Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Trip of a Lifetime

It Begins!

Long ago, if you had told me that my first, perhaps only trip to Europe would start with a 24 hour automotive endurance race, I'd have told you "Of course silly, I'm married to Jim Miller.  How else am I going to entice him to Europe?"  What I wouldn't have known was what a blast it would be!  Some criteria for this assessment included:  
On the front straight after the race.

Could I have had this experience in the United States? 
No, I could not.  First of all there were hundreds of thousands of attendees and most of them camped for most of the week and by my casual observation drank heavily the whole time.  There were no bag checks whatsoever and people brought in amazing quantities of alcohol.  There were also a wide range of motor bikes, scooters, and bicycles that were let in and driven through crowds with abandon.  Apparently people don't worry as much about getting sued.

25 men to every woman meant
the men's room line was WAY longer
than the women's.
Were there amazing things to see? 
There certainly were!  The best thing of all would have to be the mobs of race fans at the local mega-supermarket buying supplies.  Ladies, this is the kind of thing that would happen everywhere if we were not around.  On average there were groups of six to eight men pushing three to four carts loaded with the following items:  One cart filled so full of cases of beer they needed a spotter, one filled halfway with more beer and the other half Red Bull, and the remaining cart space filled with sausages and meat, cheese, bread, liquor and/or wine, and perhaps a little water.  Forget partying with these folks, I couldn't even grocery shop with them!

The view from our seats.

Did I enjoy the race itself? 
Not as much as my husband, but it had some exciting moments, and he was gracious in explaining some of the nuances which made it more entertaining.  We also bought grandstand seats under an awning, across from a huge monitor (there were many around the approximately eight mile track) so we did have some creature comforts.  I mainly enjoyed the race because he enjoyed the race and he was among his own kind.  Did I mention that Sunday June 17 was both his 60th birthday AND Father's Day?  Talk about getting a lot of bang for you buck!

What we did see of Le Mans
was lovely, old, and quaint.
Was I disappointed that we only did things related to the race? 
Nope, because I decided right away that I was going to enjoy it for what it was.  We showed up on Wednesday June 13 (the race ran from 3 pm Saturday to 3 pm Sunday), hung out at the track with mobs of people on Thursday (that day and evening there were cars on the track practicing and qualifying), went to the big parade through the town on Friday (in the driving rain, no less), and then the race the next day.  The parade went through the old part of town (the track is on the outskirts, just a tram ride away), and so we were near a lot of picturesque sites, but we didn't spend time there.
Not bad for an "after a 24 hour race" picture.

Do I feel bad that we didn't spend the full 24 hours at the track? 
We tried, but we ended up going to our hotel around 4 am for a nap, shower, and breakfast.  I recommend this highly, if for no other reasons than you will have better end of race photos of yourself.  

 Do I have any advice to other people who might get dragged along?  Why yes I do!
  • Get a travel agent that knows the area and have him set you up with a hotel (our criteria was clean and safe, not fancy) and train tickets from the airport to Le Mans. We briefly toyed with renting a car and driving from Paris to Le Mans and to the race, but the regional trains are excellent and Le Mans has a good, reliable tram that will drop you right at the gate, and traffic is busy and parking is hard to find. He also steered us right on hotels that serve breakfast (we were doubtful at first) and on trip insurance. We went to Freedom Tours and worked with Douglas Schroeder. We spoke on the phone first and then he arranged the trip with our priorities in mind. His experiences and recommendations really helped us get the most out of our trip and I cannot recommend him more highly!
  • Prepare for this event as though it were a camping trip and just plan on lugging around some extra stuff the whole time. The weather we encountered was cooler and more changeable than we expected. Temperatures in the sixty to seventy degree range, overcast and breezy made it pretty cool for an outdoor event. We did not have warm enough clothes to spend the night, especially once the dew started settling on everything. We should have brought more substantial rain gear too. We brought some $4 emergency ponchos before we left which were fine for the rain at the parade, but would not have been enough had they been needed for any longer. Luckily it did not rain at all at the race, but Saturday morning started with driving rain and we were concerned. If you end up needing any of it, you might just save your once in a lifetime event.
  • Buy good shoes months in advance and break them in very well. You will be walking a lot! From the entrance to our grandstand, it was a 30 minute walk or more, and that was only if you walked fast. We never left the top 25% of the track and we probably walked two to four hours a day or more and stood for hours on end. I saw people wearing flip flops, cute sandals, and high heels, but I don't know how they did it.
  • Bring a compass. This was a suggestion that I almost didn't follow, but if you are going to an unfamiliar city and you don't speak the language, a map and a compass can keep you sane. We got off the regional train in Le Mans and realized we hadn't taken a detailed enough map to get us to our hotel. We wandered aimlessly for a while looking for a cab. It soon became obvious that we weren't going to find a cab, so with the help of a tourist billboard and our compass, we were able to figure out where we needed to go. It would have been so embarrassing had we caught a cab, because our hotel was less than two very tiny blocks from where we were waiting for a cab. The compass also settled a number of arguments once we got to Paris.
  • Buy your race tickets early. The race was in mid June, and many of the tickets were sold out when we bought them from the official website in January. There are travel agents who specialize in this event and in package deals, but we were not willing to spend the kind of money that would have cost. We spent a few days researching the ticket options, and purchased them with a credit card so as to have some protection if there were any problems. The ACO has an English site, but it having never dealt with anything like this, we wanted to be cautious. Check out the official website in english.
As much as I liked Le Mans, I LOVED Paris, but more about that later!

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