Parc Zoologique de Thoiry

Very few among the millions of tourists who visit France have any idea that just 30 miles west of Paris is one of the most unusual wildlife parks in the world. Parc Zoologique de Thoiry is home to a 16th century castle that has housed generations of Counts of La Panouse, including the present generation.

The castle ‘grounds’ encompass 150 hectares (about 750 acres) of which some 240 acres could be on another continent entirely.

The ‘African Reserve’ forms a natural habitat for free-roaming giraffe, zebra, eland, wildebeest, bison, camels, hippos, rhinos, bears, big cats and others, including (at the last report) three elephants.  This area of the park is traversible by car or tour bus and more often than not only a few vehicles are on the road, so it seems as if you’re in the heart of an African plain.

You can even see the lions and tigers up close and personal thanks to a glass tunnel that allows you to walk (almost) amongst the lions, and an elevated bridge that lets you walk above the tigers.  In the open park, however, you must remain in your car or the tour bus.

The Parc Zoologique is home to around 130 species and at least 1,000 animals, some rarely seen anywhere; and this is the first place in France to provide a home for a few of the nearly extinct Komodo dragons. The pedestrian walkways in the zoological and botanical gardens take you on a tour of dragon habitat as well as many other uncaged animals.  Conservation of all species is a crucial issue that is addressed through informative and thought-provoking interactive exhibits.

The chateau itself is not to be missed; guides in period costume will point out some of the gorgeous old furniture, art work and tapestries in the areas designated for public access, and commentary includes some highly entertaining ‘insider’ stories.  It’s a bonus if you speak and understand French, since most of the tours are conducted in that language.

Chateau Thoiry was build in 1564 by Philibert de l’Orme to Renaissance standards, and it remains a lovely showcase, as well as being home to Vicomte Panouse and his wife. One truly unique feature is the architectural design which positions the chateau to be directly in line with the sun during the winter and summer solstices. Huge glass windows and doors make the central portion appear as a transparent arch of light that is projected onto the solar calendar landscaped into the surrounding gardens.

The largest and only interactive green maze in Europe is another fascinating aspect of Chateau Thoiry.  It consists of 2,300 metres of landscaped lanes and bridges, comparable to a computer game played literally and in person. The Labyrinth is a challenge and a delight for all ages, but as with all the pedestrian areas in the Parc, be sure you have good walking shoes.

If you have kids, the Mysterious Island will make their day, with swinging bridges in the towering trees, toboggans, a climbable pyramid and big holes with captivating sound games and lots of room to explore.  For lovers of flowers and plants, the gardens are irresistible; about 300 acres of beautifully laid out sections include a rose garden, a bluebell wood, a hydrangea walk, a perfume garden and many others, so no matter what the season, something is always in bloom.

Plan to spend a whole day if you can; bring a picnic, or there’s a restaurant at the garden entrance with  good variety in a buffet setting.  Do not bring pets, but do bring the whole family and a sense of adventure; you won’t be disappointed.