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Where Jules Verne’s worlds come to life: Machines de l’île in Nantes

Where Jules Verne’s worlds come to life: Machines de l’île in Nantes

Nantes is a city where the imagination is running wild. Or, in this case, walking around in the shape of a 12 meters tall mechanical elephant. It roars loudly, flaps its ears and sometimes mischievously sprays surprised visitors with a stream of water from its trunk. And it’s not only for the show – you can also climb on its back and go on a ride. Do you wonder where things like this come from? Meet the collective of Les Machines de l’île and their amazing creations.

The mechanical elephant in Nantes walking around with people on its back
Le Grand Éléphant in motion

Les Machines de l’île – where steampunker’s dreams come true

Les Machines de l’île and their Elephant was the main reason why me and Ben decided to visit Nantes. I saw a few photos of the Elephant, and was immediately intrigued. Neither of us has seen anything like it before, so the curiosity kicked in and the goal for our next trip was set.

So, what exactly is Machines de l’île? The whole project is a brainchild of two artists and designers – Pierre Orefice and François Delarozière, who, in their own words, have been exploring the machines and objects in motion for over twenty years. Inspired by the industrial history of Nantes as well as the work of Jules Verne (who was born in this city) and Leonardo da Vinci, this ingenious duo of creators joined forces to bring mechanical life to the streets of Nantes. Together they founded a unique artistic project in Nantes that enchants visitors from around the world.

Their company La Machine resides in the buildings of former shipyards on the île de Nantes (which means simply “The Island of Nantes”) in the middle of the Loire, and from the moment you set foot inside their world, you can’t shake the feeling that you have just entered the steampunk wonderland.

 The Grand Éléphant – a ride unlike any other

View from the top of mechanical elephant in Nantes
Onboard the elephant. The ride begins!

The Elephant is probably the most iconic creation of Les Machines de l’île. After all, who wouldn’t want to ride on the back of a mechanical beast that looks like it popped into existence straight from the pages of a Jules Verne’s book? Tall as a 4-storey house, it moves slowly around the area of the former shipyards and allows the fifty people riding on its back to have a good look at the Parc des Chantiers from above.

Before you embark on the ride, a machinist will explain to you the history and working of the Elephant as well as basic safety rules. Sadly, the explanation in English that you can ask for if you don’t understand French was somehow briefer version of the original one – maybe because we were the only non-French speaking tourists on board at the time.

Le Grand Éléphant from below
Le Grand Éléphant from below

If you don’t want to miss out on the elephant ride, you should book it on the internet or at least come really early, because the tickets for the day are quickly sold out in the beginning of the opening hours. (Or at least it was like this when we visited in May – maybe in the winter there are less people here.) Note that only the first ride of the day can be booked on the Machines de l’île webpage, which is in the morning during the summer or in the afternoon during the off-season.

But even if you didn’t manage to get a ticket, you can come to have a look anyways – the sight of the giant elephant slowly walking around the place is quite impressive in itself. Just be warned – if you get too close, you may find yourself drenched by the stream of water from the creature’s trunk. It’s not quite unpleasant on a hot day, but watch out for the electronic devices. (We had seen some very surprised – and very wet – photographers along the elephant’s route.)

A photographer under the stream of water from the trunk of the Grand Elephant in Nantes
Man versus machine: A brave photographer 😀

Carrousel des Mondes Marins – a dive into the depths of the sea

Carrousel des Mondes Marins
Carrousel des Mondes Marins

If you have boarded the elephant at the Gallery des Machines, your ride will end at the Carrousel des Mondes Marins. This 25 meter high, three-level carousel takes you on a magical ride into the depths of the sea. You can mount on the back of one of the bizzare pelagic creatures (which the authors of the carousel describe as “strange and worrying”) or dive to the sea floor inside a bathyscaphe.

Like all of the attractions of Machines de l’île, the carousel is suitable for both kids and adults. (Unfortunately, this was the only part of Machines de l’île that we haven’t visited – but after I have seen this video from the inside, I’m very much looking forward to our next visit of Nantes.)

The Gallery des Machines – fascinating mechanical menagerie

Visitors can try out many mechanical beasts

A whole parade of lovable steampunk-themed monsters awaits you at the Galerie des Machines, a place where the downsized prototypes of past and future works of the creative collective of Machines de l’île are displayed – all fully functional and prepared for a ride. If you happen to be picked by the machinist – the person who will show you around the gallery and tell you the story of all the creatures present here – you can find yourself on the back of a giant ant scuttling through the room, riding on a caterpillar, or even flying over the gallery under the eight meters wide wings of a metal heron.

