You Haven’t Seen France Until You’ve Seen It Atop A Four-Story Mechanical Elephant

If Leonardo Da Vinci and Jules Verne attempted to build a theme park in the confines of a disused shipyard, the result would likely approximate “Les Machines de l’île Nantes.”

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If you’ve grown weary of visiting every château and cathedral along France’s Atlantic coast, why not spend an afternoon amongst some enormous, animated, steampunk beasts in a disused shipyard?

The city of Nantes was hit hard by Allied bombings in the ‘40s and hit hard again by the closing of its historic shipyards in the ‘80s, but the city found its way back to prominence by investing in the arts. With annual cultural events, numerous galleries, and a welcoming attitude toward the experimental, the city has gained a worldwide reputation for its quirkiness.

Its centerpiece is “Les Machines de l’île”: A menagerie of mechanized animals and insects, each one a remarkable blend of art and engineering inspired by the imaginings of Leonardo Da Vinci, H.G. Wells, and Nantes native Jules Verne.

For the sake of orientation, visitors usually begin in the “Galerie.” Upon entering this former shipbuilding hall one is greeted by a dormant metal spider that could easily take over a small city. Tucked away behind some greenery nearby is a caterpillar big enough to carry a saddle on its back. And on the far end is a majestic heron with an awe-inspiring 26-foot wingspan.

Every hour or so, guides will give a tour…and wake the machines up.

A few lucky people are plucked from the crowd to serve as “co-pilots.” The tours are only given in French, so I have no idea what kind of warnings or introductions were given, but language fails anyway when one witnesses a giant spider stretching its monstrous legs.

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After a suitably terrifying demonstration of the spider’s size and power, we were herded toward the caterpillar, which puffed along a short track with a series of hydraulic hisses. Finally the heron took flight with two volunteers riding in baskets below its wings and two employees articulating the bird’s head, eyes, and beak. Once they safely landed, an ant the size of a compact car marched out from around the corner.

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Adjacent to the main room is a greenhouse full of other oversized (but non-operational) bugs. My favorite piece, even though it was one of the simplest contraptions on display, was a nuts-and-bolts interpretation of a Venus flytrap.

The tour concluded with sketches and scale models of the next phase of the project, The Heron Tree. Upon completion, the tree will stand over 100 feet high, and will serve as a home to mechanical hummingbirds, geese, plants, and other critters. Currently only one branch of the tree has been unveiled. Visitors are welcomed to walk along it to enjoy a lovely view and test its structural integrity—which is more fun and secure than it sounds.

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After leaving the Galerie, it was time to experience the emblem of Les Machines, “Le Grand Elephant”: a four-story-tall robotic pachyderm. Tickets are known to sell out early in the day, so I showed up to the ticket office just minutes after they opened in the morning. At least 20 people had beaten me there, but I still scored a spot for the day’s first ride. (With so many delicate moving parts, it’s not unusual for the elephant to break down at times, so the later you schedule your ride, the more likely it is that maintenance issues may keep you grounded.)

“Le Grand Elephant” is breathtaking in every detail. Its eyes blink, its ears and head move, and its trunk occasionally sprays passers-by with water. There is a lever that riders can pull to make its tail wag. You can choose to ride up top like an industrial-era Carthaginian, you can ride inside where the gears and switches and joints and hoses and pistons are on display, or you can ride on a beautifully carved wooden porch on either of the elephant’s sides.

The elephant’s “walking” is somewhat of an illusion; in truth it’s built around a custom truck that propels the animal forward and allows it to change direction. But the locomotion of the legs and other body parts is still quite convincing.

The most enjoyable part of the ride is seeing the reactions from people on the ground. They stare and point and laugh and take pictures…and they occasionally get hosed down by the elephant’s trunk. It’s hard not to feel glorious and invincible as the animal’s mighty bleat sounds out to those in awe below you. If only I could bring it home and ride it through L.A. traffic.

The elephant took us from the Galerie to the third—and arguably most inspired—installation: the “Carrousel des Mondes Marins,” or Carousel of Marine Worlds.

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The simple fact that it’s a carousel with three tiers is already impressive enough, but each tier boasts animated mechanical sea creatures in place of traditional horses. The lowest tier represents the deeper waters, where you’ll find a crab and a squid and even a submarine that occasionally dives below the carousel floor. The middle tier of anglerfish and manta rays are suspended from the ceiling to give the illusion that they’re “swimming” through the air. And on the top tier you’ll find a smoke-bellowing sea serpent, a conch shell with flapping sea birds above it, a pair of armored seahorses, and a boat/fish hybrid floating along the “surface.”

Any single one of the animals would provide fascination enough on its own if it were part of a traditional museum display. But the combined effect of all of them spinning and moving together at once is an overwhelming feast for the senses.

Depending on the day and time of year, the Carousel operates in “Fairground Mode” (during which it is fully ride-able) or in “Discovery Mode” (during which all the moving elements are demonstrated by a staff member but not open for rides). I was at first disappointed to learn that I was visiting on a Discovery Mode day, but it was still quite entertaining to watch a staff member run from creature to creature and show off all their bells and whistles…sometimes literally. If I were more of a glass-half-full type of person, I might even say that it was nice being able to focus on the beauty of each articulation one at a time, rather than missing out on some details while riding. But of course inside I deeply lamented that I wasn’t going to be able to ride that squid.

My disappointment was cured, though, when they actually allowed a small group of us to ride the top tier of the Carrousel after all! Each rider was given a small job to do, depending on where he or she was seated. I ended up in the stern of the boat/fish hybrid, assigned to move the rudder and occasionally honk a conch shell horn.

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As the Carrousel spun, I watched my fellow riders make wings flap and fins wag and smoke blow. I realized that we were no longer spectators, or simple joyriders. Our individual decisions about how often and how vigorously we tended to our various duties ensured that no two spins of the Carrousel would ever be exactly the same. We had become part of the artwork itself.

I could’ve easily spent all day riding and re-riding the Carrousel in an attempt to try out each different feature and absorb it all from every possible angle. I never thought that it would be on my bucket list to make multiple return trips to the city of Nantes, but I am driven to try every tier of the Carousel, to ride the Grand Elephant along its other routes, to eventually witness the completed Heron Tree in all its grandeur…

…and to someday steal that huge spider and use it to crush my enemies.

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1 comments on “You Haven’t Seen France Until You’ve Seen It Atop A Four-Story Mechanical Elephant”

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