Happy New Year! Joyeuxes fêtes de fin d’année!

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So, I haven’t posted anything since summer. It’s been a busy autumn, and a demanding year. Lots of things are ending, and I am really looking forward to 2017, and to new beginnings! We’ll spend a lot more time in France, for sure, and I cannot wait to continue my blog with interesting little snippets of stories from our area (as well as from other areas of France, too).

It’s a chilly new year’s eve here in northern Deux-Sèvres, every thing is veiled in a thick, white fog, and the frost covers cobwebs, blackberry bushes, as well as our garden tables and trees in our “secret garden”. So beautiful!

blackberries   secret-garden

And tomorrow, on January 1st, our administrative region, Nouvelle-Acquitaine celebrates its first anniversary. It is the largest administrative region in France.

“From a cultural point of view, the new region is one of the main constituent parts of Southern France (“Midi de la France”), marked by Basque, Occitan and Oïl (Poitevin and Saintongeais) cultures. Historically, it is the “indirect successor” to the medieval Aquitaine, and extends over a large part of the former Duchy of Eleanor of Aquitaine.” (Source Wikipedia)

I look forward to writing more from our lovely, mythical region. But for now, I’d like to share a local blog post on legends and ghost stories from the Marais Poitevin with you (in French, mind you). It is based on author Louis Perceau’s (1883-1942) posthumously published collection, Contes de la Pigouille, éditions du Marais, 1967, which contains 20 stories collected and written down between 1916 and 1920. The gorgeous Marais Poitevin area is situated right north/north-east of La Rochelle and well worth a visit!

Happy New Year & welcome back to our Discover Secret France blog in 2017!

Hanne & Jan

Sources & useful links:

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Map of the new region with its twelve départements, coloured according to the historical provinces as they existed until 1790. CC BY-SA 4.0

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Puy du Fou

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Tip 13 for the summer is the amazing theme park Puy du Fou, located in Les Epesses, 43 km from our place.

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The Viking show at Puy du Fou. Photo by Padpo – Own work, [CC BY-SA 3.0], Wikimedia Commons

Whether you have kids, or you’re just forever young at heart, with a nack for history (and not for roller coasters and merry-go-rounds), a great tip for the summer vacation is a day (and night) at the Puy du Fou!

This theme park is packed with attractions, shows, little cafés, parks, and just a lovely place to spend a day. The park brings in some 2 million visitors every year, making it the fourth most popular attraction in France.

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“Medieval town” at Puy du Fou. Photo by Midx1004 at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain, CC0 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In the summer season 2016 you may see the following shows at the Puy du Fou:

The Grand Shows

  • Le Dernier Panache
  • Triumph’s Sign
  • The Vikings
  • The Phantom Birds’ Dance
  • The Secret of the Lance
  • Richelieu’s musketeer

Night-time Shows

  • The Cinescenie
  • The Organs of Fire

Other Shows

  • The Lovers of Verdun
  • The Renaissance at the castle
  • The Knights of the Round Table
  • The Imaginary World of La Fontaine
  • The Great Waters
  • Traditional Musicians
  • Martin’s Legend
  • The Puy du Fou Odyssey
  • Robot musicians

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Roman chariot racing at Puy du Fou. Photo by Midx1004 at English Wikipedia [Public domain, CC0 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Whether you want to see a show or two, or just stroll around the different historic theme areas, have a beer in the medieval town, look at the stone masons or calligraphers working there, have a coffee or ice cream at some other café, visit the little souvenir shops, the Puy du Fou has much to offer.

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The Dolmen de Bagneux in Saumur

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Tip 12 for the summer is the megalith Dolmen de Bagneux, located in Saumur, 48 km from our place.

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The largest, well-preserved dolmen in France is perhaps the Great Dolmen of Bagneux, near Saumur. Photograph by Manfred Heyde (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In this area of France there are a number of megalithic sites testifying to the very first human settlements in the region. The Dolmen de Bagneux is one of the largest (and best kept) megalithic monuments in France. It is more than 23 meters long, and its chamber is over 18 meters long. It was constructed sometime between 4,000-2,000 B.C., and thus is 5,000 years old! It is oriented south-east as nearly all dolmens in Anjou.

