The Fanciful French

Anyone who’s ever been to a Cirque du Soleil show knows that the French have a colorful sense of the fantastical. This fanciful, quirkiness shows up in everything here — art, food, architecture, interior design…

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The whimsical paper light fixture in my Nantes apartment.

and entertainment. I saw it in full bloom today at Les Machines de L’Ile on the Ile de Nantes.

Consider this. The Ile de Nantes is an area in Nantes encircled by two stretches of the Loire. Historically it was home to ship building yards and maritime-based businesses. A decade ago, it became the site of an urban rehabilitation project.

Now in the United States, Yankee pragmatism would lead a developer to purchase this land and build a mixed-use community of retail establishments and upscale, high-rise condos overlooking the river. A small marina would complement the complex.

In Nantes, the area is essentially a large park open to the public with a frivolous, oddly imaginative attraction, Les Machines de L’Ile, as its centerpiece.

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The Grand Éléphant at Les Machines de L'Ile.

Where ships were once built, they now craft monumental mechanical animals like Le Grand Éléphant. The mad builders (The Machine Company) are busily at work churning out other fanciful machines as paying visitors watch.

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It’s a marvelous mixture of mechanical engineering and craftsmanship.

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Engineering and art combine to bring imagination to life.

John and I took a 30-minute ride aboard the motor-powered elephant. It felt like stepping inside a 19th-century novel whose author conjured up these mechanical mammoths.

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Inside the giant pachyderm.

We rode the Big Guy over to another giant –and very French — contraption. the Carrousel des Mondes Marins.

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The Carousel is 75 feet tall and 66 feet in diameter.

Climb aboard this colossus and enter the fantastical, marine world of Jules Verne — which is appropriate since the writer was born and raised in Nantes right across the river from the Ile de Nantes.

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A mini-submarine that would make Jules Verne proud.

John and I tried out this mystical sea dragon on the top tier…

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and had so much fun, we took another ride on a gargantuan shrimp on the second tier. The carousel is an interactive ride. You pull and push levers and foot pedals to make various parts of the mechanized creatures move. Who knew operating the tail of a mechanical sea animal could be such fun?

The French, that’s who!

There’s nothing wrong with Yankee pragmatism, but French whimsy is infectiously fun!

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