Historic spectacles at Puy du Fou
One of France’s most famous theme parks, award-winning Puy du Fou in Vendée brings the rich history of the region to astonishing life, with chariot races in a near full-sized Roman amphitheatre, soldiers storming castles, jousting tournaments, Vikings and gladiators. There are no rollercoasters in this rural forest setting, but the action-packed shows certainly provide enough of a thrill, involving hundreds of actors, horsemen, swordsmen and volunteers plus various historic reconstructions. Covering all periods from Roman times to the Belle Époque of the 19th century, Puy du Fou always ensures a fair degree of historical accuracy to evoke the world as it really was... with a few special effects added in. There is also a unique falconry display called the Dance of the Phantom Birds, in which over 100 trained birds of prey swoop down out of the sky. No need to squeeze it all into one day; there are hotels on site, one of which (La Citadelle) is new for 2017. Puy de Fou is a spectacular attraction for adults and children alike.
Racing cars at Le Mans
Most people are aware the connection between car-racing and the Pays-de-la-Loire city of Le Mans, which hosts two major events on its iconic racetrack: Le Mans Classic biannually, and The 24 Hours every year. Only cars manufactured before 1979 are allowed at the classic rally, with entries divided into age bands to equalise the pace. For 2017 the VIP guests are American and there will be classic Cadillacs, Mustangs, Corvettes and many more cruising the roads of Sarthe and the circuit itself. The circuit is the world’s longest, measuring 13,650km with cars racing at over 300kph. Adrenaline rush guaranteed!
A ship’s horn at Saint-Nazaire
The port of Saint-Nazaire has a feeling of grandeur to it with its bridge, marina, impressive Airbus factories and enormous ships emerging from its shipyards. It’s the largest port on France's Atlantic coast and fiercely proud of its rich maritime heritage. All manner of famous cruise liners have been built in Saint-Nazaire, including the Queen Mary 2 (this particular ship departs for New York in June 2017 as part of ‘The Bridge’ celebration of Franco-American friendship since WW1). Don’t miss the Escal’Atlantic museum, housed in the port’s former submarine pen and fully refurbished and extended in 2013, where you can learn about the most famous ocean liners built in Saint-Nazaire. Interactive activities, reconstructions and original artefacts give a sense of what life was like on board these giants of the sea.
The wind in the sails
Pays de la Loire boasts more than 450km of coastline dotted with famous seaside resorts, and whether sport or relaxation is on your holiday agenda, the ocean is never far away. As the sailing capital, the town of Les Sables-d’Olonne is the starting point for the renowned and ultra-challenging Vendée Globe. There are over a thousand boats moored in its marina, meaning there’s always something to see and hear as the breeze catches the sails. And between the town and the beach, the seaside walkway bustles with life all year round.
Pays de la Loire has more racecourses, races and breeds of horse than any other region in France, so you’ve come to the right place if you love anything equine-related.
Perhaps your first stop should be Le Cadre Noir in Saumur, created during Louis XV’s reign and listed as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2011. Now housing France’s National Riding School, its aim is to train in the art of French horsemanship, competition and research. The stables, the grand ring and the armouries are open to visitors, and riding enthusiasts can also attend events including dressage and practice sessions. The unrivalled horse shows set an international standard for the equestrian arts and are without equal. There are 300 hectares to explore with 50km of bridle paths, plus 16 outdoor and seven indoor arenas and, of course, 400 horses! Watch the riders and their mounts in training and rehearsals. The accompanying Museum of Cavalry offers an extensive collection of weapons and costumes to browse.
Those who are interested in horse breeding should visit the Haras National (National Stud) at Le Lion-d’Angers or the Haras de la Vendée in La Roche-sur-Yon. The latter is set in 11 acres of land in the centre of town and comprises an academy for horses, a team of saddlers and blacksmiths plus a calendar of equestrian shows focusing on all aspects of horsemanship including dressage. In terms of large spectator events, there’s a full programme of racing in Les Sables-d’Olonne and Pornichet during the summer season, while Craon is famous for its Festival des 3 Glorieuses (3-day racing event), and Le Lion-d’Angers hosts the Anjou Loire Challenge, the world’s longest horse race.
Whether you like jazz, metal or classical, there’s something for you in Pays de la Loire. On the jazz agenda is Les Rendez-Vous de l’Erdre in Nantes, an international festival held along the River Erdre towards the end of August and beginning of September with plenty of free performances. Metalheads will be drawn to historic Clisson south-east of Nantes and its Hellfest Festival, France’s largest dedicated hard rock/metal event taking place every June. Aerosmith is due to headline 2017’s event. And by contrast, La Folle Journée festival in and around Nantes challenges preconceived ideas about classical music, with over 150,000 tickets sold each year.