In the south of Normandy’s Orne department, Alençon is a genteel town on the River Sarthe that many people will already know for its lace-making. In fact the town is often described as the “queen of lace”, and the trade here has won UNESCO recognition as “intangible cultural heritage”. You can investigate this side to Alençon’s past at the Museum of Fine Arts and Lace, while the town has a few other famous connections you might be aware of.
Sainte Thérèse was born here, and she was as close as you can get to a Catholic superstar in the late-19th century, while Marguerite de Navarre the sister of the fondly remembered King Henri IV had a home in the centre of Alençon in the 1500s.
Lets explore the best things to do in Alençon:
1. Museum of Fine Arts and Lace
For a thorough account of the techniques and history of Alençon’s lace industry look no further than this first-rate museum in a restored Jesuit college.
There are plenty of examples of lace to see from this town, but also pieces from other lace-making capitals like Chantilly and Le Puy.
At the start you can see a video that delves into the background of textiles in this part of Normandy, and then you’ll pass case after case of uncommonly intricate dresses and decorations.
Also here is an assortment of paintings from the Renaissance to the 19th century by some vaunted artists like Eugène Boudin, Nicolas Maes and Pieter Boel.
2. Notre-Dame Basilica
Alençon’s main place of worship was elevated from a church to a basilica in 2009 and dates from 1356, when the first stone was laid.
Most of the building is in the flamboyant Gothic style, and the nave has some marvellous stained glass windows from 1530. After a fire the bell-tower and choir had to be rebuilt in the 1700s and it’s intriguing to see how they blend with the rest of the building.
For Catholics there’s an extra incentive to drop in as this the place where Sainte Thérèse was baptised in 1873. We’ll come to her next.
3. Maison Natale de Sainte Thérèse
Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin was a Discalced Carmelite nun who died aged just 24 in 1897 and was canonised less than 30 years later.
She has become the patron saint of all kinds of things, from the Gardens of the Vatican City to France, Russia and people suffering from HIV or AIDS. And to this day she remains a cherished figure for many members of the catholic church, and several miracles have been ascribed to her during her short life.
Not everyone will understand the wild appeal of Sainte Thérèse, but you can learn about her life at her birthplace on Rue Saint-Blaise, which is kept as a shrine.
4. Maison d’Ozé
Opening onto Place de la Magdelaine next to the basilica, the Maison d’Ozé is a turreted Gothic and Renaissance mansion built for the town’s alderman in the 1450s.
You’re free to have a look around as this is the home of Alençon’s tourist office.
In the 16th century the Duke of Alençon Charles de Valois lived here with Marguerite de Navarre, and hosted her brother, the future King Henri IV for a time in 1576. Go into the courtyard to see the cute gardens and their formal trimmed hedges and lines of neatly pollarded cherry trees.
5. Château des Ducs
Ambling around Alençon’s old centre you might be caught off guard by the hulking presence of a gatehouse on Rue de la Chaussée.
This is almost all that remains of a once muscular castle that was founded in the 1100s and updated over the next 300 years.
That gatehouse is five storeys high, separated from the street by a moat and has two chunky crenellated towers on each side of its portal.
The remainder of the castle, bar a couple of towers, was demolished in the 16th century and the sections left standing became a prison that wasn’t decommissioned until 2010. Today the property is still owned by the French ministry of justice, but there’s talk of it opening to the public soon.
6. Parc des Promenades
Just behind the Château des Ducs, the Parc des Promenades is a former patch of the Forêt d’Écouves where the dukes and royalty would go hunting.
In the late-18th century it became a large public park, and the first elm tree was planted to great fanfare in 1784. Even by French standards the Parc des Promenades is a well-appointed and soothing green space, with plentiful flower gardens, lush lawns for picnics, shaded paths, a pond and a playgrounds for energetic youngsters.
Also fun for littler visitors is the small menagerie that has goats, rabbits and peacocks.
7. Corn Exchange
A striking building in the centre of the town, the Corn Exchange (La Halle au Blé), has a circular plan and is crowned with a glass roof.
The body of the building was finished in 1819 and that glass dome wasn’t added until 1865. When it was completed the metal and glass dome was dubbed the “crinoline of Alençon”, crinoline being the cage that used to hold up the inside of Victorian skirts! In the early days it was a stock exchange for grain, but now it’s an out-of-the-ordinary venue for exhibitions and a handsome spot for Alençon’s skating rink at Christmas.
