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January 28, 2019

France: Nantes, Machines of the Isle of Nantes


Le Grand Éléphant in motion

The Machines of the Isle of Nantes or in French Les Machines de l’île defies simple categorization.

Based in old covered buildings of the former shipyards on the Île de Nantes, an island formed by two branches of the Loire River, an organization created by two artists, François Delarozière (of La Machine production company) and Pierre Orefice (of Manaus Association) produces grand mechanical animals and other whimsical structures. It is a steampunk wonderland. But don’t call Machines of the Isle of Nantes a theme park.

The Mechanical Spider takes flight inside the Galerie des Machines.

The Giant Ant

“First of all, Les Machines de l’Île is definitely not a theme park,” Delarozière has said. “It’s a cultural and touristic project that exists in the public arena, in the real-life downtown city.”

So I won’t call Les Machines de l’Île a theme park even if it is a sort of amusement park organized around a distinctive theme, which by most definitions would qualify as a theme park. In any event, no matter how Les Machines is categorized, it is an amazing attraction worthy of a visit. Calling it a mere theme park does diminish the uniqueness of the place.

Separate admission tickets allow access to different areas of the park. Entry to the Galerie des Machines allows visitors to see several of the organization’s mechanical beasts in action in organized demonstrations. Les Manèges d’Andrea and le Carrousel des Mondes Marins are both steampunk merry-go-rounds. Riding the two carrousels of Andrea is restricted to those who are 12 or younger. The other merry-go-round, the three-tiered Carrousel des Mondes Marins, is open to children of all ages. Most spectacular, and that’s a high bar at Machines of the Isle of Nantes, is Grand Éléphant ride.

Le Grand Éléphant sprays water on the watching crowd: It is free to wander the grounds at Les Machines of the Isle of Nantes.

The Héron takes flight inside Galerie des Machines.

The 39-foot high Grand Éléphant is Les Machines of the Isle of Nantes’ signature attraction. It is a non-exact replica of the Sultan’s Elephant, which was also designed by Delarozière when he was associated with the Royal de Luxe theater company.

Delarozière’s Sultan’s Elephant was commissioned to commemorate the centenary of Jules Verne’s death by the French cities of Nantes and Amiens. It was funded by a special grant from the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. The original elephant no longer exists: Reportedly the Royal de Luxe became so fed up with being invited all over the world to perform The Sultan’s Elephant, they up and destroyed the mechanical beast. That’s certainly a bold artistic statement.

For the price of the ticket visitors can climb a ramp and enter through the bowels of the Grand Éléphant. After the passengers work their way onto platforms on the head, sides, and hindquarters of the beast, the machine starts into motion. The Grand Éléphant moves very slowly about the park making it a third away around the property before the passengers debark and the next set climbs aboard.

The three-tiered Carrousel des Mondes Marins

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It’s cool to ride the mechanical beast. But in reality it is even more impressive and improbable to view from the Grand Éléphant from the ground. Indeed, it costs nothing to come to Les Machines to watch the giant mechanical pachyderm rubble around the tarmac. It is wonderful to find that something like this exists and amazing that the creative and economic resources were mustered to build such a thing.

All of the Les Machines’ tickets allow access to the Workshop Terraces, which overlook the factory where the organization’s fanciful machines are assembled. One can only dream of what sort of mechanical beast will come forth next from the shop. This is not an organization that lacks imagination.

At the time we decided to visit Nantes we had no knowledge of Machines of the Isle of Nantes. It is hard to believe that we missed knowing of its existence. It is easily one of the most unusual and striking things that we’ve seen for some time. On its own Les Machines de l’île is worth making the trip to Europe to see.

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We visited Les Machines de l’îl in August of 2018.

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