Back to the Future in the heart of France

Costa Rica

Poitiers is the Back to the Future destination. This ancient town with Roman roots is where a famous feisty Queen of England once ruled France. Now it looks forward 500 million years, in one of Europe’s most exciting theme parks. I took the fast train to the heart of France, sampled the ancient and the very modern, and present my list of must do things.

Future thrills

Futuroscope, just outside the town of Poitiers, is France’s other theme park
after Disneyland Paris. Most of the attractions are high octane film shows in
a dozen strangely-shaped futuristic buildings. The French word for these presentation is séance; you certainly do cross to
the other side in terms of experience. The screens are vast. You wear 3-D
glasses, and other sensory devices. Clever hydraulics make your seat lurch
crazily in tune with the action. All this convinces the brain you really are flying
down the Nile, or swimming with whales. They constantly refresh the shows.
2009’s whirlwind of new attractions includes Cosmic Collisions, based on
images taken by NASA satellites, and the tale of some stowaway flies aboard
the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Eco-Dingo lets you “race” green vehicles of
the future. There’s the new planetarium, and an evening light show by one of
the designers for the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony. 1 day ticket €35,
children €25.

Animal magic

British company Total Immersion challenged scientists to speculate about the
creatures of the future, and told their artists to give them virtual life. The
results are weird creatures like the spitfire bird and the carakiller, a
velociraptor-like bird eight feet tall with a hooked beak and razor-sharp claws.
They star in The Future is Wild, Futuroscope’s big new feature for 2009. Visitors set off on safari through very realistic possible future
environments of between 5 and 200 million years from now, on a huge screen.
They wear goggles which carry a tiny camera that films the backdrop from the
point of view of the person travelling through it. Computers take those images
then give each person the illusion of “real” creatures of the future bursting
into their personal space. Quite brilliant.

White knuckle tour.

If you don’t have time to take the tour through the surrounding Department
of Vienne, a green and wooded chunk of middle France speckled with pretty
villages and interesting churches, Futuroscope has the answer.
They present the ultimate manic adrenalin-rush sightseeing tour. There’s a
simple storyline. Our hero oversleeps on the train on his way to his wedding,
and stages a mad dash through the countryside to the church. This 20
minutes film show left me exhilarated, and reeling from stomach-churning
manoeuvres on land and in the air that Lewis Hamilton and the Red Arrows
pilots would admire. It’s one of the theme park’s most popular shows, re-
energized with special effects. Seats operated by hydraulic pistons
synchronise you with the frantic action on screen, as you soar over and
sometimes, literally, through the sights.

Hall of fame

For many people Eleanor of Aquitaine will always be the Oscar winning
Katharine Hepburn in the 1968 movie The Lion In Winter, the feisty queen to
Peter O''Toole’s Henry II, mother of Richard the Lion Heart and the future King
John. 12th Century England ruled a big slab of France, and Eleanor held court
in Poitiers, where she set up a dining hall in the palace which survives to
today. 150 feet long and 50 feet wide, it was for a time the largest hall in
Europe, until the Doge’s Palace in Venice was built. It was named the ''Hall of
Lost Footsteps'', because footfalls were lost in the vast space. Anybody can
walk in, after a security check, for nothing. It is a working court of law, where
you may spot chatting French lawyers, and even the occasional prisoner in

Colour coded city

It’s easy to find your way around old Poitiers, built on a hill, with narrow old
roads winding down into the valley below. Just follow the red, blue and yellow
lines painted on the pavement, and read the helpful signposts along the way.
The all start outside Notre Dame la Grande Church, a masterpiece of
Romanesque art whose stones and statues were recently scrubbed up a
brilliant white. The red line goes to the Saint Hilaire church, a stop on one of
France’s Roads to Santiago de Compostela. The blue line passes through the
Grand’Rue, with such convincing medieval details as a still-working
candle-maker and umbrella-maker. It passes Saint Pierre Cathedral, begun by
Henry and Eleanor, and remarkably like Lincoln and Wells inside. The yellow line
passes through a historic quarter with half-timbered houses.

Future food

Heston Blumenthal is brandishing the blow torch on behalf of
molecular cuisine in England, and his Fat Duck, with its salmon poached in
liquorice gel and snail porridge, is a big draw. But there is a less expensive
place to sample this culinary alchemy, based on exploiting the properties in
the molecules that make up a recipe’s ingredient. At Futuroscope.
The park’s Le Cristal restaurant is now open to all visitors,
after previously serving only selected guests. The man behind the menus is
chemist Hervé This who brandishing the
test tube like a kitchen utensil. Chefs at Le Cristal are promising
totally new textures and tastes, such as nitrogen ice creams and virtual
caviar, in intriguing dishes that “smoke, foam and fizz.”

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