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“Sleeping Beauty” castle, Château de Carrouges. Publicity photo courtesy of “Château de Carrouges.
When considering Normandy, tourists tend to think first of the WW2 landing beaches, Mont St. Michel and perhaps a stop at a picturesque coastal town like Le Havre or Honfleur, a major city like Caen or Rouen. However, if you are inclined towards less-touted venues (think fewer crowds, too!) with as much history, cuisine, and down-home French feel, the landlocked département of l’Orne is well worth your time. An easy hour ride from the Beaches (2½ hours from Paris) and you’re winding alongside cattle and haystack-dappled farm fields with distant rolling hills. Known for unique lacework, championship horses and equestrian stables, the original andouillette tripe sausage and unforgettable artisan Camembert cheeses, Orne also boasts as many châteaux, famed authors and poets, and historical sites as any in northern France.
Bagnoles-de-l’Orne: thermal spa village & casino
Bagnoles-de-l’Orne is a good starting point. This thermal spa village on a lake can be your all-in-one venue or home base for discovering surrounding areas. A tourist office with friendly English-speaking guides can help you organize an agenda that should include a day wandering the town with its high-end boutiques, myriad dining options, gift shops, and cafés. As part of several packages proposed by the Thermal Baths, located a short walk from the town center, you can include not only massages, steams, hot tubs, and body works but hiking trips, musical presentations, and gastronomic adventures. For the nightlife and gambling set, the expansive white stone Casino de Bagnoles de l’Orne Salle straddles the lake and is open until the wee hours.
Céneri-le-Gérei, one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France
Twenty miles from Bagnoles-de-l’Orne is St. Céneri-le-Gérei, named a member of the association of the Most Beautiful Villages in France. Its attractive medieval winding streets and arched stone bridge that straddles the Sarthe river maintains its old-world flavor amidst a backdrop of present-day artists and family vacation homes. There are restaurants and cafés and, in the meadow at the outskirts, the simple stone chapel dedicated to St. Céneri, the Italian monk who lived there in solitude during the Middle Ages. In the distance, you can see the “magical fountain” of St. Céneri.
Château de Carrouges, “Sleeping Beauty” castle
Château de Carrouges, less than a half-hour drive from Bagnoles-de-l’Orne, is a moat-encircled “Sleeping Beauty” château [see large image at top of story] with history and architectural features from the 14th through 17th century. This brick, granite, and slate structure remained in the same family from the Middle Ages until 1936. Tours are organized daily and are well worth the effort as original furniture, decorations and family portraits remain, all dating from the Renaissance to the Restoration.
Lodging can be found at any of a number of upscale hotels or less expensive bed and breakfasts in Bagnoles-de-l’Orne; however, just outside town, Manoir du Lys Hotel & Restaurant is a reputed hotel and restaurant where you would do well to plan at least one dinner on the garden-encircled, relaxing premises.
For an unforgettable dining experience, drive twenty minutes to la Ferrière aux Etangs, a former coal mining village. The family-run restaurant Auberge de la Mine, once the canteen for the migrant ore workers and now renovated to high quality, serves impeccable gastronomic lunches and dinners produced using locally grown meats and output from nearby gardens.
Links were placed in the story to help you plan your visits.
Kathleen Burke is a writer and lover of France who lives in Paris and Massachusetts.
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