DRIFT PAST THE CITY OF SPEED
Arriving in Le Mans by way of its ring road you could be forgiven for thinking you should be going much faster than you are. Or, at the very least, revving the engine loudly to mimic some high-performance super-charged motor.
It's all down to the fact that part of the road which runs around this bustling city also forms part of the famous circuit used for the Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race.
But we were venturing into the very heart of Le Mans. It was something we had never done before, always previously seeming to be en route to somewhere else, which meant bypassing what actually makes this place tick.
Getting into the middle of cities, large towns, even villages in France is a doddle, directionally speaking, as all you have to do is head for "Centre Ville". There's no need for sat-navs. So we were parked up in next to no time, slap bang in the centre, where, after a fine lunch in the rather trendy La Réserve, we met up with Natalie, our guide for the rest of the afternoon.
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She took us back in time, literally, because Le Mans has a fascinating old quarter, the location for many period movies, and most of it radiates from the streets surrounding the impressive 13th- century cathedral.
This area also stands atop the best preserved sections of ancient Roman walls in Europe.
Parking is both generous and cheap... though they also have a fully operational tram system, too. Eat your heart out, Bristol!
And, yes, there is also a museum dedicated to the Le Mans 24 Hours where you can ogle some fab motors.
Our Le Mans visit was part of a four-day stay in the surrounding region, Sarthe, named after the picture postcard river which runs through it. Our "home" for the first couple of nights was the village of Solesmes, about an hour from Le Mans. It's a quiet, charming riverside community, and our hotel, the Grand Hotel de Solesmes, occupied centre stage on one side of the main street.
Step outside and at regular intervals you will hear bells. Not intrusive at all, they emanate from the vast abbey nearby – you can also attend Vespers to hear the monks singing their plainsong and Gregorian chants.
Our vast hotel room was delightful with a double balcony and extremely comfortably kitted out, including one of the best beds I have ever slept on.
But it got even better when you ventured down to the dining room, with delights such as asparagus- stuffed quail, French lamb, and a superb selection of cheeses.
The second evening we headed into Solesmes' big neighbour Sable-sur-Sarthe to eat al fresco alongside the cobbled streets at Le Restaurant St Martin, just down from the town's impressive chateau, standing in a vantage point above that river again.
It really is glorious countryside in this part of northern France, wooded, undulating hills, deep green, lush, meadows, while through it all runs the great river from which so many communities, large and small, take their name.
Industries, fine pottery being one, have grown up around the river, which provided a convenient waterway for transporting goods to an eager market. These days it's strictly leisure, with everything from kayaks to day cruisers and full- blown vessels you can spend a fortnight on, drifting from town to village to restaurant and bar.
As a consequence, these places know the true meaning of a watering hole and some of the best eating places are waterside.
The pretty riverside town of Malicorne, famous for its faience, or pottery, is one. Pottery has been made here for centuries and continues to be. The town museum dedicated entirely to this industry explains all you need to know and there's a shop with some tempting pieces on offer. They don't come cheap, though.
On our last day we headed to Sillé-le-Guillaume, still following the river Sarthe. En route we stopped at Asnières, a medieval village which was just about as picture perfect as it gets. High above the village is the fascinating Mosaic Garden, totally organic and created from old farmland. Asnières also contains a fabulous secret which will lie undiscovered unless you venture into the totally unassuming, yet incredibly ancient, village church.
Inside are some of the earliest wall frescos you'll ever clap eyes on, complete with explanatory literature in perfect English, revealing what each piece of art means.
A great place. Could we top it?
Well, Sillé-le-Guillaume, the last stop, had a jolly good go.
We rested that night at the charming hotel Le Bretagne, where the cooking is done by chef Jean-Marie Fontaine – and not just the cooking; all the jams, pickles and preserves come bursting out of the kitchen, too, and are for sale.
It was welcoming, comfy... and the meal, well, that was about as good as it gets. Full to bursting doesn't come close.
Our visit coincided with the French equivalent of Open Doors Day and this town is dominated by a vast castle, slap bang in the middle.
Up the highest of its towers we went to the very top, and, as we breathlessly took the last step into the immense bell chamber, guess what, they rang. Somehow it seemed a particularly appropriate finale to a glorious few days away, dominated by the sound of bells.
For a range of ideas for holidaying in the Sarthe area visit www.tourisme-en-sarthe.com. Brittany Ferries (www.brittanyferries.com or 0871 244 1400) has return channel crossings from £89pp for a car and two passengers.
And check out the Grand Hôtel de Solesmes at grandhotelsolesmes.com; The Le Mans 24 Hours museum at www.centre-culturel-de-la- sarthe.com/ musee/musee-des-24-heures; the Malicorne Pottery Museum at www.espacefaience.fr; the Mosaic Garden at www.lejardinmosaique.com; the Hôtel Le Bretagne in Sillé-le-Guillaume at www.hotelsarthe.com.