Category Masticating With Mellzah

Mechanical Wonders at Les Machines de l’île

On the banks of the Loire, east of the Atlantic, lies the city of Nantes, the birthplace of surrealism and Jules Verne. France’s largest harbor in the eighteenth century, Nantes experienced deindustrialization when the shipyards closed and the water was diverted, drastically altering the landscape, changing the economy, and creating the Isle of Nantes. In 2007, with the vision of François Delaroziere, it became the Isle of Machines.

François Delaroziere has always had a passion for nature, drawing, and fabrication, and in 1991, began bringing mechanical animals to life with the French theater company Royal de Luxe, also based in Nantes. Together, their work culminated in The Sultan’s Elephant, a 42 ton mechanical elephant designed by Delaroziere that toured the world in 2005-2006. Shortly thereafter, Delaroziere left Royal de Luxe to found his own company, La Machine, and, collaborating with Pierre Orefice, created Les Machines de l’île. Their first work was The Great Elephant, an inexact replica of The Sultan’s Elephant (which was destroyed, reputedly by the theater company because they were sick of doing elephant shows). This 45 ton behemoth is bigger and better than its predecessor, primarily because now it can carry passengers for a ride.

And I was going to ride that ride.

I was determined. The first itinerary I made for this trip was, in retrospect, brutal: too many stops with not enough time in any of them to make the act of going there worthwhile. I discarded it in favor of a plan that involved a bit less sightseeing in France’s exciting train stations, but no matter how the map shifted, my top priority was going to Nantes and riding that elephant. Ultimately, we spent two days in the city and visited the Isle of Machines both days. 

On the first day, we peered into the workshop (where they are currently working on their “city in the sky”, The Heron Tree (l’Arbre aux Hérons), a new attraction with anticipated release in 2022),  walked up into the prototype branch of l’Arbre (where they’re currently figuring out what types of plants will thrive in the substrate they’ve chosen), and, finally, rode that elephant. And that elephant was astounding. Made in François Delaroziere’s typical style, of natural materials when possible, wood and leather, things that age and change and have unique character, and with its mechanical components bare: part of the spectacle, the wonder of seeing how it was made. This duality is the core component of Delaroziere’s work; the natural and manmade fused into one, the ordinary and the fantastic, the wild now servile.  The Grand Elephant looms larger than life, joints flexing, bellowing, and cheekily spraying onlookers with water. 

In a branch of The Heron Tree.

With the ominous sky and the elephant’s trajectory, this looks like one of those photos that ends up on the news because someone inadvertently ended up filming their own attack.

In his blueprint sketchbook, Bestiare, machines et ornements, Delaroziere professed his fondness for gargoyles and other forms of ornamentation “for its ability to introduce relief, to highlight a junction, or to even emphasize certain parts in the architecture.” 

View from the back of Le Grand Elephant.

We went on the last ride of the evening, a 45 minute jaunt from behind their gutted and repurposed warehouse building and through it to its indoor resting place for the evening. The vast majority of The Grand Elephant’s controls are in the operator’s cab but riders could wiggle the tail if they chose. I did so choose. At the pace this elephant moves, even if machines become self-aware and go on a murderous rampage, you should still be safe so long as you can keep up a walk. It would be the Michael Meyers of Terminators. After deboarding, in the time it took to walk to the carousel and back, the skies that had alternately rained and threatened to rain some more suddenly took on gorgeous vibrant pinks and purples as the sun set in the most magical way possible.

WATCH YOUR KIDS, elephant on the loose!

 

We started our second day on the Isle of Machines at the The Carousel of Sea Worlds (Carrousel des Mondes Marins). When we bought our tickets, we were informed that what we were purchasing was a tour only, with no ride, and while I will admit to being a little disappointed because I always want to ride, I am able to let that go, and while riding is a part of this carousel, unlike most carousels, it isn’t nearly everything.

