Discover the secrets and charms of Le Mans – it’s a town you shouldn’t race through….
More than a quarter of a million people head to the small city of Le Mans in the department of Sarthe, Pays de La Loire each June for the epic Le Mans 24 Hours – one of the most famous car races in the world. The majority of them watch the race, enjoy the local cuisine and the friendly bars and leave.
More than just motoring
Amazingly most of them never even realise that there is a most beautiful old town just a few steps away from that legendary race course which runs through the streets of the newer parts of Le Mans. They don’t spot the Roman ruins, they miss the cobble-stoned alleyways lined with half-timbered houses. And, they haven’t a clue about the fabulous medieval architecture.
They don’t know that on the outskirts of the town there is an astounding historic abbey where a queen is buried, as well as a fabulous nature reserve with a spectacular restaurant. There’s a famous saying, don’t be a tourist, be a traveller, and Le Mans is the perfect town to illustrate just why you shouldn’t race through – but take your time to discover its charms.
What to see and do in Le Mans
You’re walking in the footsteps of the greats – the Romans, the Plantagenets and Robert Doisneau, the famous photographer!
Roman legacy in Le Mans
The presence of the Latin conquerors can be easily spotted at the Roman Wall, a 500m section of it is wonderfully preserved on the River Sarthe side of town. With its distinctive pink mortar and ochre sandstone blocks, this wall once encircled the city of Le Mans, which takes its name from an ancient tribe: Cenomani. Hidden away in some of the medieval houses in the town, there are even more Roman remains. I was lucky enough to get a peek inside one when I visited at the end of September for the fabulous open garden event known as: www.entrecoursetjardins.com. Locals opened their doors to the public to show off their gorgeous courtyard gardens, and in one of them, the lovely French family offered a glimpse of their Roman cellar, complete with a Roman charcoal burner. This is a town that’s full of surprises.
Plantagenet city of Le Mans
Le Mans is known as the Plantagenet City. The Vielle Quartier, the old district within the Roman wall, overlooked by the monumental Cathedral of Saint-Julian was built between the 11th and 15th centuries. More than 100 timber-framed houses survive. The gorgeous good looks make this part of town a bit of a honey pot for film makers looking to recreate scenes of ancient history. The eagle-eyed might spot scenes from Cyrano de Bergerac for instance.
Henry II, the first Plantagenet King of England was born in Le Mans in 1133. He married Eleanor of Aquitaine and spawned a family of Kings including Richard the Lionheart.
The old town of Le Mans
Exploring the old town will once and for all push out of your mind that Le Mans is a one trick pony – or rather race venue. Robert Doisneau knew it when he visited. The famous photographer captured its vintage beauty in an iconic image of an ancient house with a child in front holding a teddy bear. That was in 1962 but little has changed. Go there today and you’ll spot a teddy waving from the window of that house, an homage to the photographer! Successive owners have kept the spirit of Doisneau alive. Each has placed a teddy in the window, making this what has to be one of the best selfie spots in town! Wander the winding, narrow cobble stoned alleys and explore quirky shops and boutiques, wine bars and restaurants. It’s a great way to while away the day.
There are several museums in Le Mans including a bike museum, arts, history and archaeology. Without a doubt, the most visited by tourists is the fabulous 24 hours Circuit de la Sarthe Museum. You don’t need to be a petrolhead to appreciate its incredible collection of more than 100 exceptional cars. Plus there’s a great portrayal of the history of the renowned race through film, photo and artifacts.
What the locals know and tourists rarely discover
Le Mans is surrounded by glorious countryside. It takes just a few minutes on the excellent tram service to discover some of its secrets. 5 minutes by car or about 15 minutes by tram from the city centre is the Domaine de l’Épau and the Abbaye Royale de l’Épau.
The Domaine is an area of outstanding natural beauty. It covers 600 hectares and hosts two restaurants and a bar, ideal for a taste of the countryside.
Abbaye Royale of L’Epau
Next door is the little known but beautiful Abbey. This monumental building has witnessed drama and centuries of history. It was burned by locals during the 15th century to stop English looters using it as a military base. And, it was home to Cistercian monks who wrote books here in the freezing rooms, keeping their ink warm in the only heated cell. It was commissioned by Berengaria, wife of Richard the Lionheart AKA the good widow, and it is where she is laid to rest. There is a wonderful tomb sculpture at the Abbey. When Queen Elizabeth II visited the Abbey some 25 years ago, it’s said she suggested the statue be moved to lie with that of Berengaria’s royal family at the Abbey of Fontevraud.
It hasn’t happened so far and it’s probably fitting. This neglected wife, who likely only spent a matter of weeks with her crusading husband during their entire eight years of marriage, remains where she chose to be.
Don’t miss the café where Sylvie makes cakes using products grown at the abbey or locally. The gardens are undergoing restoration with the aim to grow vegetables popular in medieval times. Stop off for quiche, salad, risotto. The menu changes with the season and Sylvie makes exceedingly fine cakes!
Now a cultural centre, there are some lovely frescoes, interesting exhibitions both inside and out, plus concerts. You can take a tour in English if you book in advance.
Look out for the lights! La Nuit des Chimères is a free sound and light show in which major monuments are lit up in a visual feast of colour and acoustics. This city of surprises comes to life after dark. From early January until the end of August the streets en route between monuments also project fantastical light images on streets and walls.
How to get about in Le Mans
The tram system is efficient and cheap 1,50 € single ticket (valid for 1 hour); 4,20 € day pass (valid for 24 hours) – both are also valid on the bus network.
How to get to Le Mans
With trains taking around an hour from Paris It’s an easy day trip to Le Mans
Where to stay in Le Mans
Hotel Concordia which is very reasonably priced.
Le Doyenné: in what has to be one of the best locations right next to the Cathedral in an ancient house.
Tourist office Le Mans, 16 Rue de l’Étoile www.lemans-tourisme.com; more on things to do in France at uk.france.fr