Occasionally, I love a little bit of an offbeat adventure. In line with my growing love for off-the-beaten-track football, when I learnt that the Island Games – a sporting competition for those from small islands, like Guernsey and the Shetlands – would be holding their football competition in Anglesey in mid-June, I couldn’t resist bringing my bike over and taking in as many as I could.
Anglesey is at the far end of the ferry line from Dublin to Wales, which meant early and late ferries as a foot passenger got me to just the right spot, and I found if I watched the games and almost immediately got back on my bike and headed for the next one, I could watch four full games in a day. This was the second time I’ve squeezed four live football matches into a day, and I can’t deny it’s probably one too many, but it’s hard to say no to seeing teams like this.
As this was half cycling adventure, half niche-football, here’s a little map of the route between the four different village grounds, starting at Holyhead Ferry Port and finishing – because I couldn’t resist the ride back, and by the evening I was tired enough it seemed the only sensible option – at the notoriously named Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch Station (yes, I copy and pasted that, and yes, it does have four Ls in a row somewhere in the middle there). My route was essentially right through the heart of Anglesey, doubling back a couple of times to make the maximum of four games in the day. It’s 37 miles (60kms) in total, which I found tough enough in the heat with a rucksack full of books on my back (I bought quite a few of my CONIFA books to sell):
GAME ONE: St Helena 1-2 Western Isles (9th/ 10th place play-off – Aberffraw FC)
St Helena were probably the main draw of this entire idea for me. A tiny island in the middle of the South Atlantic with a population of less than 5,000, their road to get to Anglesey had been quite an odyssey, involving raising nearly €20 for every person on the island just to afford the tickets and accommodation – they did this by selling shirts, scarfs, pins etc.
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.
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.
BEING A SUN LOVER, Wales has never been on my list of preferred travel destinations, and yet here I am, and it works. Our newly acquired campervan’s parked on a hilltop, a great expanse of sand stretching out to three Hobbit-like peaks beneath me, the too-tall shape of our shelter and rollicking wind causing a boiling kettle to shake in the summer breeze.
The Gower is a rugged peninsula south west of Swansea; a largely unheralded corner of south Wales with a distinctly rural complexion, known for its beaches, walks and pub dinners. There’s a Famous Five-like innocence to the place. It’s the kind of happy middle-class escapism that pushed Enid Blyton’s characters into adventurous antics on rowing boats of dubious stability, the kind of place where you escape the tide in your swimsuit and then retire to a barbeque with an oversized hot chocolate.
My wife, five-year-old son and I have decided to explore the area in an old VW, which we check in to the civilised but minimalist peaks of the Three Cliffs Bay campsite. It’s a spot that’s home to a mid-sized camp shop, lots of alluring footpaths, a view of the waves and the heady waft of burning campfires every evening.
The beach is a short stroll down a hill, past timber-framed houses and onto an expanse of sand that varies between a small ledge and 500 metres of smooth, water-dappled space, depending on the state of the tide. There are the ruins of a castle, accessed by clambouring laboriously up a steep sand bank. There are views out over the Atlantic, and a long walk round the headland at low tide takes you to sea-view restaurants and more hilltop visages.
Life drifts. Days involve lying in rock pools, trying to surf the gentle ripples that lap against the shoreline, or ad hoc games of football between two corners of the campsite, obstructed by dogs and ended with marshmallows melted vigorously over a fire.
The Welsh language lives here in the way Irish does in the Gaeltachts: not quite dominant, but always lingering at the edges, the quick and distinct marker of a local. The visiting English speakers seem to soak up the lilt. It gently infected the fringes of their speech, as they take to walking the trails through tangled forests.
Within a swift half hour stroll of Three Cliffs if the Gower Heritage Centre, where chickens roam about, Ariel the mermaid provides lively entertainment for the children, and plastic ducks race down a tiny stream to a still-functioning mill. It’s fronted by a cinema no bigger than a living room and a yoga venue, with cider served up in the courtyard to hardy folks in designer hiking gear.
The trendy Danish concept of ‘hygge’ – a cosy, memorable, charming feeling of being utterly at ease – might have peaked as the big conceptual winter fashion, but it remains a wonderful concept. Here’s why a trip to the hills of South Wales is full of just the right kind of Hygge-like, cuddly charm…
Somewhere between Anglesea’s expansively named Llanfairpwllgwyngyll… (yes, we cut off two-thirds of the name, it is that long) and the Brecon Beacons National Park, you hit the winding hillside roads of Snowdonia. You cruise gently under tunnels of trees, the climate seemingly changing as you cross through each little hillside pass and rugged, three-house village. The land has that soggy green depth that feels like it hasn’t been dry in months, the texture reminiscent of an ancient realm of Hobbits. It’s the kind of place you almost drift through, giving re-emerging onto a dual carriageway the air of a post-dream slap around the face.
