Where were we?
This time last week we were in Brittany, with one more coastal day ahead of us. On Monday we retraced our route south and east, past Nantes to the small town of Mortagne-sur-Sèvre. This was chosen entirely for its proximity to Puy du Fou, allegedly the world’s best theme park, and where we spent the next three days. We left Puy du Fou on Thursday and went back to Nantes. A day and a half and a brief stop in Le Mans later and we are now in Paris.
Where should we have been?
After Hiroshima and the Seto Inland Sea, this should have been our Olympic week. We had tickets for the judo yesterday and women’s rugby 7’s today. We should have been based in Atami, on the coast outside Tokyo. We had hoped to spend a bit of time on the beach too.
What did we actually do?
Mont St Michel
Mont St Michel is an icon, an almost impossible island of layers of buildings rising to a perfect point. It’s also one of France’s major tourist attractions, with organised parking on the mainland and bookable shuttle buses to and from the island itself.
Our travels seem to have become much less obviously “cultural” since we left St Pierre de Chartreuse and it was in that vein that we decided not to visit the island itself, with its medieval streets and Abbey, but to drive around the bay at high tide and eat our sandwiches overlooking the island as the waters receded.
We did wonder whether the sight of it might inspire the children to want to visit but although there were votes in favour, the thought of the parking guddle and the compulsory masks at all times while on the island was enough to send us heading for St Malo.
If we had wanted to avoid a guddle of parking (our preferred French phrase is bordel de merde) St Malo was the wrong choice, but happy chance and about 20 minutes of driving round and round eventually found us a space.
We were, therefore, all a bit hot and grumpy when we walked through the imposing walls. An ice cream later, however, and St Malo began to work its charms on us.
It is set on a spit of land jutting into the English Channel/La Manche and surrounded on all sides by walls. On the seaward side the high tide line laps at the walls themselves and in a wintry storm the waves crash over into the city. On a beautiful day in July however, a glorious strand was revealed. The tide was going out and what had been off-shore islands when we arrived were soon a gentle stroll away across the sand.
We settled down to hunt for worms (none), crabs (five) and other seaside delights. We enjoyed a paddle in our third salty body of water of the trip. (Is there a collective noun for sea/ocean?). The water bubbles up through the sand and makes excellent moated castles. Our beastie of the week (despite stiff competition later) was a determined winkle, solemnly trudging across the sand towards the receding sea. Rumours she was hoping to find a whale for a world trip remain unconfirmed…
Ben heroically undertook to return to the car for swimming things and some of us also enjoyed a dip in the huge lido with its iconic diving platform (although no one was brave enough to take the leap).
We had such a good time that it was after 9pm when we got back to Ploërmel.
Josselin and Mortagne-sur-Sèvre
We left Brittany on Monday, stopping first in the nearby town of Josselin. We knew nothing about it, and so its lovely château (sadly closed on Monday mornings) and multi-coloured half-timbered houses were a surprise and a delight.
After a sandwich we we on the road again, broadly following the route of the Loire towards Nantes, and round the delights of its ring road, before heading past vines being farmed on an industrial scale to the small town of Mortagne-sur-Sèvre.
This was an unexpected treat. We merely wanted to be near Puy du Fou for an early start the next day, but Mortagne proved (if only to Ben and Harriet – everyone else having opted to stay inside with the WiFi) to be surprisingly interesting and beautiful. We enjoyed ancient walls, a walking route based around notable local women (including the embroiderer of Princess Grace’s wedding dress, and a counter-revolutionary martyr (not the same person)), lovely riverside gardens and a rare breeds farm.
We finally identified our plant of the week here too. A Persian Silk Tree. We wonder if it would survive in Scotland….
Puy du Fou
Where do we start talking about Puy du Fou? It’s one of craziest, most over the top, most full-on, most jaw-dropping, campest, silliest, most unbelievable and most EPIC places we have ever been. With a permanent sound track to match.
It is, loosely, historical, although we suspect the professional historian in the family (new book coming out in September: get your copy here) might be horrified at the lack of any subtlety or nuance in how various events are presented.
We did start to notice after a while a recurring theme of traditionalist, Catholic, French victory over evil foreign invaders. A quick google led us to its founder, Philippe de Villiers, a politician, historian, entrepreneur and author whose closest UK equivalent seems to be Jacob Rees-Mogg.
But if you can put that aside (and we did), the sheer exuberance, effort and excess is extraordinary. There are 20 separate shows or experiences all based around a different period or event, and using an extraordinary array of actors, animals, special effects, fire, water, music, magic, costume, engineering, artistry, agility, and more.
We are not normally (whatever it may look like from this blog) a theme park sort of family but we had been told that if we were going to come to Puy du Fou we needed more than one day. So we booked into one of the history-themed hotels on site. We could have gone for a Merovingian stilted hut, a Gallo-Roman villa, a medieval citadel or a belle époque chateau (to be honest that one was a bit like a conference centre) but we ended up in the Field of the Cloth of Gold. With loos to match.