The dolmen is composed of an intact chamber and of a damaged porch. The chamber is almost rectangular.

The Maine-et-Loire and Deux-Sèvres areas are packed with these structures, but the Bagneux Dolmen is unique both when it comes to size and to how well-preserved it is.

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The interior of the Dolmen de Bagneux. Photograph by Manfred Heyde (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What is a dolmen?

A dolmen usually consists of two or more vertical megaliths supporting a large flat horizontal capstone (“table”), although there are also more complex variants. Most date from the early Neolithic (4000–3000 BC). They were typically covered with earth or smaller stones to form a tumulus. In many instances, that covering has weathered away, leaving only the stone “skeleton” of the structure intact.

It remains unclear when, why, and by whom the earliest dolmens were made. The oldest known dolmens are in Western Europe, where they were set in place around 7,000 years ago. Archaeologists still do not know who erected these dolmens, which makes it difficult to know why they did it. They are generally all regarded as tombs or burial chambers, despite the absence of clear evidence for this.

Some smaller dolmens

On the road between Thouars and Poitiers, you may stop and visit two smaller dolmens, situated in the middle of a farmed field (on your right hand side if you are travelling in the Poitiers direction. It is a very special feeling to walk around and visit these historic monuments with cars passing by in (at least) 90 km an hour. The silent past and the noisy present meets here.

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La Rochelle – Atlantic Ocean Base for the Knights Templar

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Tip 11 for the summer, and one of our absolute favourites, is the city of La Rochelle, 139 km from our place.

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The three towers of the harbour of La Rochelle. By M.Romero Schmidtke. [CC BY-SA 3.0], Wikimedia Commons

Where to start?

Well, there is an excellent Wikipedia article on La Rochelle for those who really want to dig into the history of this amazing city. So we’ll just give you a couple of highlights – things we find interesting and want to point out:

From the Gallic tribe of the Santones to Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Plantagenets

La Rochelle is an ancient seaport on the Bay of Biscay. It was founded in the 10th century. But the area has been occupied way longer than that.

In antiquity the Gallic tribe of the Santones lived here. Subsequently the area was occupied by the Romans. They developed salt production along the coast as well as wine production, which was then re-exported throughout the Empire.

In the middle ages, legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122/24-1204) inherited the Duchy of Acquitaine from her father, William X. A communal charter promulgated by him, granted  the city many privileges, such as the right to mint its own coins, and to operate some businesses free of royal taxes, factors which would favour the development of the entrepreneurial middle-class (bourgeoisie).

Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet (1133-1189) in 1152, thus putting La Rochelle under Plantagenet rule, until Louis VIII captured it in the 1224 Siege of La Rochelle. During the Plantagenet control of the city in 1185, Henry II had the Vauclair castle built, remains of which are still visible in the Place de Verdun.

The Knights Templar and La Rochelle

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Seal of the Templars. Reproduced in: Thomas Andrew Archer, Charles Lethbridge Kingsford. 1894. The crusades; the story of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, p. 176, Public Domain [CC0 1.0], Wikimedia Commons

The mythical Knights Templar had a strong presence in La Rochelle since before the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She exempted them from duties and gave them mills in her 1139 Charter.

This seaport city was for the Templars their largest base on the Atlantic Ocean, and where they stationed their main fleet. From La Rochelle, they were able to act as intermediaries in trade between England and the Mediterranean.

A popular modern myth (said to origin with the book “The Holy Blood, and the Holy Grail” 1982) claims that in autumn 1307 the Templars left Europe from this port, never to be seen again: A fleet of 18 ships, laden with knights and treasures, then set sail from La Rochelle. In October 1307 a warrant for the arrest of the Order was issued, and at dawn on Friday, October 13, 1307, scores of French Templars were simultaneously arrested by agents of King Philip IV (the Fair), later to be tortured in locations such as the tower at Chinon, into admitting heresy and other sacrilegious offenses in the Order. Then they were put to death.

