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Le Mans France

Le Mans

In mid June, Le Mans becomes manic with thousands of car racing fans turning up for the 24 hour endurance race. The rest of the time, Le Mans is an animated city with a beautiful old quarter and cathedral to rival any of the others in France. The town is only 80km northwest of Tours and its situation makes it a good stopover point between Normandy and the Loire, or if you are driving south from the transport links on the coast.

The River Sarthe runs on the northwest side of the old town, which sits on a hill and is encircled by several hundred metres of the original 3rd and 4th century Gallo Roman walls, some of the best examples in Europe. There are flights of steps leading down to the river and on the south side towards the modern town's main place de la République. The focus of the old town is the Cathédrale St Julien on place du Grente, a medley of High Gothic and Romanesque architecture. The ceiling of the chapelle de Notre Dame is painted with musical angels on a red background and this, combined with some 13th century stained glass, brightens up the sobre interior.

Normally, entrance to the car racing circuit on the southern outskirts of Le Mans is free, and it is here that you can witness the 24 Heures du Mans race (€30 and over), which began in 1923, where distances of 5000km and speeds up to 220kph are reached. For a cheaper alternative you can take the main road leading south from Le Mans to Tours and try out the Mulsanne straight for yourself! The Musée de l'Automobile (€6) near the race tracks displays 150 cars, some dating back to 1885, with all the big names and race winners in attendance.

Unfortunately there are no hotels in the old town of Le Mans, but some good options in the modern town including the Levasseur at 5 7 bd René Levasseur off place de la République (02 43 39 61 61) with rooms from €40 55 (closed August). Unless you arrive in April, June or September during the races, accommodation is easy to find. The best places to eat are in the old town, such as Le Fontainebleu on place St Pierre serving classic French menus from €15 (02 43 14 25 74).