Vulcania: ten years of eruptions…

Travel Talk

A volcanic theme park in central France that stirs the senses like no other, Vulcania records its tenth anniversary this year. By way of celebration, ten-year-olds enter free for the season.* The Park has been specially decorated, games are organised every day to highlight the advantages of visiting the Auvergne region (with holiday prizes to be won), and the Elixir troupe is on hand to provide its own unique brand of street theatre.

There is little doubt what children most want to experience: the Dragon Ride. Its dragons interact with their riders, the only machine of its kind in France, capable of performing 100 movements per second and simulating a 2G acceleration. This breathtaking 3D adventure plunges its passengers into gaping chasms and claustrophobic gorges inhabited by a myriad of legendary creatures.

Like the fascinating world of volcanoes it portrays, Vulcania never keeps still.  This extraordinary park has many startling features: the Great Crater, the Magma Explorer, the Waking Giants and especially the Pyroclastic Flow Tunnel, new for 2012. It gives visitors the chance to experience the fast-moving current of super-heated gas that creates the destructive blast of a volcano. Its animated decor brings to life the incredible spectacle of a pyroclastic flow as it causes trees to collapse and carries debris and ash in its path, leaving behind a desolate, almost lunar landscape.

The Great Crater takes people to the very edge of a volcano during an eruption, recreating its heat, its smells, its noise and its vibrations. Magma Explorer is a voyage of extremes, in a futuristic vessel capable of reaching the very heart of a volcano. Waking Giants is a movie simulation of what might happen if the volcanoes of the Auvergne, dormant for 10,000 years, suddenly woke up…

With more than 30 attractions spread across 170 acres, Vulcania offers a complete day out for adults and children alike. It caters for children from age five upwards, with special exhibitions designed for the very young. Many visitors arrive expecting to spend only a couple of hours at the site and find that it holds their interest, with meal breaks, for up to seven hours at a time. A family of two adults and two children can expect to pay 77 Euros in high season but it is open daily until early November.

Vulcania’s architecture is unique, a cross between a crater and a cone, bordered by walls of real volcanic rock. To gain access to the permanent underground exhibitions, the visitor descends a dramatic spiral ramp. This follows the sheer walls of a crater, 38 metres deep, set in solidified lava dating from 30,000 years ago. There is an uncanny sense of participating in a Jules Verne novel, of starting a journey to the centre of the earth. Ominous rumbling sounds and steaming fumaroles of volcanic gases make tiny hands much more willing than usual to cling to those of their parents. 

Before long, the Rumbling Chamber takes visitors to the very edge of a crater, and into the Etna Room, a huge space invaded by fierce lava flows. Lava has half buried a car and poured relentlessly into buildings; nothing can stand in its way. Little groups of arrivals are shepherded on walkways above the flows while, in the distance, Mount Etna smokes and bellows and continues to spew lava from the bowels of the earth. You know deep down it is not real but the feeling of unease is uncanny. 

The crash and thunder of eruptions finally dies away as you enter the Volcanic Garden, a huge atrium full of light and peace. Exotic plants and grasses, some of them more than 6ft tall, which flourish on high volcanic ground in subtropical countries, combine to show how new life returns to a devastated landscape.

The evolution of geology through volcanism had a fundamental role in the formation not just of planet Earth, 4.6 billion years ago, but in the entire Solar System. This is vividly demonstrated by four models of volcanoes, each to scale, that compare the tiny local volcano, the Puy-de-Dôme, with Mount Etna, Mauna Loa and Olympus Mons, a massive volcano on Mars that measures 650 kilometres in diameter and is an incredible 27km high. Portholes, like those on a space ship, recreate the view recorded by unmanned probes, and show how Earth is far surpassed in ongoing volcanic activity by Venus, Mars, Mercury and especially Io, the turbulent satellite of the planet Jupiter.

And yet, as an ingenious, stylised model of an Earth stripped of its oceans demonstrates, our planet has more than than 500 active volcanoes. Vulcania uses video images of many of these volcanoes, filmed by two intrepid volcanologists, Maurice and Katia Krafft.  Computer animations plot and project the violent movement of Earth’s fifteen tectonic plates, and show how mountain ranges are formed.

The Theatre of the Universe, one of Vulcania’s two huge cinemas, tracks the evolution of the Solar System through the eyes of a meteorite, showing the impact of volcanoes on the planets’ transformation as they revolve around the Sun.

Outside, visitors find themselves on the trail of volcanoes, wandering among hot springs, geysers and mud pots that make up this 150sqm reconstruction of a post-volcanic landscape. Then, at the Magic Pool, they are carried high above the ground, for a view of Europe’s most spectacular volcanoes in France, Italy, Germany, Greece and Iceland. 

The devastating effect of volcanoes upon Man is vividly illustrated by a recreation of the eruption of Mount St Helens in May 1980, complete with buried cars and wrecked buildings. Suddenly the work of the Observatory, showing the exacting techniques used to monitor volcanic activity, takes on a more meaningful purpose. Visitors are confronted by the same dilemmas faced by seismologists, through a simulation of a volcano above a sleepy small town, and one that soon shows alarming signs of activity.  When should people be warned and moved to prevent catastrophic loss of life? 

The dangers of volcanoes are vividly illustrated by a display based on the experiences of Kraffts, with spectacular objects from their private collection. The couple took huge risks in filming volcanoes, and in June 1991 these dedicated scientists were killed by a violent eruption on Mount Unzen in Japan.

The Earth is far from tamed, and this is demonstrated in spectacular fashion by the centrepiece of Vulcania’s exhibition, its interactive seismic simulator. The largest earthquake simulator in Europe carries Vulcania’s visitors all over France, enabling them to feel at first hand the vibrations that run under a city’s streets.

But for those children who like to touch and feel things, the highlight of their visit may be Tamentit, the most ancient object on Earth.  This metal meteorite is as old as our world itself and weighs more than half a ton. This may be tempting providence, but so far Tamentit has defied the efforts of even the most accident-prone child to dent it.

To reach Vulcania, which is near Clermont-Ferrand, from the north take the A71, or from the south A75, in each case joining the A89, direction Bordeaux and leaving at the Vulcania/Bromont exit.

I have been asked to make it clear that it is only ten year olds, not all children up to ten, who receive free admission, and on the basis of one free child per paying adult. Allegedly this follows a teacher arriving with his entire class, all aged 10!

Route de Mazayes
63 230 Saint-Ours-les Roches

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Roger Macdonald

Writer & consultant

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