Set on the main European London-Madrid line, Le Mans is just 50 minutes from Paris by TGV (a French high-speed electric passenger train). Its historic heritage has made this mediaeval town the most popular film location for French cinema. But far from being a “museum town”, Le Mans is strikingly lively and creative.
Like Nantes, Toulouse and Montpellier, Le Mans is on the way to becoming the next fashionable weekend destination of coming years. The fact seems crazy because this town has been so neglected for so long, too often remembered for its rillettes (potted meat) and its 24 Hour car race and the fact that it witnessed the birth of the first automobile in history, in 1873. And yet, on closer inspection, you can feel in this town a certain buzz, an atmosphere that is both friendly and committed. The charm of the surrounding countryside, the proximity of the capital, all served by an inspired and enterprising town policy, today combine to make Le Mans a “pioneer” town as regards quality of life.
Less famous than neighboring Tours or Angers, Le Mans immediately impresses visitors, not expecting to find such architectural gems or such harmony between stone, water, vegetation and sky! Along the Sarthe River, above the old tanneries district, you can admire the beautiful Gallo-Roman wall built under Diocletian in the 3rd century. This red 1,300-m-long surrounding wall, marked out with eleven towers and adorned with black and white geometric patterns, is one of the best preserved military buildings from the Roman world, along with the surrounding walls of the two Imperial capitals, Rome and Constantinople.
At the summit of the mound dominating the river, the Celts erected the town’s historic nucleus over 5,000 years ago and left an impressive menhir symbolizing both fertility and the centre of the universe. This mysterious pink sandstone rock, with its pleated forms, still stands against the Romanesque and Gothic cathedral of St Julien today.
Around the cathedral Vieux Mans (the old town) is a magnificent real life film set, with its winding alleys, 14th century half-timbered façades, turrets and corner pillars and gilded wooden sculptures. There Renaissance period mansions such as the Hôtel de Sceaux, at 54, Grand’Rue, where Marie de Médicis stayed and which is still considered the town’s most beautiful residence. In front of the house of Queen Berengaria (Richard the Lion-Heart’s widow lived and died in Le Mans in the 13th century), you will find the locations where the finest scenes of Cyrano de Bergerac (with Gérard Depardieu) or The Man in the Iron Mask (with Leonardo di Caprio) were filmed. Vieux Mans welcomes several film crews every year and each time its inhabitants are happy to act as extras.
Even if cathedrals are not your cup of tea, you might make an exception for the cathedral of St Julien – one of the biggest and most luminous in France. Begun in the 11th century and completed in the 15th, it is one of the greats of Gothic architecture with its double flying buttresses, 13 radiating chapels, lily-shaped stone filigree and its choir, which rises to 34 metres (112 ft). Like the cathedral of Chartres, it boasts one of the finest sets of mediaeval stained glass windows, mainly red, all made during the Hundred Year War by the master glassmakers of Le Mans. This cathedral is where where Henry II of England was baptised in 1133 and where the funeral of Queen Berengaria took place (in 1230).
Every night from 1st July to 31st August, the cathedral square, the Gallo-Roman surrounding wall, the façades of the houses, the gardens and cobbled alleys will be submerged by monsters and celestial figures of mediaeval imagination. This free “son et lumière” show will enable you to discover the history and treasures of the town. Last summer over 100,000 visitors played the game. This year, the musical angels painted on one of the frescoes of St Julien’s cathedral will be projected onto the façade of the building; each angel plays a forgotten medieval instrument, such as the mandora, échiquier, rebec, bagpipes, buisine and oliphant, double flute and string drum… Using these instruments, a contemporary composer has created a piece of music to be broadcast at the same time as the video images: this is the “concert des anges” (concert of the angels).
Le Mans, unlike many towns in Europe where more or less the same shops are always to be found, is full of boutiques and craft shops that you will find nowhere else. In the old town, comic book fans will head for Bulle, a leading bookshop known throughout France. Musicians or collectors will discover L’atelier d’Orphée, a specialist in the repair of old and new wind instruments. Nearby, an attractive boutique, Histoire de la mandoline, is entirely devoted to this now rare instrument, which provided inspiration for some of Vivaldi’s finest concertos.
Le Mans is also the home of six MOFs (Meilleurs Ouvriers de France – Best Workmen in France), among them the great chocolate maker Jacques Bellanger, the jeweller Houillon, renowned for the purity of his stones and the wrought-iron craftsman Jean-François Jousse, famous for his spiral staircases. And don’t hesitate to visit Atelier Avice, which perpetuates the Le Mans tradition of creating and restoring stained-glass windows. Grav’Or is a superb boutique specialising in glass engraving for cruise liners. The Crapeau Guindé prides itself on restoring old chairs and traditional saddles. Nelly Bichet is a milliner and fashion designer of great talent. Sébastien Drouet is the favourite clockmaker of all the locals. Gilles Mémin is a passionate antique dealer.
One of Le Mans’ greatest charms is to be able to find yourself immediately in the countryside, barely 10 minutes from the town centre. From this point of view, L’Arche de la Nature is an exemplary creation, which every weekend attracts thousands of locals who come to relax with their families. This 450-hectare (1,112 acre) natural area is mainly covered with hedged farmland and a forest (Scots and maritime pines, chestnut trees, birch trees and oaks) in which many wild animals live wild (roe deer, wild boar, pheasant and the very rare red partridge). The Ferme de la Prairie is a fascinating place where dying breeds of domestic animal are bred for example Percheron horses, Bayeux pigs, Touraine goats and the Coucou de Rennes (a rustic chicken native to Brittany).
4 km (2.5 miles) from Le Mans town centre, the Abbaye de l’Épau is a lovely place set on the edge of the Huisne river in a 13 ha (32 acre) park where deer roam freely. Founded in 1229 by Queen Berengaria, daughter of the king of Navarre, dowager countess of Maine and widow of Richard the Lion-Heart (who died on a crusade), this is one of France’s last Cistercian abbeys. This imposing building has been superbly restored over 30 years. Here you will discover the recumbent figure of the queen (in the chapter house), but also the sacristy whose walls are adorned with beautiful 14th century paintings, the abbey church and the dormitory restored to its original layout. Every spring (from 1st April to 1st May) for the last 27 years, the Abbaye de l’Épau has hosted the Europa Jazz Festival, attracting the greatest jazzmen of the moment (Richard Galliano, Jacky Terrasson, Aldo Romano, Stefano Di Battista, Daniel Humair for the 2006 edition). In summer, you can attend classical music concerts in the evening.
written – Michael Russell owns Travel-Guided.com
images – francethisway.com
featured image – GLEN ALLSOP X EIDOS NAPOLI ( linen unstructured suit )