Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei – One of the most beautiful villages in France
Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei is a village of around 150 inhabitants, located on the southern borders of the Lower Normandy region and in the heart of the Alpes-Mancelles. It lies on the river Sarthe 13 km from Alençon and some 200 km west of Paris.
The tiny but stunningly picturesque Saint-Céneri-Le-Gérei has that certain something about it that makes it one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France – Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.
Throughout the centuries the village counted many miracles taking place within the sacred spaces of the town. And in the 19th century, the village attracted many painters, including Corot and Courbet.
The only way to see the village is to drive once you arrive at the village you will see signs for the car park down by the River. From the car park, you walk up to an alley that takes you to the square where you will see the shops and cafes.
From here you can go up rue de L’Eglise towards the Chapel du Petit Saint Céneri built in the middle of a meadow nestled in a loop of the Sarthe and enjoy simply breathtaking views of the Valley and the river.
History of Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei
Céneri was an Italian who was born in Spoleto in Umbria between 620 and 625. He entered the service of the Pope joining a Benedictine order and around 658 he was granted a vision ordering him to go west. Ceneri left the Abbey with his brother and they crossed the alps together and arrived in Saulges near Le Mans.
Ceneri’s brother stayed in Saulges and Ceneri left with his companion and they moved further westward. In the summer of 689, they found themselves near a river which skirted around a rocky promontory. Exhausted and thirsty they prayed and the first miracle occurred when a stream sprang forth with fresh clear water. The stream still exists today but it is now a fountain.
The River had flooded at this time and again Céneri prayed and the rushing waters of the Sarthe stopped and allowed them to cross on foot. Flavard Céneri’s companion dropped his prayer book and it was covered by the waters but it was found completely intact many years later – the second miracle.
Céneri decided that he was to stay in this location and he built a hut of branches to live in many years later in the 15th century the Chapelle du Petit Saint-Céneri was built on the same site.
As Céneri’s reputation for holiness grew, more disciples joined him and a Benedictine community sprang up. In 669, Céneri undertook the construction of a wooden church at the top of the rocky promontory. He died on May 7, 670 before the completion of the church which, over time became named after him due to the villagers calling him a Saint.
In the 9th century, the King of France, wishing to protect the region against the Normans, occupied a stronghold near the abbey of Saint-Ceneri. French soldiers sadly indulged in excesses around the church which housed the tomb of Saint Ceneri.
These rabble-rousers were attacked by a swarm of bees and to escape them the soldiers threw themselves into the river from the top of the rock and drowned. Today a honeycomb watches over the church.
A year after this incident during a celebration of the death of St. Ceneri two knights tied their horses to the church and were immediately stung by bees. The knights and the horses survived a jump into the river and another miracle was declared.
In 903, the Normans burned the abbey and the abbey church. For a long time, there was no longer a church in Saint-Céneri. It wasn’t until 1089 that the construction of the current church was undertaken. It was completed in 1125.
The name le-Gérei itself comes from William Giroie, who built a castle here in 1044 of which only parts of the walls remain today.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the area was the site of violent clashes during the Hundred Years’ War. The castle of Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei was besieged by William the Conqueror in 1060 before being taken by Robert Courteheuse in 1088.
During the Hundred Years’ War, Ambroise de Loré managed to defend the stronghold against the King of England Henry V and, then his brother John Plantagenet until 1434.
Church and Chapel of Saint Ceneri-le-Gerei
The Church was declared a historic monument in 1856. Inside you will see murals from the 14th and 15th centuries which were covered with whitewash until 1856.
There is a path around the church from where you can get some beautiful views of the River Sarthe and see the old stone bridge and the gorgeous houses on the river banks.
Dating back to the Merovingian era you pass by the cemetery near the church on your walk down towards the Chapel of Saint-Céneri.
Within a large meadow stands this small Gothic chapel of Saint-Céneri. The sanctuary was built in the 15th century, on the probable site where a hermitage by Saint Céneri was founded in the 7th century. The frame of the Chapel is made of chestnut, rot-proof wood that repels spiders and other parasites.
There are two statues placed on either side of an anonymous painting in the process of being restored and which represent Saint Céneri in prayer; a statue of Saint Jacques de Compostela that had his hand carrying a shell amputated, during the Revolution.
The statue of Saint Céneri has a legend attached to it that young girls wishing to marry are invited to prick a needle in the robe of the saint, if the needle stays stuck in the stone, their wish will be granted within a year.
On the ground below sits a granite stone that would have served as a bed for Saint Céneri. There are two legends around the stone. The first legend says that children suffering from incontinence can lie down on it to be cured, and if a young woman wishing to get pregnant lay on the stone a pregnancy would happen.
The Miraculous Fountain of Saint Ceneri
On the opposite bank of the Sarthe, across from the Chapel, you will find the fountain that was built upon the miracle spring. According to legend, its water has healing properties, it is said to cure certain eye diseases.
The Castle Ruins
In the village itself, you can’t miss the ruins of its fortified castle. For nearly a century, because of the rivalry between the Giroie and the Belleme, the castle suffered numerous sieges.
Almost nothing of the castle remains and it is located about five hundred meters from the church. A few sections of the wall remain visible from the Chemin du Donjon and, from the road coming from Caen, the abutments of a chimney.
The Place de Saint-Céneri contains a few restaurants, shops and cafes. This is picture-perfect France at its best. Beautifully preserved with narrow streets and flowers running rampant along the stone walls and buildings and a stunning vista across the lovely stone bridge.
This is a village of painters and artists, Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei still houses many workshops today. Since 1988, the artistic life of the village has been dynamic thanks to the efforts of local artists and associations. Every summer, you can also enjoy concerts, organized as part of the Académie Festival de Saint-Céneri.
Auberge des Peintres
The 19th-century Auberge was once another meeting place for painters from the village. These facades and roofs, the room on the ground floor and the two rooms on the first floor include mural paintings.
In a perfect jewel of a building is the Moisy Inn. Over 300 years old the inn was one of the favourite places of renowned painters who came to find inspiration in the Alpes Mancelles at the end of the 19th century.
The Inn is now a museum dedicated to the history of the village and its artists. About sixty portraits drawn on the walls include work by: Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet and Henri Harpignies.
To discover upstairs you will see the Room of the Decapitated .which contains around 60 silhouettes on the walls of the artists who passed through Saint Ceneri.
By August 1944 the German army has commandeered the village and is planning to slow down the Allied armies by blowing up the bridge. Thankfully a smart soldier realizes that if they blow the bridge they will cut off their only escape for miles so the charges are removed.
By the 10th of that August, the Germans realize they need to escape the advancing Ally armies and so race across the bridge to get away. A panicked tank driver destroys part of the bridge but it is still passable. On 12 August the American army arrive and Saint-Ceneri-le-Gérei is liberated.
A group of American soldiers stay to mend the damaged bridge, it takes them a week and they leave an odd gift. Lean over the mill side and you will see, set into the outside wall, an army shell poking out.
Jardins de la Mansonière
Don’t miss the Jardins de la Mansonière which is nestled in the gentle hills of the Sarthe. This garden includes a secret hazelnut grove, many ancient roses and a small gothic vegetable garden.
Within the beautiful village, you will find several shops that might be of interest. L’échoppe Gourmande specializes in the local ‘terroir’ and you will find lots of gourmet products produced in the area.
There are a few restaurants which concentrate on local dishes and quite a few artist’s boutiques where you can purchase original artwork.
A total of about 160 villages across mainland France and two in Corsica have been given the prestigious ‘most beautiful villages of France’ award. Which ones have you managed to visit?
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