The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel

The best way to enjoy Le Mans is to slow down

As the 24-hour race celebrates its centenary this weekend, James March explores the city beyond the track – and discovers a brilliantl­y French treat


L ‘e Mans doesn’t beat its own drum about the old town at all,” says long-term resident Aileen Sharpe. “So when I first came here I thought, ‘Oh, this is incredible.’ It’s a lovely area and I love this place.”

Originally from Edinburgh, Sharpe moved to Le Mans more than 20 years ago. Her initial surprise was, perhaps, because the city is – for better or worse – associated with one particular thing: an absurdly long endurance race spanning an entire day.

First held in May 1923, the Le Mans 24-hour race ( celebrates its 100th anniversar­y this weekend and has become one of the most prestigiou­s dates on the motorsport calendar. But as I strolled through the tranquil cobbled streets of the city’s medieval old town, it became clear to me – as it apparently had to Sharpe – that there is far more to Le Mans than that epic contest taking place on the edge of town.

At around 120 miles southwest of Paris, Le Mans is easy to reach, too. The train journey from the French capital takes less than an hour.

The postcard-pretty old town is largely residentia­l, so there are no themed pubs or souvenir shops

With its walls of Roman mosaics and lanes flanked by half-timbered houses, the old town is special in that it is largely residentia­l – meaning this postcard-pretty district hasn’t been consumed by themed pubs and busy souvenir shops, as has often been the case elsewhere. A Plantagene­t city with deep English ties dating back to Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, its visceral authentici­ty and (mostly) tourist-free streets have led to swashbuckl­ing films like The Man in the Iron Mask being filmed here.

I meandered beneath blue pastel shutters and café canopies, while hidden behind the crooked stone walls were the colourful back gardens of locals. Each year, they open their doors to the public for Entre Cours et Jardins (entrecours­, an art and flower festival overseen by Sharpe and taking place this year on September 23 and 24.

The neighbourh­ood is overlooked by the grand spire and wild-armed flying buttresses of Saint-Julien Cathedral, once described by Hildebert de Lavardin, the Bishop of Le Mans from 1096– 97, as “the most beautiful church in the West”. It is not difficult to see what he meant in one quiet corner of the nave, where the unassuming 12th-century Ascension window is the world’s oldest stained-glass window still in place inside a cathedral.

Nine centuries on, Le Mans’ public art has evolved from windows to walls, with jaunty murals splashed around the city alongside spectacula­r glowing projection­s that stopped me in my tracks more than once after dark. The city’s taste for street art is celebrated during Plein Champ, a festival that brings internatio­nal artists together from June 30 to July 2, to the sound of DJs and the sizzle of local food trucks.

More convention­al works are on offer, too, at the Le Mans Museum of Fine Arts (, though the shimmering ponds and resplenden­t flower beds of neighbouri­ng Tessé Park provide equally pleasing scenes outside, especially on lazy summer afternoons.

But perhaps the greatest, most languid scenes were over on the dreamy Rue de la Vieille Porte. As evening fell, the street hummed to the sound of chatter and the clink of cutlery as diners packed the car-free pavements and rich, savoury aromas filled the air. I settled in for dinner at farm-to-table L’épi’Curieux (restaurant-lepicurieu­x. fr), where chef François Ricordeau’s revolving seasonal menus make the most of the Sarthe region’s abundant produce. The sublime bavette de boeuf was gone in minutes.

Keen to stretch my legs some more, the following morning I headed out past swaying wheat fields and neatly serried vines towards La Chartre-surle-Loir, a small town just south of Le Mans in the pastoral Vallée du Loir. There is a motoring connection here, too, in the art deco Hotel de France (lhoteldefr­, which served as Aston Martin’s Le Mans headquarte­rs during the 1950s and 1960s. There is

a genteel charm to the town today, with classic cars and chequered-flag bunting sharing the quaint streets.

Sipping strong coffee at the hotel’s popular roadside terrace, I watched with a dash of British pride as a jet-black Morgan turned heads as it revved by. An elderly man on the next table, sporting the kind of brush-like moustache that would suit a First World War general, nodded in approval.

Equally eccentric is Grégoire Courtin, the gregarious, cloaked owner of La Maison Courtin, a cluttered bric-a-brac shop that hides a dusty and somehow even more haphazard antique homeware museum downstairs. With guided tours by appointmen­t, Courtin leaves pregnant pauses before giving wide-eyed grand reveals of everything from Victorian toothbrush­es to 1920s jockey skull caps.

If Courtin’s bizarre basement is a little too left-field, then the idyllic Domaine Lelais (domainelel­ winery is an ideal country escape, where tastings of fruity Jasnières whites can be enjoyed without needing to book in advance. Handily, it is also bordered by a new greenway cycle path built on a former railway track (the old Paris to Bordeaux line).

I opted for the road, however, which ultimately meant being stuck behind a dusty red tractor chugging slowly along the narrow lanes. I eventually arrived in Saint-Léonard-desBois, a tiny village to the north of Le Mans, where several walking trails spider out into the Alpes Mancelles hills. I took a short hike with only the sound of merry birdsong for company, ending in a panoramic scene of dense forests, golden hay bales and lonely stone cottages, pierced by the serpentine River Sarthe far below.

Further north, the 1,360ft-high Mont des Avaloirs summit is the highest point in western France, while pretty Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei, just over the border in Normandy, is straight from a film set. There are far worse places to while away your afternoons than in one of the village’s serene bistro courtyards.

Having come so far, it would have been remiss not to pay a visit to the famous circuit itself. Showcasing more than 140 cars, the 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum (lemans-musee24h. com/en) is a magnet for motorists, its displays showcasing everything from a 1928 monster-grilled Bentley Speed Six to the sponsor-splashed behemoths that compete today.

The real thrill, though, is the 1960s section, with its glamorous collection of sleek Ferrari 250s and Ford GT40s, made famous in the 2019 film Le Mans ’66 (AKA Ford v Ferrari). It is a fine spot at which to finish – and yet, against all convention­al racing advice, I found that the best way to appreciate this charming old city and its wonderful surroundin­gs was to slow down.

 ?? ??
 ?? ?? Gentle bend: the tranquil River Sarthe A vintage car outside the Hotel de France in nearby La Chartre-sur-le-Loir
Gentle bend: the tranquil River Sarthe A vintage car outside the Hotel de France in nearby La Chartre-sur-le-Loir

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom