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What to do in Saint Ceneri le Gerei: a side trip to one of France's most beautiful villages

While we were visiting Alencon on our press trip with Normandy Tourism and Alencon Tourism we drove to Saint Ceneri le Gerei, voted one of the most beautiful villages in France. Only 14km away from Alencon in the Alpes Mancelles region, Saint Ceneri le Gerei combines picture perfect stone houses with a historic church and pilgrimage chapel, tree lined cliffs and a beautiful location on the Sarthe River.

The tiny village of around 150 inhabitants takes its name from Serenicus (St Ceneri), a 7th century Italian monk who travelled to Normandy and settled in Orne, and Guillaume Giroie, a Norman nobleman who built a castle there in the 11th century.

Autumnal St Ceneri Le Gerei

Top things to see and do in Saint Ceneri le Gerei:

1. Take a stroll to St Ceneri Chapel

Isolated in the middle of a green meadow, surrounded by a curve of the River Sarthe and high limestone cliffs, the tiny Medieval chapel of St Ceneri sits on the outskirts of the village. On the far bank of the river, you can see a small stone memorial marking a spring, said to have miraculously appeared to quench St Ceneri's thirst after his long journey to Orne. Local legend also claims that the water from this spring can cure blindness and other eye problems! Inside, you'll find a statue of St Ceneri with hundreds of pins stuck in it, left by women who pray to the saint to help them to find a husband. The large rock embedded in the chapel floor in front of this statue is said to be the same one that Saint Ceneri used for a bed in his 7th century hermit oratory.

2. See the beautiful frescos of St Ceneri Le Gerei Church

High above the river is the 11th century Romanesque church with exquisite orange frescos painted between the 12th - 14th centuries. For some reason, these beautiful paintings were plastered over in the 17th century, before being rediscovered 200 years later - luckily the whitewash hadn't damaged them, and the church was designated a historic landmark in 1886.

Outside the church is a plaque beside a hole in the wall where you might see bees coming in and out. This miraculous hive has protected the church since the 9th century, according to local legend: When Norman soldiers from the north attacked Western Francia, they came to St Ceneri Le Gerei. When they reached the Abbey where the church now stands, they were swarmed by hundreds of angry bees. In a panic, the soldiers flung themselves into the river, falling to their deaths on the rocks far below.

On the far side of the church is a beautiful viewpoint looking out over the river, bridge and village below.


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3. Discover the secret of St Ceneri Le Gerei's historic bridge

The most famous view of Saint Ceneri le Gerei is the postcard shot of the arched stone bridge looking up to the church. Peer over the wall (the side furthest from the church) to spot a souvenir from WWII - after American soldiers liberated Saint Ceneri Le Gerei in 1944, a group of them stayed behind to help repair the village bridge. Poking out of the stone wall is an army shell, left by the American soldiers!

4. Visit the Room of the Beheaded at Auberge des Soeurs Moisy

The Auberge of the Moisy sisters

In the 19th century, Saint Ceneri le Gerei became a bit of an artists commune, inspiring painters such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet and Henri Harpignies to come and stay to paint the village and surrounding landscapes. The most striking reminder of this period is the Salle des Décapités or "Room of the beheaded", tucked away at the top of the inn of the Moisy sisters, where the walls are covered with dozens of painted black silhouetted heads. On rainy days, friends and families of the artists would sit in front of a candle, throwing their shadow onto the wall where it would be outlined in charcoal and filled in with black paint. The silhouettes are really characterful: you can make out women's hats and men's moustaches and pipes - they look so alive!

Between April and September, from 2 pm to 6 pm Wednesday to Sunday, there is a tourist information office open on the ground floor with a small shop selling postcards and local produce - during opening times you can arrange a 30 minute tour of the Salle des Décapités through Alencon Tourism

5. Take a guided tour with Dominique Eudier

Walk the streets of St Ceneri with an expert and learn the local legends and stories. Another tour that Dominique offers is to take a guided bike ride through the beautiful countryside around St Ceneri le Gerei and popping into one of the artist galleries scattered around the area - the village still inspires painters and sculptors to this day and there are several working studios there. The bikes provided were electric, which were very useful for the hilly landscape around the village - they don't call the area the Alpes Mancelles for nothing!

6. Just wander.

Saint Ceneri Le Gerei is unbelievably pretty. In spring and summer the gardens bloom with brightly coloured flowers, and in autumn months the walls of the stone houses are covered with red ivy. Take your time strolling the winding streets, stop for a coffee or pop into the artists workshops and galleries dotted around the village: on the main road leading down over the bridge is the gallery of Christian Malezieux who created the Stations of the Cross sculptures in the village church. The cute sandstone house on the street from the church to St Ceneri's chapel belonged to former mayor Jean Jacquemot and looks straight out of a Disney film - at any moment Snow White might fling the windows open to cool a pie on the sill!

7. Outdoors activities around Saint Ceneri Le Gerei:

If you're looking for a more active day, the Alpes Mancelles region is great for hiking, canoeing and mountain biking.

How to get to St Ceneri le Gerei:

Saint Ceneri Le Gerei is about 20 minutes drive from Alencon. There are no public transport links, but you can also cycle between the two in about 47 minutes.

There is a large open air car park next to the river, a short walk from the Auberge des Sœurs Moisy.

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