Worth a visit - Alençon

Honoured by UNESCO, as well as by a museum in town, Alençon is particularly proud of its unique lace-making traditions… as it is of its many extraordinary women. The town has architectural highlights too as one-time capital of a little duchy and as historic capital of the southern Norman département of Orne.

Not to be missed

> Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle

This is not just a provincial fine arts museum; most significantly, it also holds the Alençon lace museum, where you can learn about the history and manufacture of this local craft and admire stunning pieces.

Alençon already had something of a lace-making tradition when, in the 17th century, Louis XIV’s dynamic minister for enterprise, Colbert, opened a lace-making factory here. He helped the development of the craft by bringing over specialists from Venice, which until then had a near-monopoly on producing the finest lace. A woman named Mme La Perrière devised a way of dividing the labour between local women around Alençon, so making lace in highly organised fashion. Ever more sophisticated patterns were created thanks to the unique needlepoint the teams used. Alençon and southern Normandy supplied the court with great quantities of the material. Since the Revolution, lace-making here has waxed and waned. Today, just a dozen women continue the intricate craft of making Alençon needlepoint lace, which requires many years of training.

> The Birthplace of Sainte-Thérèse de l'Enfant Jésus (rue Saint-Blaise): devotees visit the room where Thérèse Martin was born and the chapel next to her childhood home, as well as Alençon’s basilica.(See also the entry on Lisieux, the Norman town to which the Martin family moved and where Thérèse Martin entered religious orders.)

> Notre-Dame Basilica:

A grand Gothic edifice, it was influenced by English styles, as the town was occupied by English forces in the Hundred Years War, when much of the building work was carried out. The church is fronted by a sumptuous porch added early in the 16th century, its intricate architecture sometimes compared to lace-work in stone. Inside, admire the refined 16th-century stained-glass windows. This was the church where Thérèse Martin was baptised and which, before that, had witnessed the marriage of her parents, both of whom were declared blessed by Pope Benedict XVI, who raised Alençon’s main church to the status of a basilica in 2009.

> La Halle au Blé (Website in French):

This former grain market is an impressive circular monument, built between 1811 and 1819. It now hosts seasonal exhibitions.

> The Saint-Léonard Quarter

This is the main historic quarter of Alençon, and a delight to discover on foot. Built in concentric circles, the streets here boast many fine facades.

> Historic monuments around Alençon: Alençon’s bulky castle dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries and still serves as a prison. The tourist office occupies one of the oldest town houses you can visit, the Maison d’Ozé, from the 15th century. The town’s major administrative buildings, the Hôtel de Ville (town hall) and Préfecture (county hall), along with the town library, set in a former Jesuit college, and Notre-Dame-de-Lorette Church, all reflect Ancien Régime styles from the 17th and 18th centuries.

> Parc Régional Naturel Normandie-Maine and Parc Régional Naturel du Perche: Alençon is practically surrounded on three sides by regional natural parks. Enjoy these parks for their forests, their castles and manors, their gastronomic traditions and for the possibilities of going hiking, fishing and horse-riding, among other sports.


What to see and do around Alençon