Le Mans: Cobbles and Chrome

LeMans, France, once capital of Maine and currently prefecture of the Sarth, is certainly most famous for its intoxicating mid-summer 24-hour race. Steadily gaining notoriety since its beginning in 1906, and guaranteed legend status by the invention of the now-defunct Le Mans start, the event instantly calls to mind the image of drivers scrambling across the tarmac, leaping into their cars and roaring off. “Gentlemen,” the loudspeaker would boom and crackle, “start your engines!”

This Ville-vivifying auto circuit is slightly preceded by a less well known but still exhilarating 24-hour motorcycle competition and followed by a similarly and perhaps even less well known truck race. Each of these things fills the town with festive tone and throngs of folks.

Le Mans, as mostly a mostly modern and much industrialized center of approximately 130,000 souls is about an hour and fifty minutes from Paris. Along an imaginary line between the City of Lights and Nantes, Le Mans is slightly more than midway between the two. Present day Le Mans offers tourists two interesting areas of antithetical character: the complex of tracks, designed for state-of-the-art machinery, and Vieux, or “Old” Mans, built on ancient Roman foundations and regal in it’s timelessness. We loved living in a charming, tiny apartment in Vieux Mans, being introduced to the city or hopping on the TGV for a weekend in Paris. 

24 Heures de Mans

“The first Le Mans race was put on by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest in 1923. The race was a test of fortitude that sprung forth as a result of the French’s nationwide enthusiasm for automobiles. The 10.7 mile course was created in the streets of Le Mans, and called the Circuit de la Sarthe, for the river Sarthe. . . .”

Well across town from “Vieux” Mans lies the many acre complex associated with the big daylong circuit. It features a larkable go-cart track and a car museum with a fine collection, including a police cruiser from Lafayette Louisiana! As a center of activity so closely tied to men and cars, the history of Le Mans extends back to the very invention of the internal combustion engine. Indeed, a four-lane tunnel sliced through a hill over-topped by the old city, is named for Wilbur Wright to commemorate the Wright brothers’ work with French inventers. Not every American knows that there is controversy about who flew the first airplane, with Americans, French, and Brazilians all blazing that trail. 

According to reports, “Wilbur, between August 1908 and January 1909, made more than one hundred demonstration flights in France at Le Mans and Pau. He took up 60 passengers including the first woman to fly (Mrs. Hart Berg, whose husband had put the Weiller syndicate together), astounding spectators and bringing on instant fame.”

Back then, aircraft had a fascination for young engineers and inventors, with theorists working helter-skelter to wring power from petroleum, develop aircraft, and work on the refinement of engines. Aircraft, not cars, were on the cutting edge back then. The BMW logo is “supposed” to represent, after all, the image of a whirling prop. In fact, this urban legend springs from a transient, popular use in advertising, opportunistic because of the place aircraft had in fashion in the short term, and is not a valid reading of the overall logotype.  In any event, the perhaps apocryphal story is that the Wright brothers planned to remain in France and do business there until the balked at the Gaulish requests to grease palms and the Franc approach to legalities. His Yankee honesty (or at least frugality) unblemished.

While the Wright brothers were perfecting their catapult-launched plane, Brazilian aristocrat, Alberto Santos- Dumont (working in France) went aloft un-aided. Thus the controversy about “who flew first.” Louis Cartier made a watch for his friend Alberto, who supposedly wore it every time he flew. Apparently, while swilling bubbly at a Paris bistro the flyer complained to the jeweler about the PITA of pulling his pocket watch out while in the clouds. 

“The heir of a wealthy family of coffee producers, Santos-Dumont dedicated himself to aeronautical study and experimentation in Paris, where he spent most of his adult life. In his early career he designed, built, and flew hot air balloons and early dirigibles, culminating in his winning the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize on 19 October 1901 for a flight that rounded the Eiffel Tower. He then turned to heavier-than-air machines . . . “

With his flamboyant personality, good looks, fine fashion sense, and ample cash, Alberto was a celebrity throughout Europe. His beautiful Cartier watch – aside from the Tank my favorite – became equally famous. Looking at pictures of Alberto in newspapers, the public apparently asked, “What is that strapped to his wrist?” The answer was a watch. Instead of a cumbersome pocket watch, Alberto wore a wristwatch affixed by a comfortable leather strap and secured with a small buckle. Though Patek Phillip invented the wristwatch, women mainly wore it until Santos made the wristwatch a man’s watch, achieving another first. Obviously, this story contrasts vividly with Hemingway’s narrative that the wristwatch was invented by Mark Cross (a fine good leather company based in New York) who “invented” the wristwatch for WW1 artillery officers.  Airplanes, wristwatches, and so on aside.