Flying over the Gallery des Machines under the wings of mechanical heron
Flying over the Gallery des Machines under the wings of mechanical heron

The only drawback to this experience is that the presentation is in French only, so if you don’t understand this language very well, most of the time you are left wondering what is going on. But the display of weird and amazing creatures and the glimpse in the future fascinating projects is still worth the visit.

The caterpillar – you can also ride on it, but prepare for a slooow movement 🙂
I don’t even know what this is… but it’s fascinating!

Workshop of Machines de l’île – a short glimpse into the background

A photo from the construction of the elephant

When you walk out of the Gallery, you will face a second building that houses the workshop of engineers of Machines de l’île. That’s where the real magic happens and strange creatures made of metal and wood come to life. You can observe from the terrace situated close to the roof of the building as the constructors below climb around and tinker with their latest creation.

In an adjacent room plays a short film that tells the story about the beginnings of Machines de l’île – with English subtitles so the tourists can understand it. It’s well spent 12 minutes and I recommend taking the time.

In contrast to the Gallery des Machines, as fascinating it is, this place has more “real” feel to it. You can see it’s not a show staged for the tourists, but a glimpse in the background of the creative process, which I really appreciated.

The visit of the workshop is included in the ticket price to both the elephant ride and the carousel ride and I highly recommend that you take this opportunity to learn more about the working and history of this interesting organization. (Taking photos inside of the workshop is forbidden, so if you want to see it, you’ll have to come here, sorry :))

L’Arbre aux Hérons – or what will come next

Model of the heron that gave the tree its name. Who wants to try a ride?

The exit from the workshop leads straight to the prototype of the most ambitious project so far – La branche of the Arbre aux Hérons (translated as “a branch of the Tree of Herons”), extending from the outer wall of the warehouse. It was built as an experimental part of a future work – a giant metallic tree that will spread over the Loire in 2021. It will be inhabited by moving mechanical birds and insects (that you can see as prototypes in the Gallery), covered by flowers and lined with walkways from which the visitors will be able to admire the view of the river and city from the height of 35 meters.

Model of the Tree of Herons

This prototype branch that spreads over the terrace of the café above is 20 meters long and weighs 20 tons, a test of integrity of the structure before the whole tree that will have 50 meters in diameter and will be 35 meters high is built. The narrow walkways lead you through the branches that spiral towards the sky and slope back downwards to the ground, lined with pots of real flowers and greenery creating hanging gardens in the air. A short stroll through this strange aerial park invites you to the view of the former shipyards and the surrounding park from above.

The branch of Tree of Herons

By the way, the mechanical heron in the gallery is one of the prototypes tested for this project that also gave the tree its name. Two herons will “fly” around the top of the tree, carrying people in baskets on their legs.

Another of the prototypes that has been tested just recently is Araigné. This is a creature that the arachnophobic will probably want to avoid  – a metallic spider which will live in the heart of the tree, four and half meters tall and weighing two tons. It will can carry four brave visitors on its abdomen.

After you have enjoyed enough of the view, you can descend back to the ground right in front of the Café des Machines and the gift shop. Frankly, the café is the only part of Machines de l’île experience that I can’t really recommend – we had a pretty unpleasant experience with the waiters there, and according to their Tripadvisor reviews, we weren’t the only ones. The adjacent gift shop is nice though and you can buy there some elephant-themed souvenirs and regional specialties like salted caramel (yum!)

So if you are hesitating whether you should visit Nantes, I hope I swayed your opinion in favor of going. One thing is for sure – I will be back to check out the tree when it’s finished! Meet me there in 2021? 😉

L'Arbre du Hérons - the future project of Machines de l'île
Dreams of future. City in the sky: The Tree of Herons – the next project of Machines de l’île

A few tips about the Elephant ride:

There are three routes that the elephant’s walk follows. Together they complete a full circle around the Machines de l’île’s buildings through the adjacent part of  the Parc des Chantiers. The first route leads from Gallery les machines to the Carrousel des Mondes Marins, the second one from the Carrousel to the back of the former shipyards where Les Machines de l’île reside, and the last one is somewhat shorter when the elephant returns around the back of the building to the entrance to the Gallery.

I would feel a bit cheated if my ride ended up being the last option, so I’m glad we booked the first ride of the day which is always from Gallery to Carrousel. Plus, if you come a bit early, you can see the Elephant arriving to the warehouse, going through the first tentative flaps of ears and making loud roars, looking like it has just awaken from sleep – and what a sight that is!

