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Le Puy du Fou

Puy du Fou

It might seem a little strange that I’m doing a blog post on an tourist attraction that is in a completely different region to where I live, but the Puy du Fou in the Vendée is such a staggeringly impressive place that it is worth it. The theme park was created by Phillippe de Villiers (a proud Vendéen and now a politician) who wanted to tell the story of the Vendée during the French revolution through producing a “Cinéscénie”, which translates as a “moving stage”. He found the ruins of a castle near the village of Les Epesses and in 1978 the first cinéscénie was produced, with the help of 600 bénévoles (volunteers) who acted in the production. At first, the show wasn’t a big success, but then the national media expressed an interest and it became a big annual event each evening in the summer with the play performed over the lake with a massive firework display as a finale. I remember going to see it when I was a student working on a Vendéen campsite during the summer, and it was a spectacular experience even then. Philippe De Villiers then expanded the idea and created the Grand Parc, producing other shows telling the history of France, not just the Vendée. The Puy de Fou is now the most popular theme park in France and in 2012 won the accolade of best theme park in the world. It is open from April to October and professional actors are used – although for the evening show it is still the volunteers who perform. All profits from the parc are re-invested and every year a new show is added. You can now marvel at the spectacular chariot racing in the Roman arena, gasp at the Vikings dragonboat emerging from the lake and be transfixed but the impressive horseriding acrobacy in the Secret of the Lance and many other shows.

The Secret of the Lance (Joan of Arc)
The Secret of the Lance (Joan of Arc)
Puy de Fou Medieval Village
Puy de Fou Medieval Village
The Vikings are coming...
The Vikings are coming…
Viking Village
Viking Village
Chariot racing in the Roman arena
Chariot racing in the Roman arena
The Romans
The Romans

My favourite show is the Phantom Bird’s dance – you are seated in an outdoor arena of the original castle ruins, and a play is performed which culminates in hundreds of birds of prey swooping around in a co-ordinated ‘dance’ display which is breathtaking. It is the largest falconry display in Europe and you really feel part of it. Although not advised for anyone suffering ornithophobia!

The Phantom BIrd Dance
The Phantom Bird Dance
The Phantom disappears
The Phantom disappears

Every day the programme of shows change, and you need to plan your visit carefully to see all the shows that you want. Although there are thousands of visitors every day, the arenas have a very large capacity, so there is usually plenty of room without the infernal queuing which you have to do in most theme parks for the popular rides, but you should really arrive 30 mins in advance of the show time. There is always a warm up act to keep you amused before the show actually starts and you won’t bored! Another advantage of the park is that you can take your own picnic and have your lunch anywhere in the picturesque park as there are lots of picnic tables around. There is food available too, with lots of restaurants/sandwich bars – the food is around 30% more expensive than you would pay in shops, so not extortionate. There are lots of hotels, tents etc. if you want to stay overnight and have two days in the park instead of just one.Nearly all the shows are outside – so what if it rains? The shows go on of course – waterproofs are provided for guests. We did a day trip in May – we left home at 7.30am to get there for the opening time of 10am, we saw 5 shows, had time for a picnic lunch and left the park at around 6pm. I’d really recommend a trip for everyone staying here, even if the drive is slightly over 2 hours. In the summer you can attend the medieval banquet in the evening before watching the evening show with fireworks if you are ready for a really long day. One final point, if you don’t speak  French (the shows are, of course, in French),  don’t worry, you will understand the action just by watching. And the children will love them – mine did, the Vikings were a particular favourite.

Evening weekend show in July and August
Evening weekend show in July and August

 

Mère Poulard

Mere Poulard
Mère Poulard

The Mère Poulard is one of the most famous characters associated with Mont St Michel. Although today her name is synonomous with local regional food products (biscuits, salted butter toffees etc.) produced by the company Mère Poulard, the original ‘Mère Poulard’ was known for the fabulous omelettes that she cooked for visitors to her hotel on Mont St Michel.

