Le Mans, the historic capital of the Maine region, is synonymous with its famous 24-hour car race in June. During the rest of the year, it’s a much quieter place; what it lacks in obvious beauty it makes up for in historical background, being the favourite home of the Plantagenet family, the counts of Anjou, Touraine and Maine. The old quarter, in the shadow of the magnificent cathedral, is unusually well preserved, while outside town you can visit the serene Cistercian abbey of Épau and, of course, the racetrack, a must-see pilgrimage for petrolheads.
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Cathédrale St-JulienThe high ground of the Old Town has been sacred since ancient times, as testified by a strangely human, pink-tinted menhir now propped up against the southwest corner of the very impressive Cathédrale St-Julien, which crowns the hilltop. The nave of the cathedral was only just completed when Geoffroi Plantagenet, the count of Maine and Anjou, married Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England, in 1129, thus founding the English dynastic line. Inside, for all the power and measured beauty of this Romanesque structure, it’s impossible not to be drawn towards the vertiginous High Gothic choir, filled with coloured light filtering through the stained-glass windows. At the easternmost end of the choir, the vault of the chapelle de la Vierge is painted with angels singing, dancing and playing medieval musical instruments.
Le Mans Racing
Le Mans Racing
The first 24-hour car race at Le Mans was run as early as 1923, on the present 13.6km Sarthe circuit, with average speeds of 92kph (57mph) – these days, the drivers average around 210kph (130mph). The Sarthe circuit, on which the now world-renowned 24 Heures du Mans car race takes place every year in mid-June, stretches south from the outskirts of the city, along ordinary roads. When the competition isn’t on, the simplest way to get a taste of the action is just to take the main road south of the city towards Tours, a stretch of ordinary highway which follows the famous Mulsanne straight for 5.7km – a distance that saw race cars reach speeds of up to 375kph, until two chicanes were introduced in 1989. Alternatively, visit the Musée des 24 heures wmusee24h.sarthe.com) on the edge of the Bugatti circuit – the dedicated track section of the main Sarthe circuit, where the race starts and finishes. It parades some 150 vehicles dating as far back as 1873, ranging from the humble 2CV to classic Lotus and Porsche race cars. The focus of the museum is the characters who made the race famous. Vintage newsreel along with newspapers and mannequins in period costume keep this interesting even for the non-car fans.
During the race weekend, you’ll need a ticket to get anywhere near the circuit. Buy them direct from the organizers at wlemans.org. You’ll need a separate ticket to get access to the grandstands, and be sure to book well in advance. Many enthusiasts’ clubs and ticket agencies offer tour packages including accommodation – otherwise impossible to find at race times – and the crucial parking passes; try wclubarnage.com or look through the adverts in a motor-sports magazine. True petrolheads can book themselves a place at one of the circuit-side campsites.
Outside of race days, you can watch practice sessions, and there’s the bikers’ 24 Heures Moto in early April and the Le Mans Classic in July.