Bright lights, big Cite

Stephen Thomas

There is something to fascinate everyone at La Villette, the urban park in north-east Paris. Roger Frost experiences the exhibitionism of the science museum, while Stephen Thomas finds refuge in the Musee de la Musique

With four million visitors each year, the Paris science museum now rates as one of the capital's main attractions. While there is no match with the fame of the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre museum, this 10-year-old wonder has deservedly made it big. La Cite is a tour de force of scientifics exhibitionism. It has the benefit of newness in museum thinking - a broader appeal, more hands-on and more thrills. It also has Frenchness - the menu is different: now and then art and psychology mix with science, like apples mix with cheese.

The place to start is Explora, the core of the museum with its 18 topic areas. As always, you can but sample it in a few hours. A section called Expression and Behaviour deals with human communication. Video screens take you through situations such as being in danger, or meeting people with choices of what to do at each point. Then there's Odorama - fine proof of the importance of smell. You see pictures as you are treated to the whiffs of a musty attic, hot chocolate - and a cow-shed. Another, the Eye Follower, tracks your eye movements to see how you scan a magazine advertisement. The results on a racy picture are damning.

In a Sound gallery you sit round a huge carbon dioxide-filled balloon and can talk to people across the room because it acts as a "sound lens". And then yet more tricks on the senses - just try squirting water or throwing a ball in a spinning room called the Inertial Merry Go Round - where nothing quite works the way you expect.

Finally, there's the regular museum fare - a Mirage IV nuclear bomber, a planetarium and a submarine that the claustrophobic will want to avoid. All together it's 30,000 square metres worth getting lost in - but much more usefully with the English-speaking headsets you can hire.

After the vastness of the main museum, there are several enticing and child-friendly side-shows. In Techno Cite, 11-year-olds plus can examine and experience mechanisms, manufacturing and automation. Some 60 asking-to-be-played-with exhibits have them assembling things, playing with gear cogs, programming video games, and controlling a helicopter. And in a technology case study, they design a bicycle on a computer, see how the parts are made, and explore the working of a final product. The captions are in French, although the French children seemed not to be reading them anyway.

The "Cite des enfants" forming two children's galleries catering for the three to sixes and five to twelves, is outstanding. This is hands-on again, but with flair. The younger ones work together to build a house, winching foam bricks and slotting them into place. They turn grain into flour and turn a plastic car into pieces. They crawl inside a shell and turn themselves into a turtle. In the older section of this busy area there is a mini-TV studio where they make a weather forecast, a way to see inside their bodies using optical trickery, as well as a butterfly enclosure where the creatures flutter around their heads.

Just outside is a big-screen, 180-degree IMAX cinema, La Geode, that is worth seeing. Then there's Le Cinaxe - a simulator where you're strapped to your seat, and spend seven enjoyable minutes being thrown around in time with the adventure on screen. The illusion is good anyway, but the 3D glasses certainly help.

A few times a year the education department runs courses for teachers planning to take groups. Those thinking about, say, an A-level science trip can get a head start with their teaching materials. For sure, a good language group would do well here. For anyone else, La Cite is an easily recommended excursion on a trip to Paris.

La Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie, 75930 Paris, Cedex 19. Open daily 10-6pm except Monday. Approximate adult prices: main exhibitions Pounds 5. Geode cinema Pounds 5.70. Cite des enfants Pounds 2. Techno cite Pounds 2.50. Group concessions. Specialist tour operators include Club Europe 0181 699 7788 and PGL School Tours 0989 764342. Direct group bookings tel: 00 33 1 40 05 12 12. The Education department is on 00 33 1 40 05 73 68 or e-mail to Post: La Cite, 75930 Paris, Cedex 19. Internet:

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