Voted the Best Park in the World and winner of Trip Advisors Travellers choice for Europe, Puy du Fou is a theme park unlike any other. Located in the Vendée region in Western France, this park has been putting on historical shows since the 1970s with over 11 million people now having seen its premier show, La Cinéscénie. This June, Sarah and her family visited Puy du Fou for a long weekend, to see for themselves what the park has to offer for families with an interest in history.
The second biggest theme park in France after EuroDisney, Puy du Fou is not a theme park so much as an historical theatrical experience. There are no rides and none of the overwhelming concrete jungles and excessive commercialism that people associate with theme parks. Instead, Puy du Fou is a series of shows set in 55 acres of beautiful parkland just south of Nantes. The park has several venues dotted around that host daily shows depicting a different period of history from the 3rd – 20th century, several immersive ‘walk-throughs’, period villages and shops, animals, historical crafts and skills on display, as well as plenty of historically themed restaurants and hotels.
History of Puy du Fou
In 1977, a student (now politician) named Phillipe de Villiers discovered the ruins of an old Renaissance castle in the village of Les Epesses near Cholet, and wrote a show he called La Cinéscénie, about a local family called Maupillier and their history set against 700 years of the history of the Vendée. The show was performed throughout the summer against the backdrop of the ruined castle, using local people as the supporting cast.
The show developed and grew over the years and in 1989 the rest of the park was established, with more shows being put on to complement La Cinéscénie, and hotels and other attractions added. The shows have hatched a huge industry of actors, stage hands, stunt people, props, animal trainers, technicians and everything else that is required for such massive productions.
Puy du Fou now has several animal academies – equestrian, canine and falconry - to train and look after the animals that it uses in its shows, as well as running a conservation programme for endangered species. The park itself is run on ecological methods and grows its own vegetables, avoids the use of insecticides, uses sheep as lawnmowers and has trained crows to pick up rubbish left by visitors.
We spent a long weekend there this June, flying from the UK into Nantes on the Friday and back home on the Sunday, giving us two days and nights in one of the park's hotels, La Citadelle. I had had no idea of what to expect really, thinking ‘shows’ sounded a bit vague and antiquated. I had read that the show which started it all in the 1970s, the Cinéscénie, was now vast, being set over 23 hecatares with over 2000 actors, but just couldn’t imagine how that could work in practical terms. It all sounded so unlike anything I had ever experienced before, yet Puy du Fou has twice been voted the Best Creation in the World. I didn’t understand how I only recently found out about it, why hadn’t I heard of it before? With my fixation for finding historical experiences where I can try to fully immerse myself in history so real that I can feel like I have genuinely experienced it, I didn’t understand how this could have passed me by. After a weekend there, I’m even more baffled.
After checking into our Medieval castle hotel, complete with portcullis, staff in full Medieval attire, heavy oak doors, and turreted bed heads, we headed straight to the park to explore. My first reaction to the park was how green it was, with trees everywhere, lakes, paths rather than concrete roads, waterfalls and streams that tumbled over footpaths and buildings which all blended into the landscape. There were no hidden areas behind the scenes full of plastic, mess and trailing cables, which you get in many places, everywhere was immaculate. Even speakers were disguised as rocks or wood piles, the many recycling bins were all wood cladded, everything just seemed to blend in so that the overwhelming impression was one of verdant greenery and nature. The chirping of birds, and cicadas in some places, really added to the feeling that nature dominated much of the park.
We saw a microlight flying overhead, followed by a V- formation of geese which was entrancing and I think was part of one of the shows taking place nearby, although we wondered if it was the famous French man who flies with geese to teach them their migratory routes. We watched him fly above us until he disappeared behind the trees, and as there was no show starting at that time, we headed to nearest immersive experience, which don’t have set start times like the shows.
The immersive walk-throughs
Our first experience of the immersive walk through was La Mystère de La Pérouse. We had no idea what to expect as we headed through a wooden doorway. We entered an 18th century wood panelled room, with the voice-over of a small boy asking his father about the mystery of La Pérouse, a French scientific explorer who led an expedition around the world under the patronage of Louis XVII, with two 500 ton storeships, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, to establish trade contacts, open new routes, update navigational maps and to enrich scientific knowledge and collections. The expedition with 200 men left in 1785 and sailed to Chile, Easter Island, the Hawaiian Islands, Alaska, California, Japan, the South Pacific and Australia before it vanished without a trace in 1788.
We slowly walked through, with the story moving on to the outside of one of the ships at harbour, the items being gathered for the great trip, with costumed actors standing on the quayside having a discussion, to the inside of the ship La Boussole, as it headed off on its voyage. Each room we walked through was another chapter in its story, as the ship slowly filled with all of their discoveries, plants being kept in simple vivariums to take home, one of the Easter Island heads lying on a pile of hessian bags, even a giant iguana in a wooden cage, swishing its huge tail at us as we walked past.
The ship's officers were having discussions around the tables in their cabins, a really clever mix of live actors and animated mannequins interacting with each other. We walked below decks during a storm, with moonlight flooding through the windows and the sea crashing outside as waves lashed at the sides of our ship, with incredibly realistic film projected behind the windows to create the effect.
The ship actually moved and creaked, we were tossed about with everything clanging and crashing around us. It was actually the walls and the ceiling moving up and down with frighteningly real sound effects, but the effect was stunning, and actually made the teenager feel sea sick. As far as I was concerned, we were standing on that ship. As the ship moved to Alaska, the room got really cold and icebergs passed us at the open windows, a broken and frozen rowing boat crashed into the side of one of them, and rows of animal skins were hung up to keep the sailors warm.
Then finally, water started pouring in from above us, down through the moonlit hatches in huge streams of water that splashed at our feet as shouts filled the air. As we kept on walking, the ship fell apart around us, dashed on rocks with wreckage everywhere. We walked through a celestial tunnel of water that shot over our heads as we left the ship, the end of it all for the scientific expedition.
I have never experienced such a total immersion in an historical event or been in anything quite so realistic. The attention to detail was immaculate and the effects, from the movement, the smells, the use of actors made it utterly lifelike. The first time I went through it (naturally I did it several times), I had several parts of it entirely to myself, and to stand in that creaking ship 18th century ship with the waves crashing around me and the moonlight streaming through the hatches above me was a moment I will never forget.I would highly recommend going through this at a quiet time. On one of my trips through it, it was packed with people and you just don’t get the same effect as you shuffle through being propelled along, as you miss the details and just don’t get the same level of immersion.
We visited the other two immersive experiences, the new Premier Royaume and Les Amoureux de Verdun. Both were equally amazing and both of which I visited more than once. Les Amoureux de Verdun saw us in the trenches of World War I, and is based on actual love letters between soldiers and their sweethearts. We walked through the trenches with their wood panelling, the mud, smells and loud bangs of gunfire around us. A tank had fallen through one trench, its wheels spinning helplessly in the mud above us.
We saw the soldiers in their bunks, writing letters or resting, surrounded by dirt and gunfire, walls shaking with each explosion. Soldiers pushed past us, walking through the trenches looking for their captain. We walked past a makeshift operating theatre in the trench where a surgeon operated on a soldier amongst the chaos, a nurse seeing to patients in their makeshift cots, where the bottles of medicines rattled with each explosion. Again there was incredible attention to detail and we saw parts of trench life that often gets overlooked. There was a small laundry, with sheets boiling away in a vain attempt at cleanliness; there were pairs of battered boots hung around a stove; a munitions trench where all of their artillery was stored and where the ground we stood on vibrated and shook underneath us.
We walked through a gas attack, kneeling faceless men with gas masks and hessian over their heads, the dark air filled with smoke and the harrowing sounds of coughing. Even more poignant was the Christmas ceasefire of 1916, where I leant against sandbags and listened to the rich sounds of German soldiers singing ‘Silent Night’, as I looked at the silhouette of a bombed out church and makeshift graves. We walked out of the experience to see small wooden crosses in the forest around us.
