The statue of Joan of Arc that stands beside Reims cathedral is an oddity. True, for a lady of 600, she looks in good shape. But I can't help feeling that this version of France's heroine is off-kilter – sword bent, face blank. Perhaps the lack of emotion is the problem. Because here, on this square, she is reliving her finest hour. A smile might be appropriate.
Or maybe not. For Joan (or Jeanne, to use her French name) is a woman whose face has taken a thousand forms over the past six centuries, played on screen by Ingrid Bergman, eulogised in print by Mark Twain. She is as much a myth as a genuine figure of the past.
And yet the facts that define her are remarkable. In 1429, France was in a parlous state. What is now the northern half of the country was in the hands of either the English or their ally the Duchy of Burgundy. The identity of the French king was hugely confused due to the Treaty of Troyes (1420), in which the weak Charles VI had disinherited his own direct bloodline in favour of Henry V of England (whose victory at Agincourt and the campaign of conquest in 1415 was the root of the matter) and his heirs.
Extra trouble had arrived in 1422 with the deaths of both Henry V and Charles VI, leaving two claimants to the empty throne: Henry VI of England (a boy of nine months) and Charles "Le Dauphin" (the son of Charles VI). Crucially, seven years on – in an era where coronation was seen as the signature on a divine appointment – neither had been crowned, and what would become known as the Hundred Years' War continued, English forces pressing ever south.
Then, in January 1429, a 17-year-old farm girl emerged from Domrémy (a hamlet in what is now Lorraine), claiming to have received angelic orders to liberate the country. Joan's pestering of Robert de Baudricourt, captain of the castle in nearby Vaucouleurs, had her (after initial amusement) sent 325 miles west to the Loire Valley, where the Dauphin held court at Chinon.
Within five months, she had convinced Charles of her mission, helped to break the English siege of Orléans, and hacked through 170 miles of enemy turf to Reims – the site of French coronations. The Dauphin's anointment as Charles VII on 17 July was critical, and by 1453, he had largely pushed England from French soil – though Joan would not see this. Caught by Burgundians and sold to the English, she was burnt at the stake in Rouen in 1431. She was 19.
This, at least, is the historical side of a saga whose star is cast in many lights: martyr (she was canonised in 1920); fairy-tale warrior; proto-feminist; symbol of French nationalism. But she is also an effective travel guide. To tour the places that saw her rise – either in her 600th anniversary year (she was born in 1412), or at any other time – is to explore a splendid slice of the country she so dramatically affected.
So much is clear in Reims. An obvious (if not chronological) starting point, 90 miles east of Paris, the biggest city in the Champagne-Ardenne region is an enclave of unexpected Art Deco flourishes – devastated in the First World War then rebuilt in the giddy Twenties style. Along the pedestrianised strip of Place Drouet d'Erion, locals linger over al fresco evening coffee, their talk framed by bursts of mosaic.
The cathedral wears its scars heavily. Some 300 shells struck its flanks between 1914 and 1918, and the process of restoration seems eternal. But it has not forgotten its royal role. Though 34 French kings were crowned here, the events of 1429 are granted special focus: Marc Chagall's stained-glass windows, Joan on abstract horseback; a side-chapel statue, hands clasped, eyes closed – a more appealing creation than the bronze sculpture outside.
From finest hour to humble origins: it takes me three hours to wind the 100 miles south-east, through France's most iconic viticultural zone, into Lorraine – where Domrémy-la-Pucelle sits on the Meuse. It can be little different from Joan's day, with 15 or so buildings fringing the road. Leafy pastures stretch alongside the Maison Natale, sheep chewing, trees swaying. And while the relative size of her birthplace reveals that, contrary to folklore, her father was a semi-moneyed landowner, the bare stone within the cottage speaks of a simple life. Context is supplied by a museum, and by the Eglise St-Rémy – remodelled over time, but still in essence the church where she drew inspiration.
Vaucouleurs, six miles north, is laid out around the hill where its castle stood. Little is left of the fortress, but a church on the site contains the remnants of a chapel that this unlikely soldier is known to have visited. This crypt has been adopted by the town's Musée Jeanne d'Arc, and hosts a multimedia presentation, where a virtual Joan recounts her adventures.
Vaucouleurs gives its most famous alumna considerable attention. In summer, the castle hosts a son-et-lumière show where Joan – in slick computerised projection – answers audience questions. The museum examines the evolution of her image, from Bergman's 1948 portrayal to Great War propaganda posters that position her as a defender of France in an epoch of German aggression. And on its square, the Jeanne Optic opticians sells glasses, the Brasserie Jeanne d'Arc serves steak and red wine.
Joan set off from Vaucouleurs on 23 February 1429, taking 11 days to ride to Chinon. It takes me six hours by car, flashing across a French midriff that is still predominantly agricultural, clipping into Burgundy, then on into the Centre region and the Loire Valley.
