France 2014 - Nantes

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Nantes is home to Les Machines de l'Ile Nantes, which includes "The Elephant." This was Rough Guide's #2 attraction for all of Brittany and Normandy, and had been a top priority for both of us throughout the trip. It didn't disappoint: it's a steampunk pseudo-Victorian wood-and-steel elephant that roams the grounds, and which you can even ride. I knew how big it was, but seeing it - as is so often the case - is another thing entirely. It's BIG (three storeys). And very, very impressive.

Other things on the grounds of Les Machines include a carousel of bizarre mechanical sea creatures two storeys in the air. A steel tree with walkable branches. A rideable "stork" flying around in a large warehouse.

Before we went for the full tour we visited a couple buildings in the immediate neighbourhood to photograph some very good murals. And the bus built into the fourth floor of one of the buildings. We bought our tickets to see the Machines gallery, and to ride the elephant at 1130. The gallery is a cross between an art gallery and a performance art space: you're taken through in a group, while the employees/artists talk you through the utterly bizzaro steel-framed, wood-body, pneumatic-powered animals they've created. The first (it was already in flight when we arrived) is a very large stork with two operators and two baskets for riders from the audience underneath. It "flies" by using the old industrial crane infrastructure built into the warehouse they're in. They've replaced all the siding and roofing in the building with glass, so it's very light. There's also six or seven "observer's chairs," seats that audience members get winched up into the air on while the crane is flying. I guess this is the big ticket item, but there was also an inchworm large enough for a single rider on an arching branch, and an ant that carried five people from the audience. Note that none of them were steering the ant: that was done by a staff member with an industrial remote control. But the audience members on the ant got to move various limbs and make things wiggle.

There was another room with more passive sculptures, although some had seats and some had moving parts. All were wonderfully grotesque.

And then there's the elephant. I was guessing at the size initially, but I was pretty close: on the ride we passed the two story tourist center, and if it had been a bit closer, we could easily have stepped from the top deck of the elephant right onto the roof of the building. If you haven't looked this thing up, it doesn't actually "walk:" it has legs that are beautifully articulated to look as if they're walking and carrying the weight, but it is essentially a very long, slow, and fairly narrow gauge truck. The detail is astonishing: there are eyes, with lashes, that blink periodically. The ears (made of huge patched pieces of leather), flap. The trunk and tail are articulated, and the trunk can move in an immense number of directions - and spray water (occasionally on other employees). The inside has a spiral staircase going up to the canopied upper deck, enough room for 15 or 20 people on either level, and a couple small balconies on the sides with magnificently carved decorative flourishes. It proceeds at the incredibly stately pace of perhaps two kilometers per hour around a large loop in the former docklands, where they have an immense amount of space for their crazy and wonderful projects.

We both *squeeed* like kids before, during, and after the ride. And when a light wind and drizzle came up and drove the majority of the riders to the lower deck, we stuck it out on the upper deck - it gave us unimpeded site lines in every direction for much of the ride, and toward the end gave us a long and enjoyable chat with the employee on board. He appeared to be in his late 20s, and had been working at the park for a couple years (and is still enthusiastic and a huge advocate). We had seen him earlier in a much more performance-art role, flying a "dangerous" pseudo-airplane in a cage and attempting not to "crash" it as they blew fake snow on him. He clearly relished the role. Now we learned about what he called "the Bilbao Effect," stuffing a big art center into a disused part of town. (The Nantes docklands had been abandoned 20-odd years and were apparently distinctly run down.) And then watching the artistic gentrification, as a cinema school, a recording studio (the one with the fourth floor bus), a kids alternative school (with a totally grassed and planted roof), and a architecture school all sprung up around it.

Les Machines de l'Ile website

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by giles