Le Premier Royaume is the newest immersive experience which opened up this year. It tells the story of Clovis, King of the Franks, during the fall of the Roman Empire and his founding of the first kingdom of France, where France stopped being ruled by individual chieftains and was united under one king. It was incredible, as we followed Clovis through his conquests and doubts which led him to the fiery depths of Valhalla and his conversion to Catholicism. We walked from a room full of monks scratching out their copies of ancient manuscripts, through a room filled with lava flowing beneath us and streams of water droplets that flowed unbelievably from the floor to the ceiling, rooms filled with clanking chains and machinery, to a Roman villa filled with riches being destroyed in front of our eyes, to Clovis praying in a huge two storey waterfall that rained fleur-de-lys shapes. The whole thing was a massive visual feast and quite an experience.
All of these shows use the latest technology to create their special effects, and a really clever mix of real life actors and automated mannequins, along with sounds and smells to make them exactly what they claim to be – truly immersive. In my lifelong quest for the truly immersive historical experience, I have never found anything as close as these at Puy du Fou.
As far as I was concerned, the shows had a lot to live up to after the immersive walk throughs and I didn’t see how they could equal those. Yet as I watched my fourth or fifth show, I realised that I had watched most of them with my mouth slightly agape, truly astounded at what I was seeing. We watched as many of the shows as we could pack in, which does leave you charging around the park somewhat and with a certain amount of waiting around to get in, but it was all worth it. Some of the shows last about ten minutes, but the majority are 30 minutes long.
The incredible Le Signe du Triomphe in a massive Roman amphitheatre.
My favourite has to be Le Signe Du Triomphe, which takes place in a Gallo-Roman amphitheatre 115 metres long and 75 metres wide, which recreates Gaul during the times of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, when there was a great deal of unrest and a time of severe persecution of Christians. Which side you were on depended on where you sat. We ended up with the Gauls, and joined in enthusiastically with the booing as the Romans took their seats, spurred on by the Gauls who were seated with us. We took part in the longest Mexican wave I’ve ever been in and cheered as rebel Gauls dripped amphora of fish blood on arena floor in the outline of the Christian fish symbol in defiance of the Roman rulers, booing when they were dragged off by the Romans to be thrown to the lions.
The show started with a parade around the stadium, with the Romans showing off the slaves they had captured (some bedraggled and angry looking Gauls being marched around at spear point) and wild animals being exhibited with a flock of geese, oxen, ostriches and camels, even a hyena and a sleek leopard.
France has very different animal laws to the UK, and are allowed to use them in performances which I know upsets a few visitors if the Trip Advisor reviews are anything to go on, but there is no denying the historical accuracy of it, as the Romans were all about showing off the wild animals they had captured to impress and terrify the locals, parading them around the arenas, often using them to kill and be killed in the tradition of venatio, which was practised at the Colosseum in Rome.
Next came the chariot racing, with teams of four horses pulling a rider and chariot at incredible speeds around the track. One by one the chariots broke, with the wheel of one catching fire and another running over a fallen post from the side of the amphitheatre before crashing out. They were so realistic that it took me a while to realise that it was all planned and staged – I had been genuinely worried that the horses were going to crash into the fallen post and that something had gone wrong. The race was won by the Gaulish chariot and again, we all cheered. There was a love story as the background for all of this, with a Roman siding with the Gauls and rescuing his damsel in distress from the stake. Real lions and a tiger were brought into the arena, with the tiger being put into a cart full of terrified Gaulish prisoners (and the clever use of compartments to keep them safe!).
It goes without saying that the story ended happily. We were all entranced throughout the whole show, my history mad son leaning forward the whole time with a look of fierce concentration on his face as if he really could not believe what he was seeing. Even my bored teenager looked like she was enjoying herself.
The Vikings is another show that absolutely must not be missed. Set in a peaceful village, a Viking ship arrives to cause mayhem and destruction, with buildings blowing up and falling over, fires and explosions everywhere, even a horse and his rider set alight, some incredible stunts and fighting. One of the Viking ships charges down the hill to land in the lake where the show is set, the other actually rises from the bottom of the lake, complete with Vikings standing in it, I hope with breathing equipment. A priest eventually arrives and stops all of the mayhem, bringing peace and then turning into a white dove which flies away, right in front of us, his vestments falling to the ground in a heap. I still don’t know how they did that bit.