The Order’s Grand Master, Jacques de Molay (1244-1314) was burned at the stake in Paris on March 18, 1314, and his ashes dumped into the Seine.

Cardinal Richelieu and the Siege of La Rochelle!

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Siege of La Rochelle with Richelieu. Henri-Paul Motte. 1881. Oil on canvas. 114 x 190 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts de La Rochelle [Public domain, CCo 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Who hasn’t imagined himself or herself to be d’Artagnan? Athos, Porthos, Aramis? The mean cardinal Richelieu, or the duke of Buckingham? Perhaps the very evil Milady?

The growing persecution of the Huguenots in the area culminated with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. La Rochelle, and the siege of 1627 form much of the backdrop to the later chapters of “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas, père (1844):

When it comes to religion, La Rochelle’s history is a bloody one. To put a long story short, the city adopted protestant ideas during the Renaissance. Calvinism started to be propagated in the region, and during the 1550s the Huguenot presence in La Rochelle increased. In 1560, La Rochelle was the first French city, together with Rouen, to experience iconoclastic riots. Further cases of Reformation iconoclasm were recorded in La Rochelle from 30 May 1562, following the Massacre of Vassy. Protestants pillaged churches, destroyed images and statues, and also assassinated 13 Catholic priests in the Tower of the Lantern.

Louis XIII and his Chief Minister cardinal Richelieu declared the suppression of the Huguenot revolt the first priority of the kingdom. The English came to the support of La Rochelle, starting an Anglo-French War, by sending a major expedition under the Duke of Buckingham. The expedition however ended in a fiasco for England with the Siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Meanwhile, cannon shots were exchanged on 10 September 1627 between La Rochelle and Royal troops. This resulted in the Siege of La Rochelle in which Cardinal Richelieu blockaded the city for 14 months, until the city surrendered and lost its mayor and its privileges.

Vieux-Port

The most charming area of La Rochelle is its old harbour. There are three medieval towers in the city, two of them guarding the entrance to the harbour, the Tour Saint-Nicolas (14th century) and the Tour de la Chaîne (late 14th century). The third tower, the 15th century Tour de la Lanterne, is situated right next to them. Several good restaurants are to be found nearby. No need to write more about this gem! Corot painted a beautiful picture of the Vieux-Port in 1851, which we have published underneath.

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The Harbor of La Rochelle. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. 1851. Oil on canvas. 50.5 × 71.8 cm. Yale University Art Gallery [Public domain, CC0  1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Aquarium

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The Aquarium in La Rochelle. Photograph by William Scot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The Aquarium La Rochelle is home to 12,000 Atlantic, Mediterranean and Tropical animals. We haven’t been there yet, but if you are travelling with kids (or just have a keen interest in marine life), we guess it is an excellent place to visit.

The Musée des Beaux-Arts La Rochelle

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The Musée des Beaux-Arts de La Rochelle. Photograph by Tux-Man (Own work) [Public domain, CCo 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This museum is a well-kept secret! Actually, so well kept that the museum does not have its own webpage. A pity, really! You’ll find a tiny bit of information about it on the city’s own website, but not much.

The museum’s collection includes some 900 artworks (paintings and drawings), from the 15th to 20th centuries, as well as far-eastern, historical and ceramic collections. Some of the more famous artists represented here are: Luca Giordano, Camille Corot, Gustave Doré, William Bouguereau, Paul Signac, and Aristide Maillol.

Excellent seafood restaurants!

Our favourite restaurant in the area is the Restaurant Le Bar André. They serve the most delicious plates of both seafood and other foods! We try to have a meal here every time we visit La Rochelle, and our favourite dish is their mouclade, a regional French mussel dish! (Here’s a recipe if you want to try making mouclade yourself!) You can dine both outside and inside.

This restaurant is very popular, so it might be an idea to reserve a table, but so far we’ve been lucky whenever popping in.