The Carousel of Sea Worlds is the world’s only three-level carousel, each level representing a different part of the ocean: the floor, the depths, and the surface. In total, the carousel has 35 figures, many with interactive elements, so the rider is not only riding, but puppeteering their mount to imitate life as it circles round and round; spectators witnessing a living mechanical ocean as they wait their turn. I didn’t care if I got a turn or not, but I knew if I did, I could handle the role. You see, when I was in high school, all of the students were administered a career aptitude test to help guide our path in the wide world. I was pretty excited to see the results laid bare, the answer to the great what-should-I-be-when-I-grow-up question spelled out plainly, me in a nutshell. When they finally arrived, my top three career options were, as determined by science: mime, puppeteer, horse breeder.

Mime.

Puppeteer.

Horse breeder.

They may as well have stamped “prepare to be poor” across the top. My parents were inexplicably disappointed in my potential vocational range, and I remained fuzzy on whether federal student aid is available for clown college. 

At the Carousel of Sea Worlds, puppeteer doesn’t seem like such a laughable profession, especially with regards to the creation of these intricate and beautiful puppets. As with The Grand Elephant, they are primarily made of natural materials, hand carved and stained wood, color applied in translucent layers to allow the natural characteristics of the wood grain to shine through, steampunk in the nature of their mechanical components: industrial, rugged, weathered. The love and care and attention to form, function, and detail, the elbow grease and ingenuity that went into their creation is evident in every figure and if you are tuned into the kind of labor a work like this takes, it is breathtaking. It brought me to the brink of tears.

 

The Ocean Floor

Our tour began on the ocean floor. At first, it was essentially a private tour as we were the only two present. Our tour guide spoke English and not only walked us through the carousel but through the history of Nantes, the creation of the Isle of Machines, the kind of labor in general it takes to create each figure, and the unique control mechanics of some. He also took us to a fourth, subterranean level that the three enclosed cars descend into: the submarine, the yellow submarine fish, and the nautilus.  As other people joined, our guide told us to pick a mount. I started. “But at the ticket counter they told us we wouldn’t get to ride today?” “Oh, they always say that.”

HOT DAMN.

I selected the squid, and to my delight, not only could I wiggle the tentacles, flutter the fin, and rotate the eyeballs from my seat on the mantle, but I could also release billowing jets of fog into the air, giving it the quality of hazy water, pierced by the headlights installed on some of the figures. Jason didn’t pick one fast enough and was instructed to get into the hermit crab by the tour guide, but accidentally climbed into the second chair of the first crab he saw, the big one with a woman who was clearly not thrilled to have him present as her crab co-captain. There is no language barrier that her look of confusion and irritation could not cross. Once Jason was directed to the correct crab, our ride/puppeteering experience began. Now that I’ve boasted of my natural talents in puppetry, I’m sure you expect me to tell you that I’ve been offered a full time job in Nantes but the fact of the matter is that artistry such as mine is sometimes overlooked and it may take them finding my blog before they reach out and unlock my destiny. 

The Depths

The tour essentially ignored this level but I very much would have liked to ride in the pirate fish, ideally while wearing a pirate costume.

The wings of the manta ray flapped whenever the carousel was in motion, one of few automatic animations not requiring the hand of a puppeteer.

The Surface

On the surface level, we were sent off with another tour group. This guide spoke French exclusively which I do have to expect while in France and not get tetchy about it but it was hard to go from a tour where I felt like I was learning a lot to not being able to understand at all. The important thing is that we got to ride again! This time, Jason and I rode together in a fish-boat. I sat in the front and controlled its fishy head: opening and closing the jaw, moving the eyes, swinging back and forth to make the boat appear it’s swimming. Jason rode in back and manned the fins, horn, and cannon, which was rigged to a drum for a satisfying boom.

Inspired by the six horse chariot sitting over the dome of the main gate of the palace in St. Petersburg.

When the carousel is in motion, the fish “fly”.

Our fishboat.

The view from inside the head of a fishboat.

(Best viewed full screen.)

I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite. They’re all too wonderful. 

As we finished the tour, who should trumpet around the corner but Le Grand Éléphant, depositing riders at Les Mondes Marins and providing one heck of a photo op?

Last but not least, we visited The Gallery of Machines (La Galerie des Machines), where they display prototypes and have their test laboratory. During my visit, they were testing insects, birds, and plants for The Heron Tree.

Spider butt has a face.

