In the southern Orne department of Normandy, Alençon is an elegant town on the Sarthe River, already known by many for its lace-making. In fact, the town is often described as the “Queen of Lace” and the trade here has been recognized as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by UNESCO. You can investigate this side of Alençon’s past at the Museum of Fine Arts and Lace, and the town has some other notable connections you might be aware of.
Born here, Sainte Thérèse was very close to a Catholic superstar of the late 19th century, while Marguerite de Navarre, sister of the nostalgic King Henry IV, had a home in the centre of Alençon in the 1500s.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Alençon:
1. Museum of Fine Arts and Lace
For a complete overview of the technology and history of the lace industry in Alençon, simply visit a superb museum in a restored Jesuit college.
Many examples of lace can be seen from this town, but there are also pieces from other lace-making capitals such as Chantilly and Le Puy.
At first you can watch a video delving into the textile background of this part of Normandy, and then you see one unusual intricate dress and ornament after another.
There are also paintings from the Renaissance to the 19th century, by conceited artists such as Eugène Boudin, Nicolas Maes and Pieter Boel.
2. Notre Dame Cathedral
In 2009, Alençon’s main place of worship was elevated from church to cathedral, dating back to 1356, when the first stone was laid.
Most of the building is in ornate Gothic style, and the nave has some wonderful stained glass windows from 1530. After the fire, the bell tower and the choir had to be rebuilt in the 1700s, it’s interesting to see how they fit in with the rest of the building.
For Catholics, this is an added motivation, as this is where Sainte Thérèse was baptized in 1873. We will come to her next.
3. Maison Natale de Sainte Thérèse
Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin, a barefoot Carmelite nun who died in 1897 at the age of 24, was canonized less than 30 years later.
She has become the patron saint of everything from the Vatican Gardens to France, Russia, to people with HIV or AIDS. To this day, she remains a cherished figure by many members of the Catholic Church, and several miracles have been attributed to her during her short life.
Not everyone can understand the wild charm of Sainte Thérèse, but you can learn about her life in her birthplace, Rue Saint-Blaise, which is preserved as a shrine.
4. Maison d’Ozé
The Maison d’Ozé leads to the Place de la Madeleine next to the sanctuary, a towered Gothic and Renaissance mansion built in the 1450s for the town’s aldermen.
Feel free to look around as this is where the tourist office of Alençon is located.
In the 16th century, the Duke of Alençon-Charles de Valois lived here with Marguerite de Navarre and received her brother, the future King Henry, in 1576 IV. Step into the courtyard and admire the lovely gardens with manicured hedges and neatly lined cherry trees.
5. The Duke’s Castle
Wandering around Alençon’s old center, you might be caught off guard by the massive gatehouse on Rue de la Chaussée.
This is pretty much all that remains of a once muscular castle built in the 1100s and updated over the next 300 years.
The gatehouse was five stories high and separated from the street by a moat, with two thick jagged towers on each side of the gate.
The rest of the castle, except for a few towers, was demolished in the 16th century, and what remained was turned into a prison, which was not decommissioned until 2010. Today, the property is still owned by the French Ministry of Justice, but rumor has it that it will soon open to the public.
6. Promenade Park
Just behind the Château des Ducs, the Parc des Promenades was once an area of the Forêt d’Écouves where dukes and royals would go hunting.
In the late 18th century, it was turned into a large park, and the first elm tree was planted with great fanfare in 1784. Even by French standards, the Parc des Promenades is a well-appointed and soothing green space with rich gardens, lush picnic lawns, shady paths, ponds and playgrounds for energetic young people.
Equally interesting for smaller visitors is the small zoo with goats, rabbits and peacocks.
7. Corn Exchange
A striking building in the center of the town, La Halle au Blé, has a circular floor plan topped by a glass roof.
The main body of the building was completed in 1819, and the glass dome was not added until 1865. When it was completed, the metal and glass dome was called “Alençon’s crinoline”, the crinoline was the cage used to support the interior of the Victorian skirt! In the early days it was a corn exchange, but now it is an unusual exhibition venue and a great place to visit at the Alençon ice rink at Christmas.