Another show I loved was the Mousquetaire de Richelieu which tells the tale of the Three Musketeers and which takes place indoors. The stage is massive and apparently the stage curtain for this is the largest in the world. The audience is warmed up by a 17th century clown who comes on and keeps everyone entertained. When the show starts, the set is very basic, but buildings seem to emerge out of nowhere as swordfights, duels and various swashbuckling takes place, horses come charging onto the stage racing around at high speed, and it ends with a huge Spanish street scene, with the stage flooded, flamenco dancers kicking up the water as horses dance around them. I have never seen anything quite like it for sheer scale, incredible effects and jaw dropping scenes
Le Dernier Panache is another indoor show in a huge round building, Le Théâtre des Géants, which measures 7500m2. The entire audience stalls are moved around slowly to follow the action which takes place on more incredible sets, including a cross section of a naval frigate and a bombed out church, when the smell of burning fills the air. There is even a small lake on one of the sets, with two children sailing away in a rowing boat. The stage curtains all blend into one, with scenes projected onto them that fully surrounded us and felt like a 4D cinema.
Another show I would highly recommend, although it’s not historical, is Le Bal des Oiseaux – the dance of the birds. This is set on the ruins of a castle and does have a storyline, which I’m afraid I paid little attention to as we all sat spellbound by the hundreds of birds of prey that flew around the arena, swooping so low over our heads we could feel their wings brush past us. A hot air balloon is suspended high in the air nearby, my daughter had been wondering for two days what it was for, and during this show she got her answer, as birds of prey were released from it and dive-bombed towards us at incredible speeds. The air is filled with dramatic music as the finale arrives and hundreds of birds all swarm around the arena in an incredible and moving performance that is apparently the result of an epic 25 year long project.
All of the shows we saw had the most incredible effects, with total precisions, split second timing and wonderful stunts. Although all in French, the Puy du Fou app provides translations, you just make sure that you are on the Puy du Fou wifi, plug in your headphones and select ‘live translation’. Some have more narrative than others, some we gave up on the translations and just sat back to enjoy the spectacle; so much of it is visual that I don’t think we really missed much without translations.
Emotion passes - showing you which shows they can be used for and that can be worn around the neck.
Queues can be huge for the shows, which you can avoid by buying Emotion passes which are essentially fast track tickets and can be used on the main shows. These give you a separate entrance to get in and do allow you to saunter past all of the people who have been queuing for ages, into reserved centrally located seating. I suspect these really come into their own during the peak summer months, when it must get incredibly busy.
These passes cost €15 per person per day (under 5's get them for free) and can be used for the seven main shows - Romans, Vikings, Birds of Prey, Secret of the Lance, Mousquetaire de Richelieu, Le Dernier Panache and Les Orgues de Feu, which is a spectacular late night show set on a lake.
Cinéscénie is the show that started it all, and has now grown to epic proportions. It takes place on the world’s biggest stage of 23 hectares, and features 2400 actors, 130 horse riders, 80 technicians, 28000 costumes, 31 drones and 3000 projectors. Tickets have to be bought separately for this and it has a separate entrance to the rest of the park. The audience sits in what is essentially half a stadium in the open air, overlooking the ruined castle behind a lake, with two sets at either end. What follows is a truly staggering 90 minutes, as thousands of people fill the whole set with various scenes as they run through the history of the Vendee from the Middle Ages to World War II.
There was so much going on that you could watch it several times and still miss much of it. There were people walking and dancing on the lake, carnivals, processions of animals, horses charging around, special effects that caused faces to appear in water sprays, candles to hover in the night sky, buildings appeared and disappeared, the air cracked with gunfire and with hundreds of amazing fireworks, it was a veritable banquet of special effects and really quite overwhelming at times.
