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.
Le Mans is the capital of the department of Sarthe in the Pays de la Loire region, and is a bright and bustling place that it is a delight to explore.
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.
Things to do in Le Mans
There is so much to do here but you really should make sure you visit Fleche Zoo.
Located south-west of Le Mans, between Le Mans, Angers and Tours, La Flèche in the Loir valley offers something for all the family. La Flèche Zoo spans 34 acres, home to 1,200 animals (including polar bears, grizzly bears, elephants, giraffes, penguins and sea lions), with daily shows and animations.
It is close to Château du Lude – the most northerly of the Loire Chateaux – as well as the Benedictine Solesmes Abbey, where visitors can watch monks singing vespers. Or for the nautically inclined, hire a boat to cruise along the languid Sarthe River – no licence needed – it takes four days to reach Le Mans.
Three new, super-stylish safari-style lodges have been added at La Flèche Zoo, overlooking the Madagascan lemurs. Adding to the four lodges which opened in April, 2013, spend a night at the zoo in a choice of company from Arctic wolves, to white tigers or leaping lemurs.
Each lodge has oversized windows that look out onto the enclosures, with a master suite, children’s bunk room, bathroom and outdoor shower and a Pergola for al fresco dining.
Price: La Flèche Zoo (Tel: 02 43 48 19 14; www.safari-lodge.fr) offers one night half board from £110pp based on 4 sharing, including a 2-day zoo pass.
Le Gentleman is a brand new boutique hotel. Situated in elegant townhouse dating back to 1725, it has been sympathetically refurbished with 14 rooms. There is a hidden garden for summer and a cosy lounge with a log fireplace for the colder months.
Touring Le Mans old town
Central 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.
Maison d’Adam et Eve
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.
Le Mans and the Plantagenet Dynasty
The story begins in 1128 with the marriage in Le Mans cathedral of Geoffrey, Count of Maine and Anjou to Matilda, grand-daughter of William the Conqueror and widow of a powerful German emperor.
Among the wedding gifts was the prospect of the thrones of England and Normandy (at that time independent of France as we know it today). Geoffrey loved to hunt and would often stick a sprig of yellow broom – in French the plante known as genet – into his cap, and it was this that earned him the nickname, ‘Plantagenet’.
The count and his bride had a son, Henry, born in the county palace (now the Hotel de Ville) in Le Mans in 1133 and baptised in the cathedral.
In 1152, the year following his father’s death, Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine, a powerful woman whose marriage to Louis VII had been annulled only two months earlier. With her she brought vast estates extending from the Loire to the Pyrenees.
Two years later, Henry became king of England, the first of fourteen hereditary kings, later collectively referred to as the Plantagenets, a dynasty that now owned a huge empire reaching from Scotland to the Pyrenean borders with Spain.
The 15th century, however, saw great division in the Plantagenet ranks as the House of York battled with the House of Lancaster in the English civil war that later became known as the War of the Roses.
Only in 1485, with the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field did the dynasty finally end.
It is an interesting aside that when, in 1063, with the many counts of France vying to fill a power vacuum, William (‘the Bastard’, as he was known) sought to gain a base in Le Mans, but was rejected by its people.
Three years later his attention crossed the Channel with devastating and long-lasting effect. If only the people of Le Mans had been as accommodating then as they are now!
The Plantagenet Dynasty
1154-1189: Henry II (Henry Curtmantle)
1189-1199: Richard I (Coeur de Lion: Richard the Lionheart)
1199-1216: John (John Lackland)
1216-1272: Henry III
1272-1307: Edward I (Edward Longshanks, ‘The Hammer of the Scots’)
1307-1327: Edward II
1327-1377: Edward III
1377-1399: Richard II
1399-1413: Henry IV (House of Lancaster)
1413-1422: Henry V (House of Lancaster)
1422-1461: Henry VI (House of Lancaster)
1461-1470: Edward IV (House of York)
1470-1471: Henry VI (House of Lancaster)
1471-1483: Edward IV (House of York)
1483 (April-June): Edward V (House of York)
1483-1485: Richard III (House of York)
Visiting the department of Sarthe and Le Mans
The following essay by Terry Marsh – Beyond Le Mans – was originally published in Living France magazine, as part of a larger feature about the department of Sarthe and Le Mans.
Abby of Epau in Sarthe
It was time to move on, and just outside Le Mans, a short drive away, I find the Cistercian abbey of Épau. Here lie the remains of Queen Berengaria, wife of Plantagenet Richard I, the Lionheart.
Following his death, she withdrew to Le Mans, where she was warmly welcomed, and in 1229 founded the abbey. It is a remarkably tranquil spot, in fact I could have stayed there all day.
