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11/05/2007Weekend Breaks: the Vendée's Puy du Fou
It's like Disneyland for history buffs. The Puy du Fou theme park, which hosts the largest evening performance in the world on 23 hectares of stage, is one of the highlights of the summer season in western France. Travel through time, and the Vendée, to get there.
The last joyful moment at the Donjon before the English attack
All this is only a fraction of your possible programme at Puy du Fou, a history-themed attraction park and performance spectacle that draws some 1.2 million tourists from all over Europe every summer, making it the most popular theme park in France after Disneyland.
The Puy du Fou is a real place, specifically the ruins of a castle destroyed during the post-Revolutionary War in the Vendée.
The ruins had long been lost until 1977, when the local archaeological club dug them up and had a brainstorm, reportedly inspired by an idea from local politician Phillippe de Villiers: what about staging a show here on the ruins recounting the saga of a local French family ?
The next year, the Puyfolais association staged its first performance and a cult phenomenon was born.
Originally, the Puy du Fou was an evening-only show relying on performances from only local, volunteer 'actors'. Today, the actors on the Cinéscénie stage are still volunteers but an entire micro-industry has grown up around it.
The latest addition is the first hotel on the grounds, the three-star La Villa Gallo-Romaine.
Le Grand Parc
You can't recreate ancient Rome without a chariot race
There is more than enough to fill an entire day, in fact, seeing all five of les incontournables in the same day requires precision planning. The shows are short on story and long on sword-play, but the sets are elaborate, the sound-tracks stirring and the effects realistic enough to scare small children.
The Puy du Fou now even runs its own falconry and equestrian academies to keep an adequate staff of bird-handlers and horse-riding stuntmen.
In between shows, stroll through the manicured grounds, the miniature walled medieval city or the recreation of a 18th-century village. Each section of the park is home to artisans who travel from all over France to spend the season here; you can see gold-leavers, ceramic painters and sabot-makers hard at work plus there are lots of actors planted in the scenery too: a soldier announcing proclamations from Paris, a swineherd and his authentically stinky pig, a villager planting his potager.
It is a theme park; it's for having fun, not for serious historical study. But the planners have still paid great attention to detail and the Parc makes the experience more accessible to families, who can easily spend a fun day here without even seeing the evening performance.
(Picnics are allowed on the ground; spectators sit outside for most of the performances so don't forget sunscreen and a hat!)
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