The religious city of Lisieux draws vast numbers of Catholics. In fact, it is considered the second most important pilgrimage town in France, thanks to its 19th-century saint, Thérèse Martin. Thérèse’s fame also explains Lisieux’s extravagant 20th-century hillside basilica, outdoing the medieval cathedral.
For Catholics, Lisieux is synonymous with the young Thérèse Martin, a model of 19th-century piety. However, Lisieux has a much longer history, going back to Roman times. Then, with the establishment of the duchy of Normandy in medieval times, it became the seat of a bishop's palace, with a cathedral. The bishop-counts of Lisieux were forceful figures in Norman events. In town, the quarter around the cathedral known as the Quartier Canonial has retained a number of impressive buildings once associated with the important religious administration based here, run in part by canons. Religion has long been a powerful force in Lisieux.
Tragically, a major part of the historic town was destroyed in World War II bombings. However, many of the places associated with the greatest figure of 19th century Lisieux, Thérèse Martin, survived. Born in the southern Normandy town of Alençon, Thérèse moved with her family to Lisieux when she was four. Following the example of her older sisters, she became fascinated with religious life from an early age. She joined the Carmelite nunnery here at the exceptionally tender age of 15, by special dispensation. Not just because of her exemplary pious life, but also because of her clear writings on faith, she became one of the best-loved Catholic figures of her century. She died young, having achieved a great deal. In the 1920s, she was made a saint, as Sainte-Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus. In 1997, Pope John Paul II declared her just the 33rd Doctor of the Catholic Church because of her spiritual writings – at the time, she was the only woman to be given the exceptional title. Some 700,000 pilgrims visit Lisieux every year, making it the second most important pilgrimage site in France.
- Basilique Sainte-Thérèse: the largest church built in France in the course of the 20th century, this enormous domed edifice stands out on the hillside above town. The interiors, visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year, are dazzlingly ornate, decorated in neo-Byzantine style. There are sections on the saint’s life and on the Carmelite Order.
- Cathédrale Saint-Pierre: down in the town centre, this cathedral was built from the 12th to the 13th century in early Gothic style. It holds the tomb of Bishop Cauchon, who tried Joan of Arc. Thérèse Martin went to Mass in this cathedral.
- Maison des Buissonnets: this was the pretty townhouse to which the Martin family moved from the town of Alençon when Thérèse Martin was four. She lived here until she was 15 years old and entered Lisieux’s Carmelite Monastery. Touring the rooms, you get an idea of her early life and devotion.
- Musée d'art et d'histoire (Museum of Art and History): it occupies one of the finest timber-frame houses left in the centre and displays fascinating objects reflecting history, popular art and traditions in Lisieux and the region of the Pays d'Auge.
- Saint-Jacques church: holds exhibitions in summer. expositions en saison
- Palais of Justice : adjacent to the Cathedral, it is in the former Episcopal palace, in Louis Xlll style. > L'hôtel du Haut Doyenné: a very fine 18th century building in stone and brick built in Classical style. It was the former residence of the Haut Doyen, the second most important religious figure after the bishop.
- The Château de Saint-Germain-de-Livet: just south of Lisieux, this castle, known as ‘the Wonder of the Pays d'Auge’, is now owned by the town of Lisieux. A little fortress nestling in the bottom of a valley, it is a veritable 16th century architectural gem, with its coloured, patterned stones and green-varnished bricks. The interiors are embellished with 16th century frescoes and with 18th and 19th century furniture. Numerous drawings and paintings are on show from the Riesener Collection, one of whose representatives was a cousin of Delacroix.
- CERZA animal park: (at Hermival-les-Vaux) 500 wild animals in an area of over 50 hectares (123 acres). A Safari Train takes visitors on tours of the park.