When you think of the French region of Brittany, many
images may spring to mind: windswept beaches, medieval towns, plates of soft
pink langoustines. A giant walking mechanical elephant, however, is probably
not one of them. But this is exactly what visitors encounter at the Île de
Nantes, a 337-hectare island in the centre of the city of Nantes, on Brittany’s
While Nantes is a pleasant city, with white and grey
stone buildings flanking the mouth of the Loire River, it doesn't have the spectacular
architecture, major historical significance or three-star restaurants of some
of its French counterparts. So the city decided to create its own unique
Machines de L'Île.
In 2007, Nantes
opened the combined art installation and amusement park on the site of a former
shipyard. Les Machines offers both carnival-style rides for which anyone can purchase
a ticket, and smaller machines demonstrated by visitors selected from the
crowd. The result is a kind of steampunk amusement park, and a breathtaking
juxtaposition of old, new – and weird.
Les Machines is inspired by Jules Verne, who was born and
raised in Nantes, and the installations feel like 19th-century
science fiction come to life. Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under
the Sea, for example, inspired the three-storey, 25m-tall Carrousel des Mondes
Marin (Marine Worlds Carousel). Visitors can choose to ride on three levels of mechanical
sea creatures: squid and crab on the lowest level, suspended fish on the second
and boats and jellyfish at the top.
Since the carousel elements are moveable, adults and
kids alike scramble into seats and buckle themselves into the mouths of giant
fish or aboard boats, pushing pedals and pulling levers to make the machines
rock and spew steam.
The island’s biggest showstopper, however, is a 48-tonne
mechanical elephant. The creature, which carries 50 riders, stomps the entire
length of the park – from the entrance, across the shipyard and past an old
warehouse to the carousel, before looping back to discharge passengers and wait
for new ones. The wild ride takes a half hour.
Inspired by Verne’s 1880 novel The Steam House, in
which British colonists travel through India in a house wheeled by a
steam-powered elephant, the ride gives passengers the chance to view Nantes’
warehouses, ships and 18th-century mansions from a unique vantage
point 12m in the air – the equivalent of being on the third storey of a moving house.
It also sprays water at unsuspecting observers.
Smaller machines are housed inside the soaring Galerie
Des Machines (machine gallery), including a flying heron and a menagerie of prehistoric-looking
metal bugs, spiders and other imaginary pedal-powered slithering insects, all fitted
with seats for riders.
The absurdist feel of the Machines de L’Île doesn’t
stop at the entrance gates, but seems to spill out into Nantes itself. Just
down the street from the Machines, a comically oversized yellow tape measure that
replaces millimetres with centimetres lies flung across a courtyard, as though
it had fallen out of the pocket of the world’s largest architect.
And across the river from the Île, le Château des ducs de Bretagne, the
hulking 12th-century castle in the city centre, features a
labyrinth-like sculpture made out of sticks sitting in the middle of its moat. Like
much of the art in Nantes, it is offered up without explanation, as though it
spontaneously appeared overnight.