Theatre on a grand scale at Puy du Fou

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I hardly know where to begin to try to explain the Grand Parc of Puy du Fou (http://www.puydufou.com/en/). It is a theme park but without any rides. It is all about the history of the Vendée and is the second most visited amusement park in France after Disneyland Paris. And the chances are, unlike Disneyland, you’ve probably never heard of it. The same was true for us, but some friends of ours spent their summer holiday in this part of France earlier this year and they raved about it – “Best thing we’ve ever seen!” “Absolutely amazing!” “You have to see it to believe it!” – and so we had to go and see for ourselves.

The first thing I would say about it is that it is totally unique*. I’m not sure there’s anywhere else on earth where you could see a Viking longboat rise out of a lake, dozens of geese being herded around an arena, a man being chased by wild boars and a huge secretary bird stamping on a (fake) snake all in one day! It features hugely entertaining historical ‘shows’, that are large scale and mostly outdoors, with stunning visual effects and stunts, fantastic costumes and plenty of “how on earth did they do that?” moments!

[*At least this is what I thought until my friend Lisa told me they had been to a show in Bishop Aukland this summer called ‘Kynren’ that was inspired by Puy du Fou.
https://elevenarches.org/kynren/the-show]

As recommended (thanks Jen and Matt!), we had done our homework. At about 5pm the day before, the park releases a schedule of the main events so that you can plan your visit, although they do warn you that it is not possible to see everything in one day. On most days in the summer there are 7 main ‘performances’ each lasting about 30-40 minutes, and then on certain days there is a further special performance that they call the Cinéscénie for which you need separate tickets. We had already decided that we weren’t going to the Cinéscénie since it doesn’t start until 10:30pm and lasts for an hour and forty minutes and we knew that there is no way the children (or ourselves for that matter) could keep going from 8:30am when we would be leaving the campsite until nearly midnight! In any case we were told that it was sold out (you need to book months in advance) and so we concentrated our efforts on aiming to see as many of the big shows as possible and planned our schedule accordingly.

We arrived early and were quickly parked, along with the scores of other people flooding off the motorway. Just as at Disney, there were plenty of marshals showing you where you should leave your car; but that is where the similarity between the two parks ends! At Puy du Fou there is no surfaced car park with music and covered travellators to get you to the entrance. Who needs them – a field and a dusty path achieve the same result. On approaching the security check, there is no orderly queuing system with roped off lines like you find at Disney; you simply crowd towards the row of checkpoints, with everyone jostling and pushing to get through as quickly as they can. And the French have an interesting way of negotiating these ‘queues’ – they politely say ‘excuse moi’ and ‘pardon’ as they shove you out of the way and basically push in front of you! Coming from a country that is generally happy with the fairness of a proper queue, it is quite extraordinary to see. But the other French around us didn’t seem to be bothered by it at all and just moved aside a little to let people through, so maybe it is just the norm here!

And Puy du Fou is very French; we hardly saw (or heard) any other nationalities whilst we were there and all of the performances are delivered in French. The car parks at these venues are always very telling as to what mix of nationalities are visiting, and around us ALL of the cars were French. Apparently the park isn’t advertised outside France, so this is hardly surprising – they are obviously keeping this little gem to themselves!

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Magnificent birds

So, anyway, we finally got through security and the main gates and then were on our way, hot footing it across to the other side of the park to see our first performance, The Phantom Bird Dance. As I said before, all of the performances are in French and we didn’t have a clue what was going on during this one! You can hire a headset with an audio translation, but in actual fact we didn’t think it was necessary as the spectacle of the shows was enough in itself. In this one there were two beautiful maidens who were telling the story and a knight on horseback who passed by with a falcon sitting behind him on the back of the horse. At one point two wolves appeared and later a huge secretary bird stamped all over a plastic snake, to great applause, but the real stars of the show were the owls and birds of prey that swooped over our heads. They started out just a few at a time, appearing from behind the audience, who watched from two sides on steeply banked seating. They flew to handlers standing amongst the audience, who then transferred them to perches (or sometimes people’s heads!) before they took off again across the arena. Later, some of the larger birds were released from a balloon flying high above our heads. The characters in the story would point up into the air and we could see a tiny speck swirling around high in the sky. We watched as the bird then tucked its wings in and dived down to catch in mid-air a tasty morsel that had been thrown up for it by one of the handlers. These birds flew down at such a incredible speed your eyes could hardly keep up with them.

