Not all sights and attractions in France come with a liberal dose of history and culture. Here are some stuff worth checking out if you’re out for a frivolous good time.
Les Anes de Madames, Sologne
I don’t know why I thought donkey rides were a good idea. But the thought of trotting through the Loire’s wooded, mist-shrouded backroads on a filly the way nobles used to do sent shivers of excitement down my big city girl’s spine.
But of course, since we had zero experience with horses, we had to forgo the beautiful white mare for a brown ass named Bouchou.
We had booked Bouchou for a 2-hour ride through ‘The Donkeys of Madam’, a website offering family-friendly walks and hikes through off-the-beaten paths in Sologne.
Basically, you rent a donkey for a couple of hours to several days so you can plop your excited toddler on its back and take some time off from your second occupation as the family’s go-to mule.
‘Madame’ was standing at the entrance of her shack, brushing Bouchou’s scruffy mane when we arrived. I had expected a whip-wielding dominatrix, but she was more like the benevolent aunt you never had. We were formally introduced to her pet, and handed a hand-sketched map, at which point I was like ‘ok, we are never going to make it out of these woods alive.’ But the National Geographic did mention that donkeys have an internal GPS system and are supposed to be very good with directions, so I didn’t fret over it too much.
And so we set off, with our 4-year-old in the saddle and me leading the way. Our our 2-year-old, meanwhile, was contented with being carried by daddy; he was going through a phase where he thinks all animals are out to get him (thankfully, he’s outgrown it).
Bouchou wasn’t the least bit interested in our company however. It took us all of two minutes to realize that all she wanted to do was eat. Every five seconds, she would lead us away from the footpath, to large clumps of grass by the roadside, and no amount of tough talking could steer her back. Clearly, her internal GPS was wack.
We then decided enough was enough: this donkey was making us all hungry. So we firmly reined her in and sang French nursery songs to keep her occupied. My husband was furiously scanning the now crumpled map, looking for a way out of this mess.
Not surprisingly, the kids thought they were on a grand adventure and were oddly quiet and well behaved, allowing a kind of zen-like stillness to settle on our group.
Two hours gave us just enough time to appreciate our surroundings, which consisted of mainly of atmospheric woodland interspersed with farm houses and fruit trees. A dirt path cuts through trees from the time of King Louis and, as we ambled, leaves crunching beneath our feet, we could hear the birds chirping and shrubs stirring as a small animal darts, unseen, between them.
We were back to civilization in no time, thanks to the husband’s keen sense of direction (no, he didn’t have to bribe me with dinner at L’ecluse to write this) and the help of Google Maps. It took us awhile to convince our eldest that the donkey wouldn’t enjoy the plane ride back to Singapore, and he finally, reluctantly, bid Bouchou farewell. They still talk about her till this day.
Puy du Fou, Les Epesses
A theme park? Without any rides? It sounded like sin, but I was determined to find out why Puy du Fou was France’s second most popular theme park after Disneyland Paris.
After an exceptionally long, soul-crushing walk from the hell that is Puy du Fou’s carpark, we finally arrived at the gates of the park. The queues were short: yours truly have already bought our tickets online, so all we had to do was collect our Pass Emotion, a skip-the-line pass that we paid extra for, at the counter. We also downloaded an app which alerted us to the day’s biggest shows.
I don’t think I was quite as well prepared for my own wedding.
But at Puy du Fou, you need to be ruthless and well armed with a strategy just like Napoleon. This theme park’s all about shows, and the main performances are each about 30 minutes long and staged at a maximum of twice — or thrice, if you’re lucky — a day. Puy du Fou might have started in 1978 as an open-air amateur dramatics night where volunteers re-enacted a particularly bloody episode in then history of Vendee, but there was nothing amateurish about the shows in 2017, which have raked up several international awards.
In fact, it’s the best damn thing I’ve ever seen.
Puy du Fou defiles traditional cookie cutter Disney dreams by flinging in a good amount of blood, snot and guts onto the Hollywood-style sets. It was testosterone overload: we gasped as a Viking ship rise from its watery grave, cheered as Roman chariots raced in thick mud, and rubbed our eyes in disbelief as a castle went down in flames. It’s not exactly made for children, but our knights-and-castles obsessed 4-year-old had a rip-roaring good time. There were over a thousand actors combined, and everyone was faultless, including the lion and tigers in the coliseum.
