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.
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
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.
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.)
Carrousel des Mondes Marins – a dive into the depths of the sea
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
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.
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.
Workshop of Machines de l’île – a short glimpse into the background
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
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.
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.
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? 😉
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: http://www.lesmachines-nantes.fr/en/
And buy the tickets to the Elephant ride here: https://online.citybreak.com/Search/Event/Search.aspx?&onlineid=929209371&culture=en