Crocodile time

CHARLES ROBERTS Among rural departments (counties) of the land, Vienne may not be one of the richest. But its people are certainly trying hard. Tourism was recognised early on as a vital area to exploit.


Among rural departments (counties) of the land, Vienne may not be one of the richest. But its people are certainly trying hard. Tourism was recognised early on as a vital area to exploit. In particular, animal parks have proved a special attraction.

Over the three-and-a-half years I've been living here, I've visited a string of them, largely out of journalistic curiosity - which means, in quest of interesting things to write about in Letter from France! To my own surprise, I've been fascinated, entertained, and amused.

I've crouched at the water's edge of a lake, at safe distance from an island where a massively built ape lords it over his harem; I've flatly refused, elsewhere, to commune with snakes, of whom I am mortally terrified.

I've watched eagles of mighty wingspan drift over lofty castle ruins, before returning to their handlers on friendly thermals; and carried on a profound conversation with an especially intelligent ostrich (to the stupefaction of passers by).

But now comes south Vienne's crowning attraction, which has been eight years in the planning, with work beginning on September 1. A crocodile park in the village of Civaux which, as we shall see, is already locally famed.

Most Read

The park site has a nuclear power station to the left of it, and a brilliant complex of swimming pools to the right of it. It will look across the River Vienne to one of the most meticulously restored and beautifully restored villages you'll find anywhere.

Reason? The village owns the land on which the huge power station stands. This draws enormous business tax. Grants were generously handed out to encourage individual work, while the balance went to pay for the commune's part in general renovation.

An absolute necessity was soon taken care of: a large, new school was built. So was a spacious meeting hall. Even a couple of small lakes were dug to provide pleasing views. At the other end of the scale, the church - whose east end is sixteen hundred years old - was well restored.

Nonetheless, good PR was necessary to make sure everyone pulled in the same direction. I was introduced to the lady-to-the-manor-born. She's in her 80s now, and still keeps the natural manner of the ancient regime.

"Madame, there must have been a lot of opposition from the village when the power station plans became known."

"Oh no. General de Gaulle said it was the right thing to do. And if the General said so, that was good enough for me. Everyone signed. I was the first to do so."

The present project seems to have been greeted with equal interest by villagers. Once the choice of builder has been confirmed, there'll be a pause before the bulldozers go into action.

The park is set to be completed by spring 2008. An aerial photo impression on view at the Mairie illustrates an enormous dome, under which all the creatures are brought together, yet separated for various reasons.

There is, for example, a species which objects strongly to promiscuity. Others take a contrary view, and will live together near the banks of the Vienne. Jokes are already being bandied about: "D'you know, at night, they'll all glow, through the effects of the radioactive water they live in?"

Untrue, but it makes a good story.

A village not far from here has, it seems, a favourite walk, which is marked by tall sunflowers. But there was another claimant to the strolling rights, a trim, fighting fit deer.

She made her appearance on August 2, and gave an elderly walker a run for her money, including butting her in the back.

On August 8 and 9, she enjoyed a battle royal against a young man, attacking him with spirit, including a butt in the chest. She was taken aback, however, when he moved in and took the initiative, giving her a walloping thump on the head. She disappeared dizzily into the sunflower field.

By now, the forest ranger had been called to give his professional advice. He said that there was no real danger. The deer was doing nothing unnatural, but was simply defending its own territory.

Then from on high - that is, the Prefect's Office - came the sentence: At the slightest sign of aggression, the animal must be shot.

The final appearance came on August 10. Another victim was marked for attack. A gun beat her to it.

Still, there is a serf (stag) farm only 12 miles or so from where I live. Should be worth a visit.