Hosted trip – we were provided with flights, accommodation, meals and two day passes in return for our review. Opinions remain my own.
Puy du Fou. France’s multi award-winning show theme park, in the Vendée region, near Nantes. Puy means volcanic hill. Fou means crazy. Crazy Volcanic Hill is a good description in many ways.
Instead of rollercoasters, expect thrilling shows telling tales from European history, featuring actors, animals and utterly mind blowing stunts and theatrical effects, plus immersive multi sensory experiences you walk through.
Nestled in-between the arenas where the shows happen, you can step back in time into dreamy medieval villages where real artisans work, and sell their crafts. Puy du Fou is deliciously tat free, but you might find your offspring hard pressed to choose between some of the wares on offer.
This is France, so the food is seriously good, despite they cater for thousands of people daily. Take note UK, it can be done.
The lush park garden setting is dripping in trees, fountains, streams, roses and wisteria and the park’s accommodation is a wonderfully playful step back in time.
Since I have returned from Puy Du Fou people have said it is really hard to get your head around what to expect, I think perhaps the names of the shows being in French and its complete uniqueness contribute to that.
It is a totally unique experience, but I am going to do my upmost to take you inside!
So, a theme park with no rides?
Puy Du Fou delivers on thrills and adventure without that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I hear a rollercoaster rattling above me.
I loved seeing so many multi generational groups all being able to enjoy an intense adventure together.
There are no age or height restrictions. With plenty of action, animals and effects the shows definitely hold a very wide range of ages’ attention. Some shows have fighting and explosions and while not scary, the atmosphere of some of the immersive experiences might be too much for very small children. But on the whole the performances are suitable for all, there are also playgrounds and park areas to explore.
But isn’t it all French?
The shows are in French, but there is live translation via the app, so just take enough headphones and devices for the family. Our kids are 10 and 12 and really enjoyed following the story through the app. However, the shows are very much about showing not telling the story, so you can quite easily just soak up the atmosphere and watch, or test your rusty French as I did on a few occasions!
There is a obviously a certain emphasis on French history in the marketing materials, but it doesn’t feel that way at all when you are there – Vikings, Greeks, Romans, Arthurian Legend, sea voyages of discovery, World War Two.
How do you organise your day?
There is a daily leaflet, or the app, both with a list of show times, which vary each day, so you can plan your own itinerary the night before. We saw 6 of the main shows and an interactive experience the first day, staying on late into the evening. The second day we did two main shows, two interactive experiences and spent a lot of time exploring the shops and villages.
A snapshot of the shows at Puy Du Fou
Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantômes/The Dance of the Ghost Birds – Outdoors
We were recommended to start with the bird of prey show, just 10 minutes walk from the park hotels. The tweenage troops were tired and still on UK time, ie an hour behind, so this was a great place to start for us. But if you are earlier risers you may wish to dive further into the park and work back towards the hotel – it may be quieter this way.
We went in April school holidays, staff on reception said one day was busy the other quiet. But we didn’t have to queue particularly, and didn’t feel it was overcrowded at any point.
I often have my binoculars trained on birds of prey at home, but seeing so many birds flying together, so close to your head, is pretty incredible and the Vultures were just insanely huge! It’s a lovely dreamy place to begin and it doesn’t really matter if you follow the story on the app or not. The kids did, I was too busy birdwatching.
Les Vikings/The Vikings – Outdoors
WOAH. I almost don’t want to ruin the surprise, but days after my youngest was still trying to work out how the Viking boat came out of the lake with actual Vikings already on it. Seriously cool stunt. Fire, animals, horses, drama. Great place to start and got the whole family talking.
Les Chevaliers de La Table Ronde/Knights of the Round Table – Outdoor
I must have become really sucked into the magic of Puy Du Fou by this point because when my son was dissecting the stunts afterwards at dinner, I realised I had accepted a horse and it’s rider coming out from under the water as completely normal. I love that Puy Du Fou made fantasy seem like reality. Merlin, swords in stones, round tables, green knights – you will recognise the elements of this ancient legend.
Mousquetaire de Richelieu/Musketeers of Richelieu – Indoor
As a lone actor in a pointed nose Commedia dell’Arte style mask took to the stage, I admit I had the fear with this one, I wasn’t sure it was going to fill the massive auditorium, or if it did that it would be slightly amateur.
I was so wrong. It was all a ploy, the curtains opened to reveal a huge set and horses galloped past leading an entertaining sword fight by the three musketeers, the stage was soon filled with water, musketeers and their dancing horses, a castle and madly splashing flamenco dancers.
In another life it could have been a scene straight from a period drama, or a West end musical. Mind once again blown.
Le Dernier Panache/The Last Panache – Indoor
This is the only production of its kind in the world, you won’t experience anything like this elsewhere. The tale of a French Naval Officer, exploring the uprising that led to civil war in the Vendee region during the French Revolution, told using brilliant technology!
Theatre in the round with a cinematic twist, the audience are in the middle of the action, and rotate a full 360 throughout the performance which is projected and performed on a 360 stage around them.
