Think of Le Mans and what springs to mind? A bunch of gas-guzzling voitures de sport. As one resident noted, rather crossly, the prominence of the Le Mans motor racing tradition diverts attention from everything else this charming old town has to offer. The verb she used was vampiriser, which sums up what a shame it is that Le Mans is ignored by any traveller who isn't an avowed petrol-head.
Those of us who don't know our spark plugs from our big end are missing out on an area steeped in history. The old town of Le Mans rises above the modern city like an island. Tiers of houses in the golden local stone cling to the riverside hill that was once a key defensive position. The old town is partly girdled by a massive Roman wall that dates from the third century, one of the best-preserved specimens outside of Istanbul or Rome. The wall's richly decorative brickwork was not only a stout barrier but also served to display the empire's wealth. All this is dominated by the magnificent cathedral at the summit, a mixture of Roman and Gothic architecture that bristles with flying buttresses and scowling gargoyles.
The old town has been revitalised in recent decades; not so very long ago, it was a quartier coupe-gorge, a warren of narrow streets where you'd have been well-advised to keep a firm hand on your wallet. Now the biggest potential hazard is tripping on the cobbles as you crane upwards to decipher the timber carvings that identify different homes as former tailors' premises or taverns.
Anyone wandering these streets and lanes, peppered with inviting little gardens and courtyards, will long to see what's behind the shutters and front doors. Thankfully, the curious can step inside to see a carefully restored interior in an 18th-century house. For the past seven years, Maitre Jean Maurice Leblanc has been working lovingly on his home at 24 rue de la reine Bérengère (more of that melancholy queen later). He opens it to the public every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, from 3pm till 8pm, with exhibitions of local art and heritage thrown in.
The old town's upmarket status is marked today by boutiques and galleries, bars and restaurants, which make it a pleasure to spend an hour – or five or six – as a flâneur. Stay in the 18th-century hotel Le Doyenné, next to the cathedral, with its courtyard full of hydrangeas and sunflowers. Take an aperitif at the Saint-Flaceau bar at 9 rue Saint-Flaceau and enjoy a kir and the view from its high balcony. Go on to dinner at the trendy but very friendly Le Plongeoir (55 Grand Rue) or wander across the River Sarthe to l'Epicerie du Pré (31 rue du Pré), an unpretentious neighbourhood bistro.
Everything was not always quite so respectable, however. At the beginning of the previous century, the bishop of Le Mans was irked by the number of houses of ill repute in the crowded terraces below his cathedral, and hit on the idea of buying all the properties and shutting them down. The first part of his plan worked brilliantly, but all his new tenants had watertight contracts on their premises and he was lampooned in the press as the nation's biggest maquereau (pimp).
Such ecclesiastical embarrassments hardly register alongside the turbulence of Le Mans' medieval heyday. Le Mans is the berceau des Plantagenets – the cradle of the Plantagenets, who were closely involved with the completion of the cathedral. This formidable family ruled a chunk of France and, starting with Henry II, would retain the English throne for more than 300 years.
The Plantagenet stronghold of Le Mans became home to one of England's loneliest queens, Berengaria, wife of Richard the Lionheart. Berengaria, married off for political expediency, is the only English queen never to have set foot in the country; her new husband disappeared to the Holy Land, and on his return had to be admonished by the church for his neglect of his wife. The trace of Berengaria can still be seen in Le Mans; her ghost walks in a medieval garden on rue de la reine Bérengère, every evening from Tuesday to Saturday in July and August, courtesy of the town's extraordinary free light show, La Nuit des Chimères.
"Son et lumière" doesn't begin to do justice to the illuminations in Le Mans; it's an amazing spectacle. The entire frontage of the Roman walls is lit with a startling range of images, from a Roman bestiary to tableaux featuring knights conquering dragons and winning fair ladies.
One highlight of the Nuit des Chimères features angels. One of the cathedral's chapels has a riotously exuberant ceiling painted with 47 brightly coloured angels, singing and playing medieval musical instruments. The paintings have been dated to the end of the 14th century and had a narrow escape 500 years later when the then bishop wanted to paint them over in a tasteful blue-grey; Prosper Mérimée, an eminent archaeologist, intervened to save them. Now they have been brought to life and flutter over the cathedral's exterior, eerily lifelike.
If your French is up to it, you can buy tickets for one of the regular historical tableaux in the cathedral and its grounds: actors in the Les Chimériques productions bring to life all the key medieval players, including Henry and Berengaria, not to mention a further cast of gargoyles, unicorns, centaurs and werewolves.
Queen Berengaria's footsteps also lead to the Abbaye de l'Epau, on the outskirts of the town, the Cistercian abbey that she founded and the site of her tomb. The abbey has been painstakingly restored and the former dormitory and church are used for music festivals and art exhibitions. But visit on a quiet day and you are likely to have the place to yourself, apart from the deer that roam the park. It's easy to imagine the monks filing in to pray in the austere chapel, and perhaps the melancholy queen, pacing the stone floors.
For the more secularly minded (or greedy), the square below the cathedral hosts the Marché des Jacobins, one of the best produce markets in the west of France, every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. It's one of those alluring, typically French arrays that make you wonder how any French supermarkets survive.
Le Mans is keen to extend its green credentials. The city's 15km tram system opens in November, with a cycle path running along its grassed length; the grass will absorb sound as well as looking pretty and there will be free car parks for those who want to abandon their vehicle.
At the edge of the town is the Arche de la Nature, a large park. Visit the organic garden or the rare breeds on the Ferme de la Prairie. Cars and coaches are forbidden here; the space is set aside for nature, sport, or simply strolling. Jean Louis Prigent, vice president of the city council, would like to take things even further. "I would like to see horses back at the foot of the cathedral. It will happen!" he says.
The journey from London Waterloo to Le Mans takes under five hours, with a change of train at Lille or Paris. Return fares, available through agencies such as Rail Europe (08708 304862; www.raileurope.co.uk), start at £79.
Le Doyenné Hotel, 8 rue Doyenné (00 33 2 43 47 85 11; www.le-doyenne.com). Double rooms start at €95 (£68), including breakfast.
Le Museé de la Reine Bérengère, 7-11 rue de la Reine Bérengère (00 33 2 43 47 38 51).
Les Chimériques (www.nuitdeschimeres.com). Booking is essential; tickets are available from the tourist office (see below) starting at €10 (£7.10).
Arche de la Nature (00 33 2 43 50 38 45; www.arche-nature.org).
Le Mans Tourist Office: 00 33 2 43 28 17 22; www.lemanstourisme.comReuse content