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Waiting for Mouclade at the Restaurant Le Bar André in La Rochelle. Photograph © 2016 Greta Storm Ofteland

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Bar Oasis – “The Bar at the End of the Universe” 😉

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Tip 10 for the summer is our local bar, the Bar Oasis, 3 km from our place.

This bar is owned and run by a lovely English couple, Tracy and Pete, and is situated in the middle of their camping site, the Camping La Raudière in the commune de Saint-Maurice-Étusson.

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The Bar Oasis at the Camping la Raudière

The campsite again, is situated in the middle of a field – in the middle of nowhere (or so it seems) – so we instantly named it as an internal joke “the bar at the end of the Universe”. 😉

Here you can hang out with the quite big number of English summer and permanent residents in the area, plus the French local population, enjoy a meal, a drink, watch soccer – or take a swim in the pool! Tracy and Pete have done a great job, building this campsite with a petting zoo, mobile homes for rent, and, of course, the bar/restaurant.

The Bar Oasis is proof of the millennia-long connection between the French and the English. It is a friendly place, with reasonable prices, a good sense of humour – and (when you feel a bit drowned in the French language and need to rest the brain just for a minute) a place where you can speak English.

The hosts organise wine tasting, fish and chips evenings, dances, zumba, and lots of other activities, and are important contributors to the area!

And, of course, it is child friendly, and you can also rent a caravan for your summer holiday.

We highly recommend it!

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The pool, the palm tree, the Bar Oasis!

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Château de Brissac

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Tip 9 for the summer is the tallest castle in the Loire valley, the Château de Brissac, 41 km from our place.

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The Castle of Brissac, East elevation. Photo by Manfred Heyde – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The castle is situated in the charmful town Brissac-Quincé, right outside of the city of Angers. Originally constructed as a fortress by Fulk III, Count of Anjou, 970-1040 (Foulques Nerra, or Fulk the Black). However, it has been heavily rebuilt later.

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The Seal of Fulk III, by Georges de Manteyer — Mémoires de la Société nationale des antiquaires de France, Public Domain CC0 1.0, Wikimedia Commons

The castle as it is today, is a true medley of building styles from different centuries with its seven floors and 204 rooms! It is open to the public, and inside you’ll find antique furniture, family souvenirs, Flemish tapestries and theatre of the Belle Époque period succeed one other during the visit. (As well as some rather grim boar heads on the walls.)

The castle is surrounded by a magnificent 70-hectare park with hundred-years-old trees – the perfect place for a stroll.

At the entrance to the park, you’ll find a small café. However, we recommend that you take your refreshments at one of the establishments in the centre of town instead, as they are much more charming!

The guided tours end in the castle’s wine cellar where you can taste and buy wine from the castle’s own vineyards. Here you will also find a gift shop selling books, souvenirs, and local delicacies.

Fun fact

In August of 1620, King Louis XIII and his mother, Marie de Medici, met to discuss their differences in the “neutral” territory of the Château de Brissac. A temporary truce between the two was reached, but it did not last long, and the Queen Mother was eventually banished.

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Château d’Oiron

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Tip 8 for the summer is the Château d’Oiron, 44 km from our place.

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The Castle of Oiron. By Papay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

History

The Château d’Oiron has its origins in the 15th century war with the English for control of France: In 1449 Charles VII of France gifted the domain and great forest of Oiron to Guillaume Gouffier (†1495), who became governor of Touraine and built the castle.

In 1551, king Henry II of France and his entire court were guests of Claude Gouffier who had been granted the title Marquis de Caravaz. Claude Gouffier served as the model for Charles Perrault’s “Marquis de Carabas” in the story, Puss in Boots.

Around 1650 major renovations were carried out, and the castle then ended up with a main building and two long projecting wings, one of which is a Renaissance structure built over a cloister.

In the mid-1700s the château went into severe decline and it was ransacked by Revolutionaries in 1793. After that it lay abandoned until the government of France took possession just before World War II, eventually converting it to a museum.

