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France

A trip to see the historic car race Circuit des Ramparts in Angoulême also leaves time for exploration.



MY HUSBAND, DAVID, rushed to the window, threw it open and peered over the balcony of our Airbnb. “What are you looking at?” I said. He pointed out a 1930s Bugatti. Then another gasp when he spotted a 1969 Renault Alpine, just like the one he owns.

We had come to Angoulême, in the southwestern region of Charente in France, to celebrate David’s 50th birthday. He is a car enthusiast, not of all cars, but mainly European cars that pre-date 1975. David was bitten by the bug as a child growing up in England, watching his father tinker with old steam cars and peeking into the local mechanic’s garage, which bought and sold Renault Alpines.

We had set out from San Francisco for Angoulême to see the Circuit des Remparts, a historic car race and event that takes place over three days in September. After the race weekend was finished we spent six days driving around France. Although we saw plenty of other attractions, our itinerary was inspired by historic racetracks, including Le Mans and Reims-Gueux.

The town of Angoulême is about three hours south of Paris by TGV train, a ride that includes views of drab suburbs, rolling hills and small villages. The train station lies just below the plateau of the historic city center, and after a short taxi ride up a steep hill and around a maze of one-way streets we arrived at our apartment, where we had a view of the town hall built in the 13th century. We also realized that our Airbnb was directly across from the race paddock and at turns one and two of the course. Race action could easily be seen from the kitchen and living room windows. We would be waking up to the sounds and smells of engines roaring — it was the perfect start to David’s birthday.

Angoulême is a walled city overlooking the Charente River. The ramparts that protected the city date back to the fourth century, and many sections are still intact. The Circuit des Remparts began in 1939 but racing was suspended during World War II and didn’t start again until 1947; since then the race has been held annually. It is a street circuit, not unlike Monaco, and one of the last street races in France. The track is short, just under a mile long, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in drama. There are steep hairpin turns on the old city streets and the cars zoom by houses with only a small sidewalk and low metal barriers as separation.

We watched the Concours d’Elegance, the red carpet for cars, where contestants show off their vintage vehicles and dress in period costumes that correspond to the year the car was built. The day before the race, the pedestrian streets of the shopping district were lined with hundreds of cars — some part of the race, others belonging to local enthusiasts or people who had taken part in the half-day rally around the countryside. We saw everything, from autos in mint condition to ones with a well-worn patina — there were Rileys, Jaguars, Citroëns, Renaults and so many more.

Before the race, we walked along part of the track and found ourselves enjoying all the town had to offer beyond racing. Aside from the Circuit des Remparts, Angoulême hosts a big comic book convention each year and, as a result, there are many colorful public murals throughout the city. We wandered narrow cobblestone streets looking in various shops and stumbled on the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême, a Romanesque-style church built around the 11th century, as well as Les Halles, an old indoor marketplace full of fresh produce, cheeses, meats and flowers.

The Big Race

Finally, race day was upon us. It was overcast and rain seemed not far off as we made our way to the track and found our seats. The stand was full of Brits who held season tickets and seemed to make this an annual event. David and I were seated at one of the sharpest hairpin turns on the course. While David was excited, I was a reluctant spectator as the rain started fall. But to my surprise, after the action started, I was as enthralled as everyone around me.

There are various race classes and each running is not very long, so it makes for a fast-paced and exciting day. Watching these old cars from the turn of the century with no power steering and huge levers to change gears, you can practically see the sweat of the drivers as they try to make the narrow turns. I oohed and aahed, cheered and cringed along with the crowd. As the afternoon winds on, so does the era of cars racing. Once you reach the late ’60s you have the thrill of Renaults and Porsches competing against each other and overtaking one another in the turns. The small cars, which included Minis, emitted sounds like giant mosquitoes as they buzzed around the course.

We never found out who won each race, but it didn’t really matter; just being a part of the experience left us entranced and almost not wanting to leave for the next part of our trip. But as the race drivers were packing up their gear and cars, we found ourselves ready for the next adventure.

Time to Explore

After leaving Angoulême we had a full itinerary for the next six days. David had lived in Toulouse and traveled around much of France, but I had never seen any part of France aside from Paris and a brief weekend in Saint-Malo when I was 14. I was excited to explore more of the country.

Images below, clockwise from top left: drivers’ meeting; a mural; a line of Jaguars; Cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême.