If Snowdonia is the realm of Hobbits, the Brecons feel more like they belong to the giants. The southern park is all expansive sweeping valleys, soaring hillsides and picture box villages that look unchanged in generations. They’re full of open spaces, their every building dwarfed by airy and enticing surrounds.
The main draw of the Brecons, then, is the scenery. In winter the slow rising roads lead you through tiny clusters of ageing houses, the pathways edging above the treelines until they burst out suddenly into great soaring valleys. They’re often spattered in shining snow barely hinted at a mile down the road, and stretching to distant but attainable peaks.
In the summer, this is a hiking hub. In winter you’d need to be more hardy to hit the upper slopes, but the delicate stone of the tiny towns comes into its own, lit up in slanting light and offering cosy corners next to fires to envelope guests.
Hay-On-Wye is one of the area’s more notable stop offs, and the place looks unchanged in decades. Tents pop up at weekends to expand the countless disorganised treasure-trove antique stores into the streets, while dozens of booksellers cram every spare inch with tomes, everything from first editions to scrappy paperbacks collected indoors and out, in more stores than a village could reasonably need.
There’s a regular vintage fair, where dozens of traders take root in every nook of the town, hawking anything from ships anchors and gemstone pendants to 1970s jigsaw puzzles, and doing so in the charmingly melodic local lilt from inside covered market squares and tiny lean-tos.
THERE’S A LONG-standing joke in the Czech Republic’s second city Brno. “We know wine,” they say. “We keep the best wine for ourselves. The mediocre stuff we sell to tourists, and the really bad stuff we send to Prague.”
It’s fair to say the Czech Republic’s two main cities have quite a rivalry. A few years ago, Brno’s mayor spent a small fortune on building a modern-version of Prague’s spectacular clock in the city’s main square. It’s a phallic, towering, slowly-twisting statue that almost nobody can use to tell the time, and once a day it omits a strange glass marble, because… nobody seems to be quite sure. It’s odd, largely because the city doesn’t need to compete.
If Bohemian Prague is home to the dark history and literary pretensions, laid back Brno has a fast-growing collection of its own unique lures. A once impenetrable walled city, it’s main attractions are in a compact hub, a spot that’s become pleasantly alternative in the way it presents itself.
Trams chug through the pretty, classical streets. Local bars consist of shacks selling hefty glasses from Moravian vineyards, served in the open air around bubbling fountains. Cocktail bars like the magical ‘Bar That Does Not Exist’ (Ktery Neexistuje in the local lingo) have a menu of thousands of fiery, fruity concoctions made from a mind-boggling selection of boozy bottles.
In fact, the general off-the-wall vibe to Brno is probably its main allure. An architect, for example, once got irritated by negotiations over compensation for his construction of the soaring Church of St James, and so adorned a window ledge with a fornicating, nude-bummed symbol who still rests there today.
Then there’s the Brno dragon, adorning a tunnel in the city hall, said once to have plagued the city (his modern incarnation looks suspiciously like an alligator). St James’ church relatively recently discovered ossuary is a creepy, claustrophobic series of underground tunnels home to wall-to-wall heaps of skulls and bones, while bunker 10-Z – a former secret Soviet underground bunker close the city’s heart – might have jokingly plastered pictures of atom bombs on its walls today, but the other relics remind us of its deadly serious practical applications.
While Brno tends to align itself culturally with Vienna (another snub to capital Prague, we suspect), Ostrava, near the Polish border, is a totally different a more rugged beast.
I spent a weekend in Iceland recently, something I’d had pinned near the top of my bucket list for as long as I can remember. Here’s what I made of it:
The second largest ‘city’ in Iceland apparently has a population of less than 20,000, so to say everything is run from Reykjavik is one massive understatement. It’s an interesting place, quite sparse even in the centre, and seemingly based largely around small, localised businesses and an engaging social scene.
The whole thing’s towered over by the angular Hallgrimskirkja, which sits at the top of the hill in the city centre, while the main streets are lively and artsy, with lots of murals and a lodge-like architecture to the place (aside from Harpa, on the harbour, which is a stunning modern venue).
