Riding an elephant, the biggest mammal on land is perhaps the dream of every child. I was no different. As a kid, I used to like elephants and would love to ride one. But the cruel fact that elephants are abused in order to satisfy tourists’ demands really shrug me off. Fortunately, I found a better alternative in Nantes.
Positioned on the mouth of the Loire River, Nantes had been one of France’s most important ports for centuries. The Celts were the first inhabitants of this land, followed by the Romans, and the Bretons in the 10th century. Until France formed a union with Brittany in 1532, the city was the capital of the Duchy of Brittany.
Nantes became the country’s largest port by the 18th century, and later, a center of shipbuilding and food processing during the second half of the 19th century. When a new shipyard was built in Saint-Nazaire in the 20th century, Nantes gradually lost its importance as a commercial hub. But it has reinvented itself into a thriving cultural city.
Château des Ducs de Bregtane
Though Nantes today is the capital of Pays de la Loire (Loire countries), its culture, architecture, and history belong to Britanny. This is clearly reflected in Château des Ducs de Bretagne (The Castle of the Duke of Brittany) located in the heart of the city. Constructed in 1207 and rebuilt in 1466, this castle was home to the Dukes of an independent Brittany. It features a Flamboyant-Gothic style ducal residence, an expansive courtyard, as well as a 500-meter fortified wall punctuated by seven turrets. The château underwent a massive renovation in the 1990s. It has now turned into Nantes History Museum, displaying the past, the present, and the future of the city.
Not far from the castle is Passage Pommeraye, a shopping arcade constructed in 1843. Named after its developer, Louis Pommeraye, this mall is known for its elaborate architecture, with arches, ornated pillars, and Renaissance sculptures. A flight of stairs connects the three floors, bringing visitors to a maze of galleries. Even though it is not as famous as its peers in Brussels or Milan, I still found Passage Pommeraye no less astonishing.
The LU Tower
Another monument of Nantes is the fanciful LU Tower. Topped with an equally beautiful cupola, this unmistakable tower is the remnant of an old Lefeuvre Utile (LU) factory. For those who are not familiar with this name, it is the manufacturer of the world-famous Petit Beurre biscuits. The factory was in operation for a century before closing its doors permanently in 1989. Today, the tower is preserved as a reminiscence of Nantes’ industrial period. The factory, on the other hand, has been transformed into an art venue since the turn of the century. And LU becomes “Lieu Unique”, which means “a unique spot”.
Les Machine de L’ile
Despite all the above-mentioned attractions, Les Machine de L’ile is the main reason that drew me to Nantes. Occupied a former shipyard, this extraordinary artistic project is the work of Fraçois Delarozière and Pierre Orefice. They create a collection of experimental machines that imitate plants, insects, and animals.
In this unusual gallery, visitors can watch a heron with an 8-meters long wingspan soaring gracefully in the air. They can also observe a fearful spider walking around with its gigantic legs or a giant caterpillar that moves swiftly along a tree trunk. The warehouse resembles a performance area where each individual machine puts on a mini-show. And the best thing is that you might have the chance to ride one of them.
However, the pièce de résistance of the whole project is the Grand Éléphant – a 12-meters high elephant made of 48 tonnes of steel and wood. It can move (very slowly) and carry up to 50 people at one time. The elephant can also flap its ears and spray water from its trunk. Standing on the back of this majestic creature feels like being on the fourth floor of a moveable house. It is way more extravagant than riding a real elephant, and you definitely won’t be ridden with guilt.
Tips for visiting Nantes
- Nantes is well connected to Paris (2 hours) and Bordeaux (4 hours) by trains.
- To reach Les Machine de L’ile, take Tram 1 to Chantiers Navals. Ticket for the elephant ride is 8.5€. The same goes for the gallery.
- Another part of this project is the Le Carrousel des Mondes Marines – a 25m-high and 22m-wide carousel where visitors can ride creatures from the depth of the sea. However, you need an extra ticket for that (8.5€). Each additional ride costs 3€.
- No visit to Nantes would be completed without tasting a savoury Brittany crêpe. In fact, no ther town in Brittany has more crêperies than this city. And a good address to try this speciality is Crêperie Heb-Ken in Nantes downtown. They serve dozens of varieties of delicious crêpe.