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When we told our Martizay neighbor Annie we were going to Le Mans for a few days (Tom was interested. Something about a race museum?), she asked us, politely, if indeed we had seen all the great chateaux of the Loire yet? We took this to mean that Le Mans is a dump.

LOUISE WRITES: Two train legs after we departed we arrived at a fairly ordinary, modernish city with an old town called Vieux Mans (Old Mans), or le Cite Plantagenet, which is one square mile of medieval buildings, including over a hundred half-timbered houses. Most are from the 14th Century and many had been painted in their original red, green, and blue. The neighborhood is circled by one of Europe’s oldest extant Roman walls. The quarter is so well preserved that it was used as the movie set for Cyrano de Bergerac, The Man in the Iron Mask, Moliere, and assorted Hitchcockian epics.

TOM WRITES: Neighbors can be such an influence. As Louise said, after talking with the locals, we approached Le Mans with the enthusiasm one reserves for rabid dogs and stale Gorgonzola. But I’m a motorhead and being this close to Le Mans was just too much of a temptation: Ferry Porsche! Graham Hill! Steve McQueen!!

Guess what? I loved it there! And surprisingly, the race museum wasn’t what I loved the most.

LOUISE WRITES: The centerpiece is St. Julien Cathedral, (the current version dates back to the 12th Century) on a sacred space from 4000 BC. The Cathedral is roughly the size of Delaware and is so spectacularly high-naved that people gasp when they walk in. It has one of the oldest stained glass windows in France, and on the outside, scores of flying buttresses make it all possible.

As we walked through, two men were dusting and tuning the organ, which required a construction fence and two months. The diocese wanted to get the big organ and its pipes in working order, because the really big organ would be out of commission for two years while it got its dusting. Pass the Pledge.

Gallery: Cathédrale St-Julien du Mans (click any image to enlarge)

TOM WRITES: But the Musée des 24 Heures du Mans was the destination and I was there—alone: automotive shrines aren’t high on Louise’s list—at precisely 11:00 AM when it opened. Aside from the two people ahead of me, I had the place to myself. To myself! Scores of Le Mans cars—not pristine, but road-worn from 24 hours at speed—lined up like chorus girls, some dating back to the 1920s when the race was first held. Take your time, Tom. Take all the pictures you want. Nobody is rushing you.

A few hours later, when I stepped onto the track itself, I could almost hear the scream of the race: cars coming down the straight at over 250 MPH, in the dark, in the rain! That’s Le Mans.

Gallery: Musée des 24 Heures du Mans (click any image to enlarge)

LOUISE WRITES: After strolling around Vieux Mans with our jaws agape, we took to more practical sightseeing, such as drinking wine at outdoor cafes, eating a zillion hamburgers (it’s been a while: hamburgers!) and cruising through charming shops full of whatnots. On my own, I managed to buy a pair of red Mephisto sneakers and some Chanel makeup at the French price. Worth the plane fare!

Louise models her new red Mephisto sneakers

Louise models her new red Mephisto sneakers

Worthy of note: while we were there, the sun came out bigtime and the earth warmed. So did Tom, who took his winter coat off for the first time in two and a half months. All in all, a terrific break from the farm.

TOM WRITES: What did I like best? That ancient city. No one told me that I’d find a city-within-a-city that would infuse my imagination like watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The cathedral alone is enough to provoke menacing images of gargoyles and catacombs. I could just imagine the streets on a dark, rainy night, the howls of werewolves echoing among the walls, Esmeralda’s screams as she’s shuffled away by Quasimodo, imminent death lingering in the air. Lordy I loved that place.

I must have lived a prior life in a medieval village. I walked the streets of Vieux Mans and felt comfortably at home. I’m surprised at that: As I said, I’m a motorhead, and there just weren’t a lot of motors around in the Middle Ages. Like Esmeralda and Quasimodo, my lives—past and present—are a dichotomy.

Gallery: Le Cite Plantagenet (click any image to enlarge)

A wheezing milk-stop train brought us home, its tinny little whistle announcing its arrival at every station. And that, somehow, captures the essence of Le Mans: screeching trains and screaming Porsches. Then and now.

That’s Le Mans.

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