Walk­ing along the Sen­tier Jeanne d’arc from Dom­rémy-la-pu­celle.

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As last au­tumn’s leaf-fall crunched un­der­foot, Joan of Arc’s pres­ence was pal­pa­ble amid the oak for­est through which she had once rid­den. It was Fe­bru­ary 1429. The 17-year-old was obey­ing voices from God telling her to travel from Lor­raine to Chi­non in the Loire Val­ley to con­vince France’s dis­em­pow­ered king to take back his right­ful crown from the English usurpers whom she would soon de­feat in bat­tle.

But her jour­ney was fraught with dan­ger. Per­haps the bark­ing stags I now heard in this for­est near Fronville sounded to her like the hunt­ing dogs of English men-at-arms or the treach­er­ous Bur­gun­di­ans? Maybe, we shared sim­i­lar ex­ul­ta­tion upon leav­ing the for­est’s dark re­cesses to see the same marvel­lous church at Blé­court that ex­ists to­day?

Even in the wildest realms of fan­tasy, Joan of Arc’s story has al­ways sounded far-fetched. Yet when I dipped into de­tailed tran­scripts from her 1430-31 trial for heresy and the hear­ing that posthu­mously quashed that ear­lier con­dem­na­tion in 1456, her un­flinch­ing re­solve un­der in­qui­si­tion leapt from the pages. So to bet­ter un­der­stand her me­te­oric young life, I de­cided to fol­low part of the route she rode to­ward Chi­non.

Heav­enly voices would not guide my cru­sade but in­stead the Sen­tier Jeanne d’arc. This lit­tle-known foot­path (the GR703) runs for 236 kilo­me­tres from Toul in Meur­the-et-moselle to Bag­neuxla-fosse in Aube. It pur­port­edly traces Joan’s progress from her birth­place in Dom­rémy-la-pu­celle (‘ pu­celle’, mean­ing maiden, was added in her hon­our) in the south-west of the his­tor­i­cal Lor­raine re­gion.

Echoes of the Mid­dle Ages sur­round Mark Strat­ton as he walks the trail that led a sim­ple vil­lage girl to be­come France’s na­tional hero­ine

I would hike for six days through mag­nif­i­cent wild forests, flower mead­ows and ripen­ing hill­sides of wheat, cross­ing the Haute-marne coun­try­side. Joan’s jour­ney to Chi­non took 11 days and if her ad­van­tage was trav­el­ling on horse­back, mine was stay­ing in com­fort­able cham­bres d’hôtes and en­joy­ing lo­cal gas­tron­omy, as op­posed to spend­ing nights in aus­tere abbeys.

Ar­riv­ing in Dom­rémy-la-pu­celle, I had a sur­prise even be­fore strap­ping on my boots. I met Roger Mel­cion, guide at the vil­lage’s hill­top basil­ica, and asked if Joan had any de­scen­dants. “Yes,” he replied. “I’m a di­rect de­scen­dent of her brother. There are many of us here and we mark this with a carved scep­tre on our doors.” I ut­tered an apol­ogy for the killing of his an­ces­tor by my kins­men.

Work on the basil­ica be­gan in 1881 at a lo­ca­tion called Bois-chenu, where Joan had ex­pe­ri­enced voices from God. Those voices man­i­fested them­selves as the Ar­changel Michael, Saint Cather­ine and Saint Mar­garet, all of whom are dis­played re­splen­dently in a dra­matic gold-laced statue out­side. The two-storey basil­ica was con­se­crated in 1926 fol­low­ing Joan’s be­at­i­fi­ca­tion six years ear­lier. The in­te­rior dis­plays 1920s por­traits de­pict­ing her last years, from de­feat­ing the English at Or­léans and wit­ness­ing the king’s coro­na­tion at Reims in 1429 to her mar­tyr­dom in 1431.

Joan was born in 1412. “The French king­dom had no in­flu­ence in Dom­rémyla-pu­celle,” ex­plained Roger. “She grew up amid much war­fare, with the English and Bur­gun­di­ans hos­tile to the royal house.” It was amid this an­ar­chy, says the his­to­rian He­len Cas­tor, that a de­mor­alised French monar­chy was re­cep­tive to divine in­ter­ven­tion.