According to a feature in GQ, ” . . . the Santos’ case was seemingly inspired by a square pocket watch Cartier had produced, but its highly legible dial design talks directly to the move away from art nouveau towards the art deco style that would define the Twenties and Thirties.  Unsurprisingly, its “rounded square” case was conceived to be robust and it’s said the screws that secure the glass were intended to recall the legs of Gustave Eiffel’s tower. Similarly, the blackened Roman numerals suggest the radial layout of Paris’ centre-ville, the global marker for urban improvement devised by Baron Haussmann in the 1850s.”

Central Complex: Motor Sport, Le Mans

In addition the go karts, and the museum, the Le Mans motorsport complex hosts a dirt  motorcycle area, aerodrome, and sailplane field, the museum mentioned, and a considerable space for radio-controlled, model autos and aircraft. Just beyond the track’s stands (for the main event’s spectators) and inboard, toward city center, is the modern “Parc des Expositions” which hosts a variety of special events, not all-motor sport related. A hippodrome is nearby. In spite of it claim to be “Sport of Kings” the thunder of horse’s hooves at the hippodrome is no competition for the incredible growl of automobiles churning around the curves during the twenty-four hours of the annual endurance race.

At the apex of the 24-hour frenzy, the track area burgeons with visitors after the fashion of New Orleans’s Mardi Gras or the festival in Rio. Savvy racegoers make sure they arrive several days early for the weigh-in and the trials. Less crowded and more interesting, the weigh-in alone allows relatively close-up viewing of the autos in pristine, hand-rubbed condition – before the aerodynamic bodies become streaked with road grime and smeared with swaths of partly combusted fuel.  During trials, which are free of the gas management regulations binding cars in the race, the autos run something like flat out, struggling for a competitive pole slot. 

Amid a shattering cacophony of machine noise, the cars rip along this track, out along the rural circuit lined with eager viewers standing on the roadside, back into the Sarthe loop. Regular road signs along the way are unbolted and flipped over to reveal race signage that counts down the distance to the next turn. Roaring cars first enter your view brightly lit with sunlight gleaming from their eggshell-thin bodies. Later, they appear as dim shapes carrying glowing headlamps through the night’s gloom and eventually – for the hardy few following the race all day – as pale shapes in the dawn.  Nearing each curve unseen drivers shift, break, dodge, and weave over the black ribbon while sooty exhaust cakes along their sides and rear, low long the bodywork, powdering in a thick dark smudge over bright color. Routinely, flames detonate from thigh-thick exhaust tubes with deceleration, tuned pipes screaming out the throaty music of their tribe up and down the scale. 

Smoothly, remorselessly, unless some part fails or tragedy strikes, the savage whine climes up and down each step in volume as curves are negotiated, passed, exited, approached; the process continuing through each curve, round the course, through a day. Each lap, each hour. 

Back at the stands on the central concourse, competitors shoot by bleachers, noise an ever changing thrum and blend of engine bursts, cadences, clatters, and growls larded with loudspeaker announcements. The result all makes the Le Mans 24-hour endurance test difficult to surpass in terms of costs, drivers, cars, numbers, and prestige. However, though it’s still not the only event at the setting.

Other Men, Other Machines

On many weekends during the year, the complex throbs with activity. Visitors sitting on the earth ridge around two-fifths of the kart track can watch the heats begin, watch the runners pushing low-slung karts out into the stream of whining, ratcheting vehicles weaving their Castrol ® tapestries on the afternoon breezes. Overhead a small plane may drone by, followed closely by the graceful, silent shape of a sailplane. The sailplane’s wings are longer, narrower and much more fragile looking than those on the thoroughly business like tow plane to which it is momentarily tethered. Later, the air buzzes as the improbable shape of an ultra light aircraft dawdles by. The air also carries, intermittently, coughing-crackle of motorcycles form another segment of the center. 

Unfortunately the noise, glamor, and excitement generated by the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race overshadows nearby Vieux Mans, which otherwise might get more press coverage. 

Vieux Mans

If one assumes the rail station in Le Mans as the nominal center, Vieux Mans, the Old City, lies to the north; southeast leads to the complex of tracks and competitive loops. Immediately in front of the statin, Avenue General Le Clerc begins. It makes an approximate right angle “T” intersection with Boulevard de la Gare. A brisk stroll down Le Clerc, named for the notable French general, leads to the Place de la Republic, a circular drive rimmed by official buildings, the tourist office, the post office and so on. 