You can read more about the Machines de l’île on their webpage:

And buy the tickets to the Elephant ride here:

The elephant once again 🙂


From the top of the Eiffel Tower

From the top of the Eiffel Tower

The visit of the Eiffel Tower is a once in a lifetime experience. And by “once in a lifetime” I mean  “You will be happy to visit once – and just as happy never doing it ever again.” Don’t take me wrong – I totally loved it, but it was very exhausting.

Everyone was telling us “Don’t go to the Eiffel Tower! It’s a tourist trap, the queues are terrible, it’s not worth it…” But how could we visit Paris and not see the one thing that was the romantic symbol of this city for us for so many years? Me and Ben were of the same opinion: Of course we will go.

Jardins du Trocadéro from above. In the background you can see the skyscrapers of La Défense quartier
Jardins du Trocadéro from above. In the background you can see the skyscrapers of La Défense quartier

But when we arrived to the bottom of the tower and I saw the CROWDS, I almost gave up and suggested that we head to the nearby park for a picnic instead. Terrible, long queues (and I have crowds and long queues so much!)  Fortunately Ben was more reasonable and knew that we would regret missing out on this, and once we are up there, we will eventually love it.

And we did. But first, the queues. They looked pretty intimidating – long lines of people trailing to every one of the legs of the tower. But we discovered they move pretty fast and in an half an hour or so we were boarding the lift to the second floor of the tower. And the view – it was worth it.

The view of Seine from the Eiffel Tower
The bridges of Seine

Where the real hell started though, it was the queue for the lift to the top of the tower. That single lift is the only means of getting to the top, and all the people that previously got up by either of the four legs of the tower who wanted to continue upwards merged in a terrible queue that spanned the tower two times around. Believe it or not, we spent almost two hours waiting to get up there. At least the view was spectacular. We whiled the time by chatting with a nice American couple ahead of us in the queue, and finally we were able to hop on the lift that took us to the highest point of the Eiffel Tower open to visitors which lies at the height of 276 meters.

The view from this level is even more amazing – you can see all the things that you were able to observe from the second floor, but as you are higher above, you look at them from a different perspective. You can also take a peek into the private apartment of Gustav Eiffel himself – where the wax figure of the famous architect is sitting, appearing to be immersed in a conversation with Thomas Edison.

A play of light and shadows on the streets of Paris
A play of light and shadows in the streets of Paris. (Yes, it’s the shadow of Eiffel Tower in the front of the photo :)))
The Seine from the Eiffel Tower
The Seine from the Eiffel Tower
Eiffel's apartment on the top of the tower
Eiffel’s apartment on the top of the tower

We had to wait in a (shorter) queue to get on the lift back to the second floor, and afterwards we decided to walk the rest of the way to the bottom of the tower by stairs. After all, descending through the intricate iron ribs of the iconic construction is an unforgettable experience in itself. This way we were also able to visit the first floor which the lift passes without stopping on the way up – and it is worth it just because of the glass floor that allows you to look down on the waiting people, small as ants.

The glass floor - Eiffel Tower, 1st level
Tiny people underneath my feet 🙂

When we finally reached the firm earth, we were exhausted from all the waiting, but also elated thanks to the the magnificent view – and the fact that we fulfilled one of our life-long dreams. We were happy that we got to see this beautiful city from the top of its most iconic building. But the next time we visit, we will just sit on the grass of the park and spend a leisurely afternoon admiring the symbol of Paris from below while having a french baguette with cheese and wine 🙂

Useful tips:

  • For avoiding the queues, buy the ticket on the internet. The only downside is that you have to make the purchase well in advance. We looked for the tickets 3 months before our visit and they were sold out already. You can buy the tickets here: and more instruction about how to buy here.
  • the Eiffel Tower has three levels: 1st floor, 2nd floor and the summit. You can take a lift to the second floor or, if you are physically fit, buy  a cheaper ticket and walk the stairs to the first two levels. (Some of the legs of the tower have stairs inside, some of them have the lifts and there is a queue for every leg separately. Make sure you are waiting in the right one, depending on which option you want to take.) Then, if you want to visit the summit, you will have to take another lift (and wait in another queue for a ticket), as it is an only option how to get there. There is an info booth in one of the legs of the Tower if you are as confused as we were 🙂
  • You can’t bring any drinks in cans or glass bottles nor knives etc. on the tower – there is a security search of your bags – but water in a plastic bottle or a reasonable amount of food is OK. Throwing any objects from the tower is strictly forbidden.

And finally:

  • If you are only looking for the view of the Paris from above and you don’t mind from where, go visit La Tour Montparnasse instead. You will avoid waiting in the queue and as a bonus you will be able to see the Eiffel Tower as a part of the landscape as well. Bring a bottle of wine and watch the sunset over Paris from the rooftop terrace. You can buy the tickets and find more info on the official site: