Puy du Fou is the best theme park in the world you have never heard of.
The second most popular visitor attraction in France – after Disneyland Paris, of course – and voted the best park in the world at international awards.
No slightly past-their-best roller-coasters at this theme park; in fact no rides at all.
It is a journey through the ages with all the panache and style for which the French are renowned, an array of spectacular shows about La Belle France at key moments during its history.
If this all sounds a bit school trip, you could not be further off the mark (although it would a fantastic pre-exam booster). It is an extraordinary day out full of drama and excitement, that could easily stretch to two.
Set in well over 100 acres of park and woodland, visitors wander the bucolic meadows dotted with real farm animals and traditional French fairytale tableaux.
Round each corner is new delight, a restaurant in a picture-perfect replica chateau, a perfectly recreated medieval village with scribes and stonemasons at work or the 18th Century village with kitchen gardens and metal workshops to explore and choreographed dancing fountains.
On the very hot day in August when we visited, the shaded walkways through the ancient forest and the giant misting sprays dotted around the park were a welcome relief between the performances.
Pick up a guide and plan your own timetable to take in as many extravaganzas as possible. You won’t regret a catching a single one.
And if you are worried the little ones won’t want to sit still for all that time, there is no need. They will be on the edge of their seats from beginning to end, their imaginations fired by the spectacular storytelling and pyrotechnics.
Le Secret de la Lance is a good place to start. As flames lick the ramparts of the frankly enormous (and surprisingly mobile) château in the midst of a medieval battle, horsemen perform daredevil stunts that leave the crowd breathless.
At Les Vikings, production values are out of this world. Seriously, it has to be seen to be believed. With one of the most spectacular entrances you will ever see, a Viking longship emerges from beneath the waves, complete with its fearsome crew raring to raze a peaceful thatched hamlet to the ground.
Villagers and their animals (cows, dogs, horses, deer!) flee the fiery onslaught before the story is resolved in a mystical wedding.
Escape the midday sun to take your seat in the beautiful 17th century-style theatre for the Mousquetaire de Richelieu Experience.
The musketeers’ horses dance throughout the swashbuckling sword fights and precision flamenco in an indoor lake. The mind boggles, doesn’t it? It still does once you have seen it.
In the Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantômes, falcons, eagles and vultures emerge from the ruins of a château and tethered hot air balloon hundreds of feet in the air, to skim the audience’s heads in a glorious aerial ballet.
Le Signe du Triomphe
There are only two Le Signe du Triomphe shows a day and it was the only one from which we were turned away first time. But don’t miss out, get back early to make sure of a seat.
With a pantomine-ish Roman governor winding up the restless natives, a thrilling chariot race and a triumphant parade of the spoils of war, the scene is set for the grande finale. The gladiators take to sand-covered arena to take on the Christians.
There were audible gasps in the audience as the special effects of bloody throat-slitting seemed awfully realistic, and the authenticity of the historical re-enactment might be a bit much for some (clearly the gore just added to the delight of our bloodthirsty six and nine-year-olds).
A few Brit eyebrows raised along with the safety rails at visceral moment when a real, live lioness was first released to face the Christian, followed by several of her pride pals adding a palpable tension the certainly would not be allowed in the UK.
All shows are in French, and our party, ranging from primary kids to those with GCSE French half a lifetime ago, could get enough of the gist to enjoy and follow the stories. But for more detail there is a free simultaneous translations on the Puy du Fou mobile app, available from the App Store and Google Play.
The food is standard theme park fayre so don’t expect gorgeous French cuisine. There are opportunities to buy swords and helmets, which are a cut above the usual tat in the town square near the entrance but are easily avoidable if necessary.
Zut alors! It really is the greatest show on earth.
Facts and Figures
Puy du Fou is about an hour south of Nantes, near the town of Les Herbiers, and is open from May to November.
Day tickets start at 35 euros for adults and 25 euros for children up to 15; children under five are free.