Best known, disproportionately, for something to do with car racing, Le Mans has a long association with England. It was here that the Plantagenet dynasty was founded, in Vieux Mans, the old town. Here, as in most old towns, the history of the place oozes from the walls of its crooked buildings, cobbled streets, stepped alleyways and 15th-century half-timbered houses (colombages).
Fronting the Sarthe river, the well-maintained Gallo-Roman ramparts of the old town are a unique landmark, and quite stunning. Between July and September they form one of four backdrops for a pageant of light and colour – La Nuit des Chimères – a spectacular presentation of moving images presented by Hélène Richard and Jean-Michel Quesne (known as Skertzo) who were responsible for the stunning display at Amiens cathedral.
When I was first asked to visit Le Mans, venue of the famous 24-hour endurance race for cars, to unearth the Plantagenet story, I joked that I knew very little about plants, especially high-speed plants. So, it came as something of a surprise to discover that my 'plant' pun was rather closer to the mark than I may have imagined.
Renowned, arguably throughout the world, for its motor race, when the town’s resident population all but doubles, I was about to discover that there was infinitely more to Le Mans and its département, Sarthe (pronounced 'Sart'), than twenty-four hours of mind-numbing boys’ stuff.
Other than at football and rugby, the links between England and France are for the most part poorly understood; for hundreds of years we’ve either been making war or making love. But quite how the town of Le Mans tied in with what I thought was an ancient English dynasty was my reason for being here.
to the town is the dominating cathedral of St Julien, dedicated to the first
bishop of Le Mans. Architecturally, it is an impressive mish-mash of styles
held in places by an intricate complexity of flying buttresses. It is built on
a hill, and in time this ridge of high ground came to separate the developing
sections of the new town. So, to reduce traffic congestion, a road and tunnel
were burrowed through the hill. Today this is rue Wilbur-Wright, an odd
association perhaps, made all the more curious by the tall monument
commemorating the Wright brothers that stands overlooking the Place des
Jacobins. But it provides a link with those pioneer aviators who were invited
by Léon Bollée – of car manufacturing fame – to attempt one of their first
flights in and aeroplane at Les Hunaudières.
A tour of the old town is always a delight; the half-timbered buildings are endlessly fascinating and seeming in urgent need of support. Walking away from the cathedral, a narrow street holds the Maison des Deux Amis, a 15th-century building, now apartments, showing the two friends beside a coat of arms – they don’t look too friendly, but who am I to say? A little further, crossing the rue Wilbur-Wright, is a little square on one corner of which a pink, half-timbered building, formerly the tourist office, has a red-coloured pillar supporting its first floor. These ornate pillars feature on a number of buildings in the Old Town; some are original but a few have been replaced. Quite what their purpose is, other than obvious support, is not instantly clear. But their distinctive colours (red, blue, green), served as an aid to postmen in the days before houses were numbered.
Along the Grand Rue is the Maison d’Adam et Eve, although this splendid Renaissance mansion was the home of an astrologer and physician, which suggests that the motif above the door is rather more relevant to his work than to any biblical story. Farther on, is another pillar, this time decorated with keys, and clearly denoting the house of the blacksmith. This sort of detail gives a glimpse into past times, and leads you on through an easy maze of grand mansions – hotels particulières – some of which have been the setting for films, like the Hotel de Vaux, where they filmed Cyrano de Bergerac and the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’.
The Tessé Museum occupies the site of the former Tessé family domain, whose items form an important part of the collection. The Queen Berengaria Museum is just a stone’s throw from St. Julian’s cathedral. It is a museum of art and regional history, and its collections are housed in three beautiful wood-framed houses dating from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The most famous of these is known as 'Queen Berengaria’s house', and owes its name to Queen Berengaria, wife of the king of England, Richard the Lion-Heart, who died in Le Mans in 1230.
'...an impressive mish-mash of styles held in places by an intricate complexity of flying buttresses.'