Old Town, Cathedral St Julien

That walk to the Place is through a variety of architecture, primarily recent. Continue north, however, and very shortly the densely heaped bulk of the old city looms into view. Stairs allow access; very narrow and lumpily cobbled streets prevent all but limited use by cars, utility and delivery work being performed by tiny-but-sufficient Renault 4 trucklets. The small city overlooks the Sarthe on the west and includes the towering pile of the Cathedral Saint-Julien with its unique “swallow tail” buttresses, piercing the ancient wall on the north. The place’s history is garlanded in commerce, war, and political infighting. 

Although there was no accounting for taste even way back then among the populations of contrary and primitive barbarian tribes, the practical choices were clear. The people atop the walls could, and when the occasion warranted it, did, pour cauldrons of molten lead, flaming tar, or boiling brews of excremental potage on those below – presumably an enemy. And gravity, with its implacable natural law, did much of the labor involved is shooing away and routing would be assailants, at least one hoped. The hill itself, upon which Vieux Mans is settled, is not especially impressive. However, fortified by Roman engineering, the labor of indigenous personnel, and perhaps the convincing swish of the cat-o-nine-tails, the regional stronghold developed. Towers were thrown up. The natural scarp, modified to an oblique angle and hard-faced with a cordon of brick and stone, provided protection as the needs of the population center developed within. 

Romans On the Sarthe

Vieux Mans, the Old Town. Our charming apartment was up these steps and to the right, along the cobbles.

Near the end of the third century, the Romans had caused eh Celtic owners of the hilltop to decamp with alacrity and be off, presumably under the traditional hail of unintelligible Latin taunts and lithic ordnance. They consolidated local authority about Cenomanum (Le Mans’ early moniker) and constructed the curtain wall. Parts of the impressive effort are still visible in remnants of the thing, built of alternating and often-patterned courses of brick and stone in, curiously, pink colored concrete. 

Vieux Mans is small. A walk around the whole place would probably take no more than an hour, including pauses not and then to point out the most amusing motifs in the masonry, the most bizarre attributes of the admittedly strangely-tapered towers, and the unique “Y” shaped flaying buttressing supporting the soaring pile of Saint Julien.  

Folks in there forties who grew up in Le Mans comment on the changes within the walls and towers of Old Town. A long period of general decay deemed to fetch up thirty or so years ago. “Wen I was younger,” one man said,” the place had a bad reputation: low rent, a warren peopled by poor, itinerant Portuguese laborers, hookers leaning against door jams half-naked in the shadows to ‘fait votre pipe,’ and seamy little café’ s. “ Now however, a period of “gentrification” and “rehabilitation matures, changing the overall tone and preserving the historic architecture. Indeed, this is essentially what took place in New Orleans French Quarter and in Baton Rouge’s Spanish Town, both of which were cheap bohemias, homes for artists and whores before being saved from the wrecker’s ball. 

Now the charming Old Town’s buildings show clearly the result of refurbishment, rebuilding, and heavy investment – their income producing status. It’s considered locally to contain the most costly apartments and is dotted with attractive boutique creperies, cafés, couscous places, and restaurants. 

A stroll around the Gallo-Roman wall impresses visitors with its age and curious aspect. Walking along the handful of narrow cobbled streets, which drain down the middle and gleam in the not infrequent Le Mans showers, provide visitors with a host of visual treats. Inside rehabbing ranges from seamless plastering, plastic veneer, and gaudy murals to a good airing, a quick sweep and a new set of light bulbs. Out side the result, in conformation to French code, are more uniform. The facades tend to be rich with a lexicon of medieval and renaissance effects. Very typical are staggered and timbered fronts, the nogging aglow in pink or red, as well as heavily carved wood timberwork, sturdy looking corbels, big beams, incised columns, and decorated tablets and capitals. There’s a handful of bartizans, a number of old stonework stairways and a parcel of bare ground being carefully logged by archaeologists. 

The Old and the New

The rosy fingered dawn . . . . but never very quite for long, as speedy machines roar along the track.

On race day, the track noises carry into the Old Town, reduced to a buzz on the wind. Looking about, seeing the external work performed at Le Mans, it looks good. One does feel inclined to wonder where the replacement parts come from, where the heaps of needed architectural details were sourced, perhaps, literally dug up. What seedy old neighborhoods were harvested to give Vieux Mans its face-lift, if any?

Few events can inflame the passion as can the grueling round-the-clock race in Le Mans, France: man, machine, nation and industrial giants in heated competition for the fluttering checkered flag. But walking the narrow, cobbled byways of Vieux Mans can stoke the perhaps dormant furnace of romance. 

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