Adventures and misadventures in France.

Posts tagged ‘tourism’

Le Puy du Fou

 

If Disney World and a Renaissance Faire got together, the Puy du Fou would be their beautiful French love child. Le Puy du Fou is a historical theme park nestled in the heart of France that serves as a tribute to French and Christian culture throughout the ages. Add in thousands of eccentric employees and volunteers, animals, and over-the-top special effects, and you’ve got the attraction voted 2012’s Best Theme Park in the world.

BUT WAIT!  That doesn’t look like any theme park I’VE ever seen before! Where are the roller coasters? Who makes a family theme park that revolves around periods of war? Was that a colosseum? Where are the anamatronic woodland creatures, and whose idea was it to include gigantic flame throwers?

Le Puy du Fou was unlike any other amusement park (or Ren Faire) that I had ever visited. Instead of the usual rides and attractions, it’s filled with a series of reconstructed period villages and outdoor theaters built to accommodate 300-14,000 spectators.  We only visited for the day, and with six shows on our priority list, it took a bit of scheduling wizardry and hustling to see each 20-50 minute show.

Middle Ages

The first show we attended told the story of Marguerite, a shepherdess who must defend a castle from invaders. Plenty of cool horse tricks, an immense castle set disappeared into the ground, an another castle appeared in its place to spin around and shoot flames, and Jean d’Arc (Joan of Arc) made an appearance.

Vikings

The vikings show came next, and I began to realize a common theme across each show – conflicts of the French Christians versus their barbaric enemies. A full battle ensued, including a viking invasion by boats that appeared out of the water (with living people inside! how did they DO it?) They had wolves attacking people not 10 feet from the front row, someone got lit on fire, towers exploded, and people were dragged behind galloping horses. Easily one of my favorites.

Knights of the Round Table

King Arthur pulled the sword out of the stone, faces challenges, and earns the respect and authority he deserves. Except that the stone spurted flaming water (another SFX mystery), the round table emerged out of a lake and re-disappeared below the water, and a table spun around. Not to leave anyone unimpressed, they included an actual swimming mermaid.

Romans

Set in a 7000-seat colosseum, this show represented Christian Gaul rebellions against the brutal Roman empire. We got to see plenty of gladiators and wild animals roaming around. The highlight, however, was an actual full-speed chariot race. There are only a handful of people in the world qualified to race 4-horse chariot teams, most of whom are employed by the Puy du Fou.

IMG_4452

Birds

The Puy du Fou has its own falconry school. One show was meant to showcase their expertise, but also managed to include the story of…

Blah blah blah spirit of the falcons blah blah blah friendship and harmony singing singing…

Which was not particularly interesting until they unleashed 150 birds of prey simultaneously into the crowd. The birds are even trained to perch on spectators’ hats!

Musketeers

After char broiling in the heat all afternoon, it was time to visit the Richelieu Theater, the only indoor show at the Puy du Fou. As the name suggests, the show is loosely based on the story of the Three Musketeers. The stage is enormous – 80 meters long – 2600 square meters total. To put it in perspective, that’s half the size of an American football field. After some witty banter and fight scenes, we were thrown into a world of glowing horses, flamenco-dancing women – and the stage became a lake. The splashy dancing, horses, and crazy lights continued as the entire stage flooded with six inches of water.

IMG_4536

Beaches of France : Guerande and La Turballe

Part 3

IMG_1494

This funny instrument is called a vielle à roue, or a hurdy gurdy.

Guerande is a fortified medieval city just north of La Baule and St. Nazaire. We decided to drop by the inner city on the way home from our beach weekend to visit the original church, get some lunch, and maybe sample their Brittany wares. The region is known its heavy Breton influence, sailing culture, and coarse salt production. Today, the city is filled with artisans and their shops selling paintings and sculptures.

IMG_1496

Later in the afternoon, we wanted to get a look at the marais salants, salt flats, in La Turballe. Not much to see, just piles of delicious lying around.

IMG_1510

Oh boy! Salt!

Next to the flats, we found a parking lot with signage leading to a beach. Adding to our weekend of spontaneity, we decided to take a stroll to check it out. Fifteen minutes of marching through a forest filled with picnicking families and the beach finally came into view. On such a hot day, we were excited to finally see a natural and tranquil beach. We finally reached the top of the dunes and looked down to admire the clear water and the bay below.

The face of ignorance

The face of blissful ignorance.

Look at that view! The sand is so soft! Let’s go dip our feet in the water!

