We went to Le Mans two weeks too early! I was jealous hearing about all the action of the Le Mans 24 hours race in the town over the weekend from our friends and social media channels.
However, we did have lots of fun and didn’t need to navigate the city through the influx of the Le Mans 24 hour race fans. From our trip here are the my tips for visiting Le Mans:
1. Wander in the old town of Le Mans
It was a Sunday we decided to go into Le Mans first; we caught the tail end of the market at the foot of the cathedral. The smell of fish brought from the Atlantic coast just an hour or so away, mingled with ripe cheese and fresh fruit and vegetable scents.
The fruit and vegetables were beautiful, so much bigger than we get at home in the UK. We stocked up a couple of things for dinner. They turned out to be delicious too; full of flavour.
The cathedral is magnificent! Steeped in 1000 years of history. The scale, both inside and out, imparts a sense of humility.
Inside is beautiful in a very-sparsely decorated way, with impressive statues and awe-inspiring stained glass windows. The massive organ in the transept.
We walked the old town: Set above the river behind fortified walks the old buildings are beautiful, wonky and full of character. Most have a courtyard that visitors rarely see, as they are hidden behind tall walls and big gates. One lovely resident, proud of their little tranquil corner leaves their gate open for all to admire.
The streets cobbled, giving real character and throwing your thoughts back to what it might have been in olden times.
2. Discover the racing history etched into the streets of Le Mans
Across from the old city, wandering into the new town, we walked along the streets with hand- and footprints of race winners of past captured in bronze.
Some we knew, some we heard stories of from our friends who have been immersed in the endurance races of Le Mans from birth- the scandals, the successes, the trials and tribulations. (If you are not a Le Mans 24 hour race fan, take someone who is with you or grab a guide… it’s so much more fun exploring this area with someone in the know!)
3. A visit to the Le Mans 24 hour museum is a must!
The museum has an extensive collection of cars from the start of the endurance races to modern days.
Last year’s winning car was there too!
We loved looking at the evolution of the cars, the video footage of races was mesmerising and the facts were just mind-blowing!
- The race has been going since 1923;
- The current course length is 13.629 km, of which the winners this year (2014) did 379… that’s over 5165 km (3209 mi) in 24 hours driven by 3 drivers taking turns;
- In the history of the races there have been only 54 female drivers- Most Starts: Anne-Charlotte Verney, 10; Best Finish: Odette Siko, 4th in 1932; Most female drivers in the start: 1935, with 9; Most all-woman teams: 1935, with 4;
- The WM P88-Peugeot of French driver Roger Dorchy had been timed at 405 km/h (252 mph) during the 1988 race, since then the track has been slowed down, so he is likely to hold the record for a very long time;
- Top speeds at Le Mans are now generally around 205 mph (330 km/h);
- It is expected that 263,000 spectators attend the event this year.
Max kept on disappearing back to the small model cars on display. He loved those! Unfortunately, they were too expensive for us to buy at over 30 Euros each.
My only gripe, being used to how hands-on most of our museums are here in Britain: there is very little interactive content, no cars to get in and try for size, little to engage the senses beyond sight and some sound. It’s a real missed opportunity in my opinion.
4. Drive the public road of the Circuit de la Sarthe
Once you’ve seen the museum it’s time to take a drive: a drive along most of the Le Mans 24 hour race circuit!
A few years ago Mercedes went so fast on a long straight stretch that the car took off and ended up in the trees. The race organisers introduced some chicanes to slow them down. As a road driver, we don’t get to experience these, but we do get to take the Indianapolis and the Arnage bends where the race cars slow from 337 km/hr to 76 km/hr . It’s so much fun driving, even while keeping to the speed limit of 90 km/hr.
5. Take a relaxed stroll at Abbey de l’Epau
The Abbey de l’Epau makes for a lovely morning or afternoon outing.
The beautiful grounds offer a space for kids to run around, the wildflower maze in one corner is both fun and beautiful.
Inside the abbey was stripped of all furnishings long time ago, during the Revolution, I think.
These days it mostly serves as a music venue to enjoy wonderful array of music. The acoustics are wonderful, as Angelina demonstrated. She got on the stage and gave us a private concert. I had tears in my eyes, as her voice resonated through the old church. (No, she’s not a fabulous singer, but her voice carries the beauty and innocence of a child.)
+1 Take a walk, a bike ride or canoe in l’Arche de la Nature
Near the Abbey is a large nature reserve- l’Arche de la Nature
Not unique to Le Mans, as most of us have something similar near our own homes, yet it is still fun with kids. In one corner, parking at the La Futaie car park, then a short walk away, is a city farm with old French breeds of horses, donkeys, pigs, chicken, geese, rabbits, goats and sheep. There are even some bees.
A small playground and a vegetable garden provide more interest.
The animals were very exciting for Max. As a toddler he is totally obsessed with animals at the moment. With Angelina and Hugo, seeing such a variety gave us an opportunity to talk about keeping animals, using animals now and in the past.
Tips and links from our trip:
We stayed 10 miles outside of Le Mans, camping in the garden of our dear friends who have recently moved back to Le Mans area from Oxford. It was wonderfully relaxing. Even with the weather not brilliant, it was generally just that bit nicer than in the UK at the time and we are told that’s generally true all through the year.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have such fabulous hosts as we had, from looking around, I can see there is accommodation to fit any budget widely available.
The Le Mans area is a perfect stop for a couple of days if you are heading to the Loire valley or beyond, but a great destination in itself.
During the week leading upto Le Mans 24 hour race and in the summer holidays there are lots of (often free) concerts taking place;
During the summer the city is lit by huge projections, La Nuit des Chimères, onto the city walls, apparently creating a spectacular sight, telling the history of the town. I’d love to see this, so we will be back one year in the middle of the summer break.
Le Mans was a 4 and half hour drive from Calais, where we crossed with the ferry, DFDS Seaways– return crossings with them are available from as little at £50, if you book in advance or have a multi-trip booking (as we have had in the past years).
We paid about 23 Euros in motorway toll along the route.
The Musée des 24 Heures entrance fee was 8,50 Euros for an adult and free for children under 9 at the time we visited.