Most people have heard of Le Mans thanks to its racetrack and its annual 24-hour event, which is considered the most prestigious of motor races and attracts crowds of up to 175,000 each year. But few know anything about the city itself, and the contrast between the two is dramatic.
Where the course consists of all the latest in 20th-century technology, the heart of the city, Vieux Le Mans, is a place steeped in history - so medieval in feel you half expect the cobbled roads to be filled with mules, and sewage to be thrown into the streets from the upstairs overhanging windows. But, jaded after a weekend of race-course excesses, its peaceful historical character is the perfect setting for a restorative hair of the dog.
Forty thousand British spectators trek over to Le Mans for the race, which takes place at the beginning of June (on the 6-7 June this year), their attention, in many cases, having been originally grabbed by the Jaguar win in 1988; the first British win in more than 30 years.
The image of the motor-racing world is indeed a glamorous one - champagne, fearless playboys and bikini-clad blondes - so put on your shades and head down to the pits and you will feel in the thick of it.
The circuit is a vast 8.5 miles, giving competitors the space to build up to speeds of 210 miles an hour. Your best bet is to lay claim to a patch of grass on the banks of the track with a good view, and to loll around with the occasional foray to the bars and restaurants for refuelling. Kick-off is at 3pm on Saturday, although serious spectators start turning up at the beginning of the week to watch the pre-qualifying sessions and testing days. Come the weekend, don't expect to get much sleep - this is a race set in the middle of an all-night festival with fairground, carnival and concerts.
Le Mans is on the River Sarthe in "la France profonde", full of picturesque villages and Frenchmen decorated with outrageously bushy moustaches that would look more at home on the pages of Asterix. The outskirts of Le Mans is a bit of an industrial ring: all smoking towers, estates and warehouse shops. But as you near the centre, the city reveals itself to be large, smart and wealthy, packed with cafes, bars and classy shop-fronts. The city prides itself on being very cultural and has a programme of artistic events all year round. Money is clearly ploughed into its upkeep and renovation, particularly in the medieval quarter which is in mint condition. So, when the last cars have crossed the finishing line and the champagne's been drunk, jump into your tardis, step back in time 500 years, and take a wander around Vieux Le Mans.
This is a great place to escape the frenzy of 20th-century life, and if you ignore the groups of American tourists you can feel the history of the streets take over. There is a medieval festival that takes place in August which really brings the area alive, but if you're having trouble imagining the characters that would once have filled these lanes, pop into the gift shop outside the cathedral. It has a selection of postcards of weird and wonderful locals in traditional peasant dress.
Old Le Mans covers 22 acres and is enclosed by a 3rd-century Roman wall which is still in staggeringly good order, with 11 surviving towers. The streets spread out from the Cathedral of St Julien, a stunning mishmash of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and richly coloured, intricate stained-glass windows which drench the altar and choir with a strong rose-tinted light. There is so much to see in this area, where every other house seems to date from the 15th or 16th-century, that it is easy to overlook some real gems. If you don't have a guide book, you can pick up a leaflet from the tourist office which highlights all the buildings of note, and make sure you keep looking up above street level as the upper storeys are often magnificent and covered with brickwork, wooden carvings and sculptures. Your ideal route should take in Rue de la Reine Berengere, which runs off from the cathedral and is flanked by half a dozen houses of historical importance, including La Maison des Deux Amis (numbers 18 and 20) which was a 15th-century shop and carries a carving of the two friends, and the Maison de la Reine Berengere which has been turned into a museum of local folklore.
The Grande Rue is another must, and is filled with restaurants, small specialist shops and music which wafts out of the Rouxelin d'Arcy's Manor House, now home to the National Conservatory for music, dramatic art and dance. You will also find the Maison d'Adam et Eve in this road, a favourite with the locals, which was built by a physician and astrologer in the first half of the 16th-century and is covered with carvings of mythological scenes.
Follow the road down to Rue des Poules and Rue Doree and you'll find a cluster of restaurants, including a rather incongruous gaudy Mexican one splashed with orange and red and sporting the obligatory sombrero and replica cactus. I tried turning my back on this so that I could recapture that sense of being in a time-warp, but the illusion was again shattered by a pair of street-cleaners who, although working with nothing more than a handful of twigs wrapped around a pole in the style of a witches' broom, were dressed in brightly-coloured jumpsuits that were glaringly contemporary.
In some places, the programme of restoration seems to have gone a bit far and the overall effect is too pristine to engender that authentic medieval feel. Place St Pierre, for example, houses the city's town hall, the Hotel de Ville, which is almost squeaky clean, with immaculate rows of regimented window boxes and not a single petal out of place. As for the restaurants opposite, they are fronted by a strange collection of removable terraces which have the appearance of oversized play-pens carpeted with swathes of plastic grass. The ruins of the palace of the old Comtes du Maine are also in this square where England's King Henry II was born, the future father of Richard the Lionheart.
If you have any time to spare, hop on any number of local buses and explore the surrounding villages, or take a boat trip on the river Sarthe, which is a great way to see the countryside, particularly if your energy levels are getting low. By now, your pace should be in line with the locals and far from hurried, but, as the sun goes down, you'll have to leave all those time-traveller fantasies behind you and get back to the real world - of very fast cars, frenetic activity and a permanent hangover.
le mans fact file
How to get there
Eurostar is a fast and painless way to travel. The train goes from Waterloo to the centre of Le Mans, with one change at Lille Europe. Tickets start at pounds 99 return but these seats are in limited supply. If you're taking the car it's a good idea to take the overnight boat from Portsmouth to Caen or Cherbourg as this makes the drive the other side a manageable three to three-and-a-half hours. Brittany Ferries (0990 360360) sails to Caen for pounds 130, a five-day return deal for car, driver and one adult (additional adult passengers cost an extra pounds 7 each way). P&O European Ferries (0990 980555) sail to Cherbourg, also for pounds 130 for a five-day return. Prices vary according to dates of travel and length of stay and it is worth shopping around for special offers. Alternatively fly to Paris and take the train from Gare Montparnasse, which is less than an hour and costs Fr364 for the basic return.
Where to stay
Accommodation is booked up months in advance for the 24 Hours but the tourist office can place visitors in the French equivalent of a B&B. There are also seven campsites near the course, only one of which can be booked in advance. Sites cost Fr200 for the week of 1 June to 7 June, or for any number of days within that period. Bookings cover car and tent or caravan and all passengers. If visiting later in the year, there is no shortage of accommodation as Le Mans is packed with small, often family- run hotels in the pounds 14-pounds 40 range, many of which are conveniently gathered around the main station. Most hotels have restaurants with competitively- priced set menus. Ibis Le Mans Centre, Quai Ledru-Rollin (02 43 23 18 23 Fax: 02 43 24 72) comes recommended by the locals. It is very close to Vieux Le Mans and is actually on the river. Rooms cost Fr295. Hotel Barbier, La Saladerie, 6 rue Barbier (02 43 28 11 03) is also close to old Le Mans and is between Fr100-Fr185 a room. The tourist office at Rue de l'Etoile (02 43 28 17 22; Fax 02 43 23 37 19) has a list of all hotels which it will happily send you.