Elephants in France are not a new thing – historical precedent was set by Hannibal when he marched his army through southern Gaul and into Italy during the Punnic Wars (3rd century BC).
Although I didn’t follow Hannibal’s route, I recently rode an elephant in France - a mechanical one, built by Les Machines de l’ile - “…an unprecedented artistic project that blends the imaginary worlds of Jules Verne, the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci, and the industrial history of Nantes.” (Sourced from Explore France)
Jules Verne was born in the city of Nantes, and reportedly spent much of his time watching the river traffic and shipyard activity from a house across the river. The I’ile de Nantes district, situated on the Loire River, was an industrial area where the shipyard (circa 1882-1987)) and a rail yard were located. In the 2000s funding was procured by Nantes Metropole to turn the derelict area into an art-focused urban space. Work began about 15 years ago when the shipyard was gutted of its cinderblock walled compartments, and opened up into a beautiful steel and glass thoroughfare that now houses the Les Machines Factory, the Gallery, and a 1/10th scale model of the Heron Tree in front of the Gift Shop. It is also where the Grand Elephant stands when he is not out on his daily walks.
I had purchased my tickets online before leaving for France, and arrived at Les Machines about an hour before my timed entry. While I was waiting, I discovered that my ticket QR code allowed me access to the Factory across the way from the Gallery. I walked the length of the wooden spectator’s balcony that overlooks the workshop, but it is early and most of the craftsmen are not at their workbenches yet. This is the workshop where all the creatures I would see over the next two days were built. Les Machines also builds mechanical works for European events that are along the lines of our Burning Man in the U.S. Cameras are not allowed in this area while works are in progress (as I believe they are much of the time).
At last, it’s my turn to visit the Gallery. I’m mildly disappointed at not being able to ride any of the animals even though I see others who have been afforded that opportunity. My QR code reader on my phone is not working so I cannot download the English guide to the gallery. The technicians give a five-minute presentation at each mechanical creature, but only in French, so I may not have gotten as much out of this tour as I would have elsewise.
But it’s a really fascinating place. Les Machines has embarked on a three-part project covering nearly two decades of planning and funding. The Grand Elephant was the first piece of the plan, the three-story Carrousel was the second, and the third, currently in progress, is the Grand Heron Tree. The mechanical elements are built in the Factory and are displayed in the Gallery before moving to their permanent homes in either the Carrousel or the Heron Tree.
There are birds. There’s a pair of articulated steel birds that do something like a mating dance while the technician sings a concerto. There are steel hummingbirds with about a three-foot wingspan that hover towards a metal blossom from which they feed. I learned later that they plan to install some of these hummingbirds on posts throughout the city center (on the other side of the Loire River) to draw people to the I’ile de Nantes and the Heron Tree once that project is finished.
There is a chameleon that slowly crawls along a steel track, before grabbing a big steel bug with its big steel tongue. There is an articulated wooden sloth with long steel nails that very slowly but surely pulls itself along the bottom of a steel pole. The schematics for several of the creatures are posted on the wall nearby. There are bugs - a bee that came in, carrying three people on its back. An inchworm pulling itself along its track, steered by a child. A gigantic spider dropped down from the ceiling, carrying four passengers, and snorting smoke. I understand it will function as one of the elevators in the Heron Tree.
There is a heron, made from wood and iron, operated by two technicians and carrying a passenger in each basket below as it flies over our heads the length of the gallery. I have posted an all-too-short video of this heron in flight on YouTube. A second heron is currently being built.
I walk through a clear vinyl curtain at the entrance of a side room and find myself in a greenhouse, with its collection of Venus flytraps both organic and mechanical, living orchids in test tubes, and terrariums in specimen jars. Nantes is the only French city to earn the designation of “European Green Capital” and is one of the top urban eco-destinations in France. The greenhouse here emphasizes that point, and will no doubt factor into the Heron Tree project as well.
I came back the next day to ride The Grand Elephant. It is three times the size of a live elephant and some passengers compared in size to a mammoth. The body is made from planks of tulip tree wood which are glued together and then sculpted with a sander. Each of the Elephant’s ears was made from the hides of five cows. It took 150 people 30 months to build. It vocalizes like a real Elephant and sprays water from its trunk on unsuspecting passersby. It is driven by a large engine in the back and guided by a navigator in a glass cage under the Elephant’s chest. It carries 49 people on its back, belly and side galleries for a 30-minute walk from the Les Machines Gallery to the Carrousel. When it is not out for a walk, it is housed in the shipyard, which the elephant’s makers call the “cathedral.” You can see it in action on my YouTube channel.
Finally, it’s my turn to ride. I climb up the stairs at the Carrousel and walk a gang plank into the Elephant’s belly, and up a spiral staircase to his back, under the canvas shade. I had thought it would be the best place to ride, but the more interesting ride is actually on one of the side platforms, where I was able to watch the mechanics of the Elephant’s leg and head at work. He wiggles his ears and bats his eyelashes as he plods along. See what it is like to ride the Grand Elephant on my YouTube channel.
As we near the Les Machines Factory, I see the head of a heron peeking up over the fence. There are signs on the fence showing what it will look like when it is finished. The Heron Tree is the third project that Les Machines is working on. There is a 1/10th model of the tree in front of the gift shop that you can walk on. The actual tree will be made of steel with plants rooted in the piping, offering 1600 meters of walkable elevated gardens. The tree is expected to measure 55 meters in diameter by 35 meters tall and weigh as much as a cargo ship. There will be two platforms in the top of the tree that will allow people to board the pair of herons that will fly an additional 15 meters above the tree. Estimated completion date is 2027.
The Gallery Tour takes 60-90 minutes, and that ticket will get you into the Factory (at any time the same day). Tickets to the Grand Elephant (30 minute ride) and the Carrousel (unlimited viewing and one ride) are separate. Buy your tickets online to lock in a date and time, and to bypass the queue at the ticketing window.
Gallery – 9.50 Euros, Grand Elephant – 9.50 Euros, Carrousel – 9 Euros
The Gallery is open Mon-Sat with rotating hours depending on the month. Click on “Horaires” to view the color-coded calendar. You can view the Grand Elephant for free at any time that he is in his ‘cathedral’ or out on his walks.
The Grand Elephant has a separate schedule from the Gallery. Scroll down below the color-coded calendars for a list of dates and times to ride. He departs from two separate points (the Gallery and the Carrousel), so make sure you know where your embarking point is, and arrive 15-20 minutes early for your ride of a lifetime.
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Heather Daveno hails from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught textile artisan by night. In her spare time she is a “hobby historian” and is currently researching the female side of her family history for a book she plans to write, titled: “The Matriarch Diaries.”
You can see her current textile projects at August Phoenix Mercantile and her travels at Daveno Travels.