By Richard Varr
It lumbers along with its piercing tusks, crunching gears and twisting trunk shooting streams of water. The 40-foot-high “Great Elephant” in Nantes, France may just be the largest such likeness of a mighty pachyderm on Earth, and a thrill for visitors who climb atop the mechanical beast and catch a ride.
It’s all part of a mechanized animal and sea creature wonderland, the “Machines de L’île,” inspired by the 19th century science fiction fantasies of Jules Verne, Nantes’ favorite son born here in 1828.
I visited the port city, once the capital of Brittany, in June and was also simply amazed by the massive likenesses of crustaceans of the deep – giant blue crabs and lobsters with their imposing pincers, elongated squid with stretching tentacles and sharp-toothed fish flashing eerie grins. There’s even a horned dragon – all part of the Machines de L’île’s three-tiered Sea Worlds merry-go-round, where children can ride either atop or on seats within the creatures. Under construction is a colossal 110-foot-high “Heron Tree” to be crowned with two mechanical herons that ride from branch to branch.
“We enjoy rediscovering the dreams of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” says Nantes tour guide Agnès Poras. “Every machine that you see is mechanical – you have to cycle to move the tail of one fish, you have to be very active. When you read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, it’s so easy to connect with this artwork.”
The attraction fills the grounds of former shipyards – built on the Isle of Nantes within the Loire River – and is part of the city’s ambitious tourism drive within the last decade. One of the fastest growing cities in France, Nantes with its green space and aggressive eco-friendly policies has been recognized as the European Union’s Green Capital for 2013, beating out 17 European towns and cities.
During our tour, we walk through the city’s central square where a statue of Louis XVI sits atop a pillar. “This is one of only four statues of Louis XVI in France,” notes Agnès. “He’s dressed like an emperor.”
The adjacent Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, built between the 15th and 19th centuries, houses the Renaissance tomb of François II, the last duke of Brittany. What catches my eye is a tomb statue with two faces – one side with a woman’s gentle countenance and the back of her head with the face of a bearded old man.
“When the kids see it they say, ‘just like Harry Potter,’” quips Agnès. “She’s using the mirror to see backwards into the past to see the wisdom, knowledge and experience represented by the old man made in the likeness of the sculptor,” she says of the tomb commissioned by Queen of France Anne de Bretagne in 1498.
We also visit the impressive Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, now the city’s history museum showcasing the past five centuries. I was surprised to learn how Nantes was a key point along the slave trade to the New World. Rooms of the museum highlight how 550,000 slaves were traded in the port of Nantes with more than 1,800 boat trips.
For this reason, the city has erected the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery along the Loire, where slave ships once moored. Plaques along an adjacent river promenade note the names of the ships, and the memorial itself recognizes this turbulent period in the city’s history as Nantes wasn’t an abolitionist city. “Since the 1980s, Nantes has really reflected on its past,” explains Agnès. “We’ve established the history, we know this is a place of memory, but memory helps future generations think about what they do.”
IF YOU GO
If you visit, you might want to check out the new Radisson Blu Hotel Nantes opened in November 2012. It’s columned lobby and neoclassical architecture showcases how the hotel was built into an 1865 former judiciary complex once housing courts and jails. The hotel has 142 rooms, 20 suites, a spa wellness center, restaurants and more. http://www.radissonblu.fr/hotel-nantes
For dinner, check out the impressive 1900 French brasserie La Cigale with its gilded art deco interior. http://www.lacigale.com