On a small island in the Loire River in the city of Nantes, France, a trumpeting mechanical elephant sprays water from its trunk. The curious creature carries 50 passengers at a time, who survey former shipyards from balconies four stories up, as well as the internal gears that keep its giant legs lumbering. It’s the star attraction of Nantes’s Les Machines de L’Île theme park, which has commandeered the once industrial Île de Nantes with a fantasy-land of inventions inspired by native son Jules Verne and the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci. Sci-fi writer Verne’s futuristic legacy has contributed to his hometown’s reign as European Green Capital in 2013. To spread goodwill for plant-powered energy, an eight-tonne mechanised sculpture called “Aéroflorale II” spent last year traversing the Continent with its creators. Outfitted with pinwheeling gadgets to suggest a flying greenhouse, the contraption shares the good news of Nantes, a tapestry of parks, gardens, wetlands, and bicycle lanes. Pervaded by a spirit of creativity, the city has dreamed up a range of resourceful ideas—from audio tours and art walks to a 15th-century castle turned history museum and a warehouse converted into a hammam-style steamroom.
Appeared in the February 2014 issue as “Popular Mechanics in Western France”.