Even though there has been a settlement in La Roche-sur-Yon since medieval times, the real story of the town began on May 24, 1804. That was the date Napoleon issued an Imperial decree transferring regional power to a whole new town. La Roche-sur-Yon is the result, a regimented grid of streets with a pentagonal outline. The town is organised around a stunning central Plaza, Place Napoléon and was built in just a few decades.
It’s all an interesting tale, told by the town’s dominating Neoclassical buildings. And here in the Vendée Department, you’re halfway between the ocean and the award-winning Puy du Fou theme park, so there’s no lack of inspiration for days out.
Lets explore the best things to do in La Roche-sur-Yon:
1. Place Napoléon
Exactly the place to begin your visit to La Roche-sur-Yon, Place Napoléon is one of the largest public esplanades in France.
It’s a gigantic plaza with avenues and water gardens around an equestrian statue of the emperor.
Many of the town’s big attractions are on the square, and we’ll come to them shortly.
But there are also lots of low-key but interesting sights that you can look out for on a stroll.
The Grande Auberge received Napoleon on August 8, 1808 and is one of a few amenities, like the Town Hall, that were approved in person by the emperor in 1805.
2. Les Animaux de la Place
La Roche-sur-Yon has found a wonderfully imaginative use for the water gardens on Place Napoleon.
In the ponds are animatronic machines designed by François Delarozière.
He’s the guy who made the mind-blowing moving sculptures at the Machines of the Isle of Nantes, which are now world-famous.
Here there’s a crocodile, hippo, dromedary, otter, ibis and flamingos that can be controlled from little stations by the ponds.
You can make them open their eyes, lift their legs, spread their wings, all with the use of solar energy, cables and hydraulic systems.
3. Église Saint-Louis
The attention-grabbing monument on Place Napoléon is the striking Neoclassical church, begun in 1817 and finished 12 years later.
The portico facing the square has six smooth, Tuscan-style columns, while the giant columns supporting the cavernous interior are Corinthian, and so are fluted and have dainty foliate capitals.
Throughout the 1800s the building had to deal with financial difficulties, and one way these were overcome was with trompe l’oeil murals in place of real ornaments.
These images adorn the ceilings and walls in the nave, choir and aisles, representing medallions and even architectural details like stone carvings and balustrades.
4. Haras de la Vendée
La Roche-sur-Yon’s stud farm is something no equestrian fan should miss.
This prestigious facility, in 4.5 hectares of greenery, can tell you all sorts of things about the region’s culture: You can learn the history of the town’s cavalry, find out about Vendée’s traditional horse breeds, witness the old-time knowhow of saddlers and farriers, and make friends with the horses themselves.
But the Haras de la Vendée is also a functioning training centre for equestrianism and puts on remarkable demonstrations on Thursday evenings in Spring and Summer.
And the Haras is also the place to go if you’d like a horse-drawn tour of the town.
5. Musée Municipal
For a pinch of culture, the town’s museum deals mainly with contemporary photography and art from 1600-1900. Through donations and purchases it has compiled a first-rate photography exhibition by Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Thomas Ruff and many more.
These come with a cache of around 500 small-format photographic plates from the 20s and 30s.
The graphic art galleries here are also impressive, with 3,000 pieces, mostly from the 1800s and including water colours by the great Eugène Boudin.
Finally, for sculpture, there’s a bust by Auguste Rodin, and a depiction of Napoleon by Antoine-Denis Chaudet.
6. Musée du Chocolat Gelencser
The Maison Gelencser has been a fixture in La Roche-sur-Yon since 1956, and in 2014 it opened a museum presenting the world of chocolate and the history of this local brand.
You can find out how cocoa is grown and harvested, but also get to grips with the savoir-faire of a master chocolatier.
The whole experience is punctuated with tastings, in six areas across 300 square metres.
At the end of 2016 La Roche-sur-Yon set up a competition for local artisans to create a culinary speciality.
And this was won by Patrick Gelencser who crafted the “Napouline”, a miniature dark chocolate bust of Napoleon filled with praline and caramel.
7. Prieuré de Chassay-Grammont
It’s rare for a monastic complex to survive as well as this priory, a short road trip away in the village of Saint-Prouant.
One explanation for its excellent state of repair is that it’s a very small place that only housed 10 monks at time after it was founded by Richard the Lionheart in 1196. And these men lived a meagre existence, surviving on nothing more than bread, fruit and vegetables.
