If you are walking through the Parc des Chantiers in the French city Nantes, don’t be surprised if you run into a giant elephant slowly strolling by. Instead, take a good look or grab your camera – but be careful, because the creature can aim a stream of water from its trunk at the unsuspecting tourists with a surprising accuracy.
The elephant in question is tall as a 4-story building, made from metal and wood. It walks around the place, flaps its ears and roars loudly – and it offers a ride for up to fifty people on its back. This curious beast serves as an emissary to the world of wonders that lies behind the gates of the former shipyards hosting the artistic project Les Machines De L’île (in English “The Machines of the Island.”)
Born from the imagination of the artists and designers Pierre Orefice and François Delarozière, this unique place will make a steampunk lover weep from joy. The creative duo found inspiration in the work of Leonardo da Vinci, books of Jules Verne (who was born in this city) and the industrial history of Nantes itself. On the island in the middle of the river Loire they created a place where imagination can run wild – whether it is in the shape of a mechanic elephant, a dragon-horse named Long Ma (which currently resides in China, but sometimes returns to its birthplace in Nantes for a show), or a giant spider Kumo that can carry four people on its abdomen.
Meet the Great elephant
One day long before our visit I discovered a photo of the Grand Éléphant on the internet – and it was love at the first sight. From that moment, Nantes was a must-go for me. So one sunny morning we arrived to the Machines de L’île warehouses to be greeted by the sight of the Elephant just arriving in, waving its ears and roaring like it has just been awaken from sleep. From close up, the elephant looked even bigger than I imagined.
Book the tickets online
Because I really wanted to go on this ride, we didn’t leave anything to chance and booked the tickets online in advance. And I was glad that we did, because even as we were waiting for the ride to begin, the queue at the cashier desk first grew long, then slowly dissolved when the tickets were sold out for the day – all before the first morning ride!
We boarded the Elephant from the wooden terrace that leads around the inside of warehouse and we were given a short presentation about the Elephant in general and safety rules in particular. (It was really short because unfortunately the guide spoke only a little English. The speech in French that she gave before was quite longer.) To my surprise we were the only non-French tourists onboard. But we learned everything that was necessary.
On the ride
And then off we went. All of the people down on the ground that were looking up at the majestic beast, taking pictures and waving looked so small from the platform just behind the elephant’s ears. The elephant was moving slowly but steadily through the piazza in front of the warehouse and to the pleasant surprise of all the kids on board it occasionally let out a roar or splashed water around.
During the half-hour ride, we explored the inside of the Elephant, where we could see the gears moving (unfortunately taking photos is prohibited there), caught a peek from one of the small balconies on its sides and (along with all of the kids) tried pulling the lever on the back that moves the tail of the elephant. But most of the time we spent up on the upper platform on the back of the elephant and just looked around and enjoyed the ride.
If you want to go on this ride, you may want to know that there are three different routes that the elephant can take – together they complete a full circle around the Machines de L’île area. The first ride of the day always begins at the front of the warehouses and ends by the carousel – and I think that this is the best option of all, because you get to see the front area of Machines de L’île where other attractions like the “basketball tree” are, and you can have a good view of the carousel as well.
The second route leads from the Carousel through the park around the back of the warehouses and it’s pretty nice too – but the third one is considerably shorter and in my opinion the least interesting. Honestly, if I was to take this route, I would feel a bit cheated.
So the safest bet is probably to book the tickets for the first ride online. You can do it here.
In the belly of a deep-sea fish: A carousel ride under the sea surface
The Elephant isn’t the only attraction that Les Machines de L’île offer. Another option for a fun ride is the Carrousel des mondes marins, a three-level carousel with marine life theme. No matter if you are a kid or an adult, you can climb on the back of a bizare pelagic fish or sit inside a bathyscaphe and dive into the wonders that lie beyond the sea surface.
Choose the right mode
The visit to the carousel offers two options – the first one is the Fairground mode that allows you to ride one of the strange sea creatures. The other option is the Discovery mode, which is only educational – during this visit you just take a commented tour of the carousel without going on the ride.
Gallery of strange creatures
After the Elephant ride or a visit of the Carousel, do you perhaps wonder how did all these amazing beasts come to life? You can find the answer in the Gallery de Machines – place where the smaller prototypes of all the work of Les Machines de L’île, both past and planned, are on display.
Meet the aquatic creatures that served as a study for the Carousel, marvel at various bugs and critters that will inhabit the latest project of Les Machines de L’île – The tree of herons (a giant metallic tree on the bank of Loire which will be a small world in itself, complete with its unique mechanic inhabitants), or admire the miniature version of the tree itself.
This place isn’t just like your ordinary exhibition. Here, the prototypes are fully functional, and you can participate in the experience if you are picked from the crowd for a ride. So if you have ever wanted to see the world from the back of a giant ant or inchworm, or perhaps fly above the people’s heads beneath the wings of a giant mechanical heron, here is the place.
The only downside is that the machinists (the guides who show the visitors through the Gallery and make a demonstration of every prototype), speak only French. We didn’t understand much of the stories of each machine, but it was really interesting to see them in motion!
Where the real magic happens: a peek behind the scenes
When you buy a ticket either for the elephant ride or for the carousel ride, you will have access to the workshop of the company La Machine where all the real work is done. You will find it in the building across from the Gallery. Don’t miss it!
Frankly, this was one of the most interesting parts of Les Machines de L’île experience for me, even if the visit is brief compared to the other attractions. It was because we were able to see the real background of the creative process, not just a polished show for the tourists like the Gallery is, however amazing.
Inside the busy workshop
As you observe the hustle and bustle of workers from the walkway placed near the ceiling of the building, it feels a bit like you have wandered into a lair of crazy scientists. People climbing on ladders around the latest creation coming to life, building and tinkering… It’s definitely an impressive sight to behold.
In an adjacent room you will find a short 12 minute film about the history of Les Machines de L’île (with English subtitles) that I found really interesting.
See the Elephant from above: A branch of the Tree of Herons
As you walk through the workshop and step outside on the other side of the building, you will find yourself standing on the biggest prototype that Les Machines de L’île built so far. The prototype branch of the Arbre aux Hérons (Heron Tree) is a 20 meters long testing branch of a future metallic tree, protruding from the outer wall of the building. It offers visitors a walk in the air, among the greenery, as real flowers are planted along the metallic structure.
The prototype branch alone weighs 20 tons. The final work will take form of a whole tree with 50 meters in diameter, standing on the bank of the river Loire. It will be inhabited by various critters that you can now see in the form of prototypes inside the Gallery des Machines, including two of the herons. Under their wings, you will be able take a ride around the tree and look at the city of Nantes from the height of 35 meters. The tree is scheduled to be completed in 2021. (I’m already planning my next trip to France). So what do you say – see you there?