What do you get when you combine Colonial Williamsburg, Gladiator, and a Renaissance festival?Puy du Fou, an inventive theme park in western France that's an ideal weekend trip from Paris. This is where schoolchildren and their families go for fun—and to bone up on French history, from medieval times to World War II.
The brainchild of Philippe de Villiers, now governor of the region, Puy du Fou began 24 years ago as a nighttime festival. Villiers, who was studying public administration at the time, had the idea of creating a "living pageant," an extravaganza that would bring to life the rocky history of his native Vendée. The predominantly Royalist area resisted the Revolution (300,000 locals rose up against the newly formed republic in 1793), and the Vendéens are famously proud of their heritage.
Villiers found an abandoned parcel of land with a ruined château and asked the local government to donate the site for his project. Astonishingly, the government agreed, stipulating that it would receive a portion of the profits. Villiers then set about persuading the residents of 15 nearby villages to join the production. Ever since, every summer weekend night, an all-volunteer troupe—grandparents, parents, children—of 850 elaborately costumed actors and 400 crew have re-enacted seven centuries of history in two hours. On a grassy field, complete with castle and lake, knights joust, armies clash, and peasants revolt, while some 14,000 spectators stomp, cheer—and gasp, when a lone drummer girl is struck and dies. The performance, called the Cinéscénie, is narrated in French; headsets with English translations are available, but the plot is easy to follow without them, especially the finale: 500 fireworks, flashing laser lights, computer-choreographed fountains, and the entire cast, hand in hand.
The success of the production, and a grand tour of American theme parks, inspired Villiers to build the adjoining Grand Parc. The 100-acre site, open all summer, is divided into nine main attractions, including three complete historic villages, each built using materials and techniques true to its period. In the 18th-century main square, maidens gather at the laverie, or washing well, calligraphers work with goose-feather pens, and artisans carve wooden clogs, make candles, and stamp coins. If you're lucky, they'll give you a coin (and all the other goods are for sale). Nearby, an 11th-century fortified town is eternally under attack by Viking invaders, while just beyond, knights on horseback defend a 15th-century castle. At the newly completed Gallo-Roman Stadium, a replica of the Colosseum, four-horse chariots hurtle past at breakneck speeds. Next up in the arena: a warrior's hand-to-paw battle with six roaring lions and tigers—real ones! Thierry Le Portier, who directed the animal scenes in Gladiator, was tapped for the stunt's choreography. You won't get that at Magic Mountain.
BETTER THAN DISNEY?
Puy du Fou is 220 miles southwest of Paris, and 20 miles from Nantes. The TGV will get you to Nantes in two hours. You'll have to rent a car from there (Avis and Hertz have counters at the station) for the hour-long drive to the park.
Puy du Fou 30 Rue Georges-Clemenceau, Les Épesses, Vendée; 33-2/51-64-11-11; www.puydufou.com; Saturdays and Sundays in May and daily June 1—September 16, 10 a.m.—7 p.m.; admission for two days (including the Cinéscénie Friday- and Saturday-night pageants) $41 per adult, $19 per child. Reservations advised for the pageant.
Le Rendez-Vous des Ventres Faims Puy du Fou, lunch for four $44. A cafeteria-style restaurant on the grounds, with picnic tables and surprisingly good food. Try the cured ham with freshly fried potatoes or a buttery brioche, the signature bread of the Vendée.
L'Hermitage 2 Rue de la Jouvence, St.-Laurent-sur-Sèvre; 33-2/51-67-83-03; doubles from $32; dinner for four $42. A simple inn about five miles from Puy du Fou, with 16 sparklingly clean rooms. The restaurant offers vendéen dishes, such as rabbit with mojettes (white beans cooked with garlic and butter), and fresh Atlantic shellfish.
La Palarderie Les Herbiers; 33-2/51-91-08-76; doubles from $38, including breakfast. Jean-Paul Sorin's dairy farm, in the hills 12 miles from Puy du Fou, is a great alternative to a hotel stay. The family-style meals ($12 per person) are a cultural experience in themselves.
Note: Area hotels may be booked months in advance. For other places to stay, call Les Herbiers' Office du Tourisme (33-2/51-92-92-92, fax 33-2/51-92-93-70; www.ot-lesherbiers.fr).