Why the need for a guide to Le Mans? Surely it’s all about the famous annual 24-hour race in June when petrol heads pack the city, and its equally famous car museum?
But no, there’s another side to Le Mans and I hope you’ll be as surprised and delighted as I was to discover an extraordinary preserved and extensive medieval quarter at the city’s heart.
So let’s start at the beginning…(Don’t worry, there’s more about the car race and museum below.)
Old Le Mans
Once a vital Roman stronghold, Le Mans remained important for the next 14 centuries. Walk through the ‘Plantagenet City’ and you step into a history that linked medieval France and England.
Remember King John and Robin Hood? Richard the Lionheart? King Henry and the murder of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury? They all took place while both France and England were part of the mighty Plantagenet Empire that stretched from Scotland in the north down to Spain in the south. In the east the Plantagenet Empire bordered Flanders, Champagne, Burgundy, Savoy and the region around Toulouse.
And Le Mans was the great empire’s heart.
The All-Powerful Plantagenet Kings and Queens
The story begins in 1129 when Geoffrey, the powerful Count of Maine and Anjou married Mathilda, the daughter of Henry I of England and the granddaughter of William the Conqueror. The power marriage had far-reaching consequences. The Plantagenet dynasty lasted until 1485 when Richard III, the last English Plantagenet King of England, died.
Plantagenet Le Mans – Guide to a City within a City
The old 24-hectare quarter sprawls over the hillside above the River Sarthe. Cobbled medieval streets are lined with half-timbered houses and stone Renaissance mansions.
It’s encircled in parts by the original 3rd-century Gallo-Roman walls which at their most impressive run along the river front. At several hundred metres long in total they’re among the best preserved in Europe.
Pick up a comprehensive map and plunge into the muddle of mostly pedestrianised streets where the hôtels (grand houses) belonged to the once powerful families of de Rouxelin d’Arcy, de Clairaulnay and Courcival. These grandees were part of the French court and ran the flourishing city.
Don’t miss the massive Saint-Julien cathedral, a Romanesque masterpiece. Soaring vaults in the choir are lit up by the colours from the stained glass windows. The Virgin Chapel is a revelation with its angels playing 24 different instruments painted on the roof. And watch the nightly summer night show telling the story of the mighty church.
Parts of the once magnificent Plantagenet Palace still exist; Le Carré Plantagenet Museum tells you more about the powerful empire.
Not surprisingly Plantagenet Le Mans is something of a film set, featuring in films like The Man in the Iron Mask with Leonardo di Caprio and Gérard Depardieu in Cyrano de Bergerac.
Guide to Plantagenet medieval Le Mans.
Guide to more Le Mans Attractions
Go back even further at the Musée de Tessé. Venture down to the basement for the museum’s Egypt collection of mummies. Two full-scale reconstructions, including one of Queen Neferari, are impressive in their detail and scale.
The museum opened in 1799 making it one of the earliest in France. It also has French, Italian and Flemish paintings from the 16th to the 20th century.
Musée de Tessé
2 avenue de Paderborn
72039 Le Mans
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 47 38 51
Open Tues-Sun 10am-12.30pm & 2pm-6pm
If you’re interested in 19th and 20th century paintings of Le Mans and the river Sarthe, go into the Queen Bérengère Museum housed in three old wooden houses in Plantagenet Le Mans. It’s at 7 Rue de la Reine Bérengère.
Guide to Le Mans Markets
The best known local market is the Jacobins at the foot of the cathedral. It’s held every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from 8am to 1pm.
For a more international flavour, try the Sablons Market on Thurs from 8am to 1pm.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans Race
The first ever automotive race, the Grand Prix (Le Grand Prix de l’ACF) took place on June 26 and 27, 1906. It covered 103 kms (64 miles) between Le Mans, Ferté-Bernard and Saint Calais on public roads closed for the race. Certain towns were bypassed for the race and instead the formidable vehicles raced on specially constructed wooden roads. The Hungarian Ference Szisz won the event in a Renault AK.
In 1923 the race was changed from a speed event to an endurance 24-hour race, encouraging reliable and fuel-efficient vehicles that last and spend as little time in the pits as possible. It’s now one of the world’s great sporting events.
Today some 60 cars compete; the winner being the car that covers the greatest distance in 24 hours.
