Pretty much everyone that loves steampunk has heard of the near legendary Les Machines de l’île, an area on the Island of Nantes (yes, that area of Nantes is really called l’île –> the Island) where company La Machine builds their amazing wood and metal creations, such as the fantastical fire breathing dragon horse or Princesse and Kumo, the enormous spiders that have climbed buildings and walked streets in many countries and continents. Or even Aeroflorale, an amazing flying machine collecting plant life from all over the world.
Les Machines de l’île is the culimination of the combined masterpiece of these builders: where their ideas come to life and where you can admire them nearly year round (I say nearly because they do close for about a month each year).
Les Machines is composed of four parts (and add to that an adorably quaint little shop which is a total treasure throve and a super cozy café): La Galerie des Machines, Le Grand Elephant, the Heron Branch and Le Carrousel des Mondes Marins.
So I will address each part separately.
Before I get to that, there’s a few things that need to be said first.
Les Machines is incredibly easy to find. You’ll see posters and sign posts to it all over Nantes, so you basically literally just have to follow the signs. It may seem far out because on a map you can see it across the river Loire, but it is really walkable if you’re staying in town.
Regardless of the time of year you go, Les Machines is quite busy, so be prepared to queue. We went on a random Friday in February and we queued for half an hour.
You need separate tickets for the Gallery, to ride the Elephant and to ride the carousel. So be aware of that when it’s your turn at the ticket desk (the carousel has it’s separate ticket desk so you may have to queue twice if you don’t make online reservations). You can of course, just do one, two, or all three, in that way it’s actually quite handy.
They do guided tours and demonstrations of the creatures in the Gallery each hour, but when we were there, it was all in French. I don’t know whether this is always the case or just during low season, but it’s something to bare in mind. The staff does speak really good English though, so you can easily communicate with them even if you don’t speak French (fluently). They are also super friendly, which is always a bonus.
I don’t regret having visited in winter, but I do think that the best time to go is in summer, because they also set up their beautiful Manège d’Andrea (a smaller carousel, which I’ve seen in Brussels before. And whilst only children can ride that one, it is still amazing to see in action) and several days they also bring out one of their large traveling spectacles. Two years ago that was the dragon horse, last year it was Kumo. This year hasn’t been announced yet, but as Royal De Luxe is also from Nantes, and is also known for their steampunk spectacles, all bets are off and summers are extra amazing.
If you can’t afford two trips to Nantes, it may be a plan to wait ‘till 2021 when their next large project: La Cité dans le Ciel (the city in the sky) opens up, because my god, that is going to be spectacular. I am definitely returning for it.
Now, onto the review!
La Galerie des Machines is the display area of several creatures. Most of them will eventually become part of the Herron tree, which is the tree of life of the city in the sky. The crown piece of that will of course be herons (as the name suggests), but many other mechanical marvels and monsters will also inhabit the creation, and guests will be able to ride them. For those regretting to not be able to see Kumo (like me), there is a smaller spider (L’araignée) with which they do a demonstration, which is really cool to see.
The amount of detail that goes in these creatures is absolutely stunning and it’s super cool to see them in action.
Another part of the building of the Gallery houses La Machine’s workshop. You’re not allowed to take photos there, so we didn’t. It’s not always being used, and you can’t actually go on the floor for safety reasons, but you can look into it from a higher up gallery area that connects to the Heron Branch.
The Heron Branch is the first part of the City in the Sky, a bit of a teaser if you will, but a sublimely done one at that. It’s essentially a giant construction of a wood and metal tree which you can walk around in. If you have fear of heights, this may not be your cup of tea, but regardless, it’s amazingly done, and it really makes you want for the complete and finished project that is yet to come.
From the branch, you also have a pretty neat view on the carousel, which is situated on the next square over.
Le Carrousel des Mondes Marins is a three story all ages carousel, meaning that adults can ride it too (contrary to the other carousels by both Royal De Luxe and La Machine). It features all kinds of (deep) sea creatures and monsters, some are pretty cool and even a little cute, others are sheer stuff out of nightmares. If you go with a child that spooks easily, be prepared for that. What is truly amazing about this carousel, is not just that it is three stories high, but that the middle story has “floating” creatures to ride.
Whilst the others are (nearly) all on a traditional carousel platform, the middle one is all hanging constructions. You even have to mount them by an extendable metal bridge. Very awesome and 100% totally steampunk.
Another amazing feat of this carousel is that literally everything has moving parts the person riding it can use. The manta ray I rode was a two person maximum creature (which was great as we were a party of two) which had controls for both the wings, the mouth and the stinger. Even though in winter the carousel is a little dark and cold, it is still an absolutely amazing thing, and well worth the cost of the extra ticket!
The carousel is also where the Grand Elephant walks to.
I’m actually not 100% sure whether the Elephant was built by La Machine or by Royal De Luxe, but that aside it is amazing to see it out and about. Not just because it so enormous and nearly reminiscent of the war elephaunts from Lord of the Rings, but because even though it is such a giant construction, it is still majestic and in a way even elegant. It’s just amazing to see it move around, and look nearly sentient like a real elephant would. Out of all the creatures I’ve seen that day, it was by far my favourite.
And just because they were so much fun, I feel like a little something needs to be said about the gift shop and café.
Nearly everything you can buy in the gift shop is on their webshop. Which is good because you have a rough idea about how much you’re going to spend. Now, bare in mind that there is MUCH more for sale than you see on the site, so you may want to double your spending money just in case. Whilst a lot of the books (on varied subjects, not just steampunk and Jules Verne novels) are in French, there is a myriad of other items for sale. Winter hats for kids shaped like aviator helmets, beautiful note books with vintage prints on all the pages, toys, gadgets, you name it. Nearly everything fitting of the steampunk or dieselpunk style. Aside from that, the shop is just really cozy and fun to look around in.
The café is adjacent to the shop, and super cozy as well. Be advised that the prices are what you would typically expect from a museum or event, so they’re a little higher than what you would probably pay in town itself (which I’m not 100% sure about as we didn’t actually go to a café in town), but they are not ridiculous. It can get very crowded though, especially on busier days. You don’t have to have tickets for Les Machines to access the café, so if you just feel like having a drink or a small bite to eat (sandwiches and soup and the sort) and don’t mind that it’s potentially crowded, this is a great place to go to.
This all said, I can only conclude that Les Machine de l’îles lives up to its legend IF you are very into steampunk or building mechanical creatures etc. If you’re not (very) into that, I wouldn’t travel to Nantes for it. But if you are, I would agree that it’s a bit of a must see if you can afford the trip. I can totally see how it’s sprung to life from the inspiration of Jules Verne (the Elephant is most obvious, of course), who was born in Nantes, but the creators definitely made it their own.
I look forward to returning for their city in the sky in a few years!