There’s a kitchen, chapterhouse, refectory and rooms for visitors around the small chapel for worship.
8. Maison Renaissance
Thanks to the sweeping changes made to the town at the start of the 1800s there is not a lot left from before that time.
But the Maison Renaissance on Place de la Vieille Horloge is one.
It’s an Italianate mansion from 1566, and is indeed the oldest building in La Roche-sur-Yon.
Built from granite, the house has a magnificent spiral stairway and marvellous stone fireplaces in its rooms.
And it’s the place to catch up on the transformations that happened in the town after 1804, outlining this feat of urban planning.
There’s also a retrospective on René Couzinet, the pioneering aeronautics engineer and manufacturer whose factory was set outside the town.
9. Centre Beautour
On the graceful estate of the Vendée naturalist Georges Durand is a centre that lets you discover the biodiversity around La Roche-sur-Yon.
When Durand passed away in 1964 he bequeathed his large collections of butterflies and birds to the town, but after his death his beautiful home had been left to deteriorate for 40 years until the municipality stepped in a decade ago and gave it a makeover.
So now, in 8.5 hectares of parkland the house and its visitor centre exhibits Durand’s collections and has a load of complementary displays about Vendée’s wildlife.
10. Théâtre Municipal
A grand theatre had been planned in La Roche-sur-Yon ever since Napoleon’s decree, and for the first few decades of the 19th century performances were actually held in the central chamber of the town’s covered market.
The theatre was finally completed in 1845 and in keeping with rest of La Roche-sur-Yon has resplendent Neoclassical architecture, with a Tuscan-style portico on its facade and gleaming white stone.
The institution is a French “scène nationale”, so has a big role in the region’s cultural development.
Check the dance, theatre, music and literature listings to see if something suits you, as the wooden interior and horseshoe layout allow for exceptional acoustics.
11. Abbaye des Fontenelles
Crumbling on the outskirts of the town is a 13th-century Augustinian monastery with sensational traces of Angevin Gothic architecture, and the site is so dilapidated it’s one for the urban explorers.
The best surviving section is the abbey church, which has ribbed vaults and the medieval tomb of a local noblewoman carved from limestone.
The monastic buildings have been slowly decaying since the abbey was shut down during the Revolution: The chapter house and calefactory are easy to identify but have been overrun by vegetation and continue to disintegrate.
12. Sables d’Olonne
Give it half an hour and you can be relaxing on one of the best beaches on the west coast of France.
This resort took shape in the 1800s with the advent of the railway, and blends modern apartment towers with imposing 19th-century mansions and amenities like a casino.
Amble past these on the beach-front Promenade Georges Clemenceau, which has recently been re-laid.
Along with that enormous sandy beach there’s are tons of activities and family attractions, including a zoo, various museums and a cool solar-powered water taxi that runs between the resort and the Chaume neighbourhood on the opposite side of the harbour.
13. Château de Talmont
On a detour from Sables d’Olonne you can come by this medieval fortress first built by the Count of Poitou right back in the 900s.
The most interesting episode in its past was at the end of the 12th century when Richard the Lionheart specifically ordered this building to be redeveloped, and a lot of what’s left is from that time.
The castle is in ruins but there’s much to see, especially in summer when it becomes a kind of medieval activity centre: There’s archery, horseback rides, falconry and historical shows in an area set up in the middle of the bailey.
14. Puy du Fou
La Roche-sur-Yon is one of the nearest large towns to a theme park that almost defies description.
In France, it’s just below Disneyland for visitor numbers, but instead of rollercoasters the park has historical shows, with production values and choreography to make your head spin.
There are six main shows, which are updated every few years, as well as a programme of smaller but no less exciting spectacles.
The park’s very first show, the Cinéscénie is still the main event in summer, and is set on the largest stage in the world and has a cast of more than a thousand actors portraying the history of the region.
If you’re in need of 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 merchants and producers here, and on Saturdays the market is packed with fishmongers and oyster farmers.
This is obviously great news, because Vendée Atlantique oysters are a way of life, and you can even join the oyster route spanning the Loire Estuary and the Bay of Aiguillon, visiting farms and tasting shucked oysters that have just been lifted from the water.
Also buy local brioche, flavoured with brandy and orange blossom water, to go with hot chocolate, and find some Vendée ham, which is rubbed with sea salt and cured for at least three months.