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Meeting birds of prey is a scary experience
Belgium's Parc Paradisio has just reopened its doors for its 12th season and the unique animal park insists that its philosophy, summed up by the motto "let nature touch you" is as apt as ever.
Parc Paradisio says it has a threefold mission: to fill with wonder; to sensitise; and to protect and conserve endangered species.
For the past decade or so, Paradisio has done exactly that. Located on the former site of a 12th-century Cistercian abbey between Mons and Ath, Paradisio's 55 hectares are now home to more than 4,000 animals, all seemingly thriving in their natural habitats and about as far away from city life as one can possibly imagine.
Even without any inhabitants, this would be a special place: more than 50 varieties of trees, a river, the old abbey tower and millions of plants and flowers are a perfect cure for urban burnout. The animal residents and their some 80 human caretakers turn it into a piece of heaven on earth.
Located near three major highways, the park makes for an ideal day trip. It is easily accessible by train or car from Belgium and parts of France; by car, it's 45 minutes from Brussels, 15 minutes from Mons and 30 minutes from Lille.
To call Paradisio a zoo would be an insult both to the park and chief executive and founder Eric Domb, who once told this journalist that he considers Paradiso to be an "emotions park". Emotion is what overcame him when he first visited the land in 1992 and decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life there.
Then working for a small financial investment firm in Luxembourg, he only visited the grounds as a favour to an employee. It was during that first trip that he first realised how strong his passion for gardens is.
It's difficult not to feel that same passion when visiting the park, situated in Cambron-Casteau between Mons and Ath.
If you don't know where to begin, pick what you're most interested in and follow the clearly marked signs, or consult the Paradisio team for advice; for groups, there are even seven suggested circuits. Better yet, just start wondering and let yourself be surprised by the marvellous creatures everywhere.
For the birds
Paradisio is most famous for its birds, which account for the bulk of residents (3,000). They live in the giant aviary, 100 meters tall by 30 meters wide - side by side with giant tortoises in the arid greenhouses - and of course are to be found throughout the grounds.
The park really is a bird lover's paradise
There's also an impressive display of large parrots as well as happy, chirpy colonies of smaller birds such as cockatiels and parakeets. The birds of prey show, every day at 2.30pm, weather permitting, is a popular event, and a rare chance to see creatures such as eagles, condors and vultures up close.
A recent newcomer to the event is the secretary bird, a large South African bird of prey with long legs and a crest of quills on the top of its head. Its diet consists mainly of snakes, scorpions and small rodents.
Be warned, however: this is not something for young ones or the weak-stomached. However, kids and will enjoy the steam-powered train that circles the park and the playground facilities.
Since the start, Paradisio has also participated in numerous breeding programmes for endangered species, though many of these creatures are behind the scenes.
Over the years Paradisio has been branching out beyond birds.
This year, for example, visitors will be able to visit the newly restored 'secret crypt,' which is home to two colonies of bats that are being allowed to breed and grow in complete freedom.
Another new addition to the Paradisio family is May-Lee a male red panda - a species found in the wild in China and Nepal - who joins the park from Krefeld zoo in Germany.
Paradisio says it hopes that May Lee will soon be joined by a female panda and that the pair will mate.
Last year, Paradisio welcomed a whole host of large animals of African origin.
In the island surrounding the Mersus Emergo, an English whaling ship used from 1870 to 1914, you'll encounter three giraffes, three hippos, two zebras, four antelopes and more.
The ship itself hosts a biodiversity exhibition co-sponsored by environmental group WWF. The grand finale of the exhibit is a Touch Pool where visitors can pet sharks and skates – under strict professional supervision, of course.
Some sceptics may fear that Paradisio is losing some of its charm by its continued expansion – the company spent about EUR 1.8 million last year on investments - but the strategy for the publicly traded company appears to be paying off: in 2003, more than 510,000 people visited the park, 10 percent more than the year before, pushing sales up by 18 percent.
Other new attractions in 2004 included a series of suspension bridges to provide views of the park and its inhabitants from above and more opportunities for the public to either feed animals – nectar cups for lorikeets are on hand in the Oasis tropical house – or watch professionals dispensing feedings. New this year is also a second rose garden, but to see roses in full bloom you'll have to wait until June.
Paradisio spokesman Christine Donjean says so far there are no new projects for next year, though normally planning takes place in the off season.
For now, the company is definitely trying to build up its business catering large events; it has facilities for up to 5,000 people and has hosted events for companies such as Belgacom, Nissan and Novartis. It also hopes to have more large family celebrations.
Though it's best to visit the park on a sunny day, it can also be pleasant when it's overcast and the creatures are not hiding from the sun. There's also plenty to do indoors when nature doesn't cooperate, like visit the Oasis, which also includes dining facilities and a section that can be rented out for large gatherings.
Or head to the aquarium, located inside a 19th-century chateau. Step through its doors, and enter another world, inspired by 19th-century science fiction writer Jules Verne, who died a hundred years ago this year.
Domb, who has said the idea for the place came to him in a dream, called it the Nautilus after Captain Nemo's famous vessel.
The aquarium itself is small, but remarkable. It's safe to say there's nothing like it – and indeed Paradisio – anywhere else in the world.
Paradisio is open seven days a week until 6 November from 10am until 6pm (and until 7pm in July and August)
Tickets are EUR 18.50 for visitors age 12 to 59 and EUR 16.50 for seniors 60 years and older.
Children under three get in free, those age three to 11 are charged EUR 13.50.
Special rates are available for groups of 20 or more, and animal addicts can get an annual passport good for the entire season.
The park is completely accessible to persons in wheelchairs.
Find out more
Photos courtesy of Paradisio.
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