I SPENT the past two weeks lost in France, and glad of it. Not literally lost, except for a couple of short-lived misunderstandings with signposts; and not lost in the Bonnie Tyler sense either. It was just that my holiday coincided with, and almost completely obscured, the Olympics - which, from the opening ceremony until the climax of the boxing championships, were only a rumour where we were staying.
A fairly persistent rumour, admittedly. It was circulating on every television set we passed, but always in rapidly spoken French and therefore hard to follow. Local bias further obscured the message. Such was the runaway success of "les Bleus", apparently, that Britain's shock emergence as a sporting superpower went unreported. Concerns about Irish underperformance were - if possible - of even less concern to the local media.
As a result, the most emotionally involving athletic event I witnessed during the fortnight was not in Beijing but in a place called Puy du Fou. This is a history theme park in the Vendée region, whose multiple arenas include a full-size Roman amphitheatre. And the latter is the setting for a show involving chariot races, gladiator fights, and other tasteful spectacles from the Roman era, including that proven old crowd-puller: a contest between lions and Christians.
Just before the climax of this last event, an automated metal fence is cranked up all around the arena, presumably to protect spectators. Then a Christian maiden (or possibly just an actress posing as one) is tied to a stake by centurions. Following which, three real-life lions are released into the ring and directed towards the set lunch.
Spectators are on the edge of their seats by this time, and it looks bad for Team Christianity, whose champion fighter is locked in a cage nearby, forced to watch the impending horror.
But then - lo! - the first lion lies down harmlessly near the maiden. So does the second. Finally, the third lion rolls belly-up, pawing the air and apparently demanding to be tickled. Whereupon the crowd cheers a sensational victory for the Christians - which, if it happened at the Olympics, would surely see the lions selected for drug-tests.
The show also features a cameo performance by a tiger: equally real and equally vegetarian when faced by Christian-flavoured snacks. And the passing of the pagan era is confirmed when the Roman emperor who has presided over the spectacle is forced to perform an Usain Bolt-style sprint through the arena, chased by a real hyena.
I'm fairly sure that the Roman soldiers in the ring with the maiden were in fact trained big-cat tamers. Even so, and not for the first time, I was struck by how much lower public liability insurance premiums must be in France. Imagine trying to open a theme park of this kind in Ireland and explaining your idea for the Lions v Christians spectacle to the bank manager.
In another of the Puy du Fou spectacles - a bird show - animals and audience get even closer. By the end, owls, falcons, and even eagles are flying around the arena in all directions, inches over spectators' heads. The whole thing works on bribery: the bird-handlers, placed at intervals in the audience, ensure their feathered friends' cooperation - and their nerve-inducing trajectories - with pieces of meat.
But as eagles flew so close overhead that we could feel the breeze from their wings, I found myself wondering if they could mistake other things - such as my three-year-old son - for food. Indeed, there was a warning beforehand that people should not put their hands in the air during the show. Typically, however, this was delivered only in French.
I'd never heard of the Puy du Fou before ... their flash-based website is definitely worth a look (click on the gladiator, then when the screen changes, navigate to the Colosseum-like structure and click it ... then click the gladiator or whatever) ...