Fireworks galore as La Cinéscénie reaches its finale. Photograph © Puy du Fou
The only downside of it was that it doesn’t finish until midnight, meaning it is not ideal for small children. If you do visit the park with young kids, I would give this one a miss, as it is tiring and overwhelming enough for adults. Many of the effects used are also used in other shows, so you could still have an amazing time at the park without feeling like you had missed anything and without having to keep your children up so late.
If you do go, it does get cold so wear really warm clothing. Many people took blankets, which you can also buy in the stadium at €12 each. There is no interval and it’s hard to get in and out of the seats as people are packed in quite closely, so make sure you’ve got everything you need before the show starts.
My favourite period village, Le Bourg, circa 1900 France.
The endangered Poitou donkeys enjoying the sunshine.
The rest of the park houses four period villages, all constructed with authentic materials. My favourite was the Art Nouveau décor of Le Bourg, a French town from 1900, which also housed many of the shops, discretely tucked away. There are plenty of animals to visit, with a large barn in the 18th century village full of pigs, lambs, tiny baby goats and chicks. There were two wonderfully shaggy donkeys, which we later discovered were the endangered Poitou donkey, of which there are only 100 left in existence. We visited an aviary stocked with pure white doves and a couple of pigeons, who we later saw fly over our heads during one of the shows. There was a fabulous rose garden which we were visiting in its prime, and a deer park and wild flower walk, which we sadly didn’t have the time to visit.
Puy du fou for younger children
An idyllic scene and talking tree in Les Repaires des Enfants.
Puy du Fou is aimed at everyone, their idea being that kids to grandparents can all enjoy exactly the same experience. That being said, they are some specifically kid-friendly areas for younger children. There is a large play park, Les Repaires Des Enfants, as well as Le Monde Imaginaire de la Fontaine, an interactive garden described as a children's paradise, where we saw talking trees and animals in idyllic settings. There's a deer park and a labyrinth of animals, as well as plenty of places to just sit down outside and run around or rest, to give younger children the time out that they need.
There are a couple of shows which will delight younger children too, such as the ten minute Le Carillon, which has people charging up and down the giant bell tower to make music, or Le Ballet de Sapuers which is performed by children from the Puy du Fou stage school.
My kids having a great time controlling the fountains on the lake.
The whole weekend was a fabulous experience and at times it really did feel like you were living in history. The shows were spectacular, even to people jaded by too many special effect films, and it was a delightful contrast to be able to see live action stunts and know that there was no fancy camerawork nor clever editing involved . Some of the story lines seemed to focus too much on damsels in distress, manly men doing manly things, with an emphasis on Christianity and anti-republicanism, and there were moments where I sat there thinking that I’m sure that didn’t happen like that, but in the end the storylines were all actually irrelevant. All that mattered was the incredible spectacle of what we were watching.
My son summed it up nicely when he came back from school the day after our trip, and said that when he had tried to explain it to his friends, it had made no sense at all. He had told them how a boat had risen from a lake, full of Vikings, that horses and organs had glided across a lake, that a Roman charioteer had glared at him when he booed him in the coliseum, that Morgana had turned into a mermaid, that birds of prey had danced over his head while two medieval ladies had twirled below them, that faces had been projected onto giant water spouts. It is truly impossible to describe and neither words nor photos can do it justice.
I can’t wait to go back.
Where to stay
The medieval La Citadelle - the newest hotel at Puy du Fou, with all mod cons. Photograph © Puy du Fou
Puy du Fou has five themed hotels in its Cite Nocturne complex, which is a five minute walk away from the main park. With a choice of a Gallo-Roman hotel, Middle-Ages huts on stilts over a lake, the huge tents of the Field of Gold of Henry VIII and the Medieval fortress of La Citadelle, Puy du Fou offers 2000 beds in total, most of them in family rooms. All of the hotels are themed, with staff in full period costume and with authentic styled décor. Our room in La Citadelle had wonderful period details with lime rendered walls, oak furniture, opulent fabrics, hanging lanterns and a TV hidden behind oak lattice doors. There were still all of the mod cons you would expect, with a bunk bed for the kids in a nook, a separate bathroom and loo, and the all-important free wifi for the teenager. There are plenty of campsites, B&B’s and local hotels in the area too, all of which are very used to catering to Puy du Fou visitors.
