By José Abeto Zaide
Paris, France — We interrupted our sentimental sojourn when Chato and Stephan Vivas invited us to experience Puy du Fou. They said it is a historical theme park in Les Epesses in the heart of the Vendée region of Western France. The park draws more than 2 million visitors every year, making it the second most popular theme park in France after Disneyland Paris. “It’s a good thing that it is in season,” Chato said. “It is the best-selling spectacle in France…and more than Disneyland, it is historical,” Stefan chimed in.
We can readily give in to persuasions of friends, but more so if it would save my shallow pocket from my wife Victoria’s covetous look at St. Honore windowpanes.
I had never heard of Puy du Fou in my 2 1/2 years tour of duty. I thought that this might be something like the passion play performed by Oberammergau in Bavaria every ten years in thanksgiving for being saved from the Black Plague. Au contraire, Puy du Fou runs for half of the year and its main spectacle, the Cinéscénie, has more than two thousand moving parts (i.e., men, women, and children actors).
With Stefan driving like a Les Mans enthusiast, we reached the Chateau Boisniard in two hours. Distinctly black swans were idling by on the waters; and like all chateau hotels in France, the liveried services were warmly welcoming. Our lodgings were the perimeter cabins; our hosts took the Victoria cabin and we had the adjoining Lady Mond cabin – log cabins outside and all the creature comforts inside.
After an hour to settle in and to freshen up, we had time for three-course dinner and sparkling wine before driving to the Puy du Fou, where we conveniently parked the car with the assistance of volunteer guides, and took the bus to the ampitheater. The hale and hearty made the half kilometer distance on foot.
There were no queues and the teeming humanity seemed to find their seats without trouble. Our hosts provided us blankets and portable audio with multilingual facility.
Below us about 20 rungs farther, a young group of spectators entertained themselves and and were joined by the crowd audience in a Mexican wave. The “curtain rises” punctually at 9 in the evening in complete darkness, the better for the chiaroscuro lights effect.
At the appointed hour, the voice announced the start of the program. The theater is set against the ruins of an old Renaissance castle in the village of Les Epesses near Cholet. I need not dwell on the story – not because it is a whodunit – but because there is nothing like experiencing the spectacle of the 2,000 moving parts cum geese, a dozen cattle, thundering horses’ hooves, a pitchfork battle against a uniformed army, cannons and ramparts in flames, all packed in a two-hour saga in a theater the size of the Sta. Ana race tracks.
Chato and Stefan come to watch the spectacle nearly every year. Once, performers and audience completed the show despite the rains. There would be small changes in backdrops of pyrotechnics; but the Cinéscénie, an epic two-hour account remains true to the original script written by the author and founder of Puys de Fou, the Viscount Philippe de Villers. He wrote a scenario about a local family named Maupillier (the real name of a soldier of Vendée at the time of the conflict between Vendée and the French Republic during the French Revolution), spanning from the fourteenth century until World War II.
The Puy du Fou was rated “Best Theme Park in the World” by California-based Thea Classic, high praise indeed coming from the land that invented the very concept of the theme park.
We missed other events. But we were told there are several other spectacular live shows to see which last around 45 minutes:
“Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantom” (The Dance of the Phantom Birds) – pageantry and special effects on a large scale, knights on horseback with huge eagles on their back, and hundreds of birds of prey filling the sky.
“Le Signe du Triomphe” (The Sign of Triumph) – Roman amphitheater. chariot races, including wheels that come off in full flight, live lions, bullying local Roman delegates, unfortunate Christians, and press-ganged gladiators.
The Vikings – burning and fighting and a full-length Viking longboat that emerges from the lake complete with its crew on board.
The Secret of the Lance – stupendous levels of horsemanship, rotating castle.
Richelieu’s Musketeer – indoor stage with horses galloping over water.
Every night, there is a terrific sound-and-light show (The Organs of Fire).