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LES ECHOS

French 'Industrial Tourism': Swapping The Chateaux For Shipyards

The Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard in the French port of Saint Nazaire on the Atlantic Coast has opened its doors to the public. It is just one of a growing number of French industrial sites catering to a new kind of tourism.

Queen Mary 2 near the port of Saint Nazaire
Queen Mary 2 near the port of Saint Nazaire
François Bostnavaron

SAINT NAZAIRE - Stéphanie Obadia and Romain Amousso seem a little out of place in this coach full of elderly sightseers heading for the famous Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard in this industrial port on France's Atlantic Coast. This 30–something Parisian couple were staying up the road in the swanky beach resort of La Baule for a friend's wedding.

"We're not particularly into industrial tourism," says Obadia. "But we are very curious by nature. And a friend had recommended it."

The people on the coach hail from across France as well as further afield. A Polish couple explains in halting French that they come from Gdansk, where the husband used to work at a shipyard.

The visit will last two hours. The possibility of industrial tourists turning into industrial spies is taken very seriously, so our guide Stéphanie Allard lays down the rules: "We will get off the coach only twice." It seems that a photographic memory would also come in handy, since photographs are banned altogether. Those in possession of a Smartphone or James Bond wannabes could still flout the rule and discreetly snap the installation.

Past the checkpoint, the coach enters into this vast factory town sprawling over 270 acres and counting a total of 22 workshops. Workers get around by bicycle on streets named after passenger ships such as the France or the huge oil tanker Batillus, which was christened in 1976.

First stop: the warehouse housing steel plates that will one day be used to make the hulls of future transatlantic liners or battleships. Measuring nearly 12 meters (40 feet) in length, two meters (6.5 feet) in width and about three centimeters (1.2 inches) thick, these sheets hit the scales at 5.5 tons each and can only be transported by an overhead crane equipped with a huge electro-magnet.

Our coach sets off again, for the shipyard's armament basin, or fitting out basin. It is well named because it is currently home to the helicopter carrier Dixmude, due to take to the sea in a few days to return to the French military port of Toulon.

"Does anyone know why it's called an armament's basin in French?"asks the guide. A few of us offer explanations but we can only muster vague and sketchy notions. "Because it's where they used to fit on the cannons!" Allard reveals, before explaining that today it is used for the final fitting out of a ship.

Our coach sets off again. Next stop: the "Plate Steel Shop 2000" baptized as such way back in 1968. This is our first authorized sortie out of the coach. Everyone rushes out, to grab headphones and safety helmets, transforming ourselves -- sort of -- from industrial tourists to factory workers. It is in this huge workshop that they weld together the initial constituent parts and flat panels of a ship. "Don't look directly at the welders' our guide reminds us, insisting on the damaging effect on the eye of the dazzling glare of electric arc welding.

Back on the bus, we hand back our helmets, somewhat reluctantly. Then it's off for the final stop, the shipyard's construction berth. Awe-inspiring for its sheer size, measuring some 470 meters (1550 feet) in length, the berth is all the more impressive at the moment because of the presence of the MSC Divina, a floating palace owned by the Italian ship company MSC. This cruise liner, which is due for delivery in 2012, is 330 meters (1089 feet) long and 38 meters (125 feet) wide. We are all magnetized by this steel monster, which when it is completed will be able to carry 3,950 passengers in 1,700 cabins.

Our group is even more fascinated by an explanation on the functioning of the shipyard's deep basin, the last stop for a vessel before the outfitting berth. Since it would be impossible for any kind of frame-like structure or lifting equipment to budge sea vessels that can weigh between 55 and 165 tons, there is only one solution: the gates are opened to let the sea in so the vessels can float.

"Are there any more questions?" the guide asks. A few hands go up. "How much does a ship like this cost?" asks one visitor. "Between 300-500 million euros," the young woman answers. The Queen Mary 2, she says, which was launched at the end of 2003, cost an eye-watering 863 million euros. "How long does it take to build one of these ships?" asks another sightseer. "Between one and three years, depending on whether it is a prototype or one of a series," Allard explains.

The two-hour visit passes quickly. The coach takes us back to the tourist office, situated at the heart of an enormous naval submarine base built by the Germans during World War II. As we get off, it is clear that everyone thinks the 12 euros they paid for their ticket is money well spent. "What if we went to visit the Airbus factory next?" one man suggests to his wife.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - un drole de zebre

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