Where to eat
Puy du Fou has 22 places to eat on site, which range from snack bars to full restaurants and which cover a great range of styles and tastes. We tried several of the restaurants, all of which are themed and with staff in full period costume to add authenticity to the experience. There were several with buffets as well as table service. Some of the restaurants also offer shows while you eat, such as a 1914 wedding where nothing goes according to plan in Le café de la Madelon. You could pay for your meal with vouchers purchased in advance to save any hassle. One thing to bear in mind if you chose to eat in the restaurants is that booking is often a good idea to avoid waiting around, but that does mean you need to plan where you are going to be and when, as you don’t want to finish watching a show and then run the length of the park to get to the restaurant. Fast food places serves sandwiches, burgers and all of the usual fare. There are limited vegetarian options in the park, and no vegan, so it’s worth taking that into account.
How to Get there
We got a direct flight from Southampton to Nantes, but La Rochelle is another nearby airport that is only 90 minutes’ drive away from Puy du Fou. We had hired a car in advance to collect at the airport and had an easy one hour drive to the park, mostly on main roads. Google maps was definitely our friend for those journeys and didn’t lead us astray once. There are two routes you can take to and from Nantes airport; take note that the A83 road is a toll road, which cost us €6. The other route, E62, was still a really easy road and only a few minutes longer, yet had no toll.
Essential Tips for visiting Puy du Fou
Allow enough time
Allow for at least two full days to see most of the shows and explore the period villages. I could happily have done four days there and not got bored once. The two days we had were tiring as we tried to fit so much in so it would have been good to spread it out a little bit more.
Get the App
Download the free Puy du Fou app before you leave home as it can provide you with a timetable of shows, an interactive map and live translations of the shows. Take headphones and a power pack or two, as your phone may well eat its way through battery power with so much use.
Plan your day
Each day the park produces a printed leaflet showing you timings and more information for that day. These are worth picking up each morning, as the app did fail us on timetables at one point. All of the shows start on time. I would advise getting to them probably at least 20 minutes before they are due to start, more if you don’t have E-motion tickets and it’s a popular show.
Dress for walking and weather
Wear walking shoes that you don’t mind getting filthy as the paths can get quite dusty, especially when a huge crowd of people all walks out of a show at any one time. There can be quite a lot of walking involved to get around to see what you want to. There is a land train that can take you around the site using back roads, but it is quite slow if you’re in a hurry. The shows go ahead whatever the weather, so make sure you've got waterproofs, sun hats, sun cream and extra layers.
Plan your food
The food places are all closed after the night shows, so if you think you’re likely to be hungry after staying up so late, it’s a good idea to have bought food in advance to leave in your hotel room awaiting your return, particularly if you have older kids.
Leaving the park
If you leave the park during the day and plan on returning later, make sure you get your wrist stamped by the gate staff on your way out, as that guarantees being allowed re-entry.
If taking young children
Les Amoureux de Verdun is probably not good for young children, I heard a few of them sobbing and having to be taken out quickly. I would say that is a testament to its detail and accuracy. Le Premier Royaume may be a bit much too, although it is more fantasy than reality. There are plenty of places nearby to take younger kids so parents can visit these individually.
Don't worry about the language barrier
A lot of the staff speak English, certainly enough for you to not need to get much further than “Parlez-vous Anglais?” All the staff we encountered were incredibly friendly and helpful and went out of their way to assist us when we needed it.
Visiting Puy Du Fou
April - October
Check the official website for a detailed timetable of days and show availability as it does vary
Ticket Prices for one day
under 5s go free
Ticket Prices for two days
Ticket Prices for three days
La Cinéscénie - €28 per person
Combination tickets are available that include parc entry and La Cinéscénie as well accommodation in one of the on site hotels.
Sarah and her family were guests of Puy du Fou for the weekend who provided them with accommodation, park tickets and flights. All views are entirely her own.