Life

Travel: Showtime fit for a king... and a magical place for fun

Lavish theatrical extravaganzas in a peaceful forest setting steal the spotlight at Puy du Fou theme park in France – and where history itself provides the rollercoaster ride, writes Geoff Hill

Geoff Hill

I CHECKED into a Renaissance castle, threw my bag into a medieval jousting tent and went for dinner in a 5th century thatched barn.

It was, obviously, France; or more specifically Puy du Fou, the inspired idea of student Philippe de Villiers, who in 1977 at the tender age of 28 set about transforming a 15th century castle and estate in his native Vendée into a theme park with a difference.

He and Jean Saint Bris, a young creator of son et lumière shows, sat down and wrote an original show named La Cinéscénie, and from that humble beginning, the result of their vision today is 55 hectares of magic, with 17 shows, attractions, craft villages, four historically themed hotels and various workshops recreating history from the 3rd to the 20th centuries in the most dramatic and entertaining way imaginable.

Disney it ain’t, in the best way possible, as I found when I rolled up for the first show of the day, Le Bal de Oiseaux Fantômes, a splendid 16th century spectacle involving a ruined castle, a sleeping beauty called Aliénor and her special best friend forever Eloïse, 210 assorted eagles, falcons, owls and doves whose names I’ve temporarily forgotten, a hot air balloon, a microlight followed by a skein of geese and a small but determined boar.

After half an hour of admiring the avian aerobatics and falling in love with Eloïse, next stop was Le Dernier Panache, the story of the French Revolution told from the point of view of local hero Charette in a vast indoor theatre in which the entire audience rotated.

My favourite bit was a grand ball in which the ladies’ hats were illuminated galleons; except for one poor gal whose batteries had run out, leaving her a dowdy dowager among her sparkling sisters.

Oh, and a violin-playing Irishwoman on a horse, that well known unsung heroine of the Revolution.

Best of all, in the final ballroom scene, dead battery woman had been enlightened, along with an entire nation.

After lunch in the 15th century castle which was the heart of the original estate, it was off to the 10th century for a spot of pillage, with a village wedding rudely interrupted by the arrival of a longship full of Vikings.

Olaf? I nearly cried; especially when I arrived to find all 3,000 seats already taken and the gates locked.

Oh well. I passed the time with a wander through around the shops in a perfect Belle Époque village square, and returned to the next Les Vikings show to find men and horses in flames, and a longship full of fearsome and dripping Norsemen magically rising from the waves.

Still trying to work out how they did that, I made my way to the full-size Colosseum for the 3rd Century Le Signe du Triomphe and the big match between the Gauls and the Romans, preceded by a grand parade involving two fatted calves, five camels, a slightly pissed off Abyssinian leopard, two dozen baffled geese and four jolly virgins, although what they had to be jolly about, being virgins, was unclear.

After that, a bunch of local cheerleaders whipped the 6,000-strong crowd into a frenzy of Mexican, sorry, Roman waves, booing and yelling for their favourite gladiators, with sword fights, a spectacular chariot race, a pride of real and very scary lions, and a love story thrown in for good interest.

It was the best thing I’d seen in the Colosseum since Maximus revealed to Commodus that he wasn’t quite as dead as the Emperor had hoped , but if I thought that was the highlight of the day, Puy du Fou is based on Sam Goldwyn’s maxim for a successful movie, to start with a climax and work up, and the biggest epic was still to come.

La Cinéscénie, that original show created by Philippe de Villiers and Jean Saint Bris telling the story of France from the Middle Ages to the Second World War, has grown into a mammoth production involving 1,480 actors, 130 horses and 24,000 costumes, watched by an audience of 13,200 from an amphitheatre overlooking a lake and the original 15th century castle beyond.

Like Game of Thrones without the sex and nudity, it was astonishing in its scale, with some breathtaking son et lumière effects, let down only by a script which was both vaguely incoherent and deeply poetic, so that I suspect it was actually written by Gérard Depardieu and Eric Cantona after several bottles of wine.

It’s also wonderfully jingoistic, down to the scene where General de Gaulle appears at the end of the Second World War and announces that the French have just taken Berlin. Yes, of course they have, General. Now take your medication, there’s a good lad.

Still, never mind; I’d seen five shows, only scratched the surface of what the park had to offer, and been utterly enthralled, so it was with more than a tinge of sadness that I got into the car and drove as slowly as possible back to the real world.

Factfile

I flew with easyJet from Belfast City to Gatwick then on to Nantes Atlantique, a compact airport with several car hire outlets on site. Puy du Fou is an hour’s drive from there.

A ticket including all shows and attractions is from €32 for adults, €22 for children, or including La Cinéscénie, €50 and €32. Shows plus hotel packages start from €57 per adult. It’s well worth buying a Pass Emotion fast track ticket for €12 per day to beat the queues and get the best seats.

Closer to home, the Kynren show has just opened at Auckland Castle near Durham, telling 2,000 years of English history in 80 minutes.

See www.puydufou.com for details.

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