Nantes … the French city where one can find Nemo, a giant elephant, the Japanese Versailles and the meaning of life. And what exactly is a Dormanron?

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!

Versailles, close to the French city of er... Nantes?

Versailles, close to the French city of er… Nantes?

The palace of Versailles is not quite how I remember it

The palace of Versailles is not quite how I remember it

Am I even in France? It feels more like Japan to me

Am I even in France? It feels more like Japan to me

Tropical fish tanks on display on the Île de Versailles. This must be The Hall of River's creatures? (Hawh hawh!)

Tropical fish tanks on display on the Île de Versailles. This must be The Hall of River’s creatures?
(Hawh hawh!)

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.

passage-pommeraye-rue-santeuil-entrance

Inside the stunning neo-classic Passage Pommeraye

Inside the stunning neo-classic Passage Pommeraye

Louis Pommeraye faced a climb of nearly ten metres between the two areas he wished his passageway to link. His tiered stairway design and multi-floor shopping area was innovative for its time

Louis Pommeraye faced a climb of nearly ten metres between the two areas he wished his passageway to link. His tiered stairway design and multi-floor shopping area was innovative for its time

The renaissance style sculptures are clearly not impressed by the crowds

The renaissance style sculptures are clearly not impressed by the crowds

Show off!

Show off!

One of the adorned stairways

One of the adorned stairways

passage-pommeraye-dragon-bannister-detail

Some parts of the passageway could do with a good dusting

Some parts of the passageway could do with a good dusting

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.

A sculpture of "Young Jules" by Elisabeth Cibot, looking out across the port and the Loire river that inspired his later writings

A sculpture of “Young Jules” by Elisabeth Cibot, looking out across the port and the Loire river that inspired his later writings

But young Jules Verne is not alone here...

But young Jules Verne is not alone here…

His famous character Captain Nemo can be found not too far away

His famous character Captain Nemo can be found not too far away

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)…

Les Machines de l'île, Le Grand Éléphant, front

…to children’s writer and illustrator Claude Ponti’s Kadupo Garden in the Jardin des Plantes.

Claude Ponti's explanation of the cycle of life aptly portrayed in Nantes's Jardin des Plantes

Claude Ponti’s explanation of the cycle of life aptly portrayed in Nantes’s Jardin des Plantes

It's all to do with flowerpots... and the Kuiné

It’s all to do with flowerpots… and the Kuiné

The Kuiné happily consumes flower pots...

The Kuiné happily consumes flower pots…

...and what goes in must come out: once ingested, a new flower pot pops out - or rather 'plops' out - of the Kuiné

…and what goes in must come out: once ingested, a new flower pot pops out – or rather ‘plops’ out – of the Kuiné

Characters in the Kadupo Garden

Characters in the Kadupo Garden

That one looks rather like Tina Turner

That one looks rather like Tina Turner

La Dormanron taking a snooze whilst the cycle of life happens around him

La Dormanron taking a snooze whilst the cycle of life happens around him

potanpo-claude-ponti-in-le-jardin-des-plantes-de-nantes-pots-over-entrance-detail

As well as embracing fantasy, Nantes also has a very witty sense of humour.

A potential jail bird with his stolen loot avoiding the CCTV cameras on the window ledge of this local bank

A potential jail bird with his stolen loot avoiding the CCTV cameras on the window ledge of this local bank

Meat the locals

Meat the locals

Bad hare day?

Bad hare day?

Nantes is deadly serious about its sense of humour

Nantes is deadly serious about its sense of humour

Local artist Jean Jullien's perceptive and humorous artwork can be found all along the city's Voyages à Nantes green line tourist trail

Local artist Jean Jullien’s perceptive and humorous artwork can be found all along the city’s Voyages à Nantes green line tourist trail

It's tiring work being humorous in Nantes

It’s tiring work being humorous in Nantes

Useful information

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.

The Galerie des Machines

The Galerie des Machines

The heron in flight carrying two lucky volunteers inside the Galerie

The heron in flight carrying two lucky volunteers inside the Galerie

The detail and work gone into making these machines appear so life-like is astounding

The detail and work gone into making these machines appear so life-like is astounding

This little one doesn't appear to be impressed, or maybe she isn't scared of spiders

This little one doesn’t appear to be impressed, or maybe she isn’t scared of spiders

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.

The tusk in hand: a ride upon the mighty Grand Éléphant (and in the background, the huge afternoon queue waiting to buy tickets to ride him)

The tusk in hand: a ride upon the mighty Grand Éléphant (and in the background, the huge afternoon queue waiting to buy tickets to ride him)

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.

Sea creatures from the sea surface level of Le Carrousel des Mondes Marins

Sea creatures from the sea surface level of Le Carrousel des Mondes Marins

Sea water can be so harsh on teeth

Sea water can be so harsh on teeth

Big kids riding on the creatures from the Abyss level

Big kids riding on the creatures from the Abyss level

Rides for all sizes (and all ages)

Rides for all sizes (and all ages)

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.

TLT x


Le Lieu Unique, front Toeing the (green) line along the city’s Voyage à Nantes

 

 

 

 

 

 


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1 Response to Nantes … the French city where one can find Nemo, a giant elephant, the Japanese Versailles and the meaning of life. And what exactly is a Dormanron?

  1. Sheryl Wright says:

    Wonderful post and videos, thank you so much.

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