It is, of course, all in French, but English maps and daily guides are available and there was a “simultaneous” translated voiceover available on their app for most of the shows. That said, the epic soundtrack and deafening volume made the translation rather hard to hear much of the time and so our children tended to resort to us, which was sometimes fine, and sometimes very hard indeed (the Musketeers show was particularly incomprehensible, in any language).
Generally, too, there was a natural assumption that we would have a basic level of general French historical knowledge. Even though Ben has lived here and Harriet has a degree in French, we didn’t always. We didn’t, for example, know anything about counter-revolution in the Vendée or the ill-fated expedition of Laperouse. But in a way that was a good thing – at what other theme park would you end up discussing Robespierre, the Reign of Terror and the novels of Victor Hugo over lunch with your children?
A few highlights:
The evening show: so good we saw it twice. The most ridiculous confection of classical music hits, fountains, flying cellos, floating violinists and a lake like a magician’s hat, out of which appeared lights, fire, a piano, a glowing carriage pulled by giant swans, six ballet dancers, a sparkling pagoda, and an entire organ blasting flames from its pipes and played by a man on fire. Bach will never be the same again.
The circus show wowed Magnus, Aurora and Sophie, with gladiators, a man herding geese, a parade of ostriches, a tiger and lions and a chariot race in which one of the chariots lost a wheel and another charioteer ended up dragged behind the traces.
Jacob Rees-Mogg aside, and although the children liked them, the big cats were the one part that made Ben and Harriet very uncomfortable. In 2020 using wild cats (even if all they did was run into the arena and lie down) doesn’t feel entirely appropriate. The lionesses in particular looked very cowed by their handler.
Generally though, the use of animals was astonishing in a good way. Any of them was a worthy contender for our weekly title. We will long remember the vicious Viking hound bringing down a runaway peasant (his tail giving away quite how much fun he was having), the amazing horsemanship and teamwork in the jousting and in particular the extraordinary bird show. This was far and away Harriet and Ben’s favourite with over 300 birds and 80 different species, including eagles, owls, hawks, marabou storks, spoonbills and even a secretary bird. Harriet is now wondering if it is too late to train in falconry.
Nantes was really (sorry Nantes) a stopping point between Puy du Fou and Paris. It does, of course, have its own rich history, being the seat of the Dukes of Brittany.
However we were shattered after our three full on days of history (however bowdlerised) and there was a vote for no more. We couldn’t, in any event, have visited the 14th Century cathedral which is sadly currently closed following a serious fire (allegedly arson) earlier this month.
Instead we went for miracles of visible engineering, and spent an afternoon being wowed by the Machines de l’Ile. An entire area on the banks of the Isle de Nantes has been taken over by the theatrical engineers of the Compagnie des Machines de Nantes. In their workshops they build fantastic moving animals and plants from wood and steel. We visited the gallery, where they display and test their prototypes and maquettes and had a glimpse into the workshops. The current project is a 30 metre high, 50 metre wide tree which will rise from a disused quarry further along the Loire. It will be home to caterpillars, hummingbirds, sloths, predatory plants, birds of paradise, ants and two enormous herons, which will take wing each carrying up to 16 people.
Lucy was asked to test the mini heron, and Ben and Aurora were in charge of the mating dance of a male bird of paradise, with Magnus providing the sound effects.
The centrepiece of the machines here in Nantes though is the Elephant, extraordinarily realistic, despite the visible driver and workings, who promenades around the island, carrying up to 50 people in his palanquin. He’s definitely a he – we saw him having a wee…. He also, understandably, gets hot, so cools himself off in an inimitably elephantine way. If you happen to be nearby, you may get wet.
He is awe-inspiring (and free) to see but we decided to go for the full experience and ride on him too. This was a wonderful (and wet) 25 minutes, a very smooth journey with an entourage of excited children (and adults) and an up-close view of the extraordinary feats of engineering and craftsmanship that go into creating such a fabulous beast.
Lying halfway between Nantes and Paris, Le Mans plays host to the annual 24 Hour motor race. When we were planning our Tour de France home-leg, one of our number had given the Le Mans 24 Hour Museum a “yes please, we must absolutely go there”, while the other three had said “meh, whatever”.
Despite all of us enjoying the Le Mans ’66 film this week, it was only Magnus and Ben who paid a visit while the girls went to the supermarket.
The museum itself was quite small, but completely packed with a history of motor racing, with cars dating back to 1889, as well as jaw-dropping supercars of today.
Magnus was particularly impressed by the Ford GT40s, which won several races from 1966 onwards, as featured in the film. There was a section of the museum dedicated to the film with cars, props and costumes.
The room containing models of every car to have raced was spectacular – a collector’s dream, and Ben gave a wistful look at the 2CV, adorned with flags, which made it to Tokyo from Paris.
We did at least make it to Paris, four and a half months later than planned, to a beautiful flat which will be our home for the next few days.
