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Joan of Arc

The tiny village of Domremy is a piece of medieval eye candy, a 15th-century brooch of gray walls and russet roofs pinned to the pastoral folds of eastern France. But gazing over the town on a sunny September afternoon, we keep coming back to this question: Was there something wrong with Mark Twain's nose?

It is Twain, not Michelin or Baedeker or Frommer, who is our guide on this six-day tour through French countryside and cathedral towns. He had nailed the visuals of the "humble little hamlet" of Domremy, with its "maze of crooked narrow lanes" and "barn-like houses." But he is silent on the heavenly scent of the place, an eyelid-lowering brume of cut wheat, tilled earth and just the faintest ecclesiastical whiff of incense drifting about the ancient village church.

No sense is more evocative than smell, and no smell could be more fitting for the ancestral home town of Joan of Arc, the sainted savior of her country, Twain's hero and our raison d'etre for an autumn visit to France.

For me and my 12-year-old daughter, Isabel, Domremy is the first stop on a driving trip in the hoofprints of history's most remarkable girl-power hero, the 17-year-old illiterate peasant who contrived to lead an army, rout the English and orchestrate the crowning of a king.

Joan of Arc's amazing 18-month public career would take her, and us, on a rural loop around northern France, from her birthplace in Lorraine to the chateaux of the Loire Valley and the embattled city of Orleans and finally up to Normandy, where today you can dine at a delightful sidewalk bistro not 100 feet from the spot where a suspicious Church tied the young upstart to a pole and burned her to ashes.

To be honest, I'm not sure what Isabel will think of a father-daughter itinerary that promises little more than old towns and exquisite cooking. In fact, it was her childhood fascination with Joan's story (particularly the burned-at-the-stake part) that inspired this trip. A fourth-grade glimpse of a Joan painting at the Corcoran Gallery of Art sparked a minor mania, which eventually led us to Twain's little-known but remarkable fictional biography "Joan of Arc" (which he frequently cited as his best work) and thoughts of a Tour de Joan.

But now Isabel is a seventh-grader, more consumed by middle school than the Middle Ages. How likely is it, then, that my texting tweener is going to be, like, OMG over JOA?

To be sure, there's not much about Domremy to shatter a case of adolescent ennui. The Lorraine countryside, like almost all of rural France, is deliciously lacking in obvious modernity. Within a kilometer of leaving Charles de Gaulle Airport in our little diesel Opel, we enter the miraculously unchanging world of the French provinces.

Sprawl seems nonexistent in this country of 64 million, and except for the many toll plazas and the occasional wind farm, we could be motoring through Joan's own landscape of wide pastures and tiny villages.

Four hours later, we nearly zoom right past Domremy, so small and unassuming is the birthplace of the world's most famous girl warrior. But I jerk the wheel just in time to land in the parking lot of a small 14th-century church next to a strangely angular old farmhouse on the banks of the Meuse River: Joan of Arc's childhood home, which looks like a half-carved hunk of cheese.

The church, where Joan was baptized, is still in service (although a much grander Joan-inspired basilica a mile away is the center of action for the JOA pilgrims who are more religious than we are). Her house and yard are also remarkably intact. It was here, in the garden, that the teenage Joan began to hear the voices of angels. They instructed her to persuade the local grandees, against all reason, to put a young maid who had never ridden a horse in charge of a troop of soldiers. Her celestial marching orders: Go fetch Charles VII, the cowardly heir to the French throne then hiding out in the Loire Valley, and take him to be crowned in the cathedral at Reims. Oh, and on your way, free the city of Orleans, which had been taken captive by the mighty English. A tall order for a teen, as I frequently remind Isabel when she moans about having to finish her math homework.

Isabel doesn't have much to say about a pretty, sweet-smelling scene that invites a lot of serene musing. After we visit the house and church, she stifles a jet-lag yawn and takes my hand for a walk up to the brow of a hill for the long view. We count three church spires in the broad valley and one white horse grazing in a field beside the river. No cellphones. No iPods.

"It's so quiet here," Isabel says. Approvingly.

The next day we head west, keeping one step ahead of our suitcases and settling into a road-trip routine of French pop radio, light lunches and colossal dinners as we chase Joan from town to town. Isabel assumes a shotgun role of deciphering Google maps and reading passages of Twain, keeping us literally and historically on track.

We spend hours at the Chateau de Blois, a fantastically preserved house with a pedigree stretching back to the 1300s. A few miles south is where Joan caught up to the would-be king at Chinon, another of the dime-a-dozen castle towns in the Loire. Joan had never laid eyes on Charles VII, and he tested her mystical powers by putting a double on the throne and hiding his royal self in the crowd. But the young zealot picked him out instantly — it's in the documents! — knelt before him and said, more or less: "Pack your bags, Chuck. It's time to be the king."

She had to plead with him for days to authorize an attack on the English at Orleans. But he finally permitted her to gather an army at Blois, where we now stand in a delightful autumn chill. The mansion is really three houses, from Gothic to Renaissance, built over the ages around a vast courtyard overlooking the cobblestone labyrinth of the village. After testing the echoes in the hall where Joan was received by the baffled local nobility, we walk the warren of tiny streets in search of hot chocolate and croissants.

Joan's next, and greatest, escapade was 40 miles upriver at the cathedral town of Orleans. For her, "Orleans was a delirium of felicity," Twain says. We visit a train station mall a few blocks from our creaky and comfortable Hotel de L'Abeille (where breakfast is served in a lobby packed with JOA posters, statuettes and other Joan-alia). Twenty minutes later, we come under the shadow of an even greater visage of our girl hero. The massive equestrian statue of Joan, armored and short-haired, looms over the city's main plaza just a few blocks from the spot where she unleashed her troops in May 1429. Leading them herself (and taking an arrow in the shoulder), she broke the English hold on Orleans and began the end of the Hundred Years' War. It's a feat Orleans still celebrates with street parties and reenactors each spring.

Rouen, in Normandy, Joan's last stop and ours, is the most touristy of the towns on our Joan tour, but pleasantly so. We welcome the chance to load up on knickknacks. The 12th-century Gothic cathedral is one of the most famous in the world (painted more than 30 times by Monet.

It's a festive place, but our round of Joan sites is somber: the remains of the old tower where she was held prisoner, the cathedral annex where the inquisitors debated her destiny and the towering cross that marks where she met her fiery fate on May 30, 1431.

The last dinner of our all-Joan week is at Les Maraichers, a bistro overlooking the Old Market (and an annex of the much pricier La Couronne, a restaurant that was already 100 years old on the day Joan died outside its door). We take our time over dessert, reviewing our days, comparing our notes to Mark Twain's. Isabel tells me about some of the crazy dynamics of seventh grade. I tell her some horror stories from my own school days. We share a chocolate mousse.

As we walk back to our hotel, along the street that was Joan of Arc's last sight of a world that would never forget her, I marvel that Isabel and I have been hearing some voices, too.

Each other's.

(c) 2008, The Washington Post

Joan of Arc