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.