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Nantes Travel Guide

This Is Probably the Coolest Amusement Park in France

In a reinvented port city, a unique art project blends industrial and imaginative elements to create a one-of-a-kind menagerie.

Nantes, France has long been something of a hidden gem. Located about an hour south of Paris, it has all the trappings of a typical charming French town: historic buildings, excellent cuisine, and a genuine castle. But it also has a healthy dose of quirkiness. Once a renowned shipping port (and the birthplace of Jules Verne), it has reinvented itself as a hub for the arts, with a variety of public projects and festivals celebrating the creative spirit of the place. And by far the most interesting of these projects is Les Machines de l’ile, a steampunk theme park that owes as much to Leonardo Da Vinci as to its famous native son. The park is still very much a work in progress, which is part of what makes visiting it so delightful. Even more exciting? Seeing the amazing inventions that are already there.

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The Prototype Room

This is where the magic happens–or at least, where the groundwork is laid. Part of the park’s philosophy is that the nuances of their creative process should be fully on display. Featuring models of every stage of creation, from early sketches to miniature wooden carvings to fully painted detailed models, this room is a great way to get some context for the wonders ahead.

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Mysterious Plant Creatures

The joy of this space lies in the little details. Although there are plenty of big attractions to get wrapped up in, several quieter pieces are hiding in plain sight along the paths. Lurking in between bushes and around corners are fun variations on popular flora, from Venus flytraps to pitcher plants.

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A Dinosaur-Construction Vehicle Hybrid

Yet another example of this hybridization: this lethal little dude, ready to go on the hunt. While more of a straightforward sculpture than most of the other pieces, it still adheres to the industrial-natural hybridization that the creators prize.

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An Old-Timey Barnstormer

In a whole land of hidden treasures, this one hides in plain sight. Back behind the main exhibits, you can catch a glimpse of a classic-style airplane in action. When the intrepid pilot straps in, massive fans propel them into the air for a theatrical, turbulent ride.

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Parade Props

The creations of Les Machines aren’t just limited to the park. Some of the creatures have traveled as far as China and Japan, as well as featuring in local parades. Several of them are still on display in the back of the main building, with all of the intricate details on full display.

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A Clockwork Caterpillar

Time for a bit of unfortunate news: At the moment, only a select few audience members get to ride most of the cool critters on display. The good news is that anybody can watch the demonstrations of the machines in action, which is still quite the remarkable experience. Case in point: this mega size insect, which travels along a track using the same movements as its real-life counterparts. Though it only takes a minute or so, the process is fascinating–and slightly hypnotic–to watch. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…

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A Dancing Spider

Even arachnophobes will love this one. Not only does this eight-legged robot rise up over the audience, but it also does a little dance–each of its legs can be moved individually, as well as the pinchers.

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Ants on Wheels

Another fun stylistic hybrid, these guys are lethal. The wooden bodies are mounted on wheels, so they can advance slowly and surely towards you while still moving their mandibles. These creatures would be perfect for duels. They’re fascinating to look at, and surely not terrifying at all.

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A Flying Heron

All of the machines are great, but this ambitious piece takes the ideas off the ground–literally. Chosen guests sit in two tiny baskets attached to the birds’ wooden legs. Then, it’s time for takeoff. As the massive heron glides across the room, flapping wings and opening beak show off the beautiful blend of bolts and gears. In the future, this bird and several counterparts will be carrying all sorts of riders, but in the meantime, there are a few options for those craving a closer look.

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A Carousel of Critters

These are no dull state fair kiddie rides. Take a spin on a Pegasus, a windowed chameleon, or a whole host of fabulous fish. Whether playing in an eclectic menagerie or going under the sea, a spin on one (or both) of these high-class merry-go-rounds is a must.

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A Tree Made of Iron (or Is It a Sculpture Full of Leaves?)

One of the most fascinating things about the park is its creators’ commitment to marrying natural and mechanical elements, creating complex and fascinating artistic ecosystems. The piece de resistance of all this is still taking shape: a massive entity whose metal “branches” will be full of real vegetation, while the fully realized robotic critters frolic through its boughs. But even though the tree is a few years away from completion, a prototype of the structure is still ripe for exploring. Scurry up the branches for a bird’s eye view of the park and the city.

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One Wild Pachyderm

This is by far the most iconic symbol of the park, often seen strolling across the grounds with several amazed passengers in tow. Yes, the elephant is real; yes, it is massive (roughly four stories tall); and yes, it is absolutely amazing to witness. Whether you’re riding along on its decks like proper steampunk royalty, or just watching the gears turn from the outside, odds are you’ve never seen anything as  odd as this guy. But probably also nothing quite as incredible. There’s no finer way to celebrate one of the world’s coolest hidden treasures than from the back of its crowning achievement.

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