Yes, an actual fucking 6,000-seat coliseum complete with Roman soldiers and man-eating animals.
By noon, we headed to one of Puy du Fou’s many restaurants, La Taverne, to eat. The tavern is located in a storybook town straight out of the Middle Ages. Keeping true to its theme, diners sit around long wooden tables and benches and are served by swains and wenches.
The food — basic but hearty — arrives in record time (presumable because everyone is rushing for the next show), plopped onto the table in cast-iron skillets. No one will judge you if you eat with your hands.
After quickly exploring the period villages, where we saw stonecutters and blacksmiths at work, we caught my — and possibly everyone else’s — favorite show, Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantomes. I was tearing up; never had I seen something so spectacular. With hundreds of birds from 80 different species soaring above our heads, we were simultaneously entranced and fearful that a bird would drop a shit grenade on us.
All in all, it was a terrific day, even if our two-year-old spent half the time confused. Somebody needs to give the special effects guy a pat on the back. We were beyond thrilled. And there was neither a roller coaster nor a geeky mouse in sight.
Machines de L’ile, Nantes
There are plenty of places you can go to see animals in their natural habitats (my house is one of them), but only one spot where you can straddle a giant mechanical spider like a rodeo bull and yell “YEE-HAA!’ as you make it piss all over innocent bystanders. That place is the Island of the Machines in an ugly, industrial town of Nantes.
Housed in a huge steel warehouse, this place is not a theme park, but rather a sci-fi-ish gallery, where all sort of automated robot creatures from the wild imagination of founders Francois Delaroziere and Pierre Orefice are displayed, ready to spring to life at the push of a button. Taking inspiration from steampunk, a subgenre of sci-fi that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs hailing from the 19th century, these two buddies attempts to recreate the world of Jules Verne by following the methods and principles of da Vinci.
You buy the tickets outside, where a massive metal elephant as tall as a three-story building awaits the call of his master, and then take a public guided tour with one of the machinists who work in these factories.
Our guide seemed like a very sane lady in her mid-to-late 30s, apart from her wild Albert Einstein hair. She spoke in French peppered with some English, so we were lost 90% of the time.
In any case, these machines do not need explaining. They ranged from the most basic — a caterpillar, which required one person to operate, to a crane that can moves its tail and blink its eyes, which needed four.
The children were dismayed when they saw signs prohibiting visitors to hop onto any of these machines whenever they like.
To ride one of these babies, you had to be chosen as a volunteer. To my extreme bewilderment, the husband politely declined when he was approached by our guide, so they turned to me (always the second choice) instead.
I was like, “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?! LET’S FIRE THEM UP!”
My enthusiasm probably shocked him a bit, and he put me in control of the ant’s head. The ant’s butt opened into a staircase and I ascended to my throne, feeling like the Queen Mother, as the other peasants watched jealously on. I was to work with three others to make the ant seem as lifelike as possible, but as you all probably realize, teamwork isn’t my strongest suit.
And so I gave my best performance, pushing and tugging at the heavy metal lever to swivel the ant’s head so that it looked sufficiently menacing. After all of 10 seconds, it started to feel as if I was on a rowing machine in the gym. My arms burned and I looked at the husband for motivation. But there he was, filming me making a huge ass out of myself.
The kids, who were getting twitchy because there’s only so many mechanical creatures you can admire but not touch, had snapped out of their restlessness and were genuinely screaming in horror at this point, thinking that the ant has kidnapped their mommy (and yes, you can hear their screams on video; I still replay it whenever I need cheering up).
Nobody warned me it would be such difficult work. Which is why I’m shelving my dreams of controlling my own fleet of automated creatures in a bid to take over the world.
- Donkey rides can be fun for children and lets you explore a little seen side of the Loire but be sure to bring along your phone in case you’re terrible with maps! Book your donkey at least one day in advance.
- Booking in advance is highly recommended for Puy du Fou as it’s a very popular theme park. The Emotion Pass, issued in limited numbers per day, costs just a bit more, but is worthwhile for those with children as it offers access to shorter lines and priority seating. You need two days to enjoy the park, or a full day at the very least. The shows are in French but we enjoyed it nevertheless — you can rent headsets at the park entrance if you want, though reviews say it isn’t necessary. Reserve your meal online for a discount!
- Machines de L’ile can seem tedious with children after awhile. They might enjoy the elephant ride and the carousel located outside the park, but these rides only operate at certain times and require a separate ticket.