Shhhhhhh! Keep it quiet – for Alençon in Lower Normandy is barely known to foreign tourists, yet it is a delight for those who enjoy getting away from the usual tourist traps to see a bit of “real” France: a little gem in Lower Normandy untainted by tacky tourist shops, but justly proud of its rich history, architecture, produce and traditions.
Many a motor sport fan passes Alençon en route to the Le Mans 24 Hours or the GP Motor Bike races, just 25 miles to the south of Alençon, but all that most of them see is the frankly boring and uninspiring Route Nationale (was the N138, now the D338) which bypasses the real town centre with its architecture dating from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.
Pity for them, because Alençon is a super little Normandy town still unspoilt by tourism, but with much to offer the discerning traveller. Our kind of place!!!
Nowadays Alençon is the capital of the Orne department in Lower Normandy: a small town of 30,000 inhabitants it retains many medieval buildings, as it was largely untouched by Allied bombing in the 2nd World War and was abandoned by the Germans before the Allied forces (under the French General Leclerc) arrived to liberate it in August 1943.
Being at the southern extremity of Normandy and away from the coast, the climate of the Pays d’Alençon is drier and warmer than that of the Normandy coast – in fact, Alençon is only a mile from the border with the Pays de la Loire, the region south of Normandy. The winters, however, are on average a few degrees colder than on the Normandy coast.
In the Middle Ages Alençon was the centre of power in western France for the Dukes of Alençon and until the late 19th century was famous for Alençon lace – justly recognised as the finest lace in the world, as well as the most expensive. The Alençon Lace Museum/Musée des Beaux Arts has some excellent displays of lace making for those interested in Alençon lace.
This year the Alençon tourist office has initiated a tourist train which takes visitors around some of the main sights in the old town centre – our video is a compilation of sights along the train route and a few other photos that we have taken of Alençon at other times.
We took the train on Saturday 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption, which is a holiday – hence the town was very quiet. However, we had an excellent cappucino each at the Café des Pietons before we took the train tour and the usual Saturday market in the town centre was well attended, as ever.
Our observations on the Alençon train tour:
- The train is a good way to see the main sites and has a commentary in both English and French – price is just 3€ per person, excellent value.
- Our driver was not the best in the world – as a result he did not synchronise the trip with the commentary. Ours was the last tour before lunch – ’nuff said, lunch is #1 priority for most French!
- The trip was advertised at 45 minutes – when we took it it took 25 minutes – see (2) above!
- Take the train if you’re in a hurry, otherwise do the circuit on foot – you can hire an audioguide (in English or French) from the tourist office for 3€, same price as the train trip, and have a better view of the sites along the route at your own pace.
- The commentary provided on the audioguide can also be downloaded for free – but only in French – from this site http://www.audiovisit.com/.
In 2009 the tourist train runs daily from 10th July until 13th September.
Tickets for the Alençon Tourist Train can be bought from the Tourist Office – not on the train itself.
The Tourist Office is located in the Maison d’Ozé, through the arch at the rear of the Place de la Magdelaine next to the Church of Notre Dame in the old Alençon town centre. Telephone 02 33 80 66 33.
Departure point is Place Magdeleine near the Alençon Tourist Office EXCEPT for market days (Thursdays all day and Saturday mornings) when the train departs rue Saint Blaise, in front of the Renaissance restaurant (2-3 minutes on foot from the Alençon Tourist Office).
The BIG market occupies both squares and side streets around the Alençon Tourist Office on Thursdays; a smaller, but also very good, food and produce market takes place on Saturday mornings in the Place Magdeleine on the Grande Rue side of the Alençon Tourist Office, next to the Eglise Notre Dame.
Alençon town centre is 10 minutes from our B&B in Lower Normandy.
There is plenty of free parking in Place Foch, next to the Palais de Justice and Hotel de Ville (Town Hall). Elsewhere there is lots of cheap pay-and-display parking in Alençon town centre.