When traveling around Normandy, do not miss the charming village of Saint-Cénéri-le-Gérei. Niched inside a loop of the River Sarthe, it offers old building houses surrounded by greenery. This is a peaceful location that has inspired many artists for good reasons. Below is my guide to help you plan your visit.
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Why visit the village of Saint-Cénéri-le-Gérei?
Saint Cénéri is definitively one of the most beautiful villages in Normandy. And it looks like no other!
It is niched inside a loop of the Sarthe river with sections at water level and others higher, since it is located in the small Mancelles Alps.
The stones houses are surrounded by greenery for a wonderful combination. There is no surprise that it has inspired (and still does) many artists, especially during the 19th century.
Due to its charm, Saint-Cénéri has been awarded 2 labels:
- "Les plus beaux villages de France". A France-wide label for the most beautiful villages.
- "Petite Cité de Caractère" - A lesser known France-wide label which means "Small towns with character" for small rural villages which used to be urban centers and have kept a lot of character and some historical buildings.
Before I share more about this splendid village, check out my short video. It will give you an idea of what to expect when visiting it.
Where does the name come from?
The legend says that Saint Cénéri, who was born in Italy, was crossing France. In year 659, he stopped along the Sarthe river on a promontory. Tired and thirsty, he started praying. The first miracle was that water sprung up. Then, to cross the river he made the cross sign and the water split. it was the 2nd miracle. With his walking companion Flavar, they built a wooden hermitage near the river and later a small wooden church where the current church is.
The village is named after him for the first part.
The second part is that the location was sought by many people, including the Giroie family. Their name was added.
Planning Tips - Saint-Cénéri-le-Gérei, Normandy
How to get to Saint-Cénéri
- It is located in the Orne Department in Normandy at the limit of the region
- The closest large Norman town is Alençon
- Alençon to Saint-Cénéri = 20min drive
- It can be visited as a day trip from Paris - it is a 2h30 drive one way.
- The roads to reach the village are in correct conditions
- Driving inside the village to reach the carpark includes narrow roads
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- GPS coordinates direct to the carparks
- The main carpark requires you to drive through the village (depending from you arrive). It is well indicated.
- There is another carpark further from the village center at the Mansonière gardens
- There are some slopes to reach the church and go down to the bridge. They are a little steep but not long
- It is a popular village, carpark can get full, I recommend visiting early
- And if visiting during Summer during lunch time, you should book your restaurant beforehand.
- You may be visiting the village at lunch time.
- You can find several restaurants in the village center with a good variety of food.
- We had lunch at the "Ancienne Auberge des Peintres". We found it excellent and original.
Where to stay - Saint-Cénéri hotels and accommodations
- Saint-Cénéri is a very small village
- Inside the village and around you will mostly find rentals. But there are some really nice options in this beautiful countryside
- Otherwise for bigger hotels, head to the town of Alençon which is only 20min away. Check out the best rated accommodations in Alençon
Saint-Cénéri Village center
Once parked, just go for a walk around the village center.
The old stone houses are well maintained and embellished by plants and flowers. They really make an effort and the streets are beautiful.
Just have a look at those pictures:
Saint Cénéri history & castle
As I said earlier the first building was the wooden hermitage by the river in the 7th century.
Then it has been a location source of conflict as many wanted the strategic location: the Vikings, William the Conqueror, the Ambroise de Loré, the Lords to Bellême and the Girois....
There used to be a castle as it was a strategic position. But it was destroyed by the English in 1435. Only part of a wall remains as you can see in the picture below.
This village has had the very first English man elected mayor in France.
Saint-Cénéri has also been a center of interest during the 19th century, as painters based themselves here to be inspired. The village is sometimes referred to as the "small Barbizon" (Barbizon is another village South of Paris famous for attracting artists).
Some of the buildings which where Auberges (inns) at the time, keep traces of their stays: Auberge des Peintres or Auberge des soeurs Moisy.
The current church has a Roman Style. It was built in 1089 by the Giroie family where the wooden church built by Saint-Cénéri used to be (destroyed in 903 by the Normans).
The Bell tower was added during the 12th century.
Modifications happened in the 14th and 19th centuries, especially with the windows.
The church's paintings
The church is famous for the beautiful mural paintings, some probably date back to the 12th century, but most are from the 16th to the 20th.
The oldest ones had been covered by plaster in 1650 and were re-discovered in 1828.
The vault is particularly interesting in my opinion. It has been plastered too. But in 1980 it was restored, and 40 musician angels were found on it.
This is one of the most interesting Normandy churches.
Right next to the church, don't miss the viewpoint! Just climb the stairs and enjoy the narrow path around the building.
From there you can the Sarthe river, the bridge and some of the houses.
The low hills surrounding the village are called the Mancelles Alps. The area is very green and the houses seem to be disappearing in the trees.
I think is one of the most charming views in Normandy.
The original wooden chapel built by Saint-Ceneri does not exist anymore.
However if you keep walking past the church, you will find a chapel in a large field right at the loop of the river.
It was built in the 15th century and it has inspired many artists who painted it. Some of the most famous paintings of it are from René Veillon and Bernard Buffet.
Bridge and Sarthe River
After enjoying the view from above, I recommend walking down to the river level and to the bridge.
If you look up from the bridge you can enjoy a nice view of the church, and the viewpoint area where you were.
If you walk down to the water level, you can see that it is a vaulted bridge with 4 arches. it was built in the 16th century.
In the middle of the bridge you are changing region. To the right you are in Normandy. But on the left you are in Pays-de-la-Loire.
The Gardens and other things to do
In the area around the village you can enjoy:
- Gardens called "Jardins de la Mansonière"
- Walking tracks including one along River Sarthe
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