8. Maison à l’Étal
At no. 10 Rue-Porte-de-la-Barre the Maison à l’Étal (Stall House), is a quaint 15th-century home with some neat idiosyncrasies.
The most obvious of these is the granite bench or stall (hence the name) under the ground floor window.
This is a could be a vestige from when the building was a shop, as most customers preferred to do business in the daylight rather than a dark interior where they might be ripped off.
Also giving this house some extra personality is its first floor clad entirely with blue-grey slate, and the pretty wooden gable beneath the eaves in the roof.
Since 2012 Alençon has been absorbed by a vast cross-country cycle network, which links the Notre-Dame in Paris with Mont-Saint-Michel on a 434-kilometre route.
With the Accueil Vélo brand you’re guaranteed high-quality bike services and cycle-friendly accommodation.
So in theory you could ride all the way through the Perche Hills and the Eure Valley to Paris.
Or you could set your sights on the Normandy seaside and coast your way along the region’s verdant “bocage” countryside of orchards and hedgerows.
Wherever you go traffic won’t be a problem as where Véloscénie does use roads these are always quiet rural lanes.
10. Forêt d’Écouves
If you’re in need of wide-open countryside the Forêt d’Écouves, frequented by Alençon’s royalty for sport, begins a couple of kilometres north of the town.
This forest comes under the Normandie-Maine Regional Park and ripples with peaks from the sandstone Amorican Massif.
Deeper into the beech, oak and pine woods you’ll realise why they were so popular with hunters as they teem with game like deer and wild boar.
Ambitious hikers can test themselves against some of the hills like theSignal d’Écouves and the Mont des Avaloirs, both above 400 metres.
11. Château de Carrouges
A memorable drive through moorland and forest will deliver you to the fairytale Château de Carrouges, a French national monument.
One of the many things to love about this castle is the way it fuses tough-looking fortress architecture with later more refined elements.
Kids are sure to be mad for the Château de Carrouges as it has so many classic castle features like a moat, a tough-looking gatehouse and towers with machicolations, allowing defenders to drop burning oil and stones on attackers.
There are tours throughout the day, and non-French speakers will be handed a printed guide.
Ten minutes from Alençon in the Normandie-Maine Regional Park is this adorable village couched in a hilly valley on the River Sarthe.
Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei is lauded as one of France’s “most beautiful villages”. All the old cottages, stables and barns in this settlement are built with the same rustic stone and many are cloaked with wisteria or ivy.
The little bridge over the Sarthe is the best spot to begin your visit, and from there you can saunter up to the historic core where there’s an 11th-century church.
Pop in to see the frescos from the 12th and 14th centuries, which are uncommonly vibrant because they were covered with plaster in the 1600s to be rediscovered in the 19th century.
13. Les Jardins de la Mansonière
Thirty years in the making, this magical little garden surrounds one of Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei’s stone cottages and is all the motivation you need to spend some more time in the village.
The fun thing about this space is the way every corner has a purpose and a different character.
In just a few footsteps you’ll pass from a Gothic garden to a “green carpet”, rose garden and fragrant perfume garden.
And you can round off a peaceful couple of hours with a hot drink at the garden’s tea room.
14. Chapelle du Petit Saint-Céneri
Also deserving a separate mention is this picture-postcard scene on the edge of the village.
The 15th-century gothic chapel is alone in a clearing, but what looks like an empty space is actually the former heart of the settlement.
The setting is a good enough reason to make the walk, to see this dinky triangular building against the woodland and greenery.
Inside there’s a shrine to Saint-Céneri, which is the subject of all sorts of funny superstitions.
Women hoping to get married should bring a needle to pin to the statue’s robes.
Meanwhile, if you want to get pregnant (and aren’t easily embarrassed) you’re supposed to find a large flagstone on the chapel floor where the saint supposedly slept and lie down on it.
15. Food and Drink
The apple is king in the Orne Department, and is the main ingredient for all sorts of irresistible beverages.
Most of these are alcoholic, and the one everybody knows is cider, which has been brewed here for more than 2,000 years.
Norman cider has a light fizz and ranges from sweet low-alcohol variety to a heady dry type 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 it’s not all apples in Orne, because another regional delicacy we know and love is Camembert cheese, which can only be produced in Normandy.