Joan’s Mai­son Natale is a tall house with a slop­ing roof and four thick-walled rooms, sug­gest­ing that she was born into a hum­ble yet com­fort­able life­style. “They had land and her fa­ther was an in­ter­me­di­ate to the mayor,” Roger ex­plained.

The house stands next to the Église Saint-rémy, where, Joan tes­ti­fied at her trial: “When I was 13, I heard a voice from God and this voice came at noon, in my fa­ther’s gar­den to­wards the church.”

Lo­cal tes­ti­monies at the ‘re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion trial’ in the 1450s de­scribed her as a pi­ous girl who ad­mon­ished the church­war­den if he was tardy in ring­ing for com­pline. Saint-rémy con­tains an oc­tag­o­nal font where Joan was bap­tised, and Roger showed me a dec­o­rated mar­ble box al­legedly con­tain­ing ashes from the stake in Rouen where she was burnt. “Very few peo­ple know this,” he whis­pered.

Be­fore start­ing my walk, I drove the 20 kilo­me­tres in the other di­rec­tion to Vau­couleurs, which in Joan’s days was one of only four cites north of the River Loire in roy­al­ist con­trol. Barely 17, she trav­elled sev­eral times in 1428-29 to ap­peal to Vau­couleurs’ gar­ri­son com­man­der, Robert de Bau­dri­court, for per­mis­sion to visit Chi­non. Lit­tle re­mains of the 11th-cen­tury fortress, ex­cept for

the Port de France arch­way and a 12th-cen­tury crypt where she knelt daily in prayer. It is worth ask­ing at the tourist of­fice for the key to the fortress’s mod­ern church to view a sub­lime trip­tych of art-nou­veau stained glass chron­i­cling Joan’s life.

“There are lots of sto­ries about her,” laughed Nathalie Mer­let, of the tourist of­fice. “One says Joan’s horse nib­bled the lime tree out­side the church – but it was win­ter and there were no leaves.”

Less con­tentious is that af­ter Bau­dri­court’s even­tual ac­qui­es­cence, the per­sis­tent teenager left Vau­couleurs in Fe­bru­ary 1429, gifted with a horse and a sword, and a mes­sage for Charles. The road was dan­ger­ous, so she and her es­cort of six sol­diers of­ten trav­elled at night.

By con­trast, I left my cham­bre d’hôte next morn­ing from Dom­rémy-la-pu­celle in blaz­ing sun­shine for my planned 140-kilo­me­tre trek. The GR703 doesn’t al­ways fol­low the maid’s ex­act hoof­prints. She def­i­nitely de­parted from Vau­couleurs, to the north, and I suspected the day’s route was de­vised to in­clude a shrine to her mother, Is­abelle Romée, at Vouthon, which I en­coun­tered af­ter one hour’s walk­ing. The statue, which fea­tures Is­abelle and her daugh­ter, was put up equidis­tantly be­tween Vouthons Bas and Haut be­cause the squab­bling settlements each claimed to be Is­abelle’s birth­place.

There­after, the pri­mal Forêt Do­maine de Vau en­veloped me en route to Gon­drecourt-le-château. The wood­land paths were alive with hare­bells and lady or­chids, so rare in Bri­tain; mul­ti­coloured swal­low­tail but­ter­flies ri­valled the stained-glass vi­vac­ity of Vau­couleurs’ church, while two feud­ing pine martens scarcely no­ticed me. It set the tone for a week cel­e­brat­ing na­ture. On other days, I would send star­tled hares rac­ing across fields and see nu­mer­ous foxes and deer. My 30-kilo­me­tre trek on the first day saw me fol­low­ing lan­guid small rivers as I crossed from Vos­ges into the HauteMarne dé­parte­ment and traipsed into Cir­fontaines-en-ornois.

Re­cu­per­a­tion came at La Ferme de François, a farm­house B&B near Sau­dron, where the sump­tu­ous house plat­ter of char­cu­terie re­flected the eclec­tic live­stock of rare pigs, high­land cat­tle and buf­falo.

Joan would not have recog­nised the Mon­drian-like qual­i­ties of the sec­ond day’s easy 11 kilo­me­tres to Pois­sons, as mod­ern agri­cul­tural fields formed hor­i­zon­tal bands of golden wheat, cre­at­ing a sand­wich with the blue sky and a dis­tant fill­ing of green for­est.

