Anyone living in Nantes is used to tourists asking for directions to “the elephant”—and not all of them are drunk.
Mind you, the link between Nantes and pachyderms isn’t exactly obvious. Sure, there’s always been an elephant in the room, namely the fact the port city was responsible for nearly half of the 18th-century French Atlantic slave trade. But later industries included shipbuilding and food processing with the Beghin-Say sugar refinery, the LU and BN biscuit factories, plus canned fish and processed vegetables—absolutely no elephants in the mix.
Yet, nowadays, Nantes is known as a creative and artsy city that gave birth to a life-size mechanical elephant because of the Machines former street theatre company inspired by Jules Verne (a native of Nantes), Leonardo da Vinci and the port’s industrial past.
Between 2004 and 2007, the former shipyard buildings and warehouses at the tip of the Île de Nantes were converted into new residential spaces and airy public areas dotted with cafés, bars, galleries, temporary creations or permanent artwork—and of course, the Machines de l’Île’s various artistic activities.
“The big elephant” was the first big project born in the lab, the Galerie des Machines, soon joined by a three-level carousel featuring 35 moving underwater creatures, a smaller carousel on the same theme, and other quirky creations from machine builders.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve seen the elephant at one point in my pictures. It travels back and forth on the Île de Nantes several times a day, spraying people with water—Mark and most kids love this part.
You can actually buy a ticket to climb on board the elephant and Mark has been asking for a ride for years. I wasn’t super motivated, mostly because it didn’t look very exciting and tickets are expensive.
I finally gave in this year.
Was it worth it?
Tickets are €8.50 for adults, €6.90 for 4-17-year-old kids, so €15.40 for Mark and me. Yeah, it’s not cheap.
Booking tickets wasn’t easy either. In summer, there are five rides a day (10:15 a.m./11 a.m./1:15 p.m./3:45 p.m./6 p.m.) but tickets sell out fast and it took me a few weeks to find two spots—the elephant is a very popular attraction.
All the information we needed was on the e-ticket. We had to show up 20 minutes before departure at the big carousel and we saw the elephant arriving from a previous ride.
There is room for 50 passengers and boarding was quicker than I thought, everybody was ready with a printed or digital copy of the tickets. Don’t expect an exclusive experience, though. It’s crowded, the only instructions are “don’t damage the elephant,” and the Machine de l’Île employee who supervised the ride on board was clearly bored to death.
There are four main spots on the elephant—the first level with room on both sides where you will be sprayed with water, the “belly” with a few benches available where you won’t see anything, and the top where everybody heads first for a better view over the city. You can move freely between these four spots during the ride.
The elephant goes from the carousel to the back of the Galerie des Machines building. It’s a very, very short trip, about 500 metres, but it takes 30 minutes because the maximum speed is 1 km/h.
The first few minutes are exciting. The elephant is moving! The view is lovely! I can’t believe the elephant is moving!
Then once you’ve checked the view, then the cogs and gears in the “belly,” then both sides adorned with a few sculptures, it gets pretty boring. I found the most interesting part was people watching—passengers and people below, on the ground, waiting to be sprayed.
And that was it.
Mark was a bit disappointed as well—“It’s not that fun,” he said after the ride. I agree, it’s actually more exciting to watch the elephant move at ground level, and it’s free.
I don’t regret buying tickets, it was an experience to try considering how much time we spend in my former hometown. That said, to me, the elephant is a must-see, not a must-do.