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.
© Pierre Jeanson
Alençon owes much of its renown to influential women. Thanks in good part to its own dukes and to their wealthy wives, grand buildings went up in Alençon, from the stern castle to elaborate churches.
Through marriage to dukes of Alençon, two powerful Marguerites born in the second half of the 15th century, Marguerite de Lorraine, followed by her daughter-in-law Marguerite d’Angoulême, became closely associated with the place. Marguerite de Lorraine held her court here. Marguerite d’Angoulême was the learned sister of larger-than-life King François I, France’s rival to King Henry VIII of England.
Alençon has long been celebrated for its lace-making traditions, dating back to the 17th century. A large percentage of women in the area became involved, creating unique, elaborate lace for the French court. Point d’Alençon became known as ‘queen of laces and the lace of queens’. The great skill needed to make Alençon needlepoint lace has led to it receiving the rare honour of being listed by UNESCO as part of the world’s cultural heritage.
Alençon was the birthplace, in 1873, of Thérèse Martin. She joined a religious order exceptionally early and would become one of the most popular of French saints. Although most closely associated with Lisieux, another Norman town, Alençon lies firmly on her pilgrimage trail.
In the 19th century, a few remarkable buildings were added to the town. Later, during World War II, Alençon was largely spared the destruction that many Norman towns suffered. In summer 1944, it became the first town in France to be liberated by French troops, under General Leclerc.
Alençon is surrounded on three sides by forests. Two beautiful regional parks virtually encircle the Alençon area, the Parc Régional Naturel Normandie-Maine to the west and the Parc Régional Naturel du Perche to the east.
Worth a visit
- Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle (Museum of Lace and Fine Arts): 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.
- Notre-Dame Basilica (website in French): 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.
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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.