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Another Reason to Visit Nantes

The Herons’ Tree is the biggest project yet from the creators of Le Grand Éléphant in France

Thursday, June 27, 2019
Grand Elephant and Carousel
Le Grand Éléphant and Carrousel des Mondes Marins. Photo: patrick janicek (CC BY 2.0) from Flickr.

With its giant animatronic elephant and the Jules Verne Museum, Nantes is already one of the top tourist spots for steampunk enthusiasts. But the French city could become an even bigger draw thanks to the planned 2022 opening of L’Arbre aux Hérons (The Herons’ Tree).

L’Arbre aux Hérons might be the most ambitious project to date from the folks behind Les Machines de l’île (The Machines of the Isle of Nantes), home of Le Grand Éléphant and Carrousel des Mondes Marins (Marine Worlds Carousel). The creators envision a massive steel tree, 100 feet (30m) high, with 22 branches and containers for natural vegetation.

Visitors will be able to walk along the branches amid hanging gardens formed from overgrown plants. The structure will resemble a banyan tree, in which aerial roots provide additional support for the branches.

The tree will be populated with oversized mechanical creatures, including two herons nested on top, each capable of carrying up to 12 passengers on aerial rides. Visitors will also be able to ride from branch to branch on a giant inchworm. Other inhabitants will include a giant mechanical ant, hummingbird, and spider. The tree will have a total capacity of 400 people.

The project will occupy a six-acre quarry about a half-mile (800m) from Les Machines de l’île. While it’s under construction, visitors will be able to view its progress from a promenade above the quarry.

The Herons’ Tree

Current Attractions

Les Machines de l’île opened to the public in July 2007, occupying warehouses previously used for the city’s shipbuilding industry. Its first attraction was Le Grand Éléphant, an animatronic pachyderm capable of carrying up to 49 passengers for a 30-minute walk. Made from wood and steel, the elephant is about 40 feet (12m) high and weighs 48 metric tons.

The Carrousel des Mondes Marins, opened in 2012, is a giant carousel described as a “sculpture dedicated to the sea.” Rising about 82 feet (25m), it has three levels, each with a nautically themed merry-go-round. The seabed level on the bottom includes a crab, squid, boxfish, and bathyscaphe. In the middle level, you can ride a lanternfish, manta ray or pirate fish. The surface level on top includes boats, flying fish and jellyfish. Visitors have the option to ride the contraptions or view them with no rides.

The third major attraction is La Galerie des Machines (The Machines Gallery), a facility where visitors can view prototypes of machines that are undergoing development. Here, the creators have been testing elements of The Herons’ Tree, including scale models of a heron and the tree itself. Outside the gallery, they’ve constructed a prototype branch of the tree to confirm safety and durability.

Long Ma

Les Machines de l’île was conceived in 2003 by Pierre Orefice, who oversees the project as director, and François Delaroziere, who serves as art director. The facility is owned by Nantes Métropole, the local regional government. The contraptions are designed and built by La Machine, a street theatre company founded in 1999 by Delaroziere.

La Machine has also worked on other notable projects, including Long Ma Jing Shen, a theatrical production featuring a battle between Long Ma, a towering dragon-horse (above), and a giant spider. It was first shown in Beijing in 2014, followed by performances in France in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, La Machine brought Long Ma and the spider to the streets of downtown Ottawa, Ontario, for a four-day performance that drew an estimated 750,000 people.

Last year, La Machine staged a similar performance in the streets of Toulouse, in southern France, featuring a spider and Asterion, a giant Minotaur. Those creations can now be seen at Halle de la Machine in Toulouse.

Musée Jules Verne

The creators of Les Machines de l’île cite Leonardo da Vinci and Jules Verne as inspirations. Nantes was Verne’s birthplace, and is home to a museum dedicated to the author’s life and work. The collection includes manuscripts and correspondence as well as furniture and other artifacts that belonged to Verne. Much of it was donated by his descendants. It has eight themed rooms, including a recreation of his drawing room.

The collections are managed by the Centre of Vernian Studies, which is part of the Nantes city library.

We’ve compiled a photo gallery with scenes from Les Machines de l’île and Jules Verne Museum as well as the Long Ma event in Ottawa. Check it out below.

Image credits (from top): Rendering of The Herons’ Tree from Les Machines de l’île. Elephant and carousel photo by patrick janicek (CC BY 2.0) from Flickr. Long Ma photo by Flavien Chiron (CC BY-SA 2.0) from Flickr..


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