Le Mans (pronounced “le mã” in French) is located on the Sarthe River was first mentioned by Ptolemy as the Roman city Vindinium, the capital of the Aulerci, a sub tribe of the Aedui. It is also known as Civitas Cenomanorum (City of the Cenomani). Their city lies in the ancient Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis. An amphitheatre built in the 3rd century AD is still visible. The 6th-century Saint, Gregory of Tours, mentions a Frankish sub-king Rigomer, who was killed by Clovis I ((variously spelled Chlodowech or Chlodwig, giving modern French Louis and modern German Ludwig) in his campaign to unite the Frankish Territories. Traditionally the capital of the province of Maine, it was the stage for struggles in the 11th century between the Counts of Anjou and the Dukes of Normandy. When the Normans had control of Maine, William the Bastard was able to successfully invade England; however in 1069 the citizens revolted and expelled the Normans, which led to Hugh V being proclaimed Count of Maine. Today, it is the préfecture (capital) of the Sarthe département.
When somebody mentions Le Mans, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the celebrated 24-hour race, synonymous with fast cars and the smell of grease, that has been attracting motor enthusiasts to the area since it began back in 1923. The track has become a “ Mecca” for motor sports enthusiasts as it now hosts the French Motorcycle Grand Prix amongst other events.
But with a new and largely deserted motorway cutting south " through the fields and farmland" of Normandy, Le Mans and its surrounding region of the Western Loire has become more accessible to British visitors than ever before - either by car or high-speed train, which takes just five hours from London. Le Mans is ready to move its focus from cars to trams, with a new system costing 156 Million Euros, due to be up-and-running by the end of 2007, to carry spectators and other visitors away from the famous track and into the town itself
Even at the empty racetrack, it is easy to imagine how it feels when filled with adrenaline- junkies and bustling participants and spectators. A behind-the-scenes tour and a quick lap with a former rally driver certainly added to the fun, not to mention standing on the podium looking down at the finish line.
Obviously, the car holds a special place of honour in local culture. An impressive collection 24 of classic cars is on display at the Musee Automobile de la Sarthe, which is next to the track and open most of the year. The exhibition of 150 vehicles includes historic racing cars and the most interesting cars from the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, which created and organises the 24-hour endurance race, along with privately owned treasures.
In reality, the closest we got to really feeling the buzz of race day during our visit was when we flew around the Alain Prost go-kart course. Believe us when we say that lapping rival drivers feels fantastic whether you're moving at 50kmh or 210 km/h!
After a day immersed in the modern-day roots of Le Mans, it was unbelievable to literally step back in time through the streets of the old town. We were treated to an amazing guided tour of the medieval gems along the Sarthe River and learnt about the many connections between Le Mans and English history. In 1128, Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, married Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England and grand-daughter of William the Bastard, heralding the start of the Plantagenet dynasty with the birth in the town of their son, the future King Henry ll. In later years Henry returned to his birthplace to retire only to be expelled by his rebellious son Richard the Lionheart, then in alliance with the French king. During the 100-years War, The town was under English control for over 30 years; several cannonballs left behind bear testimony to this brief occupation. A word of advice, book a guided walk of the city, as there are numerous features that could easily be missed unless you are in the know. Our guide was excellent, bringing the history of the town to life and pointing out some of its delightful quirks, including charming wood carvings built into the facades of the town's buildings, depicting the profession of the original occupant.
The city's centre lies in the well-preserved old town (Cité Plantagenêt, also called Vieux Mans) where the magnificent Cathédrale St-Julien, (dedicated to St Julian of Le Mans, who is honoured as the city's first bishop), Le Mans jewel in the crown, stands resplendent on the horizon. The town itself is built on a hill with views overlooking the river and is a quirky mix of pretty cobbled streets lined with 15th century-half timbered houses, Renaissance town houses and 18th-century hotels as well as an array of good restaurants, craft shops, museums and markets, there is plenty to enjoy. There is even an impressive Gallo-Roman rampart, stretching a full 1,300 metres long, encircles the old town. It is one of the longest surviving structures of its kind in France and has been carefully restored over the years, retaining the original geometrical patterns built into the brickwork and still boasting no less than 11 towers and Roman baths by the river.
During your stay, you will not go hungry. Food lovers are well catered for in Le Mans, with a huge choice of good quality restaurants and bars, many with summer terraces, to satisfy the most discerning of diners. We ate out every night and dined like royalty. Our first port of call was a small restaurant in the back streets of the old town called L'Épicerie du Pré which turned out to be a delightfully rustic affair of house red in tumblers and lots of bread for dipping, the evening being completed by a friendly local who spontaneously provided lively background music on his guitar. It was here we discovered the local delicacy rillette, a chunky pork paté, which is fabulous spread thickly on crusty bread. Another must-visit is the Villa Jacobins, again in the old town, where we enjoyed afternoon tea served from delicate china cups and an array of cakes and chocolates. The owners run a small boutique out of an adjoining room selling homemade jewellery and trinkets that are pricey but one of a kind.
If shopping is your burning ambition, the new town is the place for you with shops and yet more restaurants and bars to keep your appetite filled, plenty of choice as to where you spend your money. There are 25 markets held every week in the city, although by far the most extensive is the market in the square, Place des Jacobins, which takes place every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Here we mingled with the Manceaux, who were busily stocking up on meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, cheeses, pastries, as well as clothes, bric a brac and flowers. A daily Christmas market is held throughout December right up to Christmas Eve.
Although most of the hotels can be found in the new town, there are one or two places to stay in the old part. We booked into the Concorde Hotel, located right in the centre of the city, near the railway station, the medieval city, the business district and shops, thoroughly modern and authentically ancient.
However, the highlight for us was La Nuit des Chimères (Night-time Chimera), a spectacular light display that runs every evening from July to September. The display is projected along the length of the town's Roman wall, and on the side of the cathedral as well as various points around the old town, with the idea that visitors follow a circuit linked by a string of lights. We gathered outside the cathedral grounds for a sneak preview of the display and watched in wonder as a series of angels fluttered across the stonework playing instruments and singing in time with the music. The town is immensely proud of the display and so it should be as it was truly breathtaking.