France’s most famous theme park, the “Puy-du-Fou,” was in the news in France recently for having bestowed a gift of 50,000 euro (over 55,000 USD) to the “Fondation Jérôme-Lejeune,” devoted to helping children with Down syndrome and their families, and funding medical research on genetic mental deficiencies. The Puy-du-Fou’s founder, Philippe de Villiers, personally chose the beneficiary of the Park’s annual charitable donation and presented the check to Jean-Marie Le Méné, president of the Foundation that bears his father-in-law’s name, in the presence of Birthe Lejeune, Jérôme Lejeune’s widow, and the Park’s very special guests: several dozen children and young people with Down syndrome, accompanied by their families.
Philippe de Villiers’ decision to honor the Fondation Lejeune last month, together with his son Nicolas who is now the president of the Puy-du-Fou, was met with scorn by the mainstream media, which scoffed at the Foundation’s pro-life, anti-abortion, and anti-euthanasia stance and accused Villiers of wanting to pave the way for the upcoming regional elections. That is not exactly likely: being pro-life does not open a highway in French politics as the media reception of Villiers’ gesture amply shows.
Describing his theme park, its founder said: “The Puy-du-Fou was based on the idea of transmitting a heritage … We remember past glory, the glory of all the generations that defended France and Christendom. It is not an amusement park … It is a flame of French hope. When I created the Puy-du-Fou I considered it to be a moral debt. I wanted to write a hymn to repay the debt I owe to my father and my mother, to the Vendée.” Speaking of the different scenes of France’s history through the centuries which are re-enacted at Puy-du-Fou and which attract many thousands of visitors every year, he explained his vision, showing how the moral and educational purpose of his creation distinguishes it from others: “Let us speak of our heritage of 1,000 years, of the poor who came before us … The builders of our cathedrals were so poor that no one even remembers their names … being French is to be a link in a chain, a cathedral sculptor who leaves his lifework without leaving his name…”
What impressed me about this statement is how counter-cultural it sounds: that to live well is not to seek endless entertainment and distraction; it is to honour one’s parents; to reflect on one’s (Christian) national history; to celebrate and memorialise; not the anarchy let loose by the Revolution or “la gloire” of Napoleonic military imperialism, but the anonymous builders of the great French Gothic cathedrals, such as Chartres or Amiens. Most of all it suggests humility – indeed the humility of the famous geneticist who deliberately spoke out against abortion at a prestigious international conference, knowing that it would cost him the Nobel Prize.
As it happens, we’ve been to Puy du Fou – and it was amazing and fascinating.
As some of you know, we spent the fall of 2012 in Europe, mostly in France. When I first started researching the trip, I happened upon information about Puy du Fou, and was immediately intrigued. What is this?? It’s the most popular attraction of its type in France – more so than EuroDisney – and I’d never even heard of it. Then I went to the website, watched the over-the-top amazing videos about knights and vikings and such, and I was determined.
We had to go.
So we did – as far as I could tell, one of the few non-French speakers in the park that day, which also happened to be the last day of the season they perform the massive, (literally) cast of thousands evening show.
It’s an “amusement park” but there are no rides. The main attractions are recreations of medieval and renaissance villages with artisans and shops, a small collection of animals, a few animantronic features – de la Fontaine’s fairy tales, for example, and then these spectacular – I mean spectacular shows featuring French history, starting with the Romans – in a full-blown Roman coliseum with chariots and so on.
So, quickly – when we went, the shows were:
- The Romans
- A recreation of a Viking raid story with a variation of a saint/miracle story
- A Joan of Arc type story (although not quite)
- Richilieu’s Musketeer, which I didn’t understand at all – involving musketeers, Spanish type dancers and horses prancing on a water-flooded stage.
- Birds of Prey show
- The evening show, Cinescine
You have to watch the videos to understand why, once I saw them, there was no way I was going to France and not going to Puy du Fou.
That said, I didn’t know anything about the place beyond the fact that it was popular and looked kind of trippy and totally French.
As we moved through the day, I started to notice a couple of things:
- The explicit religious content of every show (except the musketeer one, but it may have been there, and I just didn’t grasp it.) The Roman show began with two Christian men running onto the sandy floor of the coliseum and drawing an ichthys, and being arrested for that. The Viking show featured a miracle (based, I think on a particular miracle story but I don’t remember which at the time) about a saint raising a child from the dead.
- At some point it dawned on me…there’s nothing about the French Revolution here. Nothing. Not a word, not an image. Wait. Aren’t all the French all about the French Revolution?
I knew that the evening show was about the Vendee resistance to the Revolution, but before I went, I didn’t know anything about the founder of the park, his politics and how the park expresses that vision.
As I keep saying, it was simply fascinating and really helped broaden my understanding of French history and the French people and the complexity of contemporary France.
Cinescine is really unlike anything you have ever seen. You’re seated on this huge grandstand, and the show happens around this lake – lights, hundreds and hundreds of people in costume tracing the history of the area, including the resistance to the Revolution, animals, music….wow.
(The one almost-mishap was that when I reserved the tickets, I had, of course, been messed up by that European calendar – so I thought I was buying tickets for Saturday, when I had in fact bought them for Friday – which had already happened. I discovered this earlier in the day at the park, but the ticket folks were very nice and exchanged them out…I mean, why not? I’d already paid for something that had already happened, so why not let us in? Also, I discovered why, even though the park is open far beyond mid-September, this was the last evening show – it got so, so cold that night – we had to take advantage of the wandering blanket-seller and spend 15 Euros on a blanket that night….)
Loved it, and would absolutely go back if I had the chance.
Swording break at Puy du Fou. Toy swords were only 5E and very good quality. For toy swords. pic.twitter.com/qSqvHU2k
— Amy Welborn (@amywelborn2) September 15, 2012