Carrouges is a hill town commanding a broad fertile plain at the western end of Foret d’Ecouves.
Visit its Chateau which originated as a fortified keep in the fourteenth century. The main brick-built buildings came later, complete with two Renaissance apartment wings in the seventeenth century.
Originally owned by the Carrouges family, loyal to France in the Hundred Years War, then the Blosset and Le Veneur families, the castle was obtained by the state in 1936 and has been recently renovated.
The old keep is over 50ft high with 10ft thick walls at the base and defensive architecture necessary for a time when enemy armies ran riot across Normandy.
Surrounded by a moat and gardens which you can explore by yourself, the beautiful Chateau is open every day except Christmas day for 45 minute guided tours of the interior. Open April to mid-June and Sept 1000 - 1200 and 1400 - 1800; mid-June, July and August 0930 - 1200 and 1400 - 1830; Oct -March 1000 - 1200 and 1400 -1700. Visit the craft centre at Maison du Parc July and August.
Fine Arts and Lace Museum
In the seventeenth century, Alencon became famous during the reign of Louis XIV for its lace promoted by Jean-Baptiste Colbert who established a Royal Lace Workshop here.
The Alencon lace technique is very painstaking and laborious but produces some extremely sophisticated designs and is still regarded among the finest, if not the best, in the world. The museum displays delicate lace tools used to create it from the seventeenth century onwards, plus an exhibition devoted to the skills of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his designs.
The adjoining Beaux-Arts section of the museum has paintings by Courbet and Gericault.
Both sections open every day except Mondays and 1 Jan, 1 May and 25 December. Open 7 days a week July and August.
For more information, tel: (00 33) 2 33 32 40 07, 12 rue Charles Aveline, 61000 Alencon, Orne
Today Alencon on the River Sarthe is a busy little town with good cafes and shops. It is also the birthplace of St Theresa of Lisieux. Visitors from around the world make a pilgrimage to the modest house where she was born in rue St-Blaise which is now a museum.
This old Roman town on the Orne River had a turbulent history throughout the Middle Ages. The English occupied it several times during the 100 Years War. In 1944, 80% of the town was destroyed during the Normandy landings in WWII.
Today, there is plenty here for the visitor to enjoy. Walk through the old town and admire the exteriors of half-timbered houses on ruelle des Fosses, fine granite buildings such as the Chateau des Ducs housing the law courts, and a number of private mansions around the centre such as the listed seventeenth century Hotel Ango de la Motte - all a reminder of Argentan’s aristocratic past.
The fifteenth century Marguerite tower and keep in place du Marche are the only remains of fortifications which surrounded the town. Both open to the public June to Sept 1000 - 1800. Visit the tower’s circular walkway for great views over the town, and the terrace of the keep, built in the twelfth century by Henry I of England, has viewpoints identifying places in the surrounding landscape.
Argentan also has several beautiful churches including St Germain which has a magnificent north porch, lantern tower and great bell tower that are illuminated at night. In the time of Louis XIV, Argentan was important as a lace making centre and Jean-Baptiste Colbert encouraged rivalry between Argentan and the nearby lace town of Alencon.
Point d’Argentan needle lace as produced in the eighteenth century is still worked by some of the nuns in Argentan’s Benedictine Abbey. Short visits which include a film can be made daily (except Sundays and holidays) 1430 - 1600, tel: (00 33) 2 33 67 12 01.
The Musee de la Dentelle (Lace Museum)
The museum houses a unique collection of items made of needlepoint, bobbin and machine lace and highlights an important part of the town’s history especially around the time of Marie-Antoinette. The Argentan point lace, of which it is particularly proud, was developed locally, plus there are exhibits of more modern lace. There is a film and visitors can browse an exhibition of various lace makers’ pillows and frames.
Open from 1 April to 15 October (Tuesdays to Saturdays) 0900 to 1130 and 1400 to 1730 (Sundays from 1500 to 1730). For more information, contact (00 33) 2 33 67 50 78 – 34 rue de la Noe, 61200. The museum is beside a lake and surrounded by a themed garden with plant and flower motifs resembling the delicate lace.
The eleventh century castle ruins, on a rock linked by a footbridge to the little hill town of Domfront, mark the birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine - mother of Richard the Lionheart - in 1162.
The church of Notre Dame-sur-Eau down by the river is said to have been visited by Thomas Becket some years later. Originally, the fortified castle consisted of a keep with 24 towers connected by ramparts. There are fantastic views from the gardens around parts of the ruined towers and keep across to the Varenne Gorge dotted with pear orchards.
Cross the footbridge to Domfront’s well preserved old town for a stroll around its cobbled streets. Look for architectural details on half-timbered houses. The church of St Julien in the pretty central square looks surprisingly modern. It was built in the 1920s and has lovely mosaics.