Annette Poulard (née Anne Boutiaut, she was nicknamed Annette and it stuck) was born in Nervers, Burgundy, in 1851. When she was older she took up employment as a chambermaid for a well known architect, Edouard Corroyer, whose speciality was ancient monuments. In 1872 Corroyer was asked by the French government to lead the restoration of the Mont St Michel Abbey. Annette went with him and his family and there met Victor Poulard, a baker on the Mont. They married in 1873 and opened a little hostel called the “hostellerie de la Tête d’Or”. It was a small establishment, and only welcomed a handful of visitors, including pilgrims, archaeologists, painters. It was a world apart from the crowds that visit Mont St Michel today. In those days, the dyke didn’t exist and Mont St Michel was frequently cut off from the mainland during high tides. Visitors would arrive at any time of day because of this, and were often famished when they finally reached the Mont.  Annette had the idea of serving her guests an omelette of her own invention whilst they waited for the main course to arrive.  The omelette of the Mère Poulard (as Annette became nicknamed) swiftly became famous amongst the visiting Parisians and the Poulards soon moved to a bigger hotel, where Annette continued to welcome the ever increasing number of guests to Mont St Michel. She was famous for her hospitality and mothered her guests as most parents do children.

Mont St Michel
Mont St Michel

 

“Have you had a good journey? Sit yourselves down quickly, you must be starving. Madame, give me your coat so I can dry it. Don’t worry, you will have it back and ironed for your visit to the Abbey. Take this scarf while you are waiting. Now, settle yourselves down and eat well. And when you’ve finished, we’ll show you the way to go…”

Streets of Mont St Michel
Streets of Mont St Michel

She employed very few staff, welcomed all visitors herself and if guests had to leave quickly she would tell them to pay next time they visited, and often accepted paintings instead of payment for her food. Eventually, some people took advantage of this and the hotel profits declined, but she didn’t care. “If I collected all the money owed to me, I’d have to employ a cashier, who I would have to pay, accommodate, and that wouldn’t have helped”. As long as she had enough money in the bank to get her through the winter she was happy.

Modern day pilgrims crossing the Bay
Modern day pilgrims crossing the Bay

 

The Poulards retired in 1920 and retired to a pretty little house on the top of Mont St Michel. They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary and Annette finally died in 1931.

I highly recommend that you don’t eat in the Mère Poulard establishment (or any other for that matter) on Mont St Michel as the food quality isn’t great and the prices generally exorbitant. However, the products in the Mère Poulard food range are delicious. The omelette has been overtaken by delicious butter biscuits and cakes, salted toffee caramels and other goodies. The Mère Poulard factory is situated only 10 mins drive from La Haute Mancelière and there is a factory shop, open 6 days a week, which sells the products all at very cheap prices (over a third lower than in the supermarkets). Ideal if you want to take back some presents or souvenirs to the UK.

 

Rural faith healers

Faith healing

The French health service is over 12 billion euros in debt. And it is much abused, at least to my way of thinking. My rather British attitude is “don’t bother the doctor unless the illness is still serious after 3 days”, in stark contrast to many of my French friends. If my daughter’s best friend so much as coughs, she is taken to the doctors immediately and returns with 5 or 6 different medicines just to treat a common cold.

So with this heavy reliance on the state health service, I was quite surprised to learn that the practice of faith healing is still very popular in rural areas. Nearly every small village in Brittany has a faith healer, or person with the “don de guérisson” (the gift of healing) of some kind or another. They tend to specialise in individual problems, rather than be a “cure all” type healer. You will find one who treats skin problems, another will cure headaches, another stomach problems etc. They cure simply by touching the affected part of the body.

My first encounter with this practice was 9 years ago, when I developed a nasty skin rash (due to a chlorine insensitivity). My octogenarian neighbours, Francis and Maria, sent a friend of theirs, Paul (a retired functionary) over to see me. He had a bottle of holy water from Lourdes and proceeded to splash some of this over my rash, whilst praying. I was extremely sceptical about this working, and went along with it largely not to offend my neighbours. However, a couple of days later, my skin cleared up and I’ve haven’t had had a problem since. My mother also saw Paul when she was staying once, and her skin problem also disappeared.

My second experience was with my son, Olivier, when he was a baby. After 9 months of broken nights, I was getting quite desperate. My neighbours suggested I went to see Maurice, a retired farmer who lives the other side of Tremblay and who had cured their children of teething problems. So I set off with my baby and arrived at his little house. The healing process this time involved Maurice washing his hands, then dipped a finger in a bottle of  ‘eau de vie’ (a very strong alcohol, which is made of distilled apples here in Brittany). He then rubbed his finger around Olivier’s gums. For the next month my son slept through the night consistently. He started waking up again in the night, so I took him back and that was it, since then he has always slept soundly.

