When you think of Normandy, what comes to mind? School trips to the D-Day beaches? The fairy tale spire of Mont Saint Michel's abbey? Baked Camembert? Us too, but there is so much more to this beautiful region of France, and all within easy reach of the UK. We were invited by Normandy Tourism and Alençon Tourism to head inland from the coast and spend a couple of days exploring the pretty town of Alencon and the surrounding countryside.
Just 2.5 hours from Paris, Alencon is easy to get to by train. Routes from Gare Montparnasse change at Le Mans for the final short hop to Alencon. If you're coming from the UK like us, catch the Eurostar from London to Gare du Nord and nip across to Gare Montparnasse on the Paris Metro.
Famous for its UNESCO protected Point d'Alencon lace making technique and for being the birthplace of Saint Therese, one of France's most beloved saints, Alencon has a beautiful historic centre. Know as the City of the Dukes, there are a number of timbered houses and other impressive buildings from the 14th and 15th century.
What to see in Alencon
We started our visit at the tourist information centre, set within the grand Maison d'Ozé. Built in 1450, this was once the home of the Duke of Alencon and is a great place to pick up some ideas about the area and browse the local products on sale in the gift shop. We bought a jar of teurgoule, the mother of all rice puddings that originates from Normandy.
Heading through an archway into Place de la Magdeleine, we were immediately impressed by Notre Dame Basilica. The 18th century stubby steeple contrasts dramatically with the romantic Gothic flying buttresses of the nave - the original bell tower was destroyed by a lightening strike in 1744 and for some reason when it was rebuilt, the architects chose not to match the style of the rest of the building.
The three sided Porch of the Transfiguration with its dramatic arches and delicate lace-like stonework is particularly impressive, and curiously, one of the statues on the front, believed to be St John, has his back turned to the faithful, facing into the building. Local legend has it that he once looked outwards like the rest of the statues, but unable to bear watching the massacres during the Religious Wars of the 16th century, he turned himself to face the wall.
Alencon's Notre Dame was designated as a basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 because of its links to Saint Therese and her family. Her parents, Louis and Zelie Martin (who were also canonised as saints in 2015) were married in the church at midnight on July 12th 1858, and married couples still make pilgrimages to the north aisle to ask the Martins to bless their union. The family were incredibly devout - both Louis and Zelie had originally sought to enter holy orders, and all five of their daughters went on to be nuns!
Inside the basilica, beneath the soaring ribbed ceiling, a side chapel dedicated to Saint Therese displays her christening gown (she was baptised in the church in 1873), and the beautiful stained glass windows of the nave date all the way back to the 16th century - they were taken down and preserved during World War Two.
On Thursdays and Saturdays a market is held in the square outside the basilica, selling local produce like cheeses, fresh bread and fruit and vegetables.
Explore the historic streets and buildings in Alencon
Walk down Grand Rue and the surrounding side streets to see some lovely half timbered houses dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. On Rue de la Porte de la Barre, pause by the black fronted Maison a l'Etal, a beautifully preserved Medieval shop-house. The large stone windowsill outside would have been used to display the goods for sale. Further up the road next to the street sign you can make out where one of Alencon's gatehouses would have been, back when the town was fortified in the 11th century, and for a really impressive example of Alencon's defensive might, carry on up Rue Balzac and through the Jardin Experimental until you see the massive crenellated towers of the Chateau des Ducs.
Alencon's castle was once a substantial Norman fortress and has an interesting history. After the original 11th century castle was destroyed by William the Conqueror's troops, a new castle was constructed, first under England's Henry I and later by Pierre II, Count of Alençon from 1361 to 1404. Further demolitions in the 16th and 18th centuries mean that the towers that you see today are all that remain, and the attached more modern looking building that you can see with barred windows was a prison, built in 1824 and used by the Gestapo during WWII to hold and torture French Resistance fighters. Amazingly, the prison was still in use until only about 10 years ago, when the grounds were opened to the public and made into the park that you see today. It is hoped that one day the prison building itself will be opened as a museum, but a lot of funding is needed, so this development is unlikely to happen soon.
One of the most striking buildings in Alencon is the circular Halle au Ble, a 19th century corn exchange. Its dramatic metal framed glass dome has led to the local nickname the Crinoline, because it looks like the structure that Victorian women used to wear underneath their skirts to hold them out. You can visit the inside in summer months, and in winter school holidays the hall is home to an ice rink!
Visit the Alencon Fine Art and Lace Museum
To really understand Alencon's claim to fame, head to its Lace Musuem, the Musee des Beaux Arts et de la Dentelle. Alencon is known worldwide for lace making - in fact the style of Point d'Alencon needle lace is on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Until 1665, Venice held the monopoly on lace exports, when Louis XIV decided he wanted France to cash in on the popular fashion style and established a Royal workshop. Today, a National Lace Workshop (founded in 1976) ensures the survival of this intricate artform in a world of convenience and machine made lace.
As you enter the museum, its frontage decorated with frothy lace style art, you can peer through the windows and catch a glimpse of the women working on the lace. It is unbelievably technical - a small floral detail about 2 inches wide could take 10 days of work! We were lucky enough to be able to watch a demonstration of the Point d'Alencon technique and the museum houses a large collection of impressive lace work, the crown jewel of which is a stunning wedding veil. Our guide said this would take an estimated 500,000 hours of work to complete! We'll never look at lace in the same way again...
