Driving into Le Mans on Wednesday, my wife and I were pleased to observe, scuttling towards us on the opposite side of the road, an elderly open-topped sports car with a man at the wheel wearing an old-style crash helmet, complete with goggles. It was an appropriate introduction to a city best known for motor-racing, especially the gruelling Circuit du 24 Heures, which in June this year celebrates its one-hundredth anniversary.

Le Mans will be resolutely en fete in the run-up to the big race, dominated in its early days by Bentley and in the 1950s by Jaguar. The British made their mark early, with victory by Dudley Benjafield and Sammy Davis in 1927, but it was their countryman Derek Bell who was the breakout star, winning five times, usually at the helm of a Porsche, between 1975 and 1987.

At this point, I should come clean and admit that I am not a big fan of motor racing. Formula 1 means nothing to me, though I have been vaguely pleased to note the progress of Lewis Hamilton over the last ten years or so. But the Le Mans 24 has always had an aura of glamour about it. I don’t know why. So as Louisa and I drove into the race’s host city, it was disconcerting to be forced to remain in first and second gear most of the time as a combination of road works and the evening rush-hour reduced traffic to a crawl.

Racing cars aside, Le Mans up until 14 November 1940 might best have been compared to Coventry, the one-time jewel of the English Midlands. The two cities ­– both of them closely bound to the fortunes of the Plantagenet dynasty and its successors – reached their peak in the late Middle Ages, boasting impressing arrays of architectural gems, religious and civic. But whereas Coventry was destroyed in a relentless ten-hour blitz by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, Le Mans survived down the centuries more or less intact.

Today, Le Cité Plantagenêt is a delight that ought to be much better known. The cathedral, surrounded by cobbled streets and half-timbered houses, is dominated from the outside by its tower, a monstrous construction that looks as if it was modelled after a particularly robust castle keep. But the rest of the building is delicately poised, as if held together on a wing and a prayer. The flying buttresses and stained glass are remarkable, owing their provenance in part to Henry II of England, born in Le Mans and a frequent visitor.

The rest of the old town, looking down on the fast-flowing Sarthe River across walls dating back to the late Roman period, is exactly as higgledy-piggledy as you would hope. The bars are full of locals and the restaurants – no strangers to hearty meat dishes – seemed to me cheerfully staffed and reasonably priced.

But lest I sound like I’ve been handed a freebie by the town council, I should add that the Le Mans of the twenty-first century is for the most part undistinguished. At some point in the 1960s and ’70s, it was obviously decided that a city-centre makeover was required, resulting in a profusion of dull, Lego-inspired buildings, mostly the colour of cement and brick dust that line the French equivalent of contemporary English high streets.

But, as in England, the 1980s and ’90s witnessed something of a return to form. The courthouse and (however improbably) the new downtown shopping mall, are welcome additions to the landscape, unlike the dreary Place de la République on which a handful of strikers gathered on Thursday to mark the latest so-called Day of Action protesting the planned rise in the age of retirement from 62 to – gasp! – 64.

The reason we were in Le Mans in February was to attend a funeral. The father of a good friend from Paris had died after a long illness and we were invited to attend what proved to be an entirely secular event in the company of fifty or more Manceaux and Mancelles. The mood was alternately sombre and upbeat, as is the way with such things. Our friend was saying goodbye to a parent but was glad to have spent his father’s last hours holding his hand and, as it happened, making peace with his brothers.

I have just three recommendations to make for anyone contemplating a weekend in Le Mans. Ignore the Michelin Guide, just take pot-luck. You will not be disappointed. Stay at L’Hotel Particulier, with its beautifully appointed rooms and subterranean swimming pool, where you will be warmly welcomed by the owner, Cécile Bayon. And enjoy a pint or two of Guinness at the ever-lively Lodge Irish bar, which has nothing Irish about it but is none the worse for that.

Just don’t come in June unless you’re a racing fan. Parp-parp!

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