We wake up in our castle, eating our breakfast in a banquet hall below racks of herbs, and head out to explore a town that changes eras as your stroll.
At our first stop, hundreds of birds of prey fly a few feet over our heads, as we listen to the story of a pampered local princess. As we leave, we cross the narrow watery channels that wind down the village streets, past bakers, painters, arty metal forgers, and little castle back alleys. We arrive at the Knights of the Round Table, where a mermaid swims in the lake, a table emerges from the water and then a horse from the table. Arthur is crowned King before our eyes.
This isn’t fantasy. It’s a new kind of theme park, centered on historical re-enactments. Here’s what you need to know about Puy Du Fou…
What is it?
Puy Du Fou is a theme park in west-central France, about three and a half hours drive from Paris, (or an hour or so from Nantes, and an hour and a half from La Rochelle). It’s not a theme park in the sense of most that you might have visited. Its chief focus is historical reenactments, which span from Roman times to roughly World War I. The centre-pieces are a series of shows, each anything from 5 minutes to 40 minutes or so long. There are about 18 of them, and you won’t be able to see them all in a day. The entire park, though, is built to reflect the theme, and does so incredibly effectively. Think medieval villages with every character in dress, themed restaurants, entire pre-war villages recreated in impressive detail, and lots of colourful little asides, from play parks to mazes full of creepy talking objects.
It is, in my view, the main rival to Disneyland Paris in terms of French theme parks, though far less well-known than the Disney offering anywhere outside of France. Having been to both, I would argue that Puy Du Fou is similarly appealing to children, but has more to offer adults in terms of wow-factor. Given the choice, it is Puy Du Fou I would return to, and Puy Du Fou I would prefer to spend a longer trip in.
Who’s It Suitable For?
I’m struggling to think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy the park. Our five year old was slightly intimidated by some parts of the reenactments (mostly a talking tree, actually, bizarrely, but also some of the more aggressive sword fighting), and the late night shows are probably a little too late for some youngsters. Any kid from 4-5 up and any adult who appreciates high-quality historical reproductions would enjoy it, however.
The performances are definitely the highlight of Puy Du Fou. While we were only able to see a handful of them in our stay, we didn’t see a bad one. There’s plenty of depth there, and nothing’s half-hearted – the swords really hammer against each other in the sword fights. The dancers really do splash around in inch-deep water for entire performances.
The volume of birds in the ‘Le Bal Des Oiseaux Fantomes‘ is astonishing; they seem to flood the skies from an old-world balloon, swooping just inches over your head.
In the Roman arena (Le Signe De Triumph), endless animals are paraded in front of you, with humans seemingly mixed in closely with lions and hyenas, and chariots racing around in muddy tracks. La Dernier Panache featured lots of dance, including a surreal horse trot and water flying everywhere.
La Mystere De La Perouse was probably the most technically impressive thing we saw, based in a huge rotating auditorium that sees the actors and stages almost spin around you as they tell a tale of revolution, which features a full cutaway ship, a beach scene and lots of clever lighting.
We were quite taken with the medieval town and the 1900s French village, too.
We did find the indoor attractions started to fill up quickly when the rain hit, but other than that the park was well spaced out and never too busy to be enjoyable. We spent a day and a half inside, and I could easily have managed double that.
Puy Du Fou is surrounded by a range of different themed hotels operating on the tag line “in which era will you sleep.” These take in Roman Baths, a 15th Century manor house, and even knightly tents.
We found ourselves in a hyper-realistic castle, which got an added atmosphere out of the surrounding fog. The rooms are quite basic – think a decent bathroom and bed plus a TV tucked away to keep up the re-enactment. Perfect for the little ones.
Our little guy slept on the top of a castle-style bunk bed, and having been put to bed straight from sleeping in the car the night we arrived, woke up incredibly excited. He loved the courtyard view of the castle, the long-drop style toilet (faked, thankfully!) and the little castle features.
Breakfast and dinner were in a big hall complete with a pig roasting over an open fire, herbs and drying meat hanging from the rafters, and servers dressed up in costumes. It was buffet, but in a strange way any kind of full-on service would probably have broken the spell. The bar had local beer and the food was a little more varied than the medieval theme, if not overly spectacular.
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I generally found Puy Du Fou to be excellent, but in the interest of balance, there were a couple of things that could have been improved (aside from the weather!). French food is normally outstanding, but I found most of the places we ate in and around the park to be pretty mediocre. Even towards the end of the season, some spots had substantial queues (see below on this), and, as is the case with virtually anywhere like this, the souvenirs – and things like soft drinks – were noticeably overpriced on site.
We also had some minor issues with connectivity on the App, which offers translation from French to English (and other languages) for the shows, but it ran fine 90% of the time, and really added to the experience on balance for us linguistic dunces. All of these are manageable issues, and didn’t detract from our overall enjoyment of the place.
We were lucky enough to be provided with a pass that enabled us to queue jump at every attraction, and it significantly improved our experience, as we were able to see substantially more of the events in a short period (The Emotion Pass). Recommended if you don’t have too much time.
The park is far enough from other major French attractions for it to make sense to stay on site if possible, which allows you to talk in and get the full experience of the historical reenactments.
You’ll want to bring waterproofs even if the weather’s good (quite a few rides splash significantly), and plan a long day, as some of the events only work after dark, and so start very late (though you can make a good day without seeing these – see them as add-ons).
It’s worth planning your core shows early on, as you’ll find quite a few clashes to deal with. A couple are ‘walk around’ things, and are good gap-fillers. Book ahead if you plan on going to the restaurants, they get busy.
If you can go off-peak, do. there are price differences available even by going midweek instead of at the weekend.
What’s the damage?
Entry to the park starts at €36 for adults and €26 for children (it is cheaper to book online, though you can just turn up). Hotels vary quite substantially depending on your choice, see the Puy Du Fou website for lots of local options. The Pass Emotion is an extra €15, but probably will increase what you can see by a couple of activities. There are discounts available for large groups.
Full disclosure: our family trip to Puy Du Fou was gifted in part by the regional tourist office, for the purpose of a feature article in an Irish regional newspaper (separately from this blog entry). We did pay some of the costs ourselves, and this trip came with no provisos, other than that a story would be published on the park. The gifting is not a factor in the above comments.