Based on the way the spider dropped from the ceiling, I really, really hoped it would pick up the ant in a challenge for the title of “world’s largest claw machine“. 

I love everything about this.

Heron prototype for l’Arbre, when scaled up the plan is for it to be able to carry forty people rather than four.

This venus flytrap looks like it’s out to get revenge on Mario.

What Les Machines has accomplished in twelve years is a testament to the power of imagination, hard work, and creative arts funding. The Heron Tree will be their most ambitious project yet; I can’t wait to see them soar.

The City of Versailles: Horses and Hearses

We left the palace of Versailles hungry enough to eat the contents of two boulangeries and inadvertently did, first walking to Boulangerie Guinon and leaving with an assortment of treats and then upon realizing that there was nowhere to consume them, continued on to Juliette where we ordered more and sat gratefully on their aubergine patio chairs, tearing into a baguette and sipping coffee. My apple turnover was deeply restorative, the laminated pocket both flaky and tender and stuffed with gently sweetened apple butter.

Aux Colonnes, chocolatier. The dragon sculpture and the spiders are entirely chocolate.

I know it’s a pet grooming shop but as an American it is compulsory that I giggle at the word “toilettage” and then spend a brief moment considering what a royal dog toilet might look like; the answer is, of course, exactly like the gardens of Versailles.

After my stomach stopped rumbling, I could hear the complaining in the rest of my body more clearly, and it was telling me to see if our room at the Hotel de France was ready. Blessedly, it was. This goldenrod yellow room boasted a view of the palace of Versailles’ parking lot, currently packed with busloads of modern-day courtiers. The bathroom, with its walls of mirrors, is no doubt intended to evoke the hall of mirrors across the street but the effect was a little more “carnival mirror” when I slipped into the bath with too much me in every conceivable direction.  It also came equipped with a “Shaver 2000”, a hair dryer that looks like a vacuum cleaner and an old-fashioned telephone had a baby*.

To the right, you can see just a bit of the palace of Versailles, a view you only get in the winter.

As with every hotel, I took the opportunity to unload anything I wouldn’t need to carry with me before venturing back out to the National Equestrian Academy of the Palace of Versailles (Académie Équestre Nationale Du Domaine De Versailles) located within the famed stables of Louis XIV, which finished construction in 1682 and became the center for French dressage until 1830 when the riding school closed. At the time of Louis XIV’s death, the king’s stock of saddle horses numbered nearly 700 sourced from throughout Europe and beyond for royal use: Spanish, Arabian, and Persian horses for parades and carrousels, English for hunting, Prussian, Polish, and Danish for driving. Louis XV’s stables contained 1700 head, and toward the end of Louis XVI’s reign, the count topped 2,200, which the horse girl in me says is just about the right number. Today the stable houses 40 horses (judging by appearance, primarily Spanish and Slovenian) and puts on shows by Bartabas the Fierce

The outdoor riding arena; across the street is the palace of Versailles. Several resources I’ve read indicate that François-Étienne de la Bigne distinguished himself somehow by galloping from the grand stables to the palace gates in an hour but I feel like I could easily walk that distance in less time than that so there must be some context I’m missing. If I told my horse to gallop for an hour we’d be three zip codes away. And if it’s “I got my horse to look like he’s galloping but slooooooooooooooow” well congratulations on having the free time it would take to annoy a horse into that kind of pointlessness.

This horse’s resting face cracks me up. I also like the saddle stand next to each stall–très pratique!

A long-reining lesson was in progress in their gorgeous indoor arena during my visit. I wasn’t allowed to take any photographs so you should definitely click this link to see it because it’s basically like Horse Church for equestrians. Honest-to-God chandeliers hang over golden sand footing. The long walls are lined with huge arching mirrors framed in wood. It must be a wonderful place to train and ride, not only due to the beauty, history, and quality of the facility but also because it looks like it would be a low-distraction environment for the horses, due to it being completely enclosed and visitors restricted to one section. Horseback riding is, as best as I can tell, a subtle, constant struggle to capture and keep your horse’s attention, so minimizing the comings and goings of people and vehicles and gusts of wind and killer butterflies has to help toward that end a lot.  

