IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 4 > Paris - Futuroscope

Paris - Futuroscope

The problems with the French rail strikes were hampering my progress again, but it was essential that I reached Futuroscope today. I had pre-arranged one slice of luxury on my voyage, spending two days in this avant-garde theme park located near Poitiers in mid-west France. I was set to stay in a hotel on the park's perimeter for the night, as little other options were available. The only train that was both running and had seats available was the 8am TGV departure from Paris Montparnasse, on which reservations were essential even with an Interrail ticket.

Forgoing the hostel's breakfast which wasn't available early enough, I dashed across Paris on the Metro, panicking when each train took more than two minutes to arrive. It was a bank holiday in France, and combined with the strikes so early in the morning, there was a strong likelihood of waiting thirty minutes or more between each Metro train, as the service announcements stressed.

I reached Montparnasse with minutes to spare, only to find myself having to navigate the endless subways once more which culminated in the absurdly long travelator, the far end of which was invisible due to the curvature of the Earth. Of course these desperate occasions always commanded the inevitable circumstance of the people in front carrying more baggage than a roadie with the Rolling Stones, and dumping it across the width of the moving machine, blocking the path for others and thereby rendering the whole idea of a travelator pointless, as wise walkers overtook on the alternative neighbouring footpath.

My TGV awaiting at Paris Montparnasse

I made it though, and even had time to do the sad routine normally confined to trainspotters, of taking a photo of the front of the train (above) before boarding. The TGV certainly was a better service than most others I had travelled on, and only cost a small additional supplement of 3 Euros. The ride was exceptionally smooth, and on the special high-speed section of line towards Poitiers it reached speeds of up to 300 kilometres per hour, but riders were unlikely to be aware of this as the well-adapted suspension allowed them to glide gracefully through the countryside.

The best feature of these trains was the forbidding of passengers from using their mobile phones in the main carriages, instead requiring them to exit to the small compartments at the end of the coach, and sparing the rest of us from endless repetitions of that classic opening phrase, which in French I assumed to be 'Allo, oui, je suis sur le train...'

I was a little worried when only one other person alighted from the train at Futuroscope, and we crossed the tracks to the glossy new rail terminal which was completely empty. The park was yet to open for the day so I took the shuttle bus the fair few kilometres around the circumference of the park to my hotel, which again was empty, although the two receptionists took delight in welcoming me with a you're on your own booking into a hotel at a theme park - you must be a leper attitude.

This was a problem which I stumbled upon, and one which was to be more noticeable during my stay at the park than anywhere else. Travelling by oneself could have many high points, but there were just some places best left alone unless visiting with others, else it could feel decidedly uncomfortable. This included my checking into the Hôtel Futuroscope, where staff were bemused by the discovery of my singularity. During my two-day stay I was not to spot one other lone visitor, as people strolled around the park and neighbouring hotels in happy family and couple formations.

The Parc du Futuroscope had opened in the 1980s, and it boasted about becoming 'one of the top fifteen most visited theme parks' within a few years of starting business. This seemed a little difficult to believe judging by the trickle of people I spotted around the place. Perhaps it wasn't the foremost thought of French families waking from a weekend of excess: 'Monday morning - must get down to Futuroscope!'

It was, however, a very hot, pleasant summer's day in the park where I would have expected larger crowds. The basic idea of the park appeared to be thus: construct a collection of bizarre buildings on some cheap farmland in the middle of nowhere, fill them with a set of creative cinematic experiences, decorate the place with mass-market food outlets and hotel chains, and watch the money roll in. And it sort of worked. The place was worth the visit and two full days would be needed to see all the attractions, but ultimately I found the variety of the entertainment slightly limited, and anybody who didn't enjoy cinema would probably have more fun burying their head in a nearby vineyard.

view of the Parc du Futuroscope from the top of the rotating tower attraction

Most of the attractions had English translations available through a remotely activated headphone system, although those that didn't left me struggling with my limited French ability to quite grasp what was happening. The most baffling experience was a 3D computer-animated game inside a cinema, in which the audience were required to battle against each other by holding up fluorescent batons in order to influence the direction of a craft on the screen. A lady standing at the front gave continual instructions and suffocated me with words I couldn't understand, so I resorted to just waving my arms about in the air like a drowning mime artist. Half of the French didn't know what was happening either.

Many of the features were quite spectacular, including one cinema where in addition to the giant screen at the front, the entire audience was seated on an enormous frame that perched above a one hundred foot drop, under which was a second screen curving beneath the floor. The film on show followed a butterfly on a flight across waterfalls and valleys, and looking down provided the unnerving sense of being high in the sky, although the synchronization of the footage on each screen was far from perfect. When I first entered the auditorium it was dark, and I could vaguely make out what I thought were little TV screens under the see-through floor, but once it lit up to reveal the immense, cavernous chamber below me I almost wet myself.