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Le chat botté (Puss in Boots), illustration by Gustave Doré, 1867 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Castle’s Contemporary Art Collection – “Curios & Mirabilia”

The castle today houses a collection of contemporary art, Curios & Mirabilia, freely modelled on the theme of a cabinet of curiosities, with reference to the fabulous art collection Claude Gouffier (1510-1570) had acquired, seigneur of the castle and grand equerry to King Henry II.

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Claude Gouffier. Painting by François Clouet, 1568. – Web Gallery of Art:  [Public Domain], Wikimedia Commons

The selected artists are invited to reinterpret the castle’s exceptional building and decorations (it contains galleries of mural paintings from the Renaissance in the style of the Fontainebleau school, as well as painted and sculpted woodworks from the 17th century).

The Château’s collection of contemporary art is quite impressive, covering the following artists (click on the link to see more information about them and their works at the Oiron):

Wim Delvoye, Ilya Kabakov, Sol Lewitt, Marina Abramovic, Claude Rutault, Thomas Grünfeld, Fabrice Hybert, Braco Dimitriievic, Raoul Marek, Daniel Spoerri, Félice Varini, Thomas Shannon, On Kawara, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Guillaume Bijl, Georg Ettl, Gavin Bryars, Lothar Baumgarten, Christian Boltanski, Linarés, and Charles Ross.

As, of course, all the artworks on display in the castle are copyright of the individual artists, we cannot publish them here. However, beneath is a painting from one of  the castle’s cabinets (first half of the 17th century). You may also follow the Château d’Oiron on Instagram.

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A painting of Mercur in the castle’s “Cabinet des muses”, period Louis XIII. By Danielclauzier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Summer exhibitions

This summer’s exhibition is Dutch artist Stan WannetNEXT TIME YOU SEE ME IT WON’T BE ME” (June 26 – October 2, 2016).

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Parc Oriental de Maulévrier

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Tip 7 for the summer is the lush Parc Oriental de Maulévrier, 20 km from our place.

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By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France (Le pont rouge (Parc oriental, Maulévrier)) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Parc Oriental de Maulévrier was created between 1899-1913 on the grounds of Château Colbert by noted Parisian architect Alexandre Marcel (1860-1928), designer of the Cambodia pavilion at the Exposition Universelle (1900). As a matter of fact, the park’s Khmer elements are reproduced from molds from the exhibition.

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Waterlily. By Nataloche (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Covering 29 hectars this park is the largest Japanese garden in France. It contains about 300 plant species, with water features, a bridge, and a pagoda, as well as azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons, and Japanese maples. There is also a permanent exhibition of bonsai and ceramics.

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By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France (The lake, Parc oriental, Maulévrier) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There is also a small nursery, a salon du thé, as well as a gift shop on the premises. (However, we’d rather recommend the restaurant Le Stoffiet, at the neighbouring Château Colbert if you want a grand meal in posh surroundings, or a coffee or other refreshment at some of the local bars in town.)

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The Khmer temple by Alexandre Marcel. Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. [CC BY 2.0]

This is the perfect venue for a day out!

Parc du Futuroscope

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Tip 6 for the summer is the theme park Futuroscope, situated in Chasseneuil-du-Poitou (just north of the city of Poitiers), 92 km from our place.

By Denis laming (Denis Laming) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Kinémax building in the Parc du Futuroscope, architect Denis Laming, GFDL or CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Parc du Futuroscope is a different kind of leisure park experience for all the family! – a theme park based upon multimedia, cinematographic futuroscope and audio-visual techniques. It has several 3D cinemas and a few 4D cinemas (not sure what a 4D cinema is, though) along with other attractions and shows, some of which are unique in the world.

It is immensely popular. In 2010 the Futuroscope had 1.826 million visitors!

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Futuroscope night show. Photograph by Jordiferrer (Own work). CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

No point in trying to describe everything that’s going on in this fantastic, fun and fairy-tale park. With more than 25 original experiences in stunning attraction theatres, adventures, thrills, fairy-tale evening shows and other attractions – they’ve got something for all tastes and ages!

So, why not check it our for yourself at: futuroscope.com

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Futuroscope brochure