The building, having succumbed to agricultural use for a time, was restored towards the end of the last century and is today well-maintained, but devoid of content; not that this detail detracts from the setting.
Only the original cloister and western façade are missing, but this remains one of the best abbeys in France, and a supremely peaceful location.
Arche de la Nature in Sarthe, Le Mans
While in that neck of the woods, I venture a little further to the Arche de la Nature. Set in pine woodlands, this is an excellent place for walks, and, at its heart, a ‘prairie’ farm with some interesting rare breeds of animal.
This includes the magnificent Percheron horses which draw a caliche around the woodland tracks on a plodding journey that will appeal to children from 8 years old to 80.
Back at the farm, an estaminet, or outdoor café, serves excellent lunchtime food accompanied by an artisanal beer brewed in the English manner – whatever that is. But it is very refreshing.
Eating out in La Ferté Bernard
Moving east I reach La Ferté Bernard. This is a ‘naughty’ place, where the culinary temptations of Le Dauphin Restaurant contemptuously sweep aside my stalwart determination to restrain my diet and so return my well-developed lower chest to something resembling the six pack of my youth.
That I fail miserably is not entirely my fault! Rillette de Thon, filet de Sébaste aux pois chice et citron confit, cône de l’anis vert et crème pêche de vigue would weaken anyone’s resolve.
Thankfully, this hugely agreeable town has a number of redeeming features, not least the weight of medieval antiquity crammed into a small area. The whole region here is built on marshland (marais), which makes it all the more remarkable.
The old houses huddle around the church, built on piles amid the lush fields of the Huisne valley. Here, too, there are many half-timbered houses, and a significant investment in restoration, from the magnificent Porte Saint Julien to the corn exchange (Halle aux Grains).
What my guide failed to mention was that La Ferté was owned in 1642 by Cardinal de Richelieu, arguably the world’s first prime minister and a great if often harsh servant of the French cause. La Ferté was held by Richelieu’s descendants until the Revolution.
Montmirail in Sarthe
In search of chateaux, I head for Montmirail, formerly a defensive stronghold, the original Gallo-Roman fortress being replaced by a feudal outpost and later a medieval castle. Once the capital of the ‘Perche Gouêt’ region, Montmirail, a much-desired location, was besieged by Richard I during the Hundred Years’ War.
Not far away, I located my room for the night, in the Chateau de la Barre, held in the same family, de Vanssay, since 1421, and a real treat. It’s not every day I get to have dinner with a count and countess.
Moving on was particularly difficult, the grounds are peaceful and relaxing, but only the prospect of finding my target vineyard at Poncé-sur-le-Loir closed for lunch spurred me on. The wine here tends to be Jasnières, produced from chenin grapes, although they do also produce some Coteaux du Loir.
Here I’m driving along the edge of the département, dipping into a rural way of life that binds communities like St Calais, Bessé-sur-Braye (fine chateau of Courtonvaux nearby), and la Charte-sur-le-Loir.
Visiting the Forest of Bercé
There seems to be an idyllic contentment about these small towns, a refreshing and relaxing ambiance I find repeated in the Forest of Bercé where lunch at the Auberge de l’Hermitière is taken to accompaniment of blackcap, green woodpecker, chiffchaff and the sound of fish leaping from the nearby lake.
With more than 280km of waymarked trails, this oak and conifer forest, perhaps once the hunting ground of Plantagenet kings, is perfectly designed by walkers, cyclists and horse riders. I sit for hours mesmerised by the tranquillity of it all. I would be there still if someone hadn’t brought the bill and disturbed my reverie.
Fresnay-sur-Sarthe in the Sarthe department
Heading north I find myself attracted to Fresnay-sur-Sarthe, what the French describe as a Petite Cité de Caractère, one of eleven towns along the Sarthe formed together for the purpose of furthering their cultural development. And so it is, a small city, of character.
Founded originally around its chateau, now long gone, this agreeable town still retains much of its original layout, a mix of cobbled streets, a new market hall, elegant church, and a fine view over the Sarthe river.
Read our Guide: The Best Castles in France
Here I indulge my passion for people-watching, and perch beneath the shade of an umbrella at Les Alpes Mancelles, viewing the world through pastis-coloured glasses.
Sarthe is proud of its Plantagenet history, and, as I soon realised, it’s as much a part of the French patrimoine as it is of our English heritage. Perhaps that’s why so many English people find Sarthe such an agreeable place to live.
It’s just a pity that its main claim to fame has nothing to do with the intrinsic beauty of the region.