It's a blisteringly hot day in the impressively picturesque city of Nantes — an area that is often regarded as the gateway to the southwest of France.
The sun is beating down from its celestial pedestal and is obscured, only occasionally, by the passing shadow of a life-sized mechanical elephant.
While unsuspecting tourists doing a double-take could be forgiven for self-diagnosing a sunstroke hallucination, the Great Elephant is, in fact, probably the most recognisable tourist attraction in all of Nantes.
At 12 metres in height, the mechanical beast slowly trundles its way up and down the quays of the Loire river, trumpeting and squirting water at those who dare get too close.
Watching its progress is memorable enough but, surprisingly, the nearly 50 tonne weight contraption can take up to 50 people on its back as well.
Seeing the Great Elephant was undoubtedly a highlight of my recent trip to the area, but by no means was it the only one.
Meshing the fantastical worlds of Leonardo da Vinci and Jules Verne together, the other mechanical wonders of the Machines de L’ile, while of a smaller and more intricate nature than the Great Elephant, were just as impressive.
A mammoth mechanical spider, with room for four passengers, dominates the entrance to the workshop, while a giant caterpillar, operated by a young child riding its back, clanks slowly around the walls.
In the next space, a larger than life mechanical heron takes a number of passengers, as does a huge, and surprisingly fast, mechanical ant. A few metres down the road, a many-layered, deep sea-themed merry-go-round delights adults and children alike.
Elsewhere in the city, tourists can follow ‘the green line’ trail of Nantes — literally a painted green line on the ground that weaves through the city, accompanied by a free tourist map. This is handy, of course, for finding attractions, but also an invaluable tool for when you inevitably get lost and need to retrace your steps.
In terms of transport, most visitors will easily walk around the city or might choose to get the tram from place to place. Bicycles are also very welcome in this forward-thinking and eco-conscious city.
While Nantes itself is a vibrant hub of creativity and culture, as proven by the plethora of free-to-enter tourist attractions and seemingly never-ending festivals, it’s also the perfect place to travel further afield.
If renting a bicycle or a car in Nantes, the Estuaire art trail to the nearby town of Saint-Nazaire is a must. The 60km journey along the banks of the river Loire includes 30 installations from some of the world’s most famous modern artists.
Even those not particularly ‘into’ art will be hard-pressed not to take selfies in front of a two-storey house half submerged in the river or the fascinating shape of a 120-metre long giant sea snake skeleton.
On my own trip, I decided to do the Estuaire art trail and go a little bit further even, to visit the seaside town of La Baule.
Fresh from the delights of Nantes, where you can drink in the museums, the history, the art and the culture, La Baule was a different, but no less refreshing, experience.
Easily accessible by train or car from Nantes or Saint-Nazaire, La Baule boasts the longest beach in Europe — all 9km of it. As such, all the usual seaside amenities can be found here including kite surfing, wind surfing and jet skiing. You can also find less usual activities, like horseback riding, right on the beach.
Inland, there are many high-quality and surprisingly good value restaurants and bars to choose from, a range of shopping outlets, a daily market, and a to-die-for chocolatier called Christophe Roussel where I bought what was essentially a Ferrero Rocher that was the size of my fist and some truly mouth-watering macaroons.
A massive, and historical, casino caters for those who wouldn’t mind a flutter, and you can also find a world class golf course and tennis club nearby.
Slightly further afield, in a nearby town called Guerande, visitors can take a tour of the salt marshes.
Interestingly, natural salt-working is one of the few agricultural professions that do not use heavy machinery or chemicals. With a clever network of manmade canals, sea water is harvested in shallow pools. In a few days, the water evaporates and the salt in the water crystallises and is harvested using a traditional wooden tool.
While it doesn’t necessarily sound like the most interesting thing to do while in Brittany, touring the salt marshes is interesting and not something to pass up if in the area.
While it sounds a cliché, Nantes, and the surrounding area, absolutely does have it all. I, for one, am counting down the days until I can return.
* A version of this article also appeared in the Evening Echo newspaper.
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