A theme park with no rides?
EMMA GILL and her family find much to admire at a park where the theme is the history of France
WHEN you hear the words French theme park, most people’s thoughts initially turn to Disneyland Paris.
In fact, despite Puy du Fou being the second largest theme park in France, we’d never even heard of the place.
It’s perhaps become a little more known since our visit - sparking headlines across the world after training its crows to fly around and collect litter from the site.
This place certainly isn’t your typical theme park. For a start there are no rides and we did wonder just how well that would go down with our nine and seven-year-old.
There had to be a reason why it attracts 2.26m visitors a year though right? As it turned out, there were plenty of reasons.
We soon discovered that entertainment is in the form of 60 spectacular daytime and evening shows, set among four period villages, including a medieval village and an 18th century French village.
Away from the shows, lakes, fountain displays, a play area, flower-filled gardens and woodland that is home to more than 1,500 animals, provide a relaxing environment for visitors of all ages - and it’s clear they come from far and wide to see what this place has to offer.
There are seven main daytime shows in all, each one themed on a different period of French history.
The dialogue is all French and while none of us speak the language - apart from being able to ask the way to the swimming pool (not sure that little snippet from high school would be of much use) - the ‘Grand Spectacles’ before us were enough to truly blow us away.
From hundreds of birds soaring above (and brushing past) our heads in the birds of prey show, to a 20-metre long Viking boat emerging from the water and setting on fire in ‘Les Vikings’, it felt like being in the middle of a film set - and an amazing one at that. Of course, this isn’t just any old bird show.
Those litter picking crows are the tip of the iceberg in terms of what these beauties are capable of.
In all there are 330 eagles, falcons, vultures, kites and owls circle in the sky, brushing against the audience and orchestrating a spellbinding ballet.
The spectacle is the result of a 25-year project at the park and every bit of it is magical.
After starting our epic journey through the shows on such a high, we feared our trip may have peaked too soon, but with each one it got better and better.
From watching the gladiator battles and chariot races in the impressive Gallo-Roman stadium, to visiting the depths of the smoke-filled First World War trenches in the immersive walkthrough experience Les Amoureux de Verdun, every bit of the park offered something equally mesmerising.
You can get headphones to translate the shows to English, but we felt that would be too much of a distraction to the huge spectacles before us.
And if what we’d seen wasn’t impressive enough, we had one final surprise with the park’s weekly night time spectacular La Cinescenie, portraying the symbolic destiny of a Vendee family, from the Middle Ages to the Second World War.
We couldn’t quite believe it when we were told the number of people taking part in the outdoor show - 2,400 actors across a 23-hectare landscape, indeed the world’s biggest stage.
The sheer scale of it was truly incredible, as were the spectacular lighting effects, 3D video projection and the flight of 20 Neopters, Puy du Fou’s drones.
It’s a late show and we had worried the kids would struggle to stay focused after such a busy day at the park, but with one captivating scene flowing into another and a fascinating fireworks finale, their enthusiasm didn’t falter.
Of course, when you’re spending three days stomping your way around a theme park - especially with little people in tow - sleep is more important than ever.
Accommodation at Puy du Fou is in five themed hotels, conveniently located on site and each one dedicated to a period of history, from Ancient Rome to the 18th century.
Effectively you can choose which century you want to sleep in and you can make it as luxurious as you want.
Ours was one of the thatched roofed huts built on stilts and sitting above the carp filled waters of the idyllic Les Iles de Clovis.
With half-timbered walls, oak beds and wooden furniture, it’s designed to ‘immerse guests in the dawn of the Middle Ages’.
We spent little time there apart from to sleep and shower, but it offered everything we needed in terms of comfort and the kids in particular loved their hideaway bunk beds, which gave a little extra darkness to stop them waking with the birds.
There are lots of local hotels and B&Bs you could opt for while visiting the park, but we were grateful to only be a short walk away from all the action, especially after the mammoth evening show.
Another reason to stay on site is to sample the restaurants too and between the park and the hotels there are 27 different places to eat, ranging from fast food to gourmet cuisine.
From your typical Continental buffet style breakfast to classic French cuisine in the park’s stylish eateries, there was something for everyone.
We were lucky enough to experience a new addition for 2018 too - Le Cafe De La Madelon - where the 700 guests are effectively the ‘wedding guests’, eating set courses while watching an expertly choreographed show unfold, with waiters and waitresses forming part of the cast.
If anything it felt a little rushed to pack it all into one frantic hour, but with so much to see who we weren’t about the complain about the speedy service.
Our favourite restaurant by far was inside La Citadelle - as much for the setting as the food. Walking through the portcullis into the grand castle enclosure, it felt like we were stepping into the backdrop of Beauty and the Beast.
The dishes were equally impressive, with chefs on hand to carve out the meat and no shortage of alternatives for those who didn’t quite fancy tucking into the succulent pig.
In fact there was very little about Puy du Fou that failed to impress us.
It might be a place we’d never heard of, but we left there safe in the knowledge that it’s one we’ll never forget - for all the right reasons.
Emma Gill and her children in Puy du Fou