Le Musée des 24 Heures du Mans (The Museum of the 24 Hours of Le Mans)
The museum is a must for anyone visiting Le Mans, even for someone like me. I like driving, and cars, but I am not an enthusiast for motor museums. But even I found the museum fascinating. It’s large and arranged chronologically so you start with those strange machines built in the 19th century.
Here’s a guide to Le Mans 24-Hour Museum.
Le Mans at night
The Cathedral has the best known sound and light show with angels and demons, forests, ladders and more flickering across the façade. Royal figures appear on the porch while in the Place du cardinal Grente on the corner, angels escape from the Virgin chapel in the cathedral.
One side of the Romans walls display architects, and builders, musicians playing odd instruments while two chimeras fly along the top. On the other side, separated by the tunnel that runs up from the riverside gardens to the old medieval town, masks from the Roman theatre, knights of the Round Table and fighting dragons make their appearance. Drive or walk along by the river for the full effect.
And just east of the cathedral the White Lady appears. She’s Queen Bérengère, widow of Richard the Lionheart.
Where to Stay in Le Mans
We stayed in the Maison Saint-Pierre. Not only are the three rooms gracious and spacious and the breakfast excellent; the bed and breakfast is right next to the cathedral which is perfect if you want to marvel at the illuminations that race across its façade. (And the view from our window is spectacular.)
28 rue des Chanoines
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 87 25 39
No website so book through the tourist office
Bed and breakfast for 2 inc breakfast €90
Also recommended is the 19th-century Le Clos d’Hauteville. It offers three delightful rooms, an excellent communal breakfast. You’ll find a courtyard and garden to enjoy during good weather. Car parking is available.
Le Clos d’Hauteville
2 rue d’Hauteville
72000 Le Mans
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 23 26 80
Bed and breakfast for 2 inc breakfast €90
There are also good budget hotels in Le Mans. Check out the main budget hotel chains here.
Where to Eat in Le Mans
We ate in three very different restaurants.
Le Mans is full of delightful surprises and Libertà is one of those. The restaurant is in La Visitation, a former prison now converted into housing, shops and restaurants and a great place to eat. There’s also entertainment, with events and live music. Libertà’s Italian/Corsican slant makes for some unusual cooking as well as offering great pizzas. It’s noisy, fun and good value with lunch menus at €19.90 and €24.90.
La Ciboulette (Chives) is a charming family-run restaurant in an old house on the edge of the medieval city. Good classic French dishes like magret de canard cooked with skill, friendly service and outside seating in summer. Menus at €24.90 (including an excellent vegetarian menu), €35.90 and a gourmet feast at €59.
We went to La Rotisserie when we were visiting the 24-Hour Museum, and needed a car to get here. Persevere: it’s a local favourite and was buzzing. It has all the classics, and majors in pork rillettes, roasts and grills. It’s well priced and fun. Thoroughly recommended.
More Information on Le Mans and Surroundings
Le Mans Tourist Office
La Maison du Pilier-Rouge (The Red Pillar House)
41-43 Grande Rue
72039 Le Mans
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 47 40 30
Open Mon to Sat 10am-6pm
Book a guided tour in English: Jun to Aug Wednesday. 3pm. Full price €6
How to get to Le Mans
From the UK: We took the DFDS ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe and drove the 270 kms/168 miles to Le Mans, taking 3 hours. More about Ferries to France from the UK.
France Travel: By car Paris to Le Mans is 208 kms/130 miles and takes 2 hrs 30 mins.
By train: The train goes from Paris Montparnasse and takes from 56 mins.
By bus: The bus goes from Paris City Centre – Bercy Seine and takes around 3 hours.
How to get around Le Mans
The bus and tram network work from 5.00am to 1.00am in the week and from 6.00am to 1.00am Sundays and bank holidays. The system is efficient and cheap.
Also Check Out
More to see in the region
We also explored the Loir (without an ‘e’) Valley. It was delightful, unexpected, and full of treasures.
Try these attractions:
Tour the Secret Loir Valley
Visit the Château du Lude and its fabulous gardens
Glorious Medieval Baugé with its château and apothecary
Step into the world of the privately and family owned Château de Bazouges
Declaration: I was travelling in the area as a guest of the Le Mans Tourist Office which sponsored the accommodation and meals.