That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs from Across the Pond
In the dirty port town of Nantes, France we find two of the most whimsical, magical, and mechanical places I’ve ever been. On a Friday, we arrive by train around two in the afternoon and have several hours to wile away before we can check into our apartment. The Nantes Cathedral is only a mile or more from the train station and that’s where we’re headed when we stumble upon Claude Ponti’s Le Jardin Déjante.
On our entry, we’re greeted by the Cloche Pots which are pot chimes that can be made to sing by the turning of a wheel. Jesse turns the wheel and I take pictures while we listen to the singing, chiming ceramic pots.
Surrounded on all sides by a wrought iron gate, and filled so full of grass and trees we forget there’s another world outside, the garden stretches out for miles, maybe, and has a building with tropical plants, a glass-enclosed cart filled with cacti, a bed full of flowers from all over the world, and trees not native to France. With statues, fountains, small forests, rows of blooming flowers, ponds and streams, and delighted children we find ourselves to be quite delighted too. As we make our way down the lane, underneath the giant park bench with giant books and a giant straw hat set on the bench as if left there while the residence giant went to go make some tea, we find a leafy green alcove with funny, painted mushroom heads, and more strangely, the sound of laughter coming from the leaves. La Polymorphiae exactisante it’s called. While disconcerting, a bit fairy, bordering the hysterical, and completely charming, the laughter is also contagious.
Laughing some ourselves, we carry on and from there see the giant, sleeping shrubbery bear. The giant, grinning shrubbery turtle with its shell of red flowers.
Taking a moment to sit on a convenient bench (not a giant one), we shrug our backpacks off our shoulders to catch a break and watch children feed bread to the birds by the lake.
Here, we can touch nature and creativity, whimsy and childishness. It’s exactly the welcome we would have wished for.
We chose to come to Nantes, birthplace of Jules Verne, because of the Isle of the Machines, a place inspired by Jules Verne’s inventiveness, creativity, writing proliferation, and subsequent fame, and which I’d discovered on the internet while coming up with options for our itinerary. And which once we knew about it, we could hardly pass up the chance to visit ourselves.
The next day, after a leisurely morning (on which we make French Press coffee in France!) we head across the road to Les Machines de L’ile.
We stand in line for our tickets and then venture into the side gallery. We’ve been told to pay attention to the time for our Giant Elephant ride starts at 1:00 and the gallery’s ticket does not allow reentry.
The moment we walk through the doors, we’re enchanted by the strange and wonderful.
Because the signs and the tour we eavesdrop upon are in French, I only catch a little bit here and there. But it’s enough. The gallery presents a world of mechanical and natural elements. It proposes a giant tree for people to live on. Transportation from the ground to the top of the tree and back down again is made by ascensors and descensors. The models in this room work and the tour guides elicit volunteers from the crowd to sit in the chairs and rise and descend.
Longer travel would be possible by stork. Branch to branch travel by inchworm. Ground travel by mechanized ant.
The idea is creative and beautifully made. All elements of this dream world have been intricately designed, most likely handcrafted, and delightfully painted.
After somewhat reluctantly leaving the gallery, we make it across the park in time to catch our ride on the Giant Elephant. At a snail’s pace it rolls across the Isle, spraying mist from its trunk, bellowing, shaking its giant head, wagging its giant ears, and carrying us all along to our point of disembarkment.
A boy up with us on the elephant calls down to his father and his still infant brother, “Papa! Augustine!” trying to keep their attention the entire trip. When the elephant lets out a wave of misty water, the boy calls down to his father to see if he’d gotten wet. The father pretends to wipe moisture from his face and the boy is sufficiently thrilled.
At some point in the day, one of says, Jesse or I, “It’s wonderful to think that there are people in the world who make things like this. Who dream up things like this. That see such beauty and possibility.”
For Nantes is the dream of an even more imaginative place. One where the machines decorate the parks, the plazas, and the street corners. Where magical gardens stretch between the tramway lines. Where grownups can remember what it was to be child again.
We stay a short time, only a day and a half, but it’s a time whose enchantment I’ll not forget.
For Nantes is imagination and the spectacular dream of what could be, what might be. What can be.