The gallery of coaches is also located at the King’s Great Stables, and was established by Louis-Phillipe I, King of the French (not King of France, an important distinction), who turned the palace and the stables into a museum dedicated “to all the glories of France” in 1831; they have now been museums longer than they were the possessions of royalty. Coaches were designed to make an impression on the viewer and said much about the status of the persons contained therein. Private coaches were obviously more prestigious than rentals. The only limits on the ornamentation of a private coach were those of the tastes and pocketbook of the purchaser, and, given the importance of status and rank in French court society, always with an eye toward having a finer coach than their lessers. Think carved wheels, decorative sculpture, better upholstery, matched horses outfitted in more elaborate harnesses, gilding, muralwork. Maybe even a more attractive driver? Or maybe just one with a better butt? I don’t know, records of that kind of thing are rather sparse.

Who is going to make me some reproduction stirrup irons?

These highly decorative wooden court sleds were drawn by horses wearing studded shoes and harnesses embroidered with silver bells and were enjoyed by all of the Louis of Versailles. Louis XV was particularly noted for how quickly he would race these sleds around the palace grounds and subsequently no one wanted to ride with him which killed the practice until Marie Antoinette had them brought out of storage. The jaguar is my favorite and I’m trying to figure out how to make the concept work for me in a place that is essentially snow-free save for rare occasions when I’d need the sled just to get to my horse.

No matter how many horses are in front of the coach, only the two closest to it bear the load; the others are for show: look at all the money I have that I can afford to keep and feed and use this many matched, impeccably groomed and outfitted horses for no reason.

Coronation coach, started by Louis XVIII but abandoned quickly for political reasons. Charles X began the project anew for his coronation in 1825, and as a return to  kingly grandeur post-Revolution. He died in exile.

Louis XVIII’s funeral hearse. Note the contrast to the coronation coach on the crown: instead of blaring angelic trumpets in celebration, triumph, and pronouncement of royal might,  cherubs bear lowered torches that have extinguished, the gold of the king’s reign in the sun given way to the white gold of the moon. The only surviving royal funeral coach, for the last royal funeral in France.

Boeuf a la mode is a French dish made by braising beef with red wine, vegetables, and ice cream

We had seen Le Boeuf A La Mode earlier in the day and returned later in the afternoon for an espresso and a snack but for some reason could not order a snack that had something to do with the incomprehensible hours French people eat, which never seemed to coincide with when I was hungry. From my perspective, the sole employee/proprietor didn’t seem to be thrilled to have us there as his sole customers and I felt uncomfortable the entire time. I paid the bill in cash and was shortchanged by several euros and to this day I believe this was done deliberately because this dude knew I wasn’t super familiar with the currency and probably wouldn’t kick up a fuss even if I was…and he was right, because I left that restaurant without a peep.

However, I discussed this visit with Jason and was surprised to find he had a completely different experience–he didn’t feel any “get out” vibe from the server and he chalked up the shortchanging to a mistake or, perhaps, a practical joke. A what?! I had to dig in–what sort of person did he think would deliberately shortchange someone as a joke? “Well, maybe he was waiting for you to say something so he could be like ‘You got me!'” which honestly was so outside of the realm of anything I would even remotely consider as likely human behavior that I was temporarily stunned into silence.

It struck me that although we were not currently arguing, there were a few components here of some of the aspects of conversing with my husband which drive me most insane and spiral out into the most arguments–I will want to talk about practicals and probables and he will treat wild possibilities as though they are equally feasible. As someone who is professionally opinionated, I like definitives; Jason lives in a world of ambiguity–if you don’t know someone, you cannot ascribe intention to their actions. I’m sure it’s one of the things he finds equally confounding about me, my need to circle back around and around and fine-tune what exactly something is. So because that’s what I do, I pressed him: out of all of the reasons I could have been shortchanged, which did he feel was the most probable? “I’m thinking 40% mistake, 30% malice, the rest other.” If there’s even a 10% chance that digging into this ultimately meaningless cafe visit helps us recognize and break out of these argument patterns, being fleeced a few euros, however it happened, was a bargain compared to therapy.