It is testament to the Dauphin's desperation in 1429 that this illiterate teenager was even welcomed, let alone allowed to fight his war for him. Pulling into this pretty town on the River Vienne (a Loire tributary), I feel that I, too, am keeping an appointment. The castle glowers on its bluff, forcing me to trudge uphill. Closer appraisal reveals that what was a 20th-century ruin has had 21st-century cosmetic surgery, but the (partial) reconstruction is subtle, and the "new" south wing of the palace reeks of the Middle Ages, all high chambers and vast fireplaces. The 13th-century Coudray Tower, where Joan slept, is just as evocative, while an anniversary exhibition (until 31 December) adds colour.
Some 100 miles east, Orléans is the pivotal scene of the story. It is no wild statement to say that the lifting of its siege (after five months), in May 1429, changed the world. The key city on the Loire, it was the last significant barrier to English annexation of the south. Had it fallen, an Anglo-French superpower would surely have reared up. Historians have debunked the idea of Joan as military genius, but her appearance in the city as an apparent emissary from God had a galvanising effect. She joined a series of attacks over 10 days which turned the war.
Six centuries on, Orléans keeps its side of the bargain by being gloriously Gallic. The Fêtes de Jeanne d'Arc remembers her triumph with parades every May, but the city is an elegant prospect any time. The Loire ebbs below its old quarter, where the cathedral delivers Gothic pomp. Restaurants – such as Ver di Vin, which proffers goats' cheeses and wines by the glass in a vaulted 15th-century cellar – serve gourmet fare. And Joan watches proudly as shoppers flow around her sculpture in the Place du Martroi.
Here, we part company – she for Reims, a failed assault on Paris and ultimate capture at Compiègne in May 1430; me for a 130-mile journey north-west into Haute-Normandie.
When we reconvene, it is for despair and death. Although unappetising and industrial on its outskirts, Rouen is cobbled and quaint at heart, a city haunted by the ghosts of its period as the 15th-century centre ground of English occupation. The Tour Jeanne d'Arc – the only standing tower from the fortress where she was held – does dark portents on Rue du Donjon. And the Archbishop's Palace, where her sentence was delivered, is being transformed into a colossal museum in her honour due to open in autumn 2014.
Joan's execution – even by the standards of a violent era – was an exercise in brutality. Convicted of heresy (a religious charge designed to smear her "mission" and, with it, the legitimacy of Charles VII's crown), she was burnt three times – twice posthumously, to ensure that nothing of her survived – before her ashes were tossed into the River Seine. Her executioner, Geoffroy Thérage, later declared that he "greatly feared to be damned".
In some senses, sadness tinges the Place du Vieux Marché. A tiny garden marks the site of the pyre, and the monumental Eglise Ste Jeanne d'Arc, completed as recently as 1979, wrings its hands, the hard lines of its exterior opening on to stained glass and calm within.
But in many other ways, Rouen is oblivious to the blood stain. Metres away, young locals meet for drinks in the trendy bar of La Réserve, or for dinner in the eateries on Rue de Vieux Palais – as elsewhere, the Musée des Beaux Arts boasts a wealth of Impressionist art in a city that enchanted Monet. And here, ultimately, is Joan of Arc's legacy. Whether you see her as evidence of a God keen to meddle in medieval politics, a supreme motivator, or just the random product of circumstance, she helped to preserve France's ability to be French – an achievement worthy of commemoration from Calais to Cannes.
The writer travelled with Rail Europe (0844 848 4078; raileurope.co.uk). Return from London to Reims and back via Rouen costs from £99. Five days' car hire (pick-up Reims, drop-off Rouen) is about £288 through Rhino Car Hire (0845 508 9845; rhinocarhire.com).
Cathedrale Notre-Dame-de-Reims (00 33 3 2647 5534; cathedrale-reims.com, entry; free).
Centre Johannique, Domrémy-la-Pucelle (00 33 3 2906 9586; vosges.fr; €3).
Eglise Sainte-Jeanne d'Arc, Rouen (00 33 2 3571 8565; cathedrale-rouen.net; free).
Forteresse Royale de Chinon, (00 33 2 4793 1345; forteressechinon.fr; €7.50).
Maison de Jeanne d'Arc, Orléans (00 33 2 3868 3263; jeannedarc.com.fr; €4).
Musée Jeanne d'Arc, Vaucouleurs (00 33 3 2989 5163; tourisme-vaucouleurs.com; from €3).
Tour Jeanne d'Arc, Rouen (00 33 2 3598 1621; rouen.fr; €1.50).
Hotel Agnes Sorel, 4 Quai Pasteur, Chinon (00 33 2 4793 0437; hotel-agnes-sorel.com). Doubles from €55, room only.
Grand Hotel Continental, 93 Place Drouet d'Erion, Reims (00 33 3 2640 3935; grandhotelcontinental.com). Doubles from €100, room only.
Hotel de l'Abeille, 64 Rue Alsace Lorraine, Orléans (00 33 2 3853 5487; hoteldelabeille.com). Doubles from €79, room only.
Hotel du Vieux Marché, 33 Rue de Vieux Palais, Rouen (00 33 2 3571 0088; hotel-vieuxmarche.com). Doubles from €128, room only.
Villa Claudette, 81 Rue de la Côte, Montigny-lès-Vaucouleurs (00 33 3 2991 1302; villaclaudette.fr). B&B from €52.