Inaugurated in 2007, and initially centring on the fabulous Grand Éléphant, the Machines de l’Île is a truly world-class attraction, which is continuing to develop and expand year after year. Part hommage to the sci-fi creations of Jules Verne and the blueprints of Leonardo da Vinci, part street-theatre extravaganza, this is the lynchpin of Nantes’ urban regeneration. The “machines” in question are the astonishing contraptions created by designer/engineer François Delarozière and artist Pierre Orefice; the “island” is the Île de Nantes, a 3km-long, whale-shaped island in the Loire, ten minutes’ walk southwest of the tourist office, that was once the centre of the city’s shipbuilding industry.
Twelve metres high and eight metres wide, the Grand Éléphant is phenomenally realistic, down to the articulation of its joints as it “walks”, and its trunk as it flexes and sprays water. Visitors can see it for free when it emerges for regular walks along the huge esplanade outside, which is arguably more impressive than paying for a ride. That said, riding a gigantic mechanical elephant is an experience in itself, and you get to wander through its hollow belly and climb the spiral stairs to the balconies around its canopied howdah.
The latest addition to the machines, the Marine Worlds Carousel, is a vast merry-go-round on the banks of the Loire. Unveiled in 2012, it consists of three separate tiers of oddball subaquatic devices. There are two options for visiting the carousel – “Discovery mode”, where you can tour but not ride the carousel, and “Fairground mode”, where you get to climb on board creatures such as the Giant Crab, the Bus of the Abyss, and the Reverse-Propelling Squid, each individually manoeuvrable.
As well as riding the carousel or elephant, visitors can pay to enter the Gallery, which displays a changing assortment of completed machines, and peek into the vast hangars where the machines are kept and constructed. It’s a worthwhile addition offering a closer look at the machines and demonstrations of their moveable components.