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We marvelled at how they had managed to train all of the birds to do this and that none of them seemed to fly off, although we did see a rogue barn owl fly down into the trees at the side of us. He stayed there for a while and then kept popping up across the stage at different points, long after the owls had all gone in! We couldn’t make out exactly what delicious treats the handlers had got stored in their leather pouches, but they seemed to be small and furry and were certainly worth the effort for the birds.

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Part of the Phantom Birds’ Dance at Puy du Fou

The show ended with literally hundreds of birds all swirling around our heads at once in a ‘ballet’ featuring kites, pelicans, storks, eagles, falcons, vultures and marabous. It was thrilling and dizzying to watch! And in the middle of it all, a paraglider flew overhead, followed by dozens of geese in a perfect triangular formation! “Wow!” we kept saying, as we watched, open mouthed. It seemed to go on for ages until finally the skies cleared and we made our way out, excited to see what else Puy du Fou had in store for us.

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Vikings arrive by longboat to invade the local village at Puy du Fou

Marauding Vikings

Following our schedule, we headed over to see The Vikings next. There were hundreds of people flooding in to the performance, but we didn’t have to queue and didn’t have any trouble getting a seat in the shade, which was important as it was now starting to get hot. The story here began with a marriage in a peaceful, happy French village by a beautiful lake. But then some monks brought some bad news and very soon a Viking longboat was sliding down a ramp, splashing into the water, followed by another one rising up from the lake. The Vikings attacked, tearing down a tower and setting fire to parts of the village. At one point a priest rose up out of the lake in a box and at that point I had no idea what was going on, but once again it didn’t matter. Mostly the general storyline was easy to work out. Watching this performance was rather like sitting in on the set of an action movie – there were people jumping off buildings or splashing into the lake, a horse on fire galloped across in front of us and there were some incredible pyrotechnics and special effects. In addition, the fighting was superbly choreographed and totally believable and we were completely absorbed in the action for the full 30 minutes!

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Other attractions

As well as the big shows, the 50 hectare park has reconstructed historic villages including a medieval city, a fort and an 18th century village, where you can go into houses and shops and see craftsmen at work or just happen upon some other performance or delight. We stopped in the medieval city to eat our sandwiches at lunchtime and watched a stonemason and baker at work. Later on we stopped in the 18th century village and had galettes for our tea whilst listening to some live Vendean music being played. And there were plenty of restaurants to choose from in the park, including everything from fast food to smart restaurants with a full à la carte service for which you had to book in advance.

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Part of the medieval city in Puy du Fou

Gruesome Roman games

After lunch, we queued for one of the biggest shows, the Triumph’s Sign, which is set in a 6000 seat Gallo-Roman-style coliseum that is 115 metres long and 75 metres wide. It started out with a grand procession that involved an eclectic mix of people and animals, including Roman centurions, manacled slaves, goats, camels, dozens of geese, a cage full of emus and a cart piled high with barrels of wine, pulled by two oxen.

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I won’t go into much more description about this one as Emma has written a beautifully detailed blog post about it, but I will say that it was extremely realistic and exciting to watch. At times it was also pretty gruesome. We were sitting just along and up from the emperor, who was commanding the activities and who also decided, with the swift movement of his hand across his neck, which prisoners lived or died. The Roman soldier down in the arena duly carried out the order and the whole thing was so realistic that Emma turned to me and said, in a pleading voice “They didn’t really just kill that prisoner, did they?” In fact, Megan was so traumatised by having seen these ‘executions’ (it happened about three times right in front us, complete with spurting blood!) that she didn’t want to go to the next show at all.

Having said that, it was a hugely entertaining and exciting show and was Emma’s favourite. You never quite knew what was going to happen next and really felt like you had an insight into what these sort of events were like during Roman times. Sure, in other parts of the world maybe there would’ve been a warning about the blood and gore, but then without them perhaps it wouldn’t have been so realistic!

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Knights in shining armour at Puy du Fou

Medieval frolics

So, leaving Megan with Andy to recover, it was just Emma and I that raced across the park to see The Secret of the Lance, set this time in a medieval castle. It tells the story of a young girl left alone in the castle who has to defend it from English Knights, helped by a lance with magical powers. Again though, the storyline was secondary to the thrilling stunt riding and special effects. At one point, the whole side wall of the castle disappeared into the floor so that we could see inside the keep and then the tower revolved so that we could see the action on the other side. There was jousting and pageantry and riders performing daring stunts on the back of galloping horses – it was fabulous! Unfortunately we didn’t get a seat in the shade for this one, and by the time it finished, the two of us were cooked!