Jason installed this translation app on his phone and the results always look like it took the original text hostage for ransom. iF YoU wanT To sEe yOur ToileT cAVE aGaiN BRiNg 295.000€ to thIS aDDRESs. No POlicE.
 

We had dinner at the restaurant most convenient to the hotel, so convenient that there was a passage into it directly from the hotel, the Taverne de Maître Kanter, which has since closed. As they were reputable for traditional food, Jason and I went for it, ordering creamy pâté, rich garlicky escargots, crisp duck confit with potatoes, and steak frites, all washed down with a rich bordeaux. I am not a fan of pâté, but I enjoyed the escargots very much; I enjoy anything that has been drowned in a vat of butter and garlic. I would probably eat and enjoy a rat if it had taken a garlic butter bath first and Alain Ducasse told me it was OK.  

 
 

*Electing to backpack meant that trade-offs had to be made to compensate for the amount of space we had versus the amount of things we wanted to bring and take home, and this meant that a few hotel sinks along the way played host to our socks and underwear soaking with a packet of portable detergent. This system turned out to be far from perfect as the “quick dry” socks may have been fast compared to the average sock drying time, but in terms of the time an average person has their socks off in a hotel room, their benefits were indiscernible. I spent many mornings in France using the Shaver 2000 or its equivalent to blow hot air through my unmentionables which left every room smelling like humid underwear. Like I said, trade-offs.

Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland

Jason and I flew to London on yet another screaming deal from IcelandAir. The plan was to arrive hungry, ready to hit the Borough Market, but on our flight, Jason broke down and ordered the admittedly delicious-looking pizza and hummus as a snack. And while I know that jokes about the quality of airline food had their time in 1991, what the flight attendant delivered to his seat in the name of each of those foods is, if not a violation of the Geneva Convention, at the very least, a crime against humanity’s tastebuds. The hummus was dry and crumbly and I refuse to call to that odd, sweaty cheese tart “pizza”. The pizza in the photograph and the congealed food item that arrived look like they were made on different planets. It’s like it was made by someone who had only ever read about pizza in an illustrationless book but was intrigued by the concept.

Jason still ate some of it, though. And later, when we were waiting in line at Heathrow customs to see one of the two customs agents who had bothered to show up for work that day, and I was getting hungrier and hungrier…did you think I was going to say I wished I had eaten some, too? Hell no! I thought back on that hockey puck of crust and coagulated dairy patty and added IcelandAir to the list of entities who have deeply betrayed me.

We were spending the night at The Morton Hotel in Bloomsbury, just across Russell Square from The British Museum. The Russell Square tube station exit involves cramming oneself onto an elevator with a lot of other people and a staircase with a stern sign at its base. “This staircase has 175 steps (equivalent to 15 floors) Do not use except in an emergency”. Well, my emergency that day was that I didn’t want to ride in an elevator with an entire tube carriage’s worth of people, and I started heaving myself up the stairs. I made it, but paid for it with the deep, racking cough of the consummate non-runner and someone who definitely hasn’t climbed fifteen continuous flights of stairs in a good long while. That cough continued through check-in at the hotel, and I can only assume that they thought I was bringing a new plague to their doorstep but were polite enough to wait to talk about it until I was out of earshot.

As this was a backpacking trip, I was glad of the opportunity to stop at the hotel and strip out all unnecessary items from my bag to lighten the load. In addition to my camera, I’d managed to fit everything I needed to keep myself clean and presentable-ish for a week in my travel backpack with a little room to spare, but even travel sized everything and the bare minimum of clothes and paper took on what felt like a mighty mass when carried on my shoulders, especially when said carriage involves fifteen flights of stairs for some reason. But I didn’t need spare underwear or the noise-canceling headphones I’m too spoiled to travel without for the rest of the day’s activities: the aforementioned sandwich-eating and Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park.

My sandwich at Roast Hog was perfect (again), greasy, crunchy, chewy and absolutely restorative. Here’s the photo from last time, I was too busy eating to take another.

Afterward we rode the tube to the vicinity of Hyde Park and its spectacular Winter Wonderland, host to 2.5 million visitors annually, and based on the number of prominent warning signs throughout the grounds, a fair portion of those visitors are in good standing with the Pickpockets’ Guild.

