Once upon a time in a land far, far away,there lived a mythical creature. It was as tall as a century-old banyan tree, its skin the colour of mud. When it moved – on limbs as stout as Gothic columns – it looked like a cathedral in motion, dwarfing everything in its vicinity, including the thousands of men, women and children who flocked from all over the world to witness the spectacle.

In the creature’s belly, there was a room the size of a maharaja’s chamber, with doors, windows and balconies and a spiral staircase leading to a terrace. Many people – young and old – would climb the stairs to the top of the beast and go for a ride, the breeze in their hair, a setting sun on one horizon, a rising moon on the other…

Now, what if I tell you this is not a fairytale? That this is not a land far, far away or a story set once upon a time? What if I tell you I am on top of a mechanised elephant in a French town not far from Paris?

If Alice’s Wonderland exists on Earth, this is it – the city of Nantes, a two-hour train journey from the French capital, where an artistic community has created a gigantic pachyderm that lumbers through the streets every day. Made of steel and wrinkled wood and driven by a 450-horsepower motor, it announces its presence every now and then with a shrill trumpet. Occasionally, its snaking trunk – as long as the mast of a ship – even sprays water at bemused children rambling around it.

But of all the features, its eyelashes are the most intriguing – lush like a Disney princess’s, they fall and rise every now and then, hiding and revealing emerald-green eyes, shamelessly glinting in the sun.

Today, about four-dozen people have paid 8.50 ($14) for the thrill of the ride – and each is as bemused as I am. This is France. The land of Marie Antoinette and Mona Lisa. Of Champagne and châteaux. What in god’s name is a four-storey-high mechanical elephant doing on its streets? It turns out that it’s saving a city from ruin. That’s what it’s doing.

On a tour of the city later that day, as clouds drain colour from the sun-warmed buildings around us, local tourism official Xavier Theret tells me of a time, in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Nantes – on the banks of the Loire and at the confluence of two other rivers (Erdre and Sèvre Nantaise) – was France’s wealthiest port city.

But as boats got bigger and bigger in the 20th century, the banks of the Loire got shallower and shallower, until it became impossible to launch ships from its shores. One by one, shipbuilders and sea captains left the city, abandoning the soaring shipyards. “It was a devastating time; very, very depressing,” says Theret. “By the 1980s, there was nothing left of Nantes. There was no employment, no people, no life – just empty mansions and gloom.”

But then came Jean-Marc Ayrault, a visionary man who would go on to become the prime minister of France from 2012 to 2014. As the new mayor of Nantes in 1989, Ayrault knew something had to be done. His decaying industrial city had shipyard space to burn. What he needed was an industry that was short of it. Enter Royal de Luxe, the famous French street-theatre company.

From its base in Toulouse, in southern France, Royal de Luxe had built a thriving business making puppets the size of apartment blocks and hauling them to cities in France, Italy and Germany to mount street-theatre productions. The shows would attract thousands and turn historic town squares into amphitheatres.

What Royal de Luxe didn’t have enough of in Toulouse, however, was space to house its growing gaggle of giant marionettes. So, like the Pied Piper, Ayrault led the entire entourage – designers and builders, actors and directors, puppets and puppeteers – from Toulouse to Nantes. And so began the city’s rebirth. Since then, every year or so, the company has unleashed its larger-than-life marionettes on the streets of Nantes, drawing tourists from all over the world.

It was only more recently, though, that the biggest star of Nantes arrived. Pierre Orefice and François Delarozière, who previously worked for Royal de Luxe, created Le Grand Éléphant in 2007 as part of their Machines de L’île project. Unlike Royal de Luxe’s seasonal marionettes, the elephant is a permanent attraction. “There were 200,000 visitors to Nantes when the elephant was first launched,” says Orefice. “Last year there were 600,000.” “And the number is constantly rising,” adds Theret. “Suddenly there’s life here – people and traffic and noise.”

While the elephant and the Royal de Luxe shows are the biggest drawcards of Nantes, there’s wonder at every turn here. A single green line painted on the road winds its way through the streets in a 16-kilometre loop, leading you to the city’s top attractions – from outdoor sculptures in town squares to after-dark light installations on the canals.

Spend your morning at Jardin des Plantes (jardins.nantes.fr), a botanic garden that features wildlife-shaped topiaries. The sleeping chick with a yellow beak and bamboo sticks for legs (page 126) is a crowd-puller.

Then stop in at the Nantes Cathedral, where construction began in 1434 but wasn’t completed until 1891, for architecture as imposing as that of Paris’s Notre-Dame (without the queues). Or explore the 15th-century riverside castle Château des ducs de Bretagne (chateaunantes.fr).

Whatever you do, don’t miss Tour Bretagne. Standing 32 storeys high, it’s the ugliest building in Nantes – a dark steel-and-glass anomaly amid the cobblestoned streets and medieval architecture. But look past all that and make your way to top-floor bar

Le Nid, which takes the city’s penchant for wildlife to a whole new level. There’s a couch here in the shape of an enormous white stork-like bird and ottomans with yolk-yellow cushions that resemble cracked-open eggs. Enjoy a drink inside then head to the wraparound deck for 360-degree views of Nantes, complete with the sound of church bells and, on a clear day, glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean in the far distance.

And if you really squint your eyes, beyond the church spires and across the river, you might even see that “mythical creature” – the elephant of Nantes – doing what it does best… saving the city from ruin, one lumbering step at a time.  


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