Those magnificent men and their mechanical machines…
Join me if you will, for a trip back in time and a journey to the old shipbuilding yards of Nantes, that ancient yet cosmopolitan city, perched on the River Loire. Close your eyes just for a moment and imagine the century is 19th. Feel if you can, the sun on your face, the swish of your long skirt or the weight of your top hat, imagine the smells of the dockyard and hear the clanking and banging of the metal works, the smell of hot oil, the excitement of new discoveries and machines. And then gasp in awe as you open your eyes and a selection of vast and peculiar mechanical creatures shudder into life around you.
Welcome to “Les machines de l’Île”, the vision of two artists and an amalgamation of performing art, engineering, tourism and regeneration, set as it is, on an island and former industrial centre within the Loire. Described on their website as a place where Leonardo di Vinci meets Nantes native Jules Verne, this truly is a wonderfully weird and captivating world, bizarrely evocative of the excitement and unique inventions of times gone by.
First let me introduce you to a 12 metre high mechanical grand elephant, emerging from the vast old steel and glass warehouses of the island’s past, eyes blinking in the daylight, trunk spraying water and with its bizarrely exotic howdah, packed with amazed joyriders.
Allegedly inspired by a Nantes based marionette street theatre company, (the Royal de Luxe), this is an elephant ride extraordinaire which takes you right up into rafters of the old warehouse before ambling out into the square and past the peculiar creatures of the carousels.
Next, submerge yourself in the surreal and underwater world of the 25 metre high “marine” carousel, with 3 levels of extraordinary sea creatures, representing the sea bed at the lowest level, then the depths of the sea and the ocean surface. Climb inside a crab or a giant squid, steer the jaws of a gruesomely toothed fish or ride the sea monster across the waves.
Then duck as you enter the gallery and workshops as an enormous heron sweeps over your head with its 8 foot wing span. Dodge as a giant ant scurries its way past you – and try and stop yourself scratching and squirming at the sight of a giant flea. Each machine hosts enthralled passengers and help is often required from the public to manage these peculiar and freakish contraptions which have occasionally been known to escape the confines of the gallery.
All the work and design of the amazing mechanisms is on display in the workshops from inception, design, construction and completion and the project is constantly evolving. And you’ll emerge from this hive of quasi industrial activity via the twenty metre high Heron Tree branch structure which is a visionary prototype for a much larger project planned for the city centre and hangs over the café.
“Les machines de l’Île” is a glorious juxtaposition of industrial architecture, the swirling imaginations of these devastatingly creative engineers and artists and the vibrancy of the visitors. And all with the beautiful river banks of Nantes as a backdrop. This is tourism with a difference in a way that the French excel at and you can find out more at their website www.lesmachines-nantes.fr . And if you do find yourself in this corner of West France and the Pays de la Loire, take a day out to visit and step into the spectacular world of the Île de Nantes.
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer. She divides her time between the Vendée and the UK.