Although it has been settled in La Roche-sur-Yon since the Middle Ages, the true story of the town begins on May 24, 1804. That was the date Napoleon issued an imperial decree to transfer regional power to an entirely new town. La Roche-sur-Yon is the result, a street grid with a pentagonal outline. The town is organized around the stunning central square, Place Napoleon, and was built in just a few decades.
The town’s dominant neoclassical architecture tells an interesting story in all of this. At Vendée, you’re between the ocean and the award-winning Puy du Fou theme park, so there’s no shortage of inspiration for your days away.
Let’s discover the best things to do in La Roche-sur-Yon:
1. Napoleon Square
Place Napoleon is the starting point for your visit to La Roche-sur-Yon, one of the largest public squares in France.
It is a huge square with boulevards and water gardens around the equestrian statue of the emperor.
Many of the big attractions in town are in the square, and we’ll be there soon.
But there are also plenty of low-key but interesting spots that you can keep an eye out for as you walk.
The Grande Auberge, which hosted Napoleon on August 8, 1808, was one of the few facilities that the Emperor himself approved in 1805, such as the town hall.
2. Les Animaux de la Place
La Roche-sur-Yon has found a wonderful and imaginative use for the water garden in Place Napoleon.
In the pond there is an animatronic machine designed by François Delarozière.
He was the man who created the stunning and moving sculptures at the now world-famous Ile of Nantes.
There are crocodiles, hippos, dromedaries, otters, ibis and flamingos, which can be controlled from a small station by the pond.
You can make them open their eyes, lift their legs, and spread their wings, all using solar power, cables, and hydraulics.
3. St. Louis Church
The striking monument in Place Napoleon is the striking neoclassical church, begun in 1817 and completed 12 years later.
The portico facing the square has six smooth Tuscan columns, while the massive columns supporting the cavernous interior are Corinthian and therefore fluted, with delicate leaf-like capitals.
Throughout the 1800s, the building had to contend with financial difficulties, and one way to overcome them was to replace the real decorations with trompe l’oeil frescoes.
These images adorn the ceilings and walls of the nave, choir, and aisles, representing medallions and even architectural details such as stonework and balustrades.
4. Haras de la Vendée
The horse farm in La Roche-sur-Yon is a must-see for equestrian enthusiasts.
Set in 4.5 hectares of green space, this prestigious facility can tell you all about the culture of the region: you can learn about the history of the town’s cavalry, learn about the Vendée’s traditional horse breeds, witness the ancient skills of saddlers and farriers, and Make friends with the horse itself.
But Haras de la Vendée is also a functioning equestrian training center and hosts extraordinary demonstrations on Thursday nights in the spring and summer.
Harrah’s is also the place to go if you want to explore the town on horseback.
5. Municipal Museum
For some cultures, the town’s museums deal mainly with contemporary photography and art from 1600 to 1900. Through donations and purchases, it hosts top-notch photography exhibitions for Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Thomas Love, and more.
These come with a cache of about 500 small format photographic negatives from the 20’s and 30’s.
The graphic arts gallery here is also impressive, with 3,000 works, mostly from the 1800s, including watercolours by the great Eugène Boudin.
Finally, for sculpture, a bust of Auguste Rodin and Antoine-Denis Chaudet’s depiction of Napoleon.
6. Chocolate Chocolate Museum
Maison Gelencser has been a frequent visitor to La Roche-sur-La Roche since 1956 and opened a museum in 2014, showcasing the world of chocolate and the history of this local brand.
You can learn how cocoa is grown and harvested, and learn about the craftsmanship of a chocolatier.
The entire experience is sampled from time to time in six areas of 300 square meters.
At the end of 2016, La Roche-sur-Yon held a culinary professional competition for local artisans.
The award was won by Patrick Gelencser, who created a miniature dark chocolate bust of “Napoleon” filled with pralines and caramel.
7. Prieuré de Chassay-Grammont
It is rare that a monastic complex, as well as this abbey, survive a short trip to the village of Saint-Prouant.
One explanation for its well-restored state is that after Richard the Lionheart built it in 1196, it was a small place with only 10 monks. These people live a meager life, relying only on bread, fruits and vegetables.
The chapel is surrounded by a kitchen, a branch hall, a dining hall, and rooms for visitors to worship.
