent features such as the many sights in Orléans, fine cuisine and wine and the opportunity to shoot over to Paris. If you're looking to stay in northern France, you could do far worse than stay in Loiret.