Our ambitious plan over the week would take us through the Lot region, which is full of hilltop towns, limestone cliffs and canyons, then across the Dordogne to La Rochelle along the Atlantic coast. After La Rochelle we planned a pit stop in Le Mans and then a couple of nights in Rouen. Our last day would include a stop in Reims to see a deserted but well-preserved old racetrack on the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport.

With a map in hand so we could find the smaller roads and see the entirety of our circuit around France, we headed to a small town called Calès, where I had booked a bed-and-breakfast.

In my guidebook I had read about Moulin de Latreille, which was run by an English couple, Fi and Giles Stonor. They had, over a period of years, restored a 12th-century mill into an inviting and self-sustaining B&B. To get there we drove through the small village of Calès down a narrow, one-way track into a limestone valley. Fi and Giles were wonderful hosts. We arrived in the late afternoon and they were ready with two glasses of rosé. We were one of two couples staying there. Our room, under which the mill run flowed as it had done for hundreds of years, was peaceful and beautifully furnished.

There are many attractions in the area south of Calès. Unfortunately, we only had one full day to sightsee, so we headed straight for the spectacular town of Rocamadour. This ancient pilgrimage site and village clings to a sheer vertical cliff below 14th-century ramparts. We had lunch at the top of the plateau that overlooked the valley with a storybook view that I will never forget. From there we took the backroads to the hillside village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. Due to the number of tourists, parking is a short drive away, but the walk from there offers views over the valley and the River Lot. The town is full of narrow pedestrian walkways and many of the old houses are now occupied by various artists’ shops.

Coastal Beauty

We set off early the next morning. We were sad to leave the tranquility of Moulin de Latreille, but we had a long day of driving through the Dordogne to reach the Atlantic coast and La Rochelle.

I booked a room on the fly in La Rochelle as we stopped for lunch in Bergerac. The guidebook described the hotel as “charming, with individually decorated rooms from the art deco period” and a “good value for the location.”

By the time we reached La Rochelle after driving for six hours we were ready for anything. As we pulled into the shaded, gravel courtyard of the hotel, I thought, “not bad for booking on the fly.” But the hotel was like something out of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. There was no log lady, but there was a cat lady and not too many people beyond that. In fact, aside from the owner and the cat lady, it felt like we were the only other people staying in this large, run-down place. But the guidebook was right, the location was perfect. Once again, we found ourselves in the heart of the city center, and right next to the waterfront. We spent the next day exploring this old port city with its beautiful limestone facades and medieval- and Renaissance-style buildings.

Heading North

Images right, clockwise from top left: The town of Rocamadour; La Rochelle; Saint-Cirq-Lapopie; remains of the Reims-Gueux race circuit; Gros Horloge, a 14th-century astronomical clock; Moulin de Latreille.

After too brief a stay in La Rochelle, we headed up to the Normandy region and to Rouen. Before reaching Rouen, we stopped for lunch in Le Mans — location of one of the oldest endurance car races, held there annually since 1923.

After lunch, we drove to Rouen, where we would spend the next two nights. Driving from southern to northern France, one could see the change in the architecture. I was lucky enough to be able to explore the old town while David went in search of old cars. Despite damage caused by World War II bombing raids, Rouen has a robust historic center. Here were well-preserved half-timber houses, cobblestone streets and buildings so close together that daylight didn’t reach the ground. There was the immense Cathedral of Notre Dame, a shining example of Gothic architecture. Not to be missed was the Gros Horloge, a 14th-century astronomical clock. Everything was within easy walking distance, and there were plenty of sidewalk cafes to sit in and watch the world go by. The town also features a thriving open-air food and antiques market on Saturdays and Sundays.

Our trip had started with a vintage car race, so it seemed only fitting it should end at a racetrack. We headed to Reims, not for Champagne, which is what the town is known for, but instead to see a relic of a bygone era of racing: the Reims-Gueux race circuit. The circuit was first used in 1925; many years later it was the site of the French Grand Prix, and between 1950 and 1966 it held Formula One races. What remains of the Reims-Gueux race circuit are the grandstands, timing tower and roadside pits. A group called Les Amis du Circuit-Gueux have helped restore it. The buildings lie in the middle of open fields with very few trees, and a long straight two-lane road bisects the area. It felt deserted and yet peaceful. Very few cars passed or even stopped while we were there. And while I would probably have preferred sipping some of the best Champagne the region had to offer, this reluctant race enthusiast was awed by it and all that France had to offer.

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