Grand Elephant walking on the street

Nantes: Encounter with the Grand Elephant

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.

1. 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.

The defensive wall of Château des Ducs de Bregtane
Château des Ducs de Bregtane

2. Passage Pommeraye

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.

Passage Pommeraye
Beautiful statues in Passage Pommeraye

3. 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”.

LU Tower- Lieu Unique

4. 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 unusual art project is the work of Fraçois Delarozière and Pierre Orefice. They create a collection of experimental machines that imitate plants, insects, and animals.

A collection of 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.

21 thoughts on “Nantes: Encounter with the Grand Elephant”

  1. I recently made a very good friend from Nantes, so I will stop by the city soon I guess.
    When I was living in Paris never went to Nantes because it is labelled as “nothing special”, as you said, but all this information you shared is very interesting. Thanks!

  2. Mel & Suan – Singapore – Mel works his day job for a living, but lives for antiquities, history and geography at all other times. He enjoys writing and thought sharing and obviously traveling. Suan is a homey person, who like girlie stuff such as cross stitching etc. Enjoys shopping & modeling for Mel. What a match!
    Mel & Suan says:

    Nice! We drove only the Carnac and then past Nantes towards Angers. Good to see what Nantes has to offer! If we are every back in a road trip in France we want to cover Brittany more in detail!

    1. How is Carnac and its stones? We intended to go there as well. But due to bad weather we had to shorten our trip. I have heard from my taxi driver that St. Malo is a nice destination as well but have never confirmed that 🙂

      1. Mel & Suan – Singapore – Mel works his day job for a living, but lives for antiquities, history and geography at all other times. He enjoys writing and thought sharing and obviously traveling. Suan is a homey person, who like girlie stuff such as cross stitching etc. Enjoys shopping & modeling for Mel. What a match!
        Mel & Suan says:

        To be honest you might be a little disappointed. Perhaps we were at the wrong place…but the stones themselves are not large and tall. Though if you view them from a distance you will see the lines and patterns. Still its worth a stop, just that we’d recommend you combine that with a stop somewhere else too.

  3. Fede – Human, temple and culture lovers and travelaholic. I attend university in Siena where I study languages but as soon as I have enough money and free time, I organize trips around. Trying to get the best out of my travels and getting to know better the world ;)
    Fede says:

    I nominated you for this 2016/2017 tag

  4. Oh! I want to ride the fantastique creatures! Nice photos, indeed. 🙂

    1. Thanks a lot! 🙂 I think those mechanical creatures can really surprise anyone regardless age. It is very detailed and I did not think they can move so swiftly 🙂

  5. The Snow Melts Somewhere – As I wait for the snow to melt, up here in the far North, I daydream of palm trees and join my kids for adventures in our living room. Come join us! You can call me Snow.
    The Snow Melts Somewhere says:

    This is interesting! A bit steampunk-y 🙂

  6. That is so cool. I love reading about unusual art projects. It’s always nice discovering special things about places labeled “nothing special”. In fact, sometimes I make a point of specifically going to these places, and more often than not, end up having great experiences.

    1. Indeed. I think “special” or “no special” depends on perception 🙂 For me, the mechanical animals are extraordinary. But for people who wants Instagrammable photos. Nantes would be boring as hell because there is no Instagrammable corner.

  7. Mabel Kwong – Melbourne, Australia – Writer and multicultural blogger based in Melbourne. Writing to help you navigate cultural identities and confidently pursue creative passions.
    Mabel Kwong says:

    Les Machine de L’ile does look like an extraordinary project and fromr your stunning images, these machine-animal forms look life-sized. Wonderful visitors get the chance to ride them, though I am guessing there is a fee for that. It is interesting how many of us think it’s okay to ride real-life elephants – when in reality they aren’t built for handling such weight in the long term. I have to say the Grand Éléphant looks like an elephant out of this world 🙂

    I’ve never been to Nantes but have always heard it was a peaceful city and wouldn’t mind visiting. When you speak of France, Paris and the Eiffel Tower usually comes to mind first – and I guess because Nantes doesn’t has that it seems second best. From your experience, it sounds like a place with good sights and appetising sweet treats 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment, Mabel 😀 You don’t have to pay to ride the creatures in the gallery. The Elephant is the only exception. Personally, I think Nantes is a great stopover when visiting the north western coast of France. But as you already mentioned, it has never been high on the list of must-see destinations.

      1. Mabel Kwong – Melbourne, Australia – Writer and multicultural blogger based in Melbourne. Writing to help you navigate cultural identities and confidently pursue creative passions.
        Mabel Kwong says:

        Nantes might not be that popular as Paris. But that means less crowds, and more of the place to roam in peace. Maybe you will visit again, Len 😀

      2. Haha probably because of the crepes 😛 The people in Nantes are also very kind. An old lady even walked me to my destination because she think I might get lost 🙂 You don’t get that much support in Paris.

  8. justbluedutch – Bavaria, Germany – Expat- lifestyle Blogger from the land of Lederhosen & Dirndls. A self-taught Aquarelle & Mixed Media visual artist.
    justbluedutch says:

    Oh how wonderful… ! did you ride it yourself?
    It really looks amazing…and my daughter would be screaming if she would see that.

    1. She would definitely love those machines! I guess you will need a whole day haha. And yes I did ride the elephant. Who can resist such a giant toy? 😛

  9. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, Egypt, Japan, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We travelled full-time for nearly six years, and then re-established a home in Vancouver. We now travel 2-3 months per year. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, photography, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    Oh I want to go to this place! I’d heard of the elephant a long time ago and forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder. It now goes on the list! Gorgeous photos as usual Len.

    1. My pleasure 🙂 At first, I thought the gallery could be a tourist trap, like all the dinosaur parks. But it turns out really great and informative.

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