Breizh Poellrezh SF - Douarañ Santel
Breizh Poellrezh SF - Douarañ Santel

This former ducal city on the edge of the Normandy-Maine Natural Park is now the prefecture of Orne. Situated beside the Sarthe River and close to the border with Maine and the "Alpes Mancelles" (the hilly countryside in the Sarthe region) ... particularly appreciated by horse-riding enthusiasts, fishermen and hikers Added to that the magnificent, peaceful forests of the Orne region leading from Pertseigne en Andaine and Ecouves, it is an area to behold. The city grew because of its reputation for lace, an industry promoted by Jean-Baptiste Colbert during the reign of Louis XIV (The Sun King), who established a Royal Lace Workshop in the town. The lace called "Point d'Alençon" is still regarded as amongst the finest, if not the best, in the world. The Alençon lace technique is very painstaking and laborious but allows for extremely sophisticated designs and is known as the "Queen of Lace." During the French Revolution the industry fell into decline, however, it regained prominence in France and England during the 19th century. In the last century the National Alençon Lace Workshop was established to ensure that the Alençon lace-making technique survives into the future.

It is thought that the town was founded in the 4th century, around the time the area was being converted to Christianity and the bishopric of Sées was founded a few kilometres north. Documents from the 7th century are the first to show the name Alençon. In the 10th century, the town was a buffer state between Normandie and the Maine. In 1047, William, Duke of Normandy, later known as William the Conqueror and King of England, laid siege to the town. The citizens insulted William by hanging animal skins from the walls, in reference to his ancestry as the illegitimate son of Duke Robert and a tanner's daughter. On capturing the town, William chopped off the hands of some twenty citizens in revenge - an act he later repeated at Le Mans. Later, during the Anglo-Norman wars of 1113 to 1203 the English occupied the town.

During the 15th century the town became the seat of the Duc’s d'Alençon, a title awarded to the younger brother of the King of France, although this is disputed by some, who say the title was bestowed on the eldest son of the King. This practice continued until the French revolution. Several Ducs d'Alençon played important roles in French history, one in particular, Hercule François, son of Catherine de Medici and Henri II of France, who was a suitor of Elizabeth I of England. She referred to him as her “little frog” as to whether she really planned to marry him is a hotly debated topic.

The Château des Ducs d'Alençon, built by Jean le Beau, the first Duc d’Alençon and a companion in arms of Jeanne d’Arc stands in Place Foch close to the Musée des Beaux Art et de la Dentelle. In earlier times this area was marshland and thus the château was difficult to attack. Although it looks impressive, leaving only three enormous towers and part of the curtain wall that houses the town prison. There are plans to move the prison to Condé sur Sarthe and to open the château to the public, perhaps as a museum. That would. I feel, go a long way to alleviating the nightmarish memories held by the residents of Alençon as the château was the local Gestapo headquarters during the World War II. There is still a belief that many atrocities were carried out in the name of the Third Reich.

Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle (July & Aug daily 10am–noon & 2–6pm; Sept–June daily except Monday 10am–noon & 2–6pm; €2.80) is housed in a former Jesuit school and has all the best trappings of a modern museum. The highly informative history of lacemaking upstairs, with examples of numerous different techniques, can, however, be tedious for anyone not already riveted by the subject. It also contains an unexpected collection of gruesome Cambodian artefacts like spears and lances, tiger skulls and elephants' feet, gathered by a "militant socialist" French governor at the turn of the century. The paintings in the adjoining Beaux-Arts section are nondescript, except for a few works by Courbet and Géricault.

Le Hôtel de Ville (place Foch): Built between 1783 and 1788 by the architect Jean Delarue in the style Louis XVI. The building curves in an elegant arc and the frontage, supported by pilasters, is surmounted by a rectangular pediment and balustrades evoking Small Trianon.

Notre-Dame church: This stone lace structure of astonishing proportions is situated in the heart of the city’s pedestrian area. The elegant Gothic 15th century nave has a magnificent Gothic great door dating from the beginning of the 15Ith century, and very fine stained glass (1530). The choir and bell tower were rebuilt in the mid-18th century, following a fire. The porch, completed in 1510 is composed of three arcades and three finely worked gables which suggest a stone lace. The middle gable carries seven statues depicting the Transfiguration. That of St John has its back to the street.

La Maison d'Ozé (Place La Magdelaine): This town house, once the home of the Coustelier family, was built around 1450 by Jean du Mesnil, alderman of Alençon out of granite and flanked of two turrets. Today it is home to the Tourist Office.

The Commercial Court (rue du Bercail): An elegant building with a polygonal tower dating from second half of the 15th century, formally the office of the Financial Bureau from 1640. Balzac describes it in "The collection of antiquities".

La bibliothèque de la Communauté urbaine d’Alençon (rue du Collège): Built during the 17th century as a chapel for the Jesuit College with interior paneling from Val Dieu Abbey and crowned by a hexagonal bell-tower observatory. Today it is the home of the municipal library, protecting a treasure trove of 717 manuscripts, including 125 from the Middle Ages, some incunables (books printed before 1500) and approximately 40.000 books and manuscripts dating from 1500 to 1920. This is the greatest collection of written works anywhere in Basse-Normandie.

La Halle au Blé: This impressive circular monument built between the end of the 18th and the early years of the 19th centuries opened for business as a Corn Exchange in 1812. In 1865 it was enclosed by a glass cupola to mimic the Corn Exchange in Paris. During the 20th century it was used for many purposes: a hospital during the First World War, a venue for fairs, markets, exhibitions…

Since being registered as an historic building in 1975, it has been completely restored and cleaned, this work being completed 2000. Today the building is used as a venue for multi-media in particular those of the new technologies.

The Saint-Léonard quarter: This is the old Alençon, which developed in concentric circle from the Etaux crossroads. Visitors on foot can admire the many old facades, windows, spiral stairs, and wrought iron balconies that give such charm to these old streets.

La préfecture (rue Saint-Blaise): The administrative centre is housed in the former town house of the de Guise family, built around 1630 in a pure Louis XIII style, with pink bricks and bonding courses in granite from nearby Hertré.

Notre-Dame de Lorette Chapel: Founded in 1699 by Louis Sevin, former priest of Ancinnes, in the honour of the Virgin Mary. It is situated in the Montsort quarter and well worth a visit.

Built on the model of La Chapelle de Lorette, in Italy, it is a replica of the house of the mother of Christ; it is one of only a dozen such chapels of this type in France. The high frontage is decorated with Virgin and Child. The two gateways, each with a granite bench, are decorated pilasters and vases.

The front of the altar is decorated of two beautiful panels of sculptured wood dating from the 17th century. A vast bay allows a view over the altar, to a statue of Mary. A polychrome statue of Christ dates back to the 19th century.

Birthplace Sainte-Thérèse de L’Enfant Jésus (50 rue Saint-Blaise): The house where Thérèse Martin was born on 2nd January 1873 has transformed into a museum in which one can see furnishings and many photographs of the family Martin, various ordinary objects and memories having belonged to the parents and to the grandparents of Thérèse.

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