Last weekend, over a few glasses of wine, Andy and I had a long conversation about traveling and how to get the most out of it. Although we’ve been to six countries in our first four months, it felt like something was missing. All of the cathedrals and castles were starting to look the same, and the cities we visited weren’t always feeling that different from each other.
What we decided is that maybe we weren’t making enough of an effort to connect with the people who live in the places we visit. We have seen the museums, been dwarfed by the cathedrals and of course devoured all the food. But what seems to be lacking is memorable human interaction beyond a friendly bartender or chatty cab driver. And it’s the people who really make a place unique, right?
So, call it a New Year’s resolution or just a new attitude, but we decided that meeting people should be a new priority in our travels. That, and we should travel more frequently and more spontaneously, even for just a day or two at a time, to make sure we see as much as we can during this precious year, especially within France.
Enter, OuiBus. OuiBus offers super-low fares to cities throughout France and neighboring countries. A quick search led me to 10-euro roundtrip tickets to Orléans, a city in the Loire Valley just an hour and a half from Paris. Without over-thinking it (because spontaneity is good and liberating!), we booked tickets for Tuesday.
As we were talking about how to meet people from the cities we visit, one option that came up was to stay with them. There are plenty of resources to connect travelers with hosts, so why not give it a try? And a one-night trip seemed like an excellent way to do a test run. We browsed a few different sites and ended up booking a room through Airbnb with Claude, a retired woman who lives near the old city and, based on her reviews, enjoys interacting with her guests. This was the best choice.
After a relatively comfortable ride to Orléans, minus the dudes behind us to listened to their music WITHOUT headphones the whole way (why do so many people do this?), we hopped the tram and easily found Claude’s apartment. When we rang the doorbell, the window above us flew open and a cheerful Claude looked down and sang “Bonjour!” to us. “You didn’t get lost!” she exclaimed. She led us upstairs to our bedroom and showed us the important places on a map. We scheduled breakfast for 8:30 the next morning and headed out to explore.
Orléans, as it turns out, is not all that exciting. It’s nice in the sense that it’s clean and quiet and has a sparkling new tram line that takes you to important sites. But there aren’t that many of them.
The most important thing to know about Orléans is that it is a town devoted to Joan of Arc. In the 1400s, she led the effort to free the city from English siege. You can see a recreation of the house she stayed in (the original was destroyed in WWII), the towering Cathedral Sainte-Croix has several stained glass windows depicting her life because she prayed there once, and there are statues of her ALL OVER the city. May 8th, the day the city was liberated, is Jeanne d’Arc day in Orléans. There is a festival and a parade to celebrate. Claude told us that each year a young girl is chosen to play her and gets to dress up and ride around on a horse. We’re thinking we might go back for that.
Other things we did in Orléans: visit the Cathedral and the Christmas village that was set up inside, see the house where Joan of Arc stayed (which consisted only of a video, no tour of the house or anything), visit the historical and archeological museum because our Joan of Arc house tickets got us in for free, and stroll around Parc Floral de la Source.
We also wandered around the old city, caught a glimpse of the Loire River (a little drab in this area), had happy hours on Rue de Bourgogne — the happening street in town — and ate twice at Restaurant Volpone. Pizza tasted really good after many very French meals over the holidays.
As it turns out, 31 hours was plenty of time to spend in Orléans. It may be a better landing place for those touring the Loire Valley castles than a destination in itself. More importantly, though, we had a great first experience staying with a local host. Over croissants and baguette on Wednesday morning, we chatted about travel, learning new languages and family, among other things. Claude showed us photos of her kids and grandkids and gave us suggestions for more places to see in France. She even offered us the room for the Jeanne d’Arc celebrations without having to go through Airbnb — just bring 29 bucks and it’s ours. We’ll probably take her up on it.
I think that spur-of-the-moment trips like this one will become a regularity for us, and hopefully we’ll meet a lot of people along the way. Of course, you can’t plan every trip two days in advance, so we are buckling down and getting serious about planning the bigger trips we want to take between now and September (Norway and Morocco are at the top of the list). As always, we’d love your advice on where to go and what to do. And if you know of good resources to use for staying with locals or have found other ways to connect with the communities you visit, please comment and let us know what has worked for you!