How was it?
Magnus: Le Mans Museum (CARS). The Circus at Puy du Fou and the Vikings at Puy du Fou. They were cool because they had fire and excitement. I liked the chariots and the Viking longship rising out of the water.
Lucy: I enjoyed Saint Malo, it’s a lovely town and I had fun on the beach. Puy du Fou was AMAZING, I loved the birds, the evening show and the history. The mechanical animals were beautiful and really cool, I enjoyed going in the heron and the elephant.
Harriet: A week of amazing sights, as you can probably tell from some of the gushing paragraphs in this post. I could have watched the bird show at Puy du Fou over and over again. It was utterly astonishing. I loved the evening show too for its utterly shameless extravagance.
The Machines de l’Ile were extraordinary as well. I was slightly reluctant to ride on the Elephant as I thought it might be better to appreciate it from the outside but it was amazing to be inside the beast and to witness both its workings and the brilliant reactions it receives.
I adored St Malo too. I’d love to have stayed longer. It felt somehow more “real” and less tourist oriented than some of the other walled cities we have visited. As a bonus I treated myself to a Breton jumper.
Aurora: Everything in Puy du Fou was soo fun, the beach pool was quite cool. I liked watching loads of Friends. I thought the elephant was really great because it was so extremely big and really just cool!
Sophie: I have loved all of Puy du Fou. One of my favourite parts was the bird show because there were so many birds and they all got so close to us. I’ve also watched lots of Glee (a program I have been watching a lot) The elephant was amazing because of the view and when we were hot it sprayed water on us! Sleeping in a four poster bed was super comfy.
Ben: I thought St Malo was stunning. I would happily come back. Our unexpected highlights – Josselin and Mortagne-sur-Sèvre – were more examples of things we would never have seen by not being stuck in France.
Puy du Fou was a riot. Huge eagles diving from a suspended balloon, over a soundtrack straight from the blockbuster school of soaring strings, pounding drums, heavy brass chords and a wordless choir, was breathtaking. Watching the horses accelerate and gallop at the chariot racing was another eyes-on-stalks moment, and the whole Baz Lurman meets Game of Thrones meets Liberace shazam of the place was great.
The Machines de l’île joined Puy du Fou in making me appreciate the artistry and bloody-mindedness of the people who don’t just dream of these things – why don’t we make a 3-times life-size moving beautiful elephant out of wood and hydraulics? / why don’t we have vikings attack out of the water on a rising submerged longship? – but actually make them work and give people a thrill watching them. How many times must they have heard “it will never work” and still found a way to make it happen, and be beautiful and successful? There’s a lesson in there.
Lucy: I got rather grumpy at the Machine place.
Sophie: There weren’t any bad bits this week really.
Ben: The increasing heat and crowds on successive Puy du Fou days didn’t sit well with my peely-wally grumpy side, and as I read about rising Covid infection rates across Europe, I started to glare angrily (from behind my correctly-worn mask) at the hordes who made no effort to socially distance / wear a mask properly / wear a mask at all. Despite the months of exile, I’m clearly still British, with all that glaring, though you will be able to guage my grumpiness by reading that I did actually ask people to keep their distance at times. By the mid-afternoon of day 3, I had had enough of Puy du Fou. It was amazing, and I would thoroughly recommend immersing yourself in the full experience, but perhaps it is like eating meringue and marshmallows, dipped in chocolate, rum and sprinkles for every meal…
Magnus: Being hot and angry at Puy du Fou.
Aurora: Not having Duplo A and I am missing the Chartreuse.
Harriet: There have been times this week when my desire to do has clashed with others in the family and I have found their lack of enthusiasm very irritating and upsetting. I got very vociferously cross with Lucy for losing a brand new mask (subsequently found) and very similarly disappointed with Aurora and Sophie who spent much of our time in the Galerie des Machines on their phones looking bored. I think we are all quite weary.
It’s been too hot to wear my new jumper. Not really complaining though.
What did we eat?
It was perhaps a less exciting week for food, although we did have more pancakes and cider in St Malo (the plan was to head home for supper but we were having too nice a time). Excellent ice cream there too.
The food at Puy du Fou was probably better than your average theme park but still not enormously noteworthy. The children did though enjoy the surroundings in the 18th Century dining room, and Ben and Harriet were particularly chuffed that Sophie declared a vegetarian panini (with aubergines and courgettes) “delicious”.
We are into our last week. We arrived in our apartment Paris a few hours ago and plan to make the most of our three days here.
After Paris we had planned to spend our last night in Ghent, revisiting its medieval finery and its waffles. Once again, though, Covid-19 has other plans. The infection rate in Belgium has increased, restrictions have tightened and there are rumours that quarantine will be reintroduced for those who have visited. So instead we have one night in Angres, still in France and as close to the border as we can get. We will then drive straight through Belgium, stopping for neither petrol nor wees, and on to the Netherlands, Amsterdam and the ferry home.