Famed for its UNESCO-listed lace pattern, the capital of the Orne département has more than one string to its bow. A cradle of history and green oasis, this rural idyll makes a choice retreat
LAND OF LACEMAKING
You can’t quite talk of Alençon without mentioning its rich lacemaking tradition. It traces its origins to 1665, when Louis XIV’s minister, Colbert, set his sight on establishing Alençon as France’s lacemaking capital and set up a royal workshop in the humble market town. Not one to leave anything to chance, he enlisted skilled Venetian masters to teach locals the finer points of the craft. Soon, they had developed their own distinct lacemaking style – the intricate ‘Point d’Alençon’ needlepoint – which was declared UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010. A total of ten stages are required to create the complex pattern. In fact, it takes 15 hours of painstaking labour to produce a piece of Alençon lace the size of a postage stamp. You can admire the town’s exquisite lace collection and learn about the tricky Alençon technique at the Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle.
But there’s far more to the picturesque town than lacemaking. The gateway to Normandy and capital of the Orne département has left its mark on French history. Not only was it the seat of the mighty Duke of Alençon, Jean de Valois, a comrade- in-arms of Joan of Arc, but the first town to be liberated by the French Army under General Leclerc on August 12,1944.
BIRTHPLACE OF A SAINT
The little nook has quite the claim to fame as the birthplace of Sainte-Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus, more commonly known as Thérèse de Lisieux, a Carmelite nun who was canonised in 1925. And surprisingly, she is not only the only saint in her pious family. Her parents Louis and Zélie Martin were sainted in 2015, becoming the first spouses in history to be canonised as a couple. Their house still stands today and offers a fascinating window into the Martin clan and their journey to sainthood.
A grand Gothic confection with a distinct English twist courtesy of the Hundred Years War, this is where Thérèse de Lisieux was baptised. Formerly a humble parish church, it was elevated to basilica status by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
With its pockets of swoon-worthy half-timbered cottages and lattice of cobbled streets, chiefly in the old Saint-Léonard Quarter, Alençon has ye-old charm in spades. Over the centuries, its architectural wiles have cast their spell on a coterie of artists, not least author Honoré de Balzac. Don’t miss the splendid 19th-century glass-domed Corn Exchange.
ESCAPE (TO)THE CHÂTEAU
Quite the sight with its pair of machicolated towers, the Château des Ducs d’Alençon was turned into a prison shortly after the French Revolution – and remained as such until 2010! The town purchased the fortress last year and has grand plans to open the grounds to the public in 2019.
Blessed with 33ha of parks and gardens and strips of floral borders, Alençon is a peaceful green oasis, perfect for flâneurs and gardeners in search of inspiration.
A short tootle from Alençon, postcard-perfect St-Céneri-le-Gérei is the perfect spot to while away an afternoon. The stomping ground of such painters as Corot and Boudin, its 7th-century church, jewel-box stonehouses and rows of riverside gardens spell out rural idyll.
INTO THE WOODS
Surrounded by the twin forests of Écouves and Perseigne, Alençon has much to offer zealous hikers. Criss-crossed by a network of walking trails, these oak-studded woods are just the place to burn off the region’s rich (but oh-so-tasty) fare.
At the crossroads of the Parc Régional Naturel Normandie-Maine and Parc Régional Naturel du Perche, Alençon is a breath of fresh air; and just the ticket for nature lovers and birdwatchers.
From France Today magazine