Actors (and horses) mix with huge film projections and giant physical sets to create mind blowing scale. A life-size cross section of a galleon forms the first set structure with film projections blending it into the port setting.
We rotated through dramatic court room scenes and civil war, ending with a child and the last plume in an actual rowing boat heading out into the sea, and yes there was real water and a projected filmic horizon – insanely clever!
The scale of Puy du Fou and its dazzling technology and effects is incredibly hard to convey and appreciate without seeing. This show alone cost 18 million euros to produce.
Les Orgues de Feu/ Organs of Fire – Outdoor
Sun setting on my lovely family as they snuggled on a bench to watch the final show of the day – in the main season this is replaced by a show with a cast of thousands which I would have loved to have seen, but Le Orgues du Fou was utterly magical in a very different way.
It was like someone had exploded a Christmas tree onto a lake, crazy but utterly compelling. As dusk fell the narrator began to speak, which, to my surprise, I could almost follow with my GCSE French, tales of walks along the lake and falling into a dream like state – and I thought I had only learned how to describe my teenage bedroom and order a croissant and red wine! A solo violinist appeared, covered in lights and swept over the surface of the lake.
Again, by now it seemed totally normal that a performer should walk on water like this. She was joined on the water by an organist, and then by an insane amount of water fountains, light and fire set to classical music. Dreamily bonkers, we all loved it.
Le Secret de La Lance/ The Secret of the Lance – Outdoor
I really enjoyed this one for it’s portrayal of women as active not passive participants in history. Marguerite, a young shepherdess protects the chateau while the knights are at war. It reminded me a lot of my childhood spent playing Lego Medieval castle with it’s sole female character…
It was pointed out to me by French friends that the founder of Puy Du Fou is right wing politician Phillip de Villiers, known for his criticism of immigration and Islam in France. It’s something to bear in mind, after all we should all be questioning diversity and representation at all historical sites, history has long been told from the perspective of white privilege. When I reflected afterwards it struck me that the casting and stories at Puy Du Fou, although fabulous, don’t fully represent the multiculturalism of France.
Animals in the park
Across the park you can tell animals are very well cared for and happy, they had an exceptional bond with their trainers and just wouldn’t have done what was required without positive behaviour rewards. The animals were all in good condition. Some are local breeds in need of protection, displayed in paddocks around the park, like the ones we named the ‘dreadlocked donkeys’.
In Le Signe du Triomphe, the Roman Circus show there are performing leopards and lions and in Le Vikings there are Czech wolves, which I was less comfortable with.
Unlike the UK, French laws still allow performing wild animals, although I did read that France is moving away from this in other arenas and parks, so perhaps it is just a matter of time. I believe Puy Du Fou has the technical expertise and imagination to make us believe in wild animals without using real ones.
I didn’t think it was right, but I did feel reassured, by information provided and by my observations, that these animals were very well treated and clearly happy to perform. The wild cats don’t live onsite, but live very close by with internationally respected trainer who provides them with space to roam and supplies animals to films like Gladiator and Life of Pi.
The Immersive Experiences
I counted three of these:
Les Amoureux de Verdun is themed around love letters sent from a world war one trench but I missed the romance until the end, I was so struck by the horror.
La Pérouse is the story of Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse who was a French Naval officer and explorer whose expedition vanished in Oceania in the late 18th century.
La Premier Royaume the story of Clovis, the King of the Franks in 5th Century AD.
Each of these interactive sets are a series of rooms you walk through, with live actors, detailed modelling, light, sound and movement effects to transport you to another world. The live actors and effects elevate this far beyond a history museum exhibit. It’s a truly sensory experience.
The Les Amoureux de Verdun, the love letters of a world war one trench, is extremely moving and an incredibly sobering way to experience something of the reality of this barbaric war. I was really moved, it hits all of your senses as you walk through the squalor, see the brutality in the field hospital, and hear the heartache of war.
La Pérouse was my absolute favourite though, it really appealed to the travel writer in me and having had a sleepover on the Golden Hinde in London I loved seeing a voyage of discovery , a ship from a similar period brought to life in a very different, multi sensory way.
Exit via the artisan gift shop
We loved the historical villages, where you can take a breather and a step back in time watching artisans at work and shopping for special souvenirs. From medieval times to 1900s France, they are impressively authentic. They also have pretty gardens and a baker who let me try the bread – YUM!
The gift shops have some really lovely wares, G especially found it hard to choose, but I love the really beautiful and original things he eventually bought – a traveller’s rune, a print from an original painting of a wolf and a sword bookmark, also a print of an original artwork. I know he will treasure them!
After falling in love with the Harry Potteresque black waterproof ponchos, L decided to save her money to buy a fabric one, to wear at home. Maybe Puy Du Fou, you should start selling them in fabric too!
Accommodation at Puy Du Fou
We stayed in La Citadelle, a medieval style fortress. It’s seriously impressive arriving through the giant gates, finding your medieval bedroom in a turret, flinging open the windows into the courtyard and discovering even the toilet is medieval, in styling at least!
