Sitting here watching the dismal grey rain falling outside, coupled with all the freezing weather and snow we’ve had recently, I’m already looking forward to the summer and thinking back to past holidays.
A few years ago we went on a family camping holiday to Vendée, in France, during which we visited the most extraordinary theme park that I have ever seen.
Now, I’m not one for the Disneyland and Alton Towers type of attraction, but we’d been assured by people who’d been that this was something totally different.
They weren’t wrong.
About an hour South-east of Nantes, an unremarkable motorway slip road took us towards the only visible sign that anything might be going on in what appeared to be a dense forest – a tethered barrage balloon with the words Puy du Fou on it, rising high into the air from some unseen point in the distance.
We followed the signs until we reached a giant car park amongst the trees, and then went searching for adventure.
Puy du Fou is billed as “the largest historical theme park in the world”, and I’m inclined to take them at their word, because it is an impressively huge, sprawling place.
Essentially, it’s a 110 acre forested park with large areas that have been remodelled to enable the presentation of various periods in history, all in their own distinct landscape.
As we were getting our bearings, having a bite to eat, and sorting out our route around the park, we wandered round the large petting zoo, which included many unusual breeds, including some very friendly goats…
…and several incredibly shaggy donkeys, which seemed to have long brown dreadlocks.
Suitably fortified, we set off to find the first event. Referring to the guide book, I discovered that this was to be the Viking part of our journey through time.
Arriving at a purpose built amphitheatre, we took our seats overlooking a section of river with a small jetty and some very authentic-looking buildings.
It wasn’t long before events began to unfold below us, with the local “villagers” going peacefully about their business.
However, it wasn’t to remain peaceful for long, and no sooner had a cry of warning risen from the village sentry, a section of hinged willow screen swung aside to cleverly reveal a life-size Viking longship which promptly surged around the bend in the river and began the serious business of village pillaging.
The whole thing was realised to amazingly professional effect, achieving a genuinely exciting passion play, complete with captured maidens and highly convincing sword fighting.
Coming away from the first event, I was deeply impressed with the way the park had recreated the diorama of village life, and was already curious what the next attraction had to offer.
It turned out that it wasn’t difficult to guess which era we would be visiting next, as we were confronted by the jaw-dropping sight of a full size Roman colosseum ahead of us.
As we took our places in the audience for what we were promised would be a genuine Roman extravaganza, it again occurred to me how much time and effort had gone into making everything look as authentic as possible. The giant amphitheatre itself had a huge arena with a large raised dias in the centre, and gated entrances around the outer walls, through which the dramatis personae soon began to emerge.
In addition to the obvious gladiators, chariots, and Roman centurions, there were also acrobats, lions, ostriches, and even camels in the opening parade.
The chariot racing was truly thrilling, and you got the impression that a couple of the racers may not have been on the best of terms, pulling no punches when it came to cutting each other up and attempting to force each other off the track.
The third part of our historical journey was more of a hands-on experience.
The mediaeval town which seemed to have been transported in it’s entirety from the past, along with period dressed inhabitants, offered demonstrations of traditional crafts, with the opportunity to try your hand at some of them yourself, stalls selling local produce, and a wealth of fascinating historical information.
Not sure about the haltered bear, but he seemed happy enough, and at least they didn’t make him dance…
If I had to pick a favourite event from that day, it would be the slightly demented take on the Middle Ages, Battle for the Keep.
This featured knights on horseback, jousting, archery, maidens in distress, and most entertainingly, rampaging, flame-spouting siege engines attempting to breach the battlements of the castle keep of the title.
Finally, we were treated to a fabulous falconry display, not only giving us the chance to see dozens of birds of prey, from hawks and merlins, right up to gigantic condors, we also found out the reason for the tethered blimp we’d seen on arrival.
At the climax of the show – a rather surreal, dramatic piece of theatre which appeared to be about nymphs and fairies (this particular event was all in French with no translation) – several hatches opened in the cupola beneath the balloon, and a whole mixture of birds were released, swooping down from all directions to take the lures from the falconers far below.
One final piece of entertainment came towards the end of the performance, when a gentle .cooling rain began to fall. At least that’s how we thought of it.
The mainly local audience didn’t think so though, and we had the amusing sight of them being dive bombed by the birds as they hastily donned their waterproofs.