We were there primarily to meet some friends at the ice bar but since we were going to be there, I prebooked tickets for us at the Magical Ice Kingdom presents: The Secret Forest.  We were supposed to arrive 10 minutes prior to our appointed time, which was rapidly approaching, so after we got through the security line, we hustled back through nearly the entirety of the grounds so as not to be late and forfeit our sole opportunity to experience to this hotly-anticipated attraction. Their website really emphasized the importance of prebooking tickets, and particularly when I’m planning an international trip, I take website recommendations very seriously. Very seriously. So I created an account, I bought those tickets, and when I say “we hustled back” I mean that I walked so fast that I could’ve set a small fire between my thighs and Jason had no choice but to keep up.  And when I arrived, ashen-faced and distraught and two minutes late, hoping they’d still admit us, I realized the Winter Wonderland website may have oversold the public’s keen desire to view ice sculptures. And while purchasing tickets in advance may indeed be necessary during the high periods, on a Monday at 4pm, not so much. In wintry terms, the crowd was more “scattered snowflakes” than “snowpocalypse”. However, that may just be the genius of a perfectly timed ticketing system working precisely as it should. 

One enters The Secret Forest through a door underneath a sign clearly marked “Secret Forest” so…the secret’s out. The snow and ice sculptures contained therein were in turns realistic and whimsical, and they had some fun photo opportunities, including the ability to photograph yourself as half ice-faun or half ice-centaur and on a throne of ice surrounded by icy battle unicorns. The ice throne was obviously my favorite, and it’s the kind of thing where I’d be tempted to show up with a costume if not for being 4700 miles from home and constrained by what I could fit in a backpack. Speaking of the backpack, I learned that one does not slide particularly well down an ice slide while wearing one. It was day one, and my resentment against this backpack was already growing.

After hanging out in a refrigerated warehouse for a while, then scooting down a ramp of ice like a dog across carpet in front of some British teenagers offering suggestions about my technique, I was more than ready to be somewhere warm with a similarly warm beverage. We settled on the Arctic Lodge Bar, an open rectangle with a bar, a series of benches, and roaring woodfires. My wish for a warm place to drink a warm drink was granted; I thought the condition of “breathable air that doesn’t leave you with the start of a fine smoke ring” was implied, but alas. The smoke would have driven me out eventually but the only seats in the house were directly across from a couple engaged in some vigorous displays of public affection and the layout of the seats were such that there was nowhere to look to as to avoid knowing the finger points of a stranger’s kissing technique, so that got me out first because I am evidently a prudish American. 

Also because there was plenty of stuff I wanted to see before we went to the ice bar, and I am referring in particular to the giant man looming over the Bavarian village that I had noted from a distance. I spent some time watching this enormous puppet do its thing, and finally concluded that it was the dirty, independently-moving fingers that were the creepiest, and not the the little shudder of flesh under its chin when it spoke, but it was a close thing. 

This was Jason’s third hot chocolate or thereabouts and the glee is starting to kick in.

Jason and I were both drawn to Dr. Archibald, Master of Time, and his vaguely threatening steampunk owl looming over the midway. It was a combination physical and virtual reality ride, and either one of us would independently admit to this day that we would have rather kept the admittance token as a souvenir. The ride itself is fine (it’s not my favorite thing to put VR headsets over my glasses, and I like having a ride attendant jam one over them far less) but that token is spectacular and handing it back after a few steps felt wrong. 

We met our friends Sean and Colleen outside the ice bar, where we were issued parkas and (damp) gloves. This “sub zero” ice bar sounds on the edge of perilous until I remember that -10°C is equivalent to 14°F, or vastly warmer than most winter mornings I spent waiting for the school bus in a hooded sweatshirt in Wisconsin. The gimmick of the ice bar is fun for a bit but after you’ve sat on an ice chair and drink from your awkwardly thick ice cup, you’ve fairly well plumbed its depths. I did have a wonderful time catching up with them both and hearing about their adventures over the past few months, like hiking Hadrian’s Wall–the kind of action-adventure travel that probably doesn’t begin with someone hacking their lungs out after climbing fifteen flights of stairs.