A Gladiator-esque procession at the Gallo-Roman stadium
It is not long before we have to stop ourselves screaming as icy sea water breaches the ship walls and pours down on to our heads. We emerge, blinking, into the daylight having apparently travelled back in time to retrace the final voyage of La Boussole which eventually disappeared off the coast of Australia in 1788. The setting is Puy du Fou, one of Frances’s most extraordinary visitor attractions and it is truly a theme park like no other. There are no rollercoasters here, or stalls selling fast-food or throwaway plastic souvenirs. Instead, with French panache, there are a series of interactive “walk-through” settings and spectacular live shows, each drawing on a distinct period of history. With hundreds of actors in authentic costumes, exotic animals and extraordinary stage designs, wandering through Puy du Fou is like walking through a film set and we had to pinch ourselves to remind ourselves it was real.
Our first minutes at the park do not start well. “Mum” moans our 15-year-old son Patrick, “how can it be a theme park without any rides?” He is soon shocked into silence.
Our first show is the beautiful Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantomes, a spellbinding ballet of birds, which sees 330 eagles, falcons, vultures and owls circling above an open-air amphitheatre and swooping over our heads.
We gasp as a hatch in an airship hundreds of feet high opens and the birds tumble down, missing us by inches as they dive down towards their prey.
The next show catapults the whole family into the Roman era with blood-soaked gladiator battles, baying hordes of Romans and real chariot racing. Our horse-loving daughter Bridy, 14, is enthralled as the horses gallop around the Gallo-Roman stadium.
To our astonishment, a tiger is let loose and prowls across the sandy floor just feet from our two-year-old Gabriel who had only ever seen their pictures in a book.
Les Vikings, where a 66ft longboat emerges from the depths of a lake
“A tiger!” he whispers with a mix of fear and awe. The beast is joined by a pride of lions and an array of other exotic (and immaculately trained) animals including hyena, a leopard, wolves and camels, making unforgettable live entertainment.
Puy du Fou features six daytime shows, ranging from the Vikings through to the flamboyant musketeers of the 17th century, and each performance manages to captivate both our teenagers and our toddler which is no mean feat for a family with such a broad age range.
We had two days on the park and wanted to pack in as much as possible. As each show lasts from 25 to 40 minutes, and they run like clockwork, there were plenty of opportunities to make sure we caught each one.
The park is hugely popular – it had more than 2.2 million visitors last year – and each performance is watched by between 2,000 and 6,000 spectators so planning our daily schedule of shows with the park’s easy-to-use app paid off handsomely.
A jousting tournament taking place
We were blessed with sunny weather but two of the shows are indoors with the Mousquetaire de Richelieu set in a vast luxurious theatre equipped with the largest stage curtain in the world.
The beautifully-executed show features sword duels and equestrian stunts which see horses, in white suits, illuminated in UV light and prancing on their hind legs as they apparently dance across the water.
Another “how DO they do it?” moment comes in Les Vikings, as an imposing 66ft longship rises up from the depths of an inky lake, leaving thousands of people stunned into silence.
Le Dernier Panache, the other indoor show, was like nothing we have seen before, with the entire audience rather than the stage, rotating almost 360 degrees creating an epic panoramic experience.
Le signe du triomphe show
A series of immersive “walk-through” experiences, including the new Le Mystere de La Perouse featuring La Boussole ship, are equally impressive. Patrick, Bridy and I were particularly affected by Les Amoureux de Verdun which is a recreation of the First World War trenches with all their horror and humanity.
As we walked through the trenches, bombs raining down, I couldn’t help but feel my children were receiving one of the best history lessons of all without even realising it.
Puy du Fou is also designed with younger children in mind. Gabriel fell in love with Le Monde Imaginaire de La Fontaine which re-tells French fairy tales in a plant-filled garden filled with talking trees and statues. We had to pay several visits to the animated oak tree, while a charming animal maze featuring cheeky creatures that unexpectedly fired jets of water was a hit.
A highlight for the older children was the extraordinary La Cinescenie, billed as the greatest night time show in the world. Performed by 4,000 actors, the show follows the life of a boy from a Vendee family through the Middle Ages to the end of the Second World War.
Along with 13,000 other spectators, Patrick, Bridy and I were transfixed as the voice of Gerard Depardieu rang out under the stars and a host of angels soared into the skies, carried by dozens of drones. It was a Saturday night we will never forget.
Puy du Fou is a true feat of the imagination and because we focused on the shows, I felt we barely scratched the surface of the park itself.
It features four exquisitely rendered period villages from the Medieval era through to the turn of the century with dozens of craftsmen at work, in over 22 different trades. On a personal level, I found its natural ambience particularly lovely. Despite its popularity, it is serene and tended by 45 gardeners.
Visitors should certainly pack their walking shoes. More than 12 miles of pathways wend through green valleys of flowers and across rose gardens – there are dovecotes and a 100-year-old forest.
An owl and its handler at Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantome
Puy du Fou’s gardeners avoid insecticides and use their own sheep as an ecological lawnmower. As befits the French reputation, the food at Puy du Fou is a culinary experience in itself.
We chose to sample some of the park’s many restaurants with a highlight being Le Bistrot, a typical early 20th-century French brasserie with divine profiteroles, and Le Cafe de la Madelon which plunged us into a warm Belle-Epoque atmosphere.
All the cafe’s guests join in with a cabaret show which appealed to the entire family and made for a memorable final evening.
Visitors to Puy du Fou who wish to stay a night or two can choose which century to sleep in with a range of five stunning themed hotels, sited on the edge of the park, dedicated to a historical era.
Puy Du Fou has stunning rooms of all sizes available
Our base was the wonderfully imposing La Citadelle – a full scale Medieval fortress complete with portcullis, ornate oak beds, hand-painted murals and lime-rendered walls.
Days later, Gabriel is still asking if we can “go back to the castle” and I hope one day we will.
Our two days in Puy du Fou were filled with wonder – and were an education in how history can continue to inform and entertain.
Our visit also proved to even the most cynical of teenagers that not every theme park has to involve a ride – and that history can be the most thrilling roller coaster of all.