Behind closed doors: Puy du Fou

With five hotels, 20 food outlets, 15 shows and thousands of performers both human and animal, Vendée’s swashbuckling historical theme park is second only to Disneyland Paris in terms of visitor numbers in France. But what’s going on here during lockdown? There may be none of the two million annual visitors swarming the grounds, but with such a complexity of structures, systems and species to maintain, it couldn’t be as simple as downing tools and abandoning ship. We find out how the technicians, designers, gardeners and animal trainers are continuing their work.

With its five hotels, 20 food outlets, 15 shows and thousands of performers both human and animal, it struck me that Puy du Fou – Vendée’s swashbuckling theme park of big-hitting historical enactments – would be a curious place during lockdown. There may be none of the two million annual visitors swarming the 55 hectares of grounds, and the local residents (many of whom make up the shows’ casts) may be at home respecting social distancing rules – but with such a complexity of structures, systems and technologies to maintain, it couldn’t be as simple as downing tools and abandoning ship. And what about the hungry mouths and capricious temperaments of the furry, feathered friends who call this place home?

Now in its 43rd year and second only to Disneyland Paris in terms of visitor numbers in France, Puy du Fou is no stranger to rigorous routine to ensure it holds onto its accolades. And despite the coronavirus outbreak, everyday life here appears to be as busy as ever. The launch of a new show, a new hotel and a conference centre this year means that although the park’s April opening date has been postponed, some minor building works are still ongoing.

Entitled ‘Les Noces de Feu’, the new show for 2020 will partner the award-winning ‘Cinéscénie’ as another night-time spectacular centred on its two protagonists, violinist Muse and virtuoso Pianiste, who meet to celebrate their love in a wonderland of water and fire. With dancers and giant stage sets emerging from the depths of the lake like mirages, viewers will be scratching their heads as to how such effects are possible – and it’s all down to the painstaking hours of fine-tuning carried out by the park’s technicians. While keeping a safe distance from each other, they’re continuing to adjust the lighting and dramatic special effects that characterise all the shows. And since costumes are worn by everyone on site, including restaurant waiting staff and hotel receptionists, designers play another crucial role in keeping Puy du Fou’s magic alive. Right now, they’re busy tweaking the outfits worn by performers of the daytime shows and the Cinéscénie.

If sleeping in an ancient Roman villa, amongst knights and ramparts or in thatch-roofed huts on stilts isn’t enough – you’ll soon be able to choose the Sun King’s royal court as your hotel base at Puy du Fou. ‘Le Grand Siecle’ is set to open later this year, a series of eight dazzling pavilions set in traditional landscaped gardens, to which the finishing touches are currently being added by the park’s team of gardeners. There are scores of floral displays that need tending to, alongside acres of grass that’s surely been growing like billy-o if the recent weather is anything to go by – and all this is carrying on behind closed doors (or gates). In a place as leafy and verdant as Puy du Fou, I know which team I’d pick to be on during quarantine.

We may be plagued by reminders not to meet people outside our households and to keep two metres apart from any we do, but this bizarre form of isolation isn’t quite as keenly felt by the park’s animal carers and trainers. Fortunately, their charges don’t understand (or need to respect) social distancing, and while they’re enjoying time away from the gawping masses, both trainers and trainees can simply enjoy each other’s company. Puy du Fou’s Falconry Academy alone houses around 650 birds, cared for by 38 falconers. In ‘Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantômes’ show, a grand total of over 330 birds, including eagles, falcons, vultures, kites and owls, circle the sky in a spellbinding performance, and their care and training is continuing as normal.

Meanwhile, training is very much ongoing for the Czech wolves that perform in the Vikings show.

The primary focus is on ensuring the animals are kept in peak physical and mental health. Schedules have been adapted to reduce contact amongst trainers, but the wolves’ training continues, with a classic format for those with experience, and gentler sessions for the youngest members of the pack. This includes educational sessions and rehearsals on stage, both with and without music. Once the hard work is over, there’s plenty of time for some good old-fashioned fun: with the park still closed, the trainers have access to grounds in their entirety, and have been indulging in mountain biking and lively ball games with the wolves across the vast open spaces!

What’s more, Puy du Fou’s resident animal family keeps on growing. Carers have been extra busy during lockdown, welcoming a total of 94 babies since 17 March – with more still to come. As well as giving the lead roles in many of their shows to their much-loved animals, Puy du Fou is committed to the conservation and protection of rare or endangered species, with much of its grounds given over to a nature reserve. Amongst the new additions are Rose, a calf born on Easter Sunday, and six baby goats, including triplets for Laika and twins for Larousse. Two pretty female Poitevin goats were a first for their young mother, and the park has also welcomed a total of 17 lambs, including six of the black-nosed Thônes et Martod breed, who take centre stage in the popular show ‘Secret de la Lance’. No less than 21 new goslings have arrived too, destined to follow in their parents’ footsteps in La Cinéscénie.

All this might be delightful escapism from what’s currently going on in the world

but despite its self-sufficient, ‘business as usual’ approach behind closed doors, it’s clear that Puy du Fou is playing its own part in addressing the coronavirus crisis. In March, it donated 500,000 masks from its Chinese subsidiary to the French state for use by healthcare workers in hospitals, in an attempt to address the shortage of PPE. And it’s not the only olive branch the park has offered society over the years. Back in 1984, it held its first charity performance with Yves Montand in aid of cancer research, and has since donated an extraordinary €3 million to various charitable organisations in France and around the world.

And so, I’ve formed my own take on Puy du Fou’s status as a national treasure. It’s not only its glittering representations of history long past, but also its poignant contributions to history in the making, that should earn it the title.