There’s a house down by the harbour that’s supposed to be located where the city was originally settled, and while the place is inundated with tourists, it does seem to keep largely local leaning in its outlook (if you can ignore the restaurants advertising puffin and whale meals, and a couple of overpriced souvenir shops, at least).
I was particularly taken with spots like the harbour-side Flea Market and the little city square (which I’d previously seen in pictures of Iceland celebrating their Euro 2016 win over England last summer), as well as the record stores and abundant coffee shops.
I can imagine it being the kind of place that’s quite intimate, in the sense that the population naturally limits what’s on offer, but given the Icelandic music scene is centred here and (in my opinion, at least), rivals that of places far, far bigger, I can imagine a longer stay being a lot of fun. That and the possibility of running into Bjork on a night out.
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I played the proper tourist for a few days, though having my own ‘local guide’ certainly helped to see a few things that I might not otherwise have spotted (a few worth mentioning: the flea market, student bars, some of the street art and a really cool record shop called 12 Tonar).
The picture to the right shows Sangram Lama, a Nepalese hiking guide I met back in 2009, when I visited Nepal and hiked the Langtang Valley National Park in the Himalayas. He was an excellent and honest guide, who I hired independently on the streets of Kathmandu, and hiked alongside in challenging terrain for a week, during which he was never less than fun, knowledgeable and encouraging.
Part of the reason I hired Sangram as an independent was that new legislation was in the pipeline in Nepal. Shortly after I left, independent guiding was outlawed in Nepal. Instead, licensed companies would have the sole rights to guide tourists through the mountains. In theory, this was a sensible measure to cut out the use of rogue ‘experts’ in dangerous conditions. The practical reality was it made life extremely difficult for people like Sangram (who insisted I kitted myself out extensively before taking me off to the hills, and knew the route we took impeccably).
If you’ve had even one eye on the news over the last few months, you’ll know that things haven’t exactly been going smoothly in Nepal. A series of earthquakes and aftershocks hit the country, and the area where I trekked, Langtang, was hit incredibly badly. If you can stomach the extent of the problems, there are some shocking news stories on what happened, here, here and here.
Here are a few pictures from my own trip to Langtang, showing how gorgeous the place used to be. Some estimates put deaths in the area at in excess of 80% of the population. None of the buildings pictured here exist anymore.
Fortunately, Sangram was in Kathmandu at the time looking for a new client, and his family at their home village to the East of Nepal (I’ve published Sangram’s story here, in my words and his own, if you’d like to know more extensive details of what actually happened to him during and after the quake). I’m now trying to raise money to help Sangram rebuild his house. He had a stable and seriously hardworking job taken from him by the collapse of the tourism industry. 300 people – fortunately excluding any of this closest friends or family – died in just his village during the quakes and the aftershocks. His house was cracked beyond repair, and his family – Sangram, his wife and two children – are now living in a tented shelter. His contacts from his time as a guide – a job that will become viable again only as tourists return – are all he has to get by.
I’ll edit this post over the coming weeks, to show money being sent and, where possible, how Sangram is using it. I have already sent Sangram as much as I can afford to right now, and quite a few people have kindly donated some extra funds through a post on my Facebook wall, too.
I don’t want to put anyone under any pressure, but equally, one or two Euros is worth a lot more in Nepal than it is in the western world, so sending absolutely anything at all is useful. I’m running the transfers through my own account, for the simple reason that it costs €15 per time to send a transfer to Nepal from AIB (if anyone wants to donate but would prefer to absorb that cost themselves, let me know and I’ll send details). I will put up copies of transfer documents and identify donors by initials at a later date, as I’m well aware that asking for money on the internet can look dodgy. Every penny will go to Sangram and his family.
Please donate via Paypal to email@example.com, and add a note if you’d prefer that your donation is totally anonymous, rather than acknowledged on this page with your initials (I will include the amount under ‘anon’)
Thankyou for the following donations – due to the transfer fee, I will be waiting a couple of weeks and promoting Sangram’s cause a little more before sending one bulk payment. Names shown as initials to protect anonymity, but allow those who have donated to identify themselves. I will post a transfer document as and when.
I’ve quite enjoyed this photo diary thing so far. As you’ll see straight off, I’m not much of a photographer (especially when taking photos with a baby in my other arm on a mobile phone), but it’s motivational and a nice little document of everything that’s going on (which, admittedly, is a lot some days and almost nothing others). This one has a few media moments and a lot of little man – and yes, there are two day 41s, but these things happen! (the first block is here and the second here).