There we were in a thatched village in AD1000, faces flushed from the heat of a building torched by rampaging Vikings. Performing pigs did tricks, stunt-riders dragged men along the ground on ropes. Suddenly, a longship rose from beneath the water of a lake with Viking sailors on board. “How did they do that?” said our five-year-old, the 11-year-old next to her, the nine-year-old next to him and, come to think of it, everyone else in the audience. There was cheering and booing and gasping till the end. Children were asking: “Can we watch it again?”
Puy du Fou is a bizarre phenomenon: a rural theme park without any rides. It started in 1978 as an open-air amateur dramatics night where volunteers in the grounds of a ruined castle re-enacted the bloody history of the Vendée in western France. It has become one of the country’s biggest success stories; its trademark is spectacular history extravaganza shows – where thousands of actors and animals recreate high drama, from Roman gladiators to King Arthur, with mind-blowing special effects. Prizes have also been won for the world’s best amusement park, including two US “World’s Best Park” awards. If you live in Britain, the chances are you’ve never heard of it, but in France it’s the second most-visited theme-park after Disneyland Paris. In short, it’s France’s antidote to Mickey Mouse.
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“Will the lions come right up to us?” my daughter asked, and hesitated as we did a Mexican wave in the 6,000-seat Gallo-Roman-style coliseum. Chariot-racers thundered by, gladiators did bloody battle, geese paraded in formation and centurions went rogue. The lions and tigers were faultless, but then they had appeared in the films Gladiator and Life of Pi. (French law still allows wild animals to take part in theatre and circus performances.) Unexpectedly, our favourite show was the Joan of Arc special, for its high-speed stunt-riding. Then there was the historic bird show, a kind of Alfred Hitchcock meets the Lady of the Lake, which managed to get 210 birds in the air together, including falcons, eagles, owls and vultures.
Cinéscénie, the history retrospective – and biggest night-time show in the world – is still performed by over 3,000 volunteers, to audiences of 14,000 in high-season. And as historical kitsch and drama know no language barriers, you can enjoy all this without speaking French (though translation headsets are available).
It’s not all shows. In 50 hectares of forest and gardens, there are reconstructed historic villages, including a medieval settlement and an 18th-century farm, where you can go into houses and watch artisans at work; we were mesmerised by the blacksmith and the medieval baker’s basket of free bread came in handy when we realised we’d forgotten a snack for the baby.
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All this has to be set in context. Puy du Fou was founded by Philippe de Villiers, the right-wing leader of the Movement for France party, a local politician who ran the Vendée département for over 20 years, and has his own brand of Catholic, traditionalist, nationalist, anti-immigration, eurosceptic politics. Although his political career has waned – he ran for French president in 2007 and won 2% of the vote – he still promotes Puy du Fou across the world.
The Vendée itself has a tragic and largely untold history, and the park and its central nighttime show partly came into being to voice that. During the French Revolution, the Vendée was a strongly Catholic, counter-revolutionary enclave. In 1794 the government sent soldiers from Paris to quell the peasants who had risen up to protect priests refusing to take an oath to the new constitution. Huge numbers of locals were massacred. Some smaller exhibits in the park serve as a memorial to what de Villiers wants to see recognised as a genocide and argues has been deliberately omitted from textbooks. But at the same time, the Puy du Fou has been expanded to focus on the spectacular theatrics of more general history.
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One of its greatest assets is the lack of stress. The woodland and gardens are calming and makes a deliberate effort not to sell you plastic tat at every corner. There’s no military-style planning, competitive queueing for rides or budget-blowing associated with most amusement parks. Even if you go mad and run to as many of the 30-minute shows as possible – incredibly we managed seven in one day although it’s better to spread it over two – everything felt easy. The park isn’t an arduous drive from the spectacular beaches of the Vendée’s Atlantic coast or places such as La Rochelle and the Marais Poitevin, and there’s a lot more to see in the area.
The park is very green, there is space for wandering between the reconstructed historic villages and the shows, and pushchairs can be hired by the day. There is a picnic area, cheaper artisan ice-cream than in Paris, sandwich stops and several restaurants, including live shows over dinner. Although in general, the food – why is this always the case in theme parks? – isn’t as good as you’d get at the simple and excellent village bistros across the Vendée.
One of the nicest surprises was a taste of luxury at our hotel, Clovis Islands (one of four themed hotels), with its half-timbered huts perched on stilts over water. Apparently, just as spectacular is the Field of the Cloth of Gold hotel, a remake of the field camp at Henry VIII and François I’s famous meeting in 1520 (the two other hotels are the Gallo-Roman villa and Le Logis de Lescure).
It might be a theme park full of swashbucklers but at night in our thatched hut there was silence, just the sound of the bull frogs.
• Accommodation was provided by Puy du Fou (puydufou.com), which has two nights at Clovis Islands hotel with two day tickets to the park from €314 (€411 in high season) for a family of two adults and two children. A one-day adult pass costs €30 in advance (€34 on the day) and €20 for kids (€23 on the day). The two night-time shows, Organs of Fire and Cinéscénie (Friday and Saturday only) cost extra. The park is open from April-September