Hey that’s weird… there’s a woman swimming – naked? And there’s another guy and he’s – also naked? And those people over there… and… uh oh…

As it turns out, this particular beach was far more natural than anticipated. We had stumbled upon an unofficial naturist beach. Standing at the top of the dunes, we tried not to stare as couples, families, and groups of friends all paraded past us to enjoy their naked day at the beach. After a few moments of shocked silence and attempts at nonchalance, Max turned to me and asked:

Can we go back to the car now?

Maybe next time, Naked Beach.

Beaches of France : La Baule and Pornichet

Part 2

“The most beautiful beach in Europe”

The morning after our St. Nazaire fiasco, Max and I woke up early and drove to La Baule, a bay spanning 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) in southern Brittany. The enormous and beautiful beach is covered in restaurants and “clubs”- bars for parents to relax while their children engage in camp activites. The entire bay is lined with hotels, luxury apartments, and a rambla for long strolls.

We parked in Pornichet, the low-key southern end of the beach, and walked forever to find some sandwiches and gelatto in the main shopping area. We had the beach mostly to ourselves until mid-afternoon, when people flooded into the water or posted up in one of the rental tents. We had to be on the lookout for enormous jellyfish that regularly washed up on shore, but otherwise spent the afternoon reading relaxing in the sun.

European beaches are notoriously laid back, but coming from America, it’s still surprising to see women casually spending the day topless on the beach (more on that later). In France, however, toplessness doesn’t seem to provoke any attention, positive or negative.

That evening, we avoided the crowds by returning to Pornichet for dinner (more forever walking), and enjoyed a tasty seafood dinner at Le Normandy.

IMG_1474

Check out the lemon juice contraption.

Mud and Le Mont Saint-Michel

IMG_1415

Max and I seized the opportunity of a free weekend day to visit the Mont Saint-Michel, an abbey located off the northern coast of France. The original structure dates back to 708 AD, and the abbey, surrounding city, and fortified walls were added between 966 and 1500. For centuries, the Mont Saint-Michel has served as a monastery, military outpost, prison, and site of Catholic pilgrimage. Today, it stands as a tourist trap and testament to enduring Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most visited in Europe, receiving over 3 million people each year.

I can remember seeing the Mont in French class videos almost every year of middle and high school. It’s been my top tourist attraction priority since arriving in France. Every weekend seemed like the perfect weekend to make the drive, but Max insisted on waiting until warmer weather. That finally arrived in July.

We left super early in the morning, dropped off Jojo, picked up sandwiches, and parked in the mainland lot. We chose the 45-minute walk over the shuttle. Soon we were standing at the base, with busloads of tourists flooding in around us. Inside the city walls, narrow alleys of souvenir shops and restaurants snake their way up to the abbey. There’s a scenic (and more spacious) walk along the ramparts, so we were able to bypass most of the crowds and view the low tide and salt marshes surrounding the island.

Normally, the abbey charges a small entrance fee, but we soon learned that the tour guides were on strike (typical France) to protest the lack of employee shuttles. One captivating 10-minute explanation from an employee later, Max turned to me and said:

If anyone else here tries to talk to us about the strikes, let’s pretend we’re both American and can’t speak any French.

So we were able to visit for free. The abbey is currently home to the friars and sisters of the Fraternites Monastiques de Jerusalem, who still run mass and other ceremonies throughout the week. We cruised through the self-guided tour of the different halls within the abbey- some of which featured spectacular views of the landscape, while others offered cavernous stone echo chambers.

Around noon, we had finished both the abbey and our sandwiches, so we descended back into the village looking for more fun-tivites. A kiosk offered inexpensive passes to (all four!) historic museums. Little did we know that this was a blatant tourist trap, so we spent the next two hours viewing “relics”, presentations, and videos that clearly hadn’t been updated since the 80s. Many “exhibits” featured mannequins dressed in medieval attire, presenting historic/legendary figures or life in the Mont Saint-Michel dungeons. Seriously, what is up with the mannequins? Yes, we attended every last “museum” – we were determined to get our money’s worth of shtick. Please, if you ever visit the Mont, DO NOT bother.

Clearly, after spending several hours crushed and propelled along by legions of socks-with-sandals, we were looking for a change of pace. The island is surrounded by miles of mud flats at low tide, so we kicked off our shoes and trekked around. Honestly, aside from the fantastic views and architecture of the abbey, this was the hilight of our day. Eccentric and sunburnt hippie-types lead guided tours of the mud flats- next time, I’ll be reserving tickets in advance.

IMG_1402

Tag Cloud