Wednesday, September 07, 2011

24 hours of Le Mans – 27 August 2011

The morning was a total contrast to the day before, with brilliant sunshine. Our route to Le Mans went straight through the centre of the Loire Valley. We have visited here previously, but it is such a beautiful area, it was a pleasure to have a second visit. We decided to visit the gardens of Villandry again, as these were the highlight of our previous visit.
The gardens are laid out in a similar to the monk's gardens around their abbeys. All the vegetables are grown inside neatly ordered box hedges. Standard rose bushes around the gardens represent the monks at work. In front of the chateaux is a more formal box hedge garden, where each geometrical pattern tells a story – about love.

The grounds are extensive with more formal gardens behind, viewing platforms and a new gardens since we were last there – a sun garden full of gold, orange and yellow flowers; and a cloud garden with blue and silver flowers.

We passed a few more chateaux on our way north, before arriving at Le Mans. Murray was keen to visit the town, because of it's racing fame, but the town itself is also well worth a visit. The approach to the old town was past part of the original Roman city walls, said to be the best left in France, we were certainly impressed.
The Tourist Office staff were most helpful and gave us a map of the town, information on the 'Le Mans 24 Hour Race Circuit' and nearest camp site, 5k out of town. After admiring the old town, Cite Plantagenet, we found the campground and put up the wet shell of our tent. Unfortunately there was no food at the local village, so back to town we went.
This time, a poster on a large tower caught our eye, clearly they had buildings illuminated at night. The Tourist Office was still open, and told us it started at 9.30pm and lasted two hours. We had not paid the €20 deposit for a barrier pass at the campground, as we had expected to be home well before then, as we still had to finish setting up camp.
So while Christine researched the restaurant menus and made a selection, Murray went back to get a barrier pass. The office was most unhelpful and refused him one, saying the gate was locked at 10pm and a key did not allow entry. He tried to explain about the illuminations, but they couldn't/wouldn't understand.

Murray retuned empty handed and we set off for dinner, with the curfew time of 10pm to work to. By having time to research, we were able to avoid the obvious tourist traps, and found a small restaurant tucked away, with a good looking menu and much more reasonably priced than the tourist traps. It turned out to be another gourmet highlight. We explained our time constraint to the waiter, and he was extremely helpful in making sure we left in time. Our car was parked in front of the cathedral, so we were able to watch 5 minutes of illuminations there, before heading back to the camp ground.

As is always the way, when under pressure, we missed a turning, found the alternative road had a 'route barree' sign, then took a long way round that and got back about two minutes to ten. With the car in front of the barrier arm, there was no movement of the barrier, the office was closed, so no help there, a barrier card was clearly required for access.
We needed the car beside the tent to pump up the air-bed, so took the only option we had – manually, the barrier would lift up about 100mm, this was enough for our low sports car to sneak underneath! There are times when a lack of French can prove a problem! We discovered that at 10 pm, actual metal gates closed across the driveway, effectively locking the drive to all, including card-holders. But why she refused to sell a card, when she was about to close the office at 7.30pm, and Murray was obviously going out, is a mystery!

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