As well as lace, the museum has a collection of religious paintings, many of which were confiscated from churches and aristocratic houses during the French Revolution so that the public could enjoy them, and an interesting gallery of Cambodian art, masks and stone work donated to the museum by Adhémard Leclère, an Alencon born French diplomat who studied Khmer culture of Cambodia during his tenure in the administration of what was then French Indochina from 1896 - 1911.
Zelie Martin, mother of Saint Therese and now canonized herself, worked as an Alencon lace maker. You can visit the family home where St Therese was born, Maison de Famille Martin, at 50 Rue Saint Blaise. In this neat little pink house, St Therese lived with her siblings and parents for the first 4 years of her life until her mother's death.
Enjoy some live music
As part of our press trip, we were taken to La Luciole, Alencon's contemporary music venue where they host ingenious "after work" concerts. As well as a main auditorioum for large concerts, La Luciole has a studio venue, Le Club, where up and coming bands can play an hour long set at 7pm. It's so civilised! Pop along after work, have a drink and a dance and be home in time for dinner. What a brilliant social idea! We would do this so often if we had a home venue run similar events. Check the venue calendar to see what's on while you're in town - "After Work" gigs seem to be every other Thursday, but there are lots of other concerts and open mic nights each month.
Visit St Ceneri Le Gerei
Just 14km from Alencon is the gorgeous tiny village of St Ceneri Le Gerei, voted one of the most beautiful villages in France! From winding streets and pretty stone houses to Medieval frescos and a famous pilgrimage chapel, St Ceneri Le Gerei is well worth a visit from Alencon. We've written a full blog about what you can see and do here!
Take a cooking class in Alencon
One activity that we really enjoyed on our press trip was a cooking class with Atelier Gourmand. What better way to learn about Normandy food than by preparing and eating it?In a purple and green kitchen workshop, under the watchful eye and friendly instruction of Sebastian, we learned how to cook mackerel with suitably flamboyant accompaniments: we used a melon baller to make little globes of potato and green apple, simmered in cider and served with an indulgent camembert sauce. For dessert we learned how to make a caramel from scratch for our stewed apple crispy pastries, and ate our lunch in the adjoining dining area, washed down with plenty of local poiré.
Where to eat in Alencon
Speaking of food, Alencon has a lot of restaurants for a small city - here are three that we really enjoyed:
Le Bistrot: Perfect for lunch, Le Bistrot has a retro diner style with red booth seats and vintage metal signs on the walls. They serve a very well priced two course set menu featuring home cooked hearty meals like coq au vin with mashed potatoes. By 1pm the entire restaurant was full of locals, always a good sign!
Chez Fano: On the same road as the Martin family home, Chez Fano serves French cuisine beautifully presented in a creative way. The upstairs dining room is cosy and rustic, and you'll want to book ahead as Chez Fano is very popular. One of the few Alencon restaurants to open on Mondays, the meats and seafood are excellent. Try the waffles with chocolate and salted caramel!
La Suite: If you're celebrating an anniversary or special occasion during your stay in Alencon, or if you want to treat yourself to an exceptional meal, book a table at Alencon's finest restaurant, La Suite. Listed in the Michelin Guide to France, La Suite serves exquisite food with big flavours, with starters like pesto razor clams and veal tartare, and main dishes like cod fillet on squid ink rice with a parmesan wafer and honey glazed pork on a courgette coulis. The desserts are equally inventive: we tried strawberry gazpacho, chocolate spring rolls and a citrus pavlova. The interior with its winding staircase has a modern, airy feel to it, and the kitchen has one side on view to the restaurant so you can watch the chefs in action.
Where to stay in Alencon
Hotel des Ducs
We stayed here on our first night in Alencon. For convenience and comfort you really can't go wrong with Hotel des Ducs - it's only a minute's walk from the main train station, the rooms are large and comfortable with free wifi, and we enjoyed the continental buffet for breakfast.
Chateau de Saint Paterne
Travel back in time and sleep in a fairytale French chateau! Just outside of Alencon is dreamy Chateau de Saint Paterne, originating from the 15th century and set within gorgeous grounds. From four poster beds to the Chambre de Mystères tucked away up a 52 step stone staircase at the top of a Rapunzel style tower, this hotel is magical.
The owners Charles-Henry and Ségolène are very much present and welcoming - you will feel like guests in a family home. In the evenings, we were all invited along to aperitifs in the lounge full of period furniture while a log fire crackled. Dinner was served at 8pm, and in the mornings a beautiful breakfast buffet is laid out. With the shutters thrown open to the parkland, you might be lucky enough to spot a deer while you enjoy your morning coffee! In summer months until the end of September, an outdoor heated pool is available for guests.
Alençon Tourism https://www.visitalencon.com/
Normandy Tourism https://en.normandie-tourisme.fr/
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Disclosure: We were invited and hosted on this trip by Normandy Tourism, but we were not paid to post and as always, all opinions are our own!