Until I was contacted about the opportunity to visit Le Mans for three weeks and take part in the French summer school, I had admittedly never heard of the town before other than as the location of a famous car race. Being not exactly interested in sports, a part of me was thinking… wouldn’t it be better if this opportunity was in Paris or somewhere along the French riviera? I had assumed that there wouldn’t be much to see and I’d have to take day trips elsewhere in France to satisfy my cravings for beauty and excitement. How wrong I was, however. Le Mans is literally clad in quaint and picturesque spots; I was a kid in a candy shop there!
During my stay I was accommodated in the Université de Maine’s Vaurouzé student lodging, which was about a 40 minute walk from the centre of town. However, luckily we were given a free month tram-pass by the university, meaning we could get in and out in about 15 minutes as the trams were generally quite regular. There are two lines on the tram and they take you to pretty much anywhere you’d need to go in the city, and if not there are also plenty of buses to ship you around instead.
Le Mans Main sights
La Cité Plantagenêt
Also known as Vieux Mans, La Cité Plantagenêt is the old town of Le Mans. It is the historic heart of the town and stole my heart as soon as I set eyes on it. The architecture dates back to the late middle ages and is the birthplace of Henry II, first Plantagenêt king of England, hence its name. It is truly a maze, made up of medieval timbered houses, cobbled streets and a plethora of vibrant colours. You could spend day after day exploring the narrow lanes and climbing the stepped alleyways, gazing at the intricate features of each window, door, lantern and flower. Overlooking the river, it is guarded by one of the oldest Gallo-Roman walls in France (see below) and also home to the spectacular Cathedral of St. Julien. To read about more Roman ruins in France, check out this article on the spectacular ruins in Lyon (my new home!).
Cathedral de Saint Julien
Le Mans Catholic Cathedral is the quintessential French gothic building and is absolutely magnificent. It’s construction took 8 centuries to complete and you can really see why, its one of those that you stare at for ages thinking… how did they do that?! The stained glass dates back to the 12th century, making it the oldest in France and outside the church, near the Southwest entrance is a prehistoric menhir placed there in the 18th century. This is essentially a large rock, with a tiny thimble-sized hole in the front, which was said to grant women great fertility if they touched it… Sounds legit to me!
When I visited, I was blessed with absolutely stunning weather most of the time that I was there, which obviously called for many hours sunbathing. Luckily, Le Mans is home to a great number of beautiful gardens and parks so I could bronze myself (ahem, burn myself) surrounded by exquisite natural settings.
The Parc Théodore Monod was only 5 minutes away from campus and being more in the suburbs of the city, was a popular spot for families. It had lots of little fountains squirting water on hot days which were lovely but also attracted hoards of screaming children which was not quite so delightful!
Parc du Tessé is located in the grounds of the Musée du Tessé and was much less busy. It has lovely little flowerbeds and in the centre lies Sablier Géant, translating to giant hourglass, which is what it literally is. It’s quite a cool installation, with 40 tons of sand slowly sifting through 160 tiny holes. It takes six months for the sand to completely pass through and at the end of the six months, at each solstice it is returned to the top section (I have no idea how…).
My favourite however, is Jardin des Plantes, which is about a five minute walk from the centre of town yet once you’re there, you may as well be in the middle of the countryside. A beautiful lake, wooden bridges, alabaster statues and wild flowers make this garden an isolated little spot of heaven on a sunny day by yourself with a book.
Zoo de la Flèche
This isn’t exactly in Le Mans but it is a short car ride away. The university paid for our tickets and otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to visit as I’m not a great fan of zoos- some can be quite cruel to their animals in the treatment they receive and the way they are made to live. I can’t really comment on whether the animals of this zoo had a great quality of life because I’m not an expert on their natural habitats by any means but it was at least better than others that I’ve visited in the past as a kid. For one, the bears weren’t trapped in a ten foot square pit but actually had some space to roam and swim.
I mainly enjoyed the day for the photo opportunities because other than that, it was quite a busy and expensive place; crammed with queues and children crying everywhere. My favourite part was the sea lion show, the two performing sea lions were so intelligent I couldn’t fathom how they’d been trained to do so many specific tricks. However, it was also quite fun watching the bird show, when an American Eagle failed to land on its perch above the crowd properly and crashed into the back of all our heads causing hysterics all round (and some tears, it must be said).
La Nuit des chimères
The French really like their light shows, and this is a really spectacular one in the centre of Le Mans, lasting for two months long in Summer. It starts as soon as it gets dark, when the old town is set alive by vibrant, moving artwork that projected onto historical monuments, accompanied by music and sometimes stories, which are told over the speakers. I was really lucky to be there whilst this event was going on because it was a truly magnificent spectacle, attracting large crowds and a lively atmosphere.
Whilst I was in Le Mans for three weeks, I was also lucky enough to catch Le Mans fait son Cirque, which I wrote about in this post, and the fireworks marking Bastille Day– France’s most important national holiday, celebrating the French revolution. Le Mans Classique was also going on at the time, a car race and parade of vintage race cars paying homage to the 24hr Le Mans racetrack and its history. These were only the events going on in the short period I was there so I can imagine that a lot more goes on throughout the year!
The night life in Le Mans is really not much to write home about, unfortunately, but along with the group of students that I was living with, we definitely made it work and had a great time nonetheless. In Place de la Republique, the square in the centre of town, there’s a large collection of bars but we avoided these because they were so expensive, instead opting for the Irish pubs and bars on the roads leading off from here. These were much friendlier to our pockets and we ended up at one, Luna café way too many times during the trip, the bartenders knowing us all by name by the end. The football table and free song requests made this place great for a casual night drinking. Another favourite was Chicago Bar, situated in Le Man’s old town. The cocktails here were to die for and were also not too dear if you went during happy hour- 5-8pm every weekday. The bar was decorated in Cuban style, very cute and the outside terrace was beautiful, especially on those hot sunny evenings.
In terms of clubs, we went to 3 different ones: The Loft, Le Wiz and one of which I can’t remember the name -or anything that happened, woops… They were all identical in their absolutely extortionate drink prices, meaning it was cheaper to buy a whole bottle of vodka between the group than buy individual drinks. We discovered L’étoile des Saveurs karaoke bar on the penultimate night, which was disappointing because it was one of the best!
I’m so glad that I was wrong about Le Mans, it truly was a vibrant and beautiful town and I enjoyed every day that I was there! Read my next post to hear about my day-trips to two different beautiful châteaux, one of which was the home to Da Vinci in the last years of his life.
For more underrated villages in France, check out Alison’s post on 6 can’t-miss villages in Provence, the perfect summer getaway after soaking in Le Man’s rich history.
Much love <3