Marie-Christine is a farmer’s wife who lives nearby who has a ‘don’ (gift) and specialises in treating burns. Fortunately I haven’t had the misfortune to be burnt seriously enough to go and see her, but I wouldn’t hesitate as I’m quite a convert to faith healing now. It isn’t reimbursed by the social security, of course, but usually a bottle of something is all you need to give to show your gratitude to the ‘guérisseur’. And of course, it isn’t a drain on the resources of the health service.

 

 

Foraging

This is a great time of year for making the most of the free food provided by nature. The chestnuts are ripe now and the footpaths around here are covered in them. Mushrooms of many different types can be found, although it is always best to check to see if they are edible before cooking. Either buy a guide or check with your local pharmacy to ensure you don’t end up with a very bad stomach ache, or maybe worse. The variety of mushrooms to be found here is extraordinary.

Last weekend we took the children up to a secret beach to go “palourde” or clam fishing in the sand on the beach while the tide is out. You need little rakes to move the sand, and then you can feel if you have something hard underneath the sand. Then you dig. The best place to look is on the little rivulets going down to the sea. Where there is one big clam, there are often at least 5 others. The technique needs a little practice, but the clams were delicious, cooked in a little butter, shallots, garlic and parsley. And it is great fun for the kids!

Journée du patrimoine

Chateau de Bonnefontaine
Chateau de Bonnefontaine
Tree where Anne de Bretagne sat
Tree where Anne de Bretagne sat
Stately dining room
Stately dining room
Bonnefontaine
Bonnefontaine

September is always a beautiful month to visit Brittany. The colours of the countryside are change from green to orange, yellow and brown, the tractors are ploughing the fields and preparing for the corn harvest. The beaches and attractions are quieter, the sea still warm (well, 18°C) and the weather is often sunnier and drier than in July and August. The third weekend of September is designated ‘Week-end du patrimoine’ (heritage weekend) and it is on this weekend that you find many historical buildings, including town halls, churches, cathedrals, stately homes and manor houses which are usually private, opened to the public for one or two days. It’s a great opportunity to see the inside of buildings you usually only see externally, and if you are lucky, meet and chat to the owners.
On Sunday I took my children to the nearby Chateau de Bonnefontaine, near Antrain (10 kms from La Haute Manceliere), a very well preserved stately home. The chateau is still privately owned, although weddings and musical events take place in the grounds and the Orangerie. We were able to walk around the grounds and see the tree where the Duchesse Anne de Bretagne (she deserves a separate post of her own and I will do that soon!) and also enter the chateau to see the beautiful hall and dining room of the chateau itself, with it’s fantastic painted mural.  The owner himself and his wife gave a guided tour of the rooms and explained the history of the building. Definitely worth a visit, and next year we will be visiting a few more local stately homes.

Chateau de Bonnefontaine

Talented guests

One of the nicest things about living on site is meeting guests and learning about their hobbies and interests. Over the years I’ve had musicians stay, the most memorable (and loudest) was a teenage trombone player who brought his trombone with him on holiday to practice. Fortunately he played quite well!

I’ve also been lucky enough to be the recipient of some excellent paintings done either here, or of things in the area. This summer, Beth Davies, who is only 13, spent some of her holiday doing some beautiful paintings of the flowers around the garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think they are beautiful – and thanks to her mum Hazel for copying them and sending them to me!

Another treasured picture was done by Colin Warden, who has stayed here a few times with his family in Les Chouettes.  For the last visit he presented me with a painting he did of Mont St Michel, which I had framed and it is now in pride of place on the wall of the living area of the farmhouse.

Mont St Michel by Colin Warden
Mont St Michel by Colin Warden

Any drawings, whether by toddlers or professional artists are always received very gratefully. Thankyou to everyone who has everyone who has painted at La Haute Mancelière!

Lost and found

Living on site means that you often have a lot of contact with guests – it is par for the course to be asked to book restaurants, horse riding, golf, or go with guests to the doctors, hospital, and on occasion, a police station to translate. Last week, however, I had an unusual request. An anxious guest knocked on the door,  quite upset, who said that his little girl had been playing with his wife’s wedding ring and it had fallen through the little gap between the floorboard and the wall (the walls are open stone wall and therefore unpointed). Would it be possible to look for it?
I called my man who can and we managed to take up the floorboard next to the wall. To our horror, there was a hole underneath between cavity wall and we thought the ring would never be found. We then decided to take up a little more floorboard and low and behold, the ring was there on a little ledge, together with a comb that was a previous victim of the gap and also fallen through it at sometime in the past. If the ring had fallen 5cm to the left and it would have disappeared, possibly forever. It was one of the best moments I’ve had since starting running the gîtes when I gave back the ring to the delighted and very relieved guests.