Other cinematic attractions on offer included simple 3D-spectacle-wearing affairs, or involved sitting on simulators which responded to the screen action. Another round theatre displayed a 360-degree film about Brazil, in which the audience stood turning around to follow the action, and were gifted with the sensation of being right in the middle of a street carnival. 'Destination Cosmos' was a traditional planetarium which took visitors on a journey through the universe, to the inevitable accompaniment of fidgety children whinging to their parents 'I wanna go on something more interesting than this', and a remarkable three-dimensional film in one building put me in the seat of the Space Shuttle, with some quite incredible 'never-seen-before footage' exclusive to Futuroscope, so they said. Even in my two-day stay I wouldn't have time to see every attraction, although I did ensure I performed the ritual of riding the rotating tower - as found in every theme park on Earth - from where I was able to get a better aerial impression of the many peculiar surrounding buildings (above and below).

another view from the tower

My most embarrassed state was to be experienced during a ride housed in one of the less impressive buildings, which had obviously been put up at an early stage when design wasn't of fundamental importance. Having navigated a long series of queue chains, I cringed when I passed the entrance and found that I had to board a small spherical car with a bench inside, suspended from a cable, in which sat a happy couple in each of the vehicles that set off ahead of me, presumably looking forward to romantic opportunities that might be offered in the dark recesses of the ride. The lady controlling access to the cars was reluctant to let me board alone for fear of what disease I must carry, but a party of schoolgirls arrived and blocked the path behind me, merrily skipping in pairs. She had no choice, and I sat like a fool by myself in the slowly spinning ball which moved at a speed of less than one mile per hour.

During the journey, riders were presented with a series of mock stage sets showing the tricks behind the making of movies. I had to confess that it was a decent enough effort and I did my best to enjoy it, whilst cowering each time the car spun and all the couples ahead turned to face me and snigger at my lonely occupation of the mobile unit. Unfortunately, having witnessed a bright flash halfway through, I knew what fate awaited me at the end as an assistant came to see me out of the car. I had to pass a series of screens showing photos of each recent set of passengers, and there was I, hat pulled over my eyes doing my best to hide, sitting pretty in my sad little cup-car. Teenagers glanced at the screens, then at me, then back at the screens and put hands over their mouths, which were destined to explode into laughter once I exited.

more views of the Futuroscope park from the tower

After 6pm, the park went eerily quiet as coach tours departed for the regions, and remaining visitors waiting for the final spectacle late at night inhabited the restaurants. Music sounded from the speakers buried in the ground around the paths, with that very distinct empty theme park echo effect, although the assortment of tunes they piped through the park was quite groovy, with some fab easy listening loungecore classics thrown in! It was an ideal time to make use of the free Internet access available in the 'Cyber Avenue' hall - an otherwise noisy haven of gaming machines and teenage nerds, so I made my first assault on catching up with everybody who I had neglected back in England for the last few days.

Due to the lack of external facilities in the area, I had splashed out extra cash for a ticket which included meals. What they didn't tell me, however, was that only certain establishments in the park would remain open each day for evening dinner, not the full range advertised in their promotional literature, leaving me with no option other than the Festival Pizza. Which would have been fine but for the fact that I didn't eat pizza, or rather I did eat genuine traditional pizza as originated in parts of Italy which never actually contained cheese, unlike the mistaken bastardized versions on sale today around the world which would insist upon this ingredient as an absolute necessity.

There was a slightly posh restaurant contained within the pizza place, which had an enlarged menu containing some pretentious dishes. So I was relieved to find one or two other offerings which didn't contain the aforementioned evil food, except that when I ordered a pasta dish with the explicit requirement of 'sans fromage, pas du fromage', it arrived on my table smothered in the stuff, as if to taunt me. Sadly, Lone Syndrome was once again to be my disease which I carried like a name tag, as dozens of couples on other tables stared and smirked throughout their meals as I sat with Mister Beer, my new-found liquid friend.

Every night a grand finale was staged for those who could hang around long enough. Based around a lake full of submerged pyrotechnics, a sort of water-based laser light show named Le Miroir d'Uranie was performed to the audience. After the fall of night, which in this case was very late, and after a tedious warm-up man had threatened the audience with personal humiliation, the show began. A most brilliant piece occurred when a series of jets flung up a mighty wall of water, onto which was projected the image of a girl who played a part in the show's storyline. Children gasped, balls of fire leapt into the air, I choked on the resulting smoke and fireworks finished the fandango with a flourish. It was quite a unique performance, and one which people would need to see firsthand to fully grasp the individuality of, so I felt glad to have stayed and witnessed it even if I did nearly keel over with asphyxiation. It added to the drama, and the tension - not least in my throat.

A rather poor quality image taken during part of the final display, Le Miroir d'Uranie

The show finished, the park emptied, and I returned to my creepily quiet hotel in which I firmly believed I was the only guest. For some reason, they had awarded me a room containing four beds, perhaps assuming my single booking to be a cover for some highly active social life that demanded high-life hotel stays and a nightly ménage à quatre. I was relieved to find that having booked one of the two hotels at the budget end of the scale, they hadn't as a consequence filled my room with other unwitting cheapskate guests. Although had they been of the correct bodily form, I probably wouldn't have protested.

HOSTEL REPORT: Hôtel Futuroscope, Parc du Futuroscope, 86130 Jaunay-Clan (near Poitiers, Vienne)
Most of the hotels were clustered around the outskirts of the Futuroscope park, although some were considerably nearer the entrance than this one. It was also located at the furthest point from the TGV rail station. I was lucky to catch the shuttle bus when I arrived as it made only a small number of trips in the early morning and evening. The entire hotels development had clearly not been designed with thought to travellers who were not arriving in cars, and the walk from the hotel to the pedestrian entrance of the park was badly signposted and confusing. The hotel itself was basic, but clean and functional. It was divided over four buildings, with the unremarkable breakfast being served in a separate block. All the hotels were located in an area which also served as a business park, and as such was quite a drab place with little to see from the windows, although the hotels at the upper end of the scale may have provided a half decent view of the park and surrounding region from their top floors. Score: 6/10

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