Photograph by Krista Rossow
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A statue of Joan of Arc stands outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Reims, France.

Photograph by Krista Rossow

Road Trip: Champagne, France

From the June/July 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

In history books, Joan of Arc’s story concludes with the 19-year-old bound to a stake—forced into a dress, clutching a cross and gazing heavenward, flames leaping around her bare feet. But in France, the “virgin warrior” prevails, a unifying icon who charged onto the battlefield to rescue the French monarchy during the Hundred Years’ War against the British. Indeed, the cross-dressing teen’s defiant independence secured her undoing as well as her immortality.

This year, Joan turns 600, inspiring a drive through northeast France that traces the route of her extraordinary early triumphs—from the village where angels’ voices summoned her to the grand city where she stood by as Charles VII took the crown. Fortuitously for travelers, Joan also journeyed through what is now Champagne country, the source of sparkling wine so revered its name has become a global synonym for joie de vivre.

This pilgrimage trailing the path of St. Jeanne d’Arc (as she’s known by her compatriots) starts with a two and a half hours’ drive from Reims (rhymes with France), which is a short train ride from Paris or Charles de Gaulle airport. Verdant pasturelands, forested hillsides, and meandering rivers lead to Domrémy-la-Pucelle, the 150-person hamlet where Joan’s childhood home still stands, a two-story stone-and-stucco house with wood-beamed, stone-floored rooms. The daughter of a farmer, Joan had an unexceptional early childhood, but she was considered especially pious. “When she was in the fields and heard the bells tolling,” friends recalled, “she would go down on her knees.”

At the age of 13, Joan began hearing celestial voices that would later instruct her to drive the British out of her homeland. At the end of her life, while on trial for heresy, she testified, “I heard a voice from God … about midday, in summer time, in my father’s garden … from the right side toward the church.” The garden has changed since Joan’s time, but the Church of St. Rémy, where she was baptized, is a few steps from the farmhouse.

Over the next few years, the voices continued, eventually compelling the teen to act, albeit reluctantly. And so, at 17, driven by her divine mission, Joan left home (under the guise of visiting her aunt and uncle), ultimately traveling by foot and horseback more than 400 miles to the Loire Valley to meet with Charles VII. After convincing him of her purity, Joan (clad in male attire) led an attack on the British troops in Orléans. Her courage rallied the French soldiers to a pivotal victory that was followed by a string of successes, including the taking of Troyes, the ancient capital of Champagne.

Continue your mission on a two-hour drive west to Troyes. The town’s importance harks back to Roman times, when it was a trading hub on the Via Agrippa connecting Milan, Italy, to Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. In the 12th century, merchants from across Europe flocked here to sell wool and silk textiles, leather, fur, silverware, and spices at its twice-a-year trade fairs. The mercantile spirit still thrives, with Troyes remaining a center of French knitwear. Tennis champion René “the Crocodile” Lacoste founded his sportswear empire here in 1933, and it’s also the contemporary capital of factory outlet shops. Troyes is a beguiling mix of the ancient and modern, most atmospherically evident in its old town of half-timbered houses from the 16th century awash in russet, lemon, and persimmon tones, flowered squares and courtyards, and cobbled alleyways, such as the Ruelle des Chats, over which the buildings lean gently toward each other.

Two sites particularly manifest Troyes’s interweaving of the old and new: Inside a striking brown-and-white timbered mansion, the Maison de l’Outil et de la Pensée Ouvrière (literally, “house of tools and workers’ thinking”) lovingly renders homage to carpenters, wheelwrights, shoemakers, and other craftsmen with displays of 10,000 hand tools from past centuries, each designed to accomplish a specific task. Conversely, the brick-facade Bishop’s Palace is now the site of the Musée d’Art Moderne, a showcase for the gift of local hosiery manufacturers turned art collectors Pierre and Denise Lévy. Their enlightening ensemble suggests Joan of Arc isn’t the only maverick to be celebrated in the region, with avant-garde works by artists such as Dufy, Rouault, and Picasso. Emphasis goes to the Fauves (literally, “the wild beasts”), including André Derain’s electric blue “Big Ben.”

After taking Troyes, Joan marched straight to Reims, but a slight detour northwest celebrates another symbol of French heritage: sparkling wine. The road traverses peaceful Champagne-Ardenne countryside—vine-latticed fields and flourishing crops, sometimes brightened with yellow flowers and white cows, and the sinuous Seine glinting in the distance. Every so often, a few dozen red-roofed stone homes punctuate the landscape.

At Sézanne, the Côte des Blancs Champagne trail flows north to Épernay. One historic headquarters is a must-visit: the imposing brick palace of Moët et Chandon. Founded in 1743, Épernay’s oldest and largest Champagne house holds court along with eight other Champagneries on—where else?—the Avenue de Champagne. Here Jean-Rémy Moët entertained Napoleon and his entourage in royal style in the early 19th century. Tourgoers pass under a chandelier made of Champagne flutes and into the chalky cellars for a heady immersion among thousands of bottles filling the cool catacombs. Before moving on to this drive’s next and final stop, the glorious city of Reims, consider buying some bubbly to fete the climax of Joan’s—and your—quest.

In Reims, head directly to the Palais du Tau, located next to the grand cathedral (together a UNESCO World Heritage site). The palace’s gilded treasures include regalia used in the coronation of Charles X in 1825, including a replica of the “holy flask.” According to legend, the vial came from God, delivered by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and held the sacred oil used to anoint French kings since the year 496.

You could spend days exploring Reims’s riches, but any Joan of Arc odyssey should culminate in the magnificent 801-year-old cathedral. Here on July 17, 1429, the archbishop of Reims tipped the holy flask to anoint the head of the dauphin (or heir apparent), and he and five other bishops solemnly placed the crown on King Charles VII, with Joan at his side. Standing in that vast, hushed space, transfixed in stained-glass sunlight, one of those windows now depicting the maid herself, you can imagine the pomp and pageantry—and perhaps understand why, six centuries on, this bold heroine still captivates the collective imagination of the French, and the world.

Editor at large Don George studied French literature in college and has lived in Paris.