8. Maison à l’Étal
In the absence of. 10 Rue-Porte-de-la-Barre Maison à l’Étal (House of the Stalls) is a quaint 15th century residence with some neat qualities.
The most obvious of these are the granite benches or booths (hence the name) under the windows on the first floor.
This may be a remnant of when the building was a shop, as most clients prefer to do business during the day rather than in a dark interior where they might get ripped off.
Also giving the house some extra character is its ground floor fully covered in blue-grey slate, as well as beautiful wood gables under the eaves of the roof.
Since 2012, Alençon has been absorbed by a vast network of off-road bikes linking Notre Dame to Mont Saint-Michel on a 434-kilometer route.
With the Accueil Vélo brand, you get high-quality bike service and cyclist-friendly accommodation.
So in theory you could ride all the way through the Perche Hills and the Eure Valley to Paris.
Alternatively, set your sights on the Normandy seaside and follow the region’s verdant “bocage” country orchards and hedges.
Wherever you go, traffic will not be a problem, as the places where Véloscénie uses the roads are always quiet country lanes.
10. Forêt d’Écouves
If you need open country countryside, the Forêt d’Écouves, frequented by the royal family of Alençon, is a few kilometers north of town.
The forest lies beneath the Normandy-Maine Regional Park and ripples with the peaks of the Sandstone American Massif.
Delve into the beech, oak and pine forests and you’ll see why they are so popular with hunters as they produce prey such as deer and wild boar.
Ambitious hikers can test themselves on some hills above 400 meters above sea level, such as Signal d’Écouves and Mont des Avaloirs.
11. Carouge Castle
An unforgettable drive through marshes and forests will take you to the fairytale Castle of Carouge, a French National Monument.
One of the many things to love about this castle is its fusion of solid fortress architecture with later, more refined elements.
The kids are sure to go crazy for Carouge Castle as it has many classic castle features such as a moat, strong looking gatehouses and towers with mechanisms that allow defenders to throw burning oil and stones at attackers .
Tours are available throughout the day, and non-French speakers will receive a printed guide.
10 minutes from Alençon in the Normandy-Maine Regional Park is this lovely village nestled in the hilly valley of the River Sarthe.
Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei is known as one of the “most beautiful villages” in France. All of the settlement’s old cottages, stables, and barns were built from the same rustic stone, and many were covered in wisteria or ivy.
The little bridge over the River Sarthe is the best place to start your tour, from where you can stroll to the historic core with an 11th-century church.
See frescoes from the 12th and 14th centuries, as vivid as they were covered in plaster in the 1600s and rediscovered in the 19th century.
13. Les Jardins de la Mansonière
This magical little garden, built over 30 years and surrounding one of the stone houses of Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei, is all the motivation you need to spend some more time in the village.
The interesting thing about this space is that each corner has a purpose and a different character.
In just a few steps you will go from a Gothic garden to a “green carpet”, rose garden and fragrant perfume garden.
You can spend a few quiet hours with a hot drink in the tea room in the garden.
14. Chapelle du Petit Saint-Céneri
Also worth mentioning is the postcard scene on the edge of the village.
The 15th-century Gothic church stands alone in a clearing, but what appears to be empty is actually the settlement’s former center.
The setting is a good reason to walk, seeing the small triangular building set against the woodland and greenery.
Inside there is a shrine dedicated to St. Cheneri, the subject of various interesting superstitions.
A woman who wants to marry should stick a needle into the robe of the statue.
Meanwhile, if you’re trying to get pregnant (and not easily embarrassed), you should find a large slate on the church floor where the saint is said to have slept and lay on it.
15. Food and drink
Apples are king in the Orne and are the main ingredient in a variety of irresistible beverages.
Most of these are alcoholic beverages, and the best known is cider, which has been brewed here for over 2,000 years.
Norman ciders have a slight sizzle and range from sweet, low-alcohol varieties to heady, dry varieties at 4.5% or more.
Then you have Calvados, which is an apple brandy, and this drink also goes into Pommeau, which is Calvados mixed with pressed apple juice.
But Orne isn’t all apples, because another regional delicacy we know and love is camembert cheese, which can only be produced in Normandy.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Alençon, France
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