Set in the heart of Normandy’s gourmet Pays d’Auge region, Vimoutiers has food at its heart. Located in the wide fertile valley of the little River Vie, the town is surrounded by fields of lush pasture and apple orchards.
After the Hundred Years War, Vimoutiers’s prosperity was built on cheese and dairy produce and visitors can hardly fail to observe the statue by Eugene Le Bihan to the glory of the Normandy cow, as it takes pride of place in Vimoutiers’ central square.
Sharing the limelight in place Marie is a statue to Marie Harel from nearby Camembert who campaigned in the early nineteenth century to put the local cheese on the map - she even sent samples to Napoleon.
Take a detour to the home of this famous cheese and call in at Camembert’s local cheese museums - the one in Vimoutiers specializes in the labels! Textile weaving increased Vimoutiers’s standing in the seventeenth century when local born Paul Creton invented ‘toile cretonne’.
However, until the devastation of WWII (over 90% of the town was destroyed) it was cheese and cider production which continued to account for Vimoutiers’s wealth. See the importance of apples for yourself at Vimoutiers’s October Apple Fair which attracts over 15,000 visitors annually to discuss and sample the produce.
Today, green tourism draws visitors to the town which is a great centre for walking and mountain biking, horse riding and fishing. The Monday afternoon market here has been taking place for 1,000 years and there’s a smaller Friday market. Admire the beautiful modern stained glass windows of Vimoutiers’s nineteenth century Church of Notre Dame, created by a master craftsman from Chartres.
Busy market centre for the surrounding rural area with covered market hall and lively Saturday market. Flers’s castle dates back to the sixteenth century and houses a museum of paintings, sculpture, furniture and local history. The town on a bend of the River Vere was once an important centre for home linen weaving before mechanisation arrived and the industry turned to cotton.
North of Alencon, Sees has been an Episcopal city since the fifth century and its magnificent thirteenth-fourteenth century Norman Gothic cathedral is the highlight of Sees’s many religions communities and colleges.
Enormous buttresses were added to the Cathedral for support in the sixteenth century as it was built on unstable ground. Those interested in church architecture will find the interior fascinating with lovely thirteenth century stained glass, transept and high altar designed by Brousseau and 1743 organ by Parisot.
A religious museum nearby exhibits artefacts and robes. The 70ft Cathedral spires can be seen more than 10km away and in summer there is a fabulous light and music show - Musilumieres - inside the Cathedral starting at 2230. The beauty of other sites and churches in the city meant it was chosen as a setting by film director Luc Besson for part of his award winning 1999 film about Joan of Arc.
The only spa town in Normandy, elegant Bagnoles-de-l’Orne lies on the wooded banks of the Vee River close to a lake with formal gardens. Its mineral waters from thermal springs are reputed to be particularly good for rheumatic and blood disorders.
From the mid nineteenth century, wealthy French patrons, foreign celebrities and royalty came to ‘take the waters’. The town’s architecture reflects its elitist past in the superb villas and hotels of its ‘Belle Epoque’ Quarter built between 1886 and 1914 and the post WWI Art Deco style of the 1920s and 30s.
In the twenty-first century, Bagnoles-de-l’Orne offers more than spa treatments; there are excellent sporting facilities including golf, tennis, swimming, fishing and horse riding and evening entertainment.
The town is also a centre for ramblers and cyclists visiting the Foret d’Ecouves. A walk to Roc du Chien (dog rock) above the valley for its fine views could give you an appetite to try one of the lakeside restaurants specializing in Normandy cuisine. And if holiday finances won’t stretch to a horse drawn carriage ride around the lake and visit to the lakeside casino, why not hire a pedalo?
Ancient capital of the Perche region in south east Normandy, Mortagne-au-Perche is an important market town and a well kept centre favoured by holidaymakers wanting to explore the quiet area of rugged natural beauty with wooded hills and tree-filled hedgerows known as Perche Regional Natural Park.
The busy Saturday market is the place to shop for local produce from cider to boudin noir - black pudding. Mortagne’s lovely ancient buildings include fifteenth and seventeenth century houses, the sixteenth century church of Notre Dame, a house once owned by Henry IV of France and the thirteenth century gateway of St Denis.
The town museum near portail St Denis tells the story of life in Mortagne over the last 600 years through the many artifacts on display. Interestingly, many people left the little towns of Mortagne and Tourouvre in the seventeenth century to found French Canada and their descendents now account for a quarter of the population of modern Quebec.
Fittingly, in a region famous for its horses, Mortagne-au-Perche is the home of the huge Percheron horse. This heavy draught horse with a history going back to the Crusades is France’s answer to the English Shire and, like them, now mainly used for showing. See them grazing in the fields and enquire locally about visits to stud farms and stables to get a closer look at these lovely animals.