8. Renaissance House
As the town was radically changed in the early 1800s, not much was left until then.
But Maison Renaissance at Place de la Vieille Horloge is one of them.
This is an Italianate mansion built in 1566, indeed the oldest building in La Roche-sur-Yon.
Constructed of granite, the house has a grand spiral staircase and marvelous stone fireplace.
It’s a catch-up where the town changed after 1804, outlining this feat of urban planning.
There’s also a retrospective on René Couzinet, a pioneering aeronautical engineer and manufacturer with a factory outside the city.
9. Center Beauty
In the elegant estate of the Vendée naturalist Georges Durand, there is a center where you can discover the biodiversity around La Roche-sur-Yon.
When Durand died in 1964, he bequeathed his vast collection of butterflies and birds to the town, but after his death his beautiful home was devastated for 40 years, until the municipality stepped in and put it down a decade ago. Remodeled.
So now, within the 8.5-hectare park, the house and its visitor center showcase Durand’s collection, with plenty of complementary displays about the wildlife of the Vendée.
10. Municipal Theater
La Roche has planned a grand theatre in La Roche-sur-Yon since Napoleon’s order, and in the first decades of the 19th century, performances were actually held in the town’s central hall with the covered market.
The theatre, finally completed in 1845, is in line with the rest of La Roche-sur-Yon, with its ornate neoclassical architecture, its façade with Tuscan-style porticoes and gleaming white stone.
The institution is France’s “national stage” and thus plays an important role in the cultural development of the region.
Check out the dance, theatre, music and literature listings to see if it’s right for you, as the wood interiors and horseshoe layout provide great acoustics.
11. Abbaye des Fontenelles
On the outskirts of the town crumbling is a 13th-century Augustinian monastery with lurid traces of Anjou Gothic architecture, the site is so dilapidated that it is a mecca for urban explorers.
The best surviving part is the abbey church, with its ribbed vaults and the medieval mausoleums of the local nobles carved out of limestone.
Since the monastery was closed during the Revolution, the monastery buildings have been slowly decaying: the chapter house and stove are easily recognizable, but have been covered with vegetation and continue to disintegrate.
12. Sables d’Olonne
Give it half an hour and you can relax on one of the best beaches on the west coast of France.
Formed in the 1800s with the advent of the railroad, the resort combines modern apartment buildings with grand 19th-century mansions and amenities such as a casino.
Wander the recently resurfaced Promenade Georges Clemenceau.
In addition to the huge sandy beach, there are tons of activities and family attractions, including a zoo, various museums and cool solar-powered water taxis that run between the resort and the community of Chaume across from the harbour.
13. Talmon Castle
Detour from Sables d’Olonne to this medieval fortress first built in the 900s by the Count of Poitou.
The funniest scene from the past was at the end of the 12th century, when Richard the Lionheart specifically ordered the redevelopment of the building, and a lot of what’s left is from that time.
The castle is in ruins, but there’s a lot to see, especially in summer, when it becomes a sort of medieval center of activity: archery, horseback riding, falconry and historical shows in an area in the middle of Bailey.
14. Puy du Fou
La Roche-sur-Yon is one of the closest big towns to an almost indescribable theme park.
In France, it’s second only to Disneyland in visitor numbers, but instead of roller coasters, the park has historical performances, production values and choreography that will make your head spin.
There are six main shows, updated every few years, and a smaller but equally exciting show.
The park’s first show, the Cinéscénie, remains the summer’s main event, set on the world’s largest stage, with more than a thousand actors portraying the history of the region.
If you need high-quality fresh produce, the town’s Marché des Halles is open Tuesday to Saturday and is the largest fresh produce market in the Vendée.
There are 82 traders and producers here, and the Saturday market is packed with fishmongers and oyster farmers.
This is obviously good news, as Vendée Atlantique oysters are a way of life, and you can even join the oyster route across the Loire Estuary and the Aiguilon, visiting farms and tasting shucked oysters fresh from the water.
Also buy local brioche, flavored with brandy and orange blossom water, paired with hot chocolate, and find some Vendée ham, rubbed with sea salt and cured for at least three months.
Where to stay: The best hotels in La Roche-sur-Yon, France
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