Everyone knows the name Le Mans in reference to the famous 24-hour endurance motor race that has been taking place in June every year since 1923. Some are not even aware that Le Mans is not just an auto race, it’s an old, old city that boasts a singular history and offers some of the best entertainment you’ve ever seen – and it’s free.
Many who have visited Le Mans to witness the start and/or finish of the great race have found a lot more to enjoy than fast, well-built cars and skillful, dusty drivers. Aside from risettes (shredded pork pate that is the town’s ‘specialty’), there’s some pretty astonishing architecture and much of a 1,300m long Gallo-Roman wall that surrounded the whole area back in the 3rd century AD.
The old town (Vieux Mans) is a lovely place to stroll cobbled streets and admire the half-timbered house fronts, but it’s quite possible you’ll have to make way for a film crew – or jump in as an extra.
The film ‘Le Mans’ with Steve McQueen was made here and on the actual race circuit; some of the best scenes from ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ and ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ were filmed here, and the town’s website notes that film crews of one sort or another are common and locals are often extras.
Built alongside and above the Sarth River, the town’s ancient nucleus was left by the Celts; a menhir of pink sandstone, supposedly symbolizing fertility and marking the centre of the universe. The ancient landmark still stands on the highest point overlooking the Sarth.
The high point of any visit, even if you’re a huge race fan, must be La Nuit des Chimeres. This is the free light show that takes place every summer night beginning at 10:00 pm and lasting for two hours.
Buildings and facades in the old city are illuminated using multiple projection technology and creating a stunning display that tells the story of Le Mans’ history.
Many visitors have reported that this light show is more enthralling that anything they’ve seen elsewhere; even youngsters are held spellbound for two hours, and that’s quite a recommendation. Apparently one can’t begin to imagine it from seeing pictures; you must see it live.