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Our next choice was going to be a swashbuckling performance of musketeers and flamenco dancers at the opposite end of the park, but we decided that the walk over there was more than any of us could manage at that very moment. We were all hot and Emma was feeling sick and so we got ice lollies and water and sat down in the shade for a while. Feeling recovered, we fitted in a second viewing of the bird display before heading to our final show of the day.

Revolutionary epic that packs a political punch

Our last show of the day – Le Dernier Panache (The Final Plume) was indoors, in a specially built theatre space. It follows the (rather sad) story of a French naval officer, who returns a hero from the American War of Independence but soon finds that his fellow Vendéeans are being killed and their villages destroyed because they support the royalists in the French Revolution. He tries to help them and as a result, he is seen as a traitor to the revolutionary cause and is sentenced to be executed by firing squad. Once again the performance held nothing back and we all looked away as this disturbing scene was enacted in front of us! (Unfortunately there are no photographs of this one as we were not allowed to take any.)

I won’t give away all of the secrets of the staging of this show, as it is extremely clever but it enables you to be at first in the bowels of a ship, then in a fancy chateau, then a prison, then a woodland, all without a break for scene changes and all without leaving your seat. In one scene, a real boat sailed away from the shore, complete with water lapping up on the beach! In an indoor theatre! Amazing!

The political punch can be better understood when you know the tragic and largely untold history of the this area. During the French Revolution, the Vendée was a strongly Catholic, counter-revolutionary area. The people here rose up to protect local priests who refused to take an oath to the new revolutionary constitution and in 1794 the government sent soldiers from Paris to stop the uprising. According to figures given at the end of Le Dernier Panache, 300,000 people were killed in the Vendée.  Apparently the owner and founder of Puy du Fou, right-wing politician Phillipe de Villiers, would like to see these events recognised as a genocide and argues that they have been deliberately omitted from the textbooks. Whether there is a political bias or motive to all of this or not, it was interesting stuff and not something I had ever heard about before.

The Cinéscénie

As I said at the start, we didn’t see the Cinéscénie as it is booked up for months in advance, but it would definitely be something worth coming back for one day. It claims to be the biggest night-time show in the world. It is performed in the evening on a huge outdoor stage behind the ruined castle and tells the story of some 700 years of the history of the Vendée as seen through the eyes of a small boy. It is performed by over 3000 volunteer actors from the local area, together with hundreds of horses, water fountains and over 400 fireworks per performance.  There are hotels at Puy du Fou that you can stay in, so if we were to come back one day we would probably aim to spend two days here and do the Cinéscénie as part of that.

We returned to the campsite completely worn out but thrilled by what we had seen and with some amazing memories (if you exclude the executions!) of a fabulous day out. Thank you Puy du Fou!

Campsite: Castel Camping La Garangeoire, Saint-Julien-des-Landes

La Garangeoire was recommended to us by a couple of different friends who had stayed there this summer, so we already knew it would be good. And it really is an outstanding site with the widest range of facilities and entertainment that we have come across since we have been in France.

What we liked:

  • Fantastic pool and water slides, including a separate pool under cover
  • Amazing facilities, including a huge children’s play area, games room, lake, paddling pool/lagoon, go-carts, table tennis, pony riding, kids club and family entertainment (although this tailed off at the start of September as all the children went back to school). We didn’t use it, but there was even a child-minding service you could use if you wanted to have a quiet meal for two in the restaurant. They would accept children aged 3-10 years.
  • Free wifi, but only up near the office, by the pool and at the bar
  • Good, clean toilet blocks
  • Very nice, friendly and helpful staff

What we didn’t like:

  • A bit out on its own – you had to drive to the shops and there was nothing much to do near the site
  • Virtually no mobile phone or data signal on our pitch (but they did have free wifi – see above)
  • Our pitch was a long walk from the main facilities
  • Not very diverse – virtually everyone on the site was British! We have got used to trying to speak some French, if only to say ‘Bonjour’ as you passed people on site or to order bread in the shop, but here everyone not only spoke English but was English!

Score: 9 out of 10

We always love to hear your comments – please use the form below (your e-mail address will not be shown and you don’t have to put your full name!)  Has anyone else been to Puy du Fou?  What was your favourite part?  Did you stay over in one of the hotels? 

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