The family room set up works brilliantly too, the kids had their own mini room off the corridor with generously sized bunk beds. We slept in this beauty!
We could see across to the glamping area which looks seriously luxurious and exciting too. There are also other themed hotels on site, as well as plenty of other accommodation offsite if you want to make a week of it – we had two more days to spare after our trip and I spotted some lovely Airbnbs nearby with pools.
There is a definite advantage to being on site however, the experience is magic, the ease of wandering just seven minutes in the morning and the evening shows really are the pièce de résistance. Oh and the food…
With 22 places to eat across the park, you can have anything from fast food (I was thrilled to avoid this completely during our two day stay) to gourmet cuisine. 90% is locally sourced. Some days Puy Du Fou serves up to 19,000 people, yet they still manage to make it super healthy, tasty and visually impressive.
The best meal we had was in LES DEUX COURONNES in one of our neighbouring hotels, an all you can eat French buffet. It is a carvery themed around King Francis I’s favourite meats around the fire in the Camp du Drap d’Or, but as vegetarians my daughter and I were really happy – the salad bar had globe artichokes which I found seriously impressive, the vegetable accompaniements were so tasty we forgot to ask for the vegetarian option – you may need to do this is a few places as they aren’t always obvious.
The puddings though were incredible, a huge stack of macaroons a tree of strawberries which were the best I have ever tasted, and a cheese board – it all just blew us away. French bread and red wine put us straight into holiday mode too.
Lunch on the park was super impressive at self-service Renaissance themed restaurant, La Mijoterie du Roy Henry. This is where Madame Bevan’s GSCE French ‘Es que vous aves quelque chose de vegetarian?’ came in super handy, the veggie main options aren’t self service.
Huge brownie points here for avoiding plastic by using gorgeous enamel and glass pots on large wooden platters and for truly hacking self service high quality food – you fill your platter with bowls from a choice of starters, mains and desserts. There are also kids’ meals. An expresso each in a proper solid pottery cup and we were ready for action once more.
Le Bistrot looked amazingly like a Parisian French Bistro from the Belle Epoque, the staff were beautifully dressed, greeted us with accordion playing and the warmest welcome – the service was excellent and it is lovely to have table service at a theme park. I thought it would be like Cafe Rouge, but the food wasn’t quite as write home about-able, especially for veggies. Still I really loved this 1900s area of the park and the French pastries, sweets and cakes to buy are a delicious afternoon pick me up.
We breakfasted at L’ECUYER TRANCHANT, the medieval kitchen, in La Citadelle both mornings, self service gives you bags of choice and is great when you are running late.
Eyes can be bigger than bellies in these settings, in the time it took me to find the tea bags, our youngest managed to mistake a gigantic serving platter on the buffet for a plate and completely filled it with croissants and nutella pancakes. But then I saw two French boys loading up croissants straight onto a tray, I bit into fresh French bread and cheese, and decided to relax the rules a little myself too!
Our Verdict on Puy Du Fou
We had a great time, loved the leafy, green calm setting, staying in a castle was awesome and the food was just beautiful. We thought a theme park with shows was brilliant fun, even the adrenalin junkies!
We couldn’t believe how each show would top the one before it. It was such a wonderful treat to see so much live performance each day and the effects and stunts were just out of this world. I would love to go back again and see the evening show with a cast of thousands of local volunteers.
A unique concept beautifully executed and a fascinating and fun way to spend time together as a family.
Watch the video or the slideshow of all the photos we couldn’t fit in here…
Top tips for Puy Du Fou
Download the app, it’s great for planning your day, finding places and for listening to live translations of the shows in English. Don’t forget enough devices and headphones (and iPhone jacks) for all the family to comfortably share.
Spend some time the night before planning, then you can relax, enjoy the shows, experiences, villages, food and take in the surroundings which are really pretty.
Aim to eat lunch early or late, 11.45 or 1.30pm are good times to beat the rush.
Bring or buy a poncho! The Vendee region has what is known as a maritime climate, no dry season, rain speed throughout the year, we’re talking light showers rather than all day rain, but it threw us a little at first to go from gorgeous sun to showers and back! Check the forecast and make the most of indoor shows to dodge any showers.
The Emotion pass allows you to arrive ten minutes before and miss queuing. It could be handy if you only have a day and/or want the best seats but on the whole it doesn’t make as much difference as a fast track ride pass in a theme park, we were generally arriving alongside non pass holders and rather the rushing, it is nice to arrive a little early, take your seats, set your translation app and soak up the atmosphere.
Need to Know
Puy du Fou offers a 2-night B&B family stay (4 sharing) at one of the five themed on-site hotels from €640, including 2 days’ entry to the Park. Day passes only start at €36/€26 (adult/child); Emotion fast track passes €15pp per day. Open now until 3 November 2019. Further information from Puy du Fou, www.puydufou.com/en, +33 (0) 820 09 1010).
Photos – taken by me, Penny Alexander, except for Le Dernier Panache and Mousquetaire de Richelieu both supplied by Puy Du Fou.