After we chose Loches as home for our year in France, we started looking around the region at places to visit and nearby excursions we wanted to do. One of the first attractions we came across in the Loire (other than the many many châteaux) was Les Machines de l’Île in Nantes. Once we saw photos online of the mechanical elephant, we knew we had to go. We finally had the chance to visit during our weekend in La Baule. Honestly, we didn’t really know what to expect of the other machines, so we were very pleasantly surprised by what we saw.
Les Machines de l’Île is housed in an old shipyard on an island in the middle of the Loire river in Nantes. Within the walls of the shipyard, there is a gallery showcasing all the machines and the history of the place. Unfortunately we had to pick and choose what to see during our limited time there, so we didn’t have the chance to go inside the gallery. We opted instead to ride the giant mechanized elephant and the undersea-themed carousel.
The elephant is a sight to behold. When you see it up close, all the cables and mechanisms and intricately designed joints and parts, it really is mind-blowing. It is huge, towering a couple of stories high, with a large interior room in the belly (no pics allowed inside!), a deck up above to ride on it’s back, and even a little crow’s nest at the nape of it’s neck. There is a lower deck area on either side, with little asian-style houses built into the elephant’s flanks. The ears are thick leather pieces bolted together, and they flap as he walks. The trunk undulates, twists, and turns, even spewing out great puffs of steam at onlookers. The legs walk along behind the wheels, fully articulated and moving just like a real elephant. It even has hazel-coloured eyes and long lashes on the lids that blink every now and again. The jaws are fully functional with thin layers of bent wood acting as an accordion to open wide. We loved watching it work — though if you ask the kids, the ride lasted a little too long! It was slow, after all, so not much excitement once you had seen all there was to see about the workings of this beautifully crafted pachyderm.
While we waited for our ride on the elephant, we decided to check out the Carrousel des Mondes Marins. We hadn’t really looked into it at all before we came, so we didn’t know what to expect. We were completely enthralled by this magnificent piece of artistry. It was absolutely incredible! The carousel is organized on three levels: the surface, the abyss, and the depths.
Up top we find stuff we might see at the surface, such as boats, tugs, a tortoise, sea monsters, mermaids, that kind of thing. As the machines spin round and round, waves rise up and down, seagulls flock above a conch-shell airship, and steam spouts from the tugboat’s pipes.
In the middle undersea level (les abysses), the fish are floating in mid-air, and you access them from ramps which retract while the carousel is spinning. There was a stingray, a rockfish, an anglerfish, and more on this level. Oliver was immediately drawn by the angler fish and sat right in it’s mouth, with me riding in it’s belly.
In the depths of the ocean on the base level (les fonds marins), we had a squid, a crab, a diving bell, a nautilus, and a puffer fish. These last three even went further beneath into their own trap doors, diving down below into darkness where they saw projections of fish swimming by. Danica and Derek rode in the yellow puffer fish, and loved it.
Each machine is worked by it’s passengers. When you get in, the machinists give you a rundown of the different parts you can move by using all the levers, pulleys, cranks, and ropes that are found once inside. In the angler fish, for instance, we could flap fins, turn on it’s light, move the eyeballs, swish the tail, and Oliver in the mouth of the fish had hand controls to open and close the giant jaws as we rode.
The stingray has amazingly articulated wings, the crab’s legs skitter along up and down, and the squid’s tentacles undulate as it swims. Up above, the tortoise had an incredibly articulated neck which could turn and look all around. Seaweed along the edges of the carousel walls moves up and down as the sea creatures swim around.
Truly, we were blown away. Never have I seen such incredible craftsmanship and mechanics on a ride such as this. It was a work of art, and no doubt a labour of love by a truly passionate and imaginative artisan. We bought a beautiful book with detailed concept sketches of the elephant and some of the other machines. I would love to go back one day and see the gallery. This year, the new machine is a spider, and other creatures in the gallery include a heron, an ant, and more. I definitely recommend Les Machines as a place to visit if you find yourself in this area of France, it made for an unforgettable afternoon.