Postscript: The slight gap between the floorboard and wall has now been filled, to prevent any further occurrences of this nature happening!

Local Walks

We are lucky to have lots of footpaths and cycle tracks in the local area. The Mairie and tourist office produce very detailed maps of all the circuits, and for the most part they are very well signposted. We also have a disused railway line which runs from Antrain to Fougères (about 30kms in length), 800m from the house. It is very well maintained and ideal for cycling or walking, the other advantage is that it doesn’t get muddy in mid winter, like some of the footpaths, so it is ideal for walking with a buggy. It is possible to cycle to both St Brice en Coglès and Tremblay, our local villages, in around 20 mins. It is also brilliant for running – I run 5km every morning and it is a lot easier to run on than the local roads!

 

 

It’s gone quiet!

Well, today the last of the guests left – I think it is the first time that all the gites have been unoccupied together since March. The last lot of guests were all French – the Armistice bank holiday fell handily on a Tuesday this year, so quite a few people also take the Monday off (faire le pont – make a bridge) to extend the weekend and go away for a short break). Although there are a lot more bank hoidays (jour feriés) in France, they aren’t always beneficial – whenever they fall on a Saturday or Sunday, there is no day in lieu given. Some of them always fall on the same day too – for example May 1st and May 8th, victory day, which is also the same day as Christmas and New Year. So some years when they all fall on a Saturday or Sunday, you feel a bit robbed.

Anyway, apart from a few weekend/short break bookings, that is it until Christmas and New Year. I quite miss not having people around – apart from the inevitable knock on the door as soon as you get in the shower or put on a facepack, it is very nice having extra neighbours to chat to. But it will be nice to have Saturdays off again, no cleaning or waiting in all afternoon/evening for people to arrive. Today’s departures left me a couple of bottles of wine from their region, which was very kind, and of course the usual beautifully written and phrased comments in the guest book. The French language is wonderful and some sentiments just can’t be translated to give the same effect. One of my favourites:

“Charmant accueil à la délicatesse anglaise, rien ne manquait, nous sommes ravis. Mille mercis!”

“Charming welcome with Engish grace, nothing was missing, we are delighted. Thankyou a thousand times.”

It just doesn’t have the same ring to it – and the words ‘grace’ and ‘English’ are rarely found together!

Don’t get me wrong, I love all reviews (touch wood they have all been good) but the French do have a wonderful way with words.

Birthday parties

My 7 year old daughter, Kristen, is off to yet another birthday party this afternoon. Children’s birthdays in France are not such big events as they are in the UK – well, at least here in the sticks, anyway. Instead of competing to ask the most number of other children possible, only a handful of friends are invited, usually about 8 maximum. Much easier to cope with (and cheaper!) for the parents. In many cases, it is just an opportunity for the kids to see each other and play together, party games are rarely organised. Food is usually just sweets, or sometimes crêpes. The first time I hosted my daughter’s party I made a real effort with sandwiches, sausage rolls and cakes (I wasn’t stupid enough to inflict jelly on them) but hardly anything except the sweets and crisps were touched. It was almost as though I was offering them poison – I’m still not sure whether the kids were really not hungry, or they’d been forbidden by their parents from trying food chez les Anglais (English food still has an ill deserved reputation in France for being terrible). At least the party games I organised went down well – pass the parcel, musical chairs and statues – the children loved them, so at least I did something right!
Last year the trend seemed to for be having the parties in Mcdo’s – which is a pain for me as it is always on a Saturday (changeover day) and Mcdos is in Fougères, about 25kms away. By the time I’d dropped Kristen off and come home, it was nearly time to go and pick her up again. And of course, I can guarantee that any guests arriving will do so when I’m on the drop off or pick up journey.
This year, however, most of the parties have been at the house again, which is easier, although it isn’t always to find the houses when they are out in the countryside (like ours!). And during the last couple of parties, the parents have organised little activities for the children to do too – decorating pencil cases, making halloween outfits, etc. Still no food though, except sweets, thank goodness my daughter doesn’t have any E allergies.

5th party – lots of wasted food!
6th Birthday party – no nice food, lesson learnt!