Knight’s ev­i­dence

The fu­ture Maid of Or­léans rode dressed as a man, with short hair, claim­ing her at­tire was God’s will. At her trial, the English-backed in­quisi­tors al­luded to the in­ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of trav­el­ling to Chi­non un­chap­er­oned with male com­pan­ions in­clud­ing the Knight, Ber­trand de Poulegny. But he would tes­tify that she re­mained chaste. “I was afire with her words be­cause I con­sid­ered her to have been sent from God. I never saw any evil in her. She was a saint.”

Mount­ing ev­i­dence as­sured me that I was hot on Joan’s heels. A fountain in Pois­sons re­calls where her party wa­tered their horses; then 400 me­tres fur­ther up a steep wooded in­cline, they were al­legedly at­tacked at an an­cient spring by ma­raud­ing Bur­gun­di­ans.

By my third morn­ing, I had hiked into pretty Saint-ur­bain-ma­con­court, nes­tled along­side the Canal En­tre-cham­pagne-etBour­gogne. An icon of Joan in ar­mour out­side the church de­noted that she spent the night here on 23 Fe­bru­ary 1429. An arch­way nearby marks the en­trance to a now-ru­ined pri­ory over­lain by a château. It is pri­vate prop­erty, but the owner, Mon­sieur Jeudy, for­tu­itously popped out and ex­plained how Charles the Bald founded the de­funct Bene­dic­tine pri­ory in the 9th cen­tury.

“Want to see where Joan slept?” he asked. I needed no sec­ond in­vi­ta­tion. Just in­side his court­yard is a row of out­houses with a small up­stairs win­dow. “Up there,” he said with cer­tainty.

Af­ter cross­ing the River Marne into Fronville, I fol­lowed the ex­act wood­land trail that lo­cal his­tory re­calls Joan pass­ing through 588 years ago on her way to Blé­court. From the sway­ing wheat fields, I saw the vil­lage’s 13th-cen­tury Gothic

church, shaped like a Latin cross. I filled my wa­ter-bot­tle from the fountain out­side and en­tered. The church­war­den as­sured me Joan stopped to wor­ship here. He ges­tured to a Ro­manesque-aged icon of Notre Dame. “She knelt there,” he said.

I metaphor­i­cally knelt be­fore the al­tar of Monique Martin’s home-made pâté that evening, din­ing in the gar­den of her two-roomed guest­house Le Grand Pré, near Bouzan­court. Her 70-year-old hus­band, Jean-paul, had just re­turned from vis­it­ing their grand­daugh­ter in Shang­hai. “So many mil­lions of peo­ple there,” he sighed. “We have only 82.” “Forty-two, mon cher,” cor­rected Monique.

Next morn­ing, amid the cham­pagne vine­yards of the cur­va­ceous Bar­rois coun­try­side, I met my first fel­low hiker in four days. Free-spir­ited French­woman Laura seemed im­bued with Joan’s zeal, pur­su­ing a four-month quest along the Euro­pean E3 long-dis­tance trail to the Czech Repub­lic with her pet dog and a goat. “We’re quite slow be­cause the goat (which was now munch­ing its way through a farmer’s bar­ley) doesn’t like the heat or cold,” she sighed. She was tak­ing the goat to a friend, and upon bid­ding her bon courage, I de­parted, imag­in­ing a hircine short­age in the Czech Repub­lic.

A lit­tle fur­ther, on a 400-me­tre-high wooded knoll, is a tow­er­ing ‘Cross of Lor­raine’, the twin-barred heraldic sym­bol adopted by Free France dur­ing World War II and as­so­ci­ated with Charles de Gaulle. Colombey-les-deux-églises was the for­mer Pres­i­dent’s home from 1934 un­til his death here in 1970, but I ar­rived to find the com­mu­nity in shock.

At the ceme­tery, the ce­ment was still fresh from re­pairs to his tomb, which had been van­dalised two days be­fore. “It’s a catas­tro­phe,” said the ticket lady at his La Bois­serie home. “Who could do such a thing?”

For­tu­nately, his charm­ing château, set in 2.5 hectares of wooded gar­dens, re­mained un­mo­lested and I en­joyed ex­plor­ing the mem­o­ra­bilia: from a cigar box from Fidel Cas­tro to a mo­saic coq pre­sented by the King of Afghanistan.

