Les Machines de l’Ile, Nantes, France – review

Getting there
Two hours by TGV from Paris’ Gare de Montparnasse there lies a treasure hidden in the Loire Valley. Some go to Nantes because it was author Jules Verne’s birthplace, others for the quirky botanical gardens, but for something unique, take the tram on line 1 from the station to the Chantiers Navals stop (translates as ‘naval shipyard’) and cross the Pont Anne de Bretagne bridge to the other side of the river. There you will find Les Machines. 

This is a remarkable project led by two theatre designers who have taken a disused shipyard and turned it into a Jules Verne-inspired universe with giant mechanical puppets, including a four storey elephant that can take 50 passengers for a ride around the precinct to a giant heron, an mechanical inchworm and a fantasy tree stretching tens of metres. There are carousels and marine creatures and it is all created in front of you – you can see the craftspeople at work sculpting the next generation of machines.

The designers, François Delaroziere and Pierre Orefice place performance before engineering and as a result the place takes on a wonderful narrative form. They have worked together for over 20 years in street theatre and urban performance. They produced giant puppets for the Royal de Luxe troupe and saw an opportunity when the shipyards closed in 1987. A street theatre company was formed in 1999 and the first machines were animated in 2007 with the inauguration of the Great Elephant and followed soon after with the Marine Worlds carousel.

The Great Elephant
The Great Elephant is 12m high 8m wide and 21m long. It comprises 48.4 tonnes of steel and wood (American tulip wood) and it is powered by a 450hp motor driving the beast 1-3km/h. As you will see in the video below, it is highly articulated, driven by 44 hydraulic cylinders, 6 pneumatic ones and 10 gas ones. the trunk is highly segmented and snakes in all directions, blowing air and water at the will of the driver. The ears flap, the eyes blink, the mouth opens and closes and the legs walk in synchronised fashion as it takes its load of passengers on a tour of the grounds.

It is said that being on the back of the elephant is like being on the 4th floor of a travelling house with a great view over the whole place. There are movies on how the machines are made – many go on tour worldwide – and everywhere you see designs and other machines in their environment.

The Machine Gallery
The Machine Gallery is a performance space – open since Feb 2012 – which houses a wealth of plants and machines revolving around the Heron Tree project. Real plants combine with mechanical ones in a dazzling wonderland. The machines are explained by the machinists who built them – in French – and performers interact with the machines providing mini shows for students and adults alike.

How to visit
There are various modes in which you can visit – the ‘discovery mode’ is the one we chose, so we could wander through the galleries and machines and workshops. You can take a ride on the Great Elephant and/or you can take the ‘fairground’ mode in which you get to ride on the carousels and explore the marine world more deeply.

Here is a sample of our experience and what you can expect to see:

The place is continuously being developed so more attractions are being designed and added as time goes on. For something completely different and only in France – this is well worth the visit.

Video of Travel Journal

I mentioned yesterday I had filled my first travel journal and was on to the second. I thought I would share a flip through the pages so you could see how I keep a travel journal. I hope you enjoy the journal flip.


Sharing a few travel sketches

Well I am being nagged by a good friend to share more travel sketches. To be honest I am finding it easy to keep the travel journal but hard to fit sketching into the day. In fact I have already filled one book and half way through the second, but it is mainly writing!

The first sketch I would like to share is one I did while on a day visit to Chartres. We went of course to see the cathedral. (Jerry has not yet shared his photos of the day so I am getting in first – pokes tongue at Jerry and chants nyah nyah )

Garden behind Chartres CathedralI discovered a little park behind the cathedral and spent a pleasant hour and half using my  inktense pencils and Pitt pens to represent what I saw. (Click on the image and you will see a larger version)

page spreadThis is the page spread.

Next I discovered an art shop on St Germain Boulevard and could not resist buying gesso. I had not packed gesso as I was trying to travel light but I have wanted to create some images that were more impressionistic to describe my mood in Paris. So I indulged in a little pot of gesso and some very cheap stiff brushes to apply it.

image of collageThis collage is intense pencils, pitt pens, gesso and collaged paper scraps from tourist brochures. The intense pencils responded will to being moistened by the gesso. I liked it and will explore more  this accidently discovered technique. (Click on the image and you will see a larger version)

page spreadThis is the page spread

Next is a small figure I drew in the Louvre. We went back there on Friday as  it is a place you can never really see all of! We spent quite a bit of time in the Greek Etruscan and Roman antiquities section. I fell in love with this cycladic figurine which dates from between 2700 BC – 3000 BC. (Click on the image and you will see a larger version)

Cycladic figureThis is the page spread.

Anyway I hope people have enjoyed these pages. As I say I have filled one book and am half way through the second. If I have time I will make a video of a flip through the pages.


Paris – Nuit Blanche – resisting the winter with art

October 5 2013.
Paris’ ‘Nuit Blanche’ festival started for us with a bang – you really couldn’t miss the massive conga line of around 50 African drummers marching and dancing down our street with a crowd of a couple of hundred tagging along behind clapping and whooping in time to the music and the call-and-response chants.

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

Literally ‘White night’ – it is an arts event in which major galleries and government buildings and many smaller galleries open their doors for free – many of them until dawn. It is a final resistance to the inexorable shortening of the days into Winter, and it is quite the celebration. The Marais district comes alive and people stream out into the open spaces in front of the Town Hall (Hotel de Ville).

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

The Hotel de Ville is lit up in spectacular fashion

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche – Hotel de Ville

and it becomes a meeting place for Parisians of all ages

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

Even the spiders have their own light show

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

We visited a small photographic exhibition at around 11.30pm – interesting concept, buildings photographed, along with what lies behind, and the building then partially erased as though transparent to show what lies behind in a partly fractured image – always ‘under erasure’ or as the French would say: “sous rature‘. Obviously we couldn’t photograph in the gallery – but this was from their poster – and shows just a little of the interesting concept behind the work.

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

It was great strolling across the bridges and seeing people out and celebrating life

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

And of course the light show went on well into the night

Paris - Nuit Blanche

Paris – Nuit Blanche

It was as unexpected as it was delightful – and what a wonderful concept to throw open the city for one night of the year 🙂