Having once visited the Sun King’s palace, I know for a fact that Versailles is just outside Paris. Yet, on a trip to the city of Nantes which is over three hundred kilometres south-west of the French capital in the Pays de la Loire region, I was surprised to find myself in Versailles!
Nantes’s Japanese gardens on its small island of Versailles in the Erdre River is a short walk north of the city centre. The island is lovely and tranquil but clearly shares little of the extravagance seen in its namesake palace near Paris. Nantes’s Passage Pommeraye however, could easily have come from the mind of King Louis XIV. It was built in the 1840s by property developer Louis Pommeraye who wanted to regenerate a slum area in the city and link it to the nearby richer district which was on a hillside looking down over the slum.
The extravagance of the passageway symbolised Nantes’s extreme wealth and openness to industrial change at the time. Nantes is believed to have been the first city in France to have created a public railway network sparking France’s industrial revolution. The city was also a major French port during the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries generating a mass of wealth for the city. However, most of this wealth was procured from dealings in the slave industry. Over half a million Africans were shipped out against their will from Nantes to a slave’s life in America during this dark period in the city’s history.
One Nantes resident who was clearly inspired by the changes he witnessed in his city during the nineteenth century was fantasy novelist Jules Verne. Nantes has never forgotten its most famous son and celebrates him all across the city.
Nantes may have significantly fuelled the imagination of Jules Verne, but the legacy of Jules Verne has never left Nantes. Today, visitors can find and experience all kinds of Verne-esque fantasy worlds and creatures across the city, from Les Machines de L’île‘s huge mechanical elephant marching around the city’s old ship yards (more information at the end of this post)…
…to children’s writer and illustrator Claude Ponti’s Kadupo Garden in the Jardin des Plantes.
As well as embracing fantasy, Nantes also has a very witty sense of humour.
All activities mentioned here are free to see all across the city.
Les Machines de l’Île can be found in the old ship yards on the isle of Nantes just south of the city centre. It is easy to walk to from the centre, otherwise catch tram line 1 west and alight at Chantiers Navels, then cross the Anne de Bretagne bridge and follow the signs or the green Voyages à Nantes green line painted on the pavement.
Visitors can walk around the ship yard for free but tickets have to be purchased to enter/ride any of the activities. At present there are three notable activities at Les Machines de l’Île – the Galerie des Machines, the Carrousel des Mondes Marins and the Grand Éléphant. To enjoy all three activities will take up most of the day depending on ticket entry times, but they are all well worth taking the time to explore them. I was staying in Nantes for a couple of nights so I visited the Galerie and rode the elephant during one morning, and visited the carousel the following morning.
The queue and wait for tickets can be long – up to 90 minutes – so arrive early to beat the crowds, advisably before opening time (10am). Otherwise, try arriving during the last hour of opening although this will leave little time to visit everything and there may not be any tickets left for the elephant by that time.
The Galerie des Machines is held in one of the old ship yard warehouses. Visitors are advised to stay for one hour only to watch Les Machines’s team demonstrate some of the amazing mechanical creatures on display. These are not just demonstrations but theatrical performances by both the team and the lucky individuals chosen from the crowd to take part. There is no particular start or end to the demonstrations/performances. On entering the warehouse, join and follow the crowd around the warehouse and within the hour you will see all there is to see. Although narratives are in French only, it is still a very enjoyable experience for non-French speakers especially when the machines are brought to life.
Tickets for the Galerie also give access to the workshop and ‘prototype branch’ opposite the warehouse. These can be entered at any time during the day after leaving the Galerie. Les Machines’s vision is to eventually create a huge tree-like structure in the ship yard where their mechanical creatures will live and where visitors can explore and enjoy. So far only one branch has been built, but it is worth spending ten minutes or so walking along it.
Tickets to ride Le Grand Éléphant can be bought either online (although the tickets usually have to be bought at least two weeks in advance) or from the same ticket counter next to the Galerie. It is a separate ticket to the Galerie and is based on a first-come-first-served basis. The ride on the elephant is around twenty minutes long and is simply delightful. It travels around the ship yard anti-clockwise towards its three pick-up-drop-off points: by the Galerie/Workshop, behind the workshop known as the ‘Passerelle’, and by the Carrousel des Mondes Marins on the other side of the ship yard. Tickets for the elephant are timed and where to board the elephant is also determined on purchase. Arrive at least ten minutes at the designated location to board the elephant.
Le Carrousel des Mondes Marins is a fantastical three-tiered, aquatic-themed carousel made up of magical sea creatures. Tickets can only be purchased from the carousel ticket office next to its entrance on the other side of the ship yard. The Galerie ticket office does not sell them.
Visitors are given two tickets valid for one hour upon entry to the carousel. This allows for two rides on any creature on the carousel from any of the three levels. Visitors are led up to the top level – the Sea Surface – and can then work their way down to the Abyss and Sea Bed levels below. All the ‘creatures’ are stunning and unique making it very difficult to decide which two to ride on.
And don’t worry, just as many adults as children ride on the creatures. There is no age limit on who can get on board.
For more information on ticket prices, opening times, events and the vision of Les Machines de l’Île, go to their official website here.
And to see some of the creatures in motion, just press play below.
Toeing the (green) line along the city’s Voyage à Nantes
Brussels … celebrating Christmas with ‘Game of Thrones’ style nativities, rubbish carousels and the Funny Christmas Ice Monster?