Crash­ing boar

Be­yond Maranville next morn­ing, sunken for­est green­ways her­alded the on­ceim­mense 20,000-hectare es­tate of Clair­vaux Abbey, founded by Saint Bernard in 1114. I won­dered if Joan felt safe within this ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal realm or would she have skipped the same heart­beats I did when two bar­relling wild boar crashed through the for­est, trailed by squeal­ing piglets?

Some­where in this for­est, I crossed into the Aube dé­parte­ment, to be stunned into Cis­ter­cian si­lence at the im­men­sity of the abbey ly­ing ahead. None the wiser, I thought its mas­sive walls re­sem­bled a prison and on one of them, op­po­site my ho­tel, I found a plaque com­mem­o­rat­ing Joan’s sec­ond night spent at Clair­vaux.

“It’s as­sumed she stayed here, but like ev­ery­thing sur­round­ing Joan, no­body is to­tally cer­tain,” said Is­abelle Sor­lié. “All over France, towns claim she passed through.” Is­abelle’s tour around a monastery that pros­pered from the 12th to the late-18th cen­turies re­vealed mag­nif­i­cent ar­chi­tec­ture. A me­dieval hall, now re­stored, was set aside for the lay brothers, who helped the monks make Clair­vaux the rich­est monastery in France through wine pro­duc­tion and iron­work­ing. The hall’s col­umns rise like stone palm trees rip­pling the ceil­ing into geo­met­ric folds to cre­ate a mes­meris­ing sym­me­try.

Yet Clair­vaux pos­sesses a sur­pris­ing du­al­ity, still func­tion­ing as a prison – and a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity one at that. Af­ter French rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies dis­solved the abbey in 1789, Napoléon re­as­signed it to pe­nal servi­tude. Nat­u­rally, the mod­ern prison is out-of-bounds but I ex­pe­ri­ence the wretched, cramped soli­tary con­fine­ment of 19th-cen­tury ‘hen-coop’ cells. “It’s ironic,” Is­abelle mused. “The monks de­sired a regime of si­lence and iso­la­tion – ex­actly what the pris­on­ers had forced upon them.”

I hiked one fur­ther morn­ing for 18 kilo­me­tres through wood­land to Cun­fin, where I left the trail. My week was al­most over, but Joan rode for eight fur­ther days to­wards Chi­non to lift the English siege of Or­léans and crown a monarch at Reims.

De­sir­ing clo­sure on this chap­ter of Joan’s life, I drove to the Gothic cathe­dral in Reims. Out­side, a bronze statue de­picts Joan on horse­back wav­ing her right­eous sword to­ward a daz­zling fa­cade crowded with an­gels, saints and kings.

Two-thirds of the way along the 138-me­tre-long transept is a car­peted stage where she stood along­side the king as he was crowned Charles VII on 17 July 1429, anointed by the sa­cred oil of Clovis. A beau­ti­ful statue by 19th-cen­tury sculp­tor Pros­per d’épinay fixes her face in tran­quil ivory; her bronze ar­mour in­laid with sil­ver, her yel­low tu­nic fash­ioned from Si­enna mar­ble.

Her fall be­gan im­me­di­ately there­after; im­pa­tient to ex­pel the English from French soil, she re­peat­edly at­tacked be­sieged cities, only to be cap­tured at Com­piègne in early 1430 and sold to the English by mer­ce­nary Bur­gun­di­ans. Her in­qui­si­tion lasted a year be­fore she was con­demned, then burnt in Rouen on 30 May 1431, aged just 19. Yet the hero­ine saint’s leg­end en­dures.

“In the fir­ma­ment of his­tory, Joan of Arc is a mas­sive star,” writes He­len Cas­tor. To this new con­vert, she is an in­spir­ing mo­ti­va­tion for a richly beau­ti­ful hike in the lands that she saw through de­ter­mined eyes.

ABOVE: On the trail near Fronville; LEFT: A statue of Joan in her home vil­lage of Dom­rémy-la-pu­celle; BE­LOW: Long-dis­tance walker Laura with her two trav­el­ling com­pan­ions

ABOVE: The vil­lage of Gon­drecourt-le-château be­side the River Or­nain;

MAIN PIC­TURE: The statue of Joan of Arc in Vau­couleurs; ABOVE: The church at Blé­court

ABOVE: Joan’s statue out­side Reims Cathe­dral

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