Europe In A Day
How to see all the main attractions before the sun goes down
So, at the end of an exhausting trek through the entire continent, comes that great symbol of civilisation: The Parthenon. Perched on top of the Acropolis, its impact is somewhat dulled by the giant water slide in the background, gleeful child screaming down it.
Mercifully, this is not a case of a near-sacred site being desecrated by thoughtless development; the average toddler could probably trample this version of the Greek masterpiece into the ground given a free rein.
That is because, although frighteningly detailed, it’s a bit smaller than the real deal - one 25th of the size, to be precise – and it is in good company. Close by are the diminutive Houses of Parliament, the fun-sized Leaning Tower of Pisa and the pocket Brandenburg Gate. In fact, most of Europe’s iconic buildings can be reached within a short stroll
This, you may correctly surmise, is one of those fabulous vanity projects akin to the owner of an English stately home building an ornate tower in his garden largely because he can. It’s just that in this case, the self-indulgent mad old fool is the European Union.
Mini-Europe in Brussels is a bizarre combination of art showcase, theme park and propaganda stunt. And, in parts, it is a stunt that backfires horribly. Upon entrance, the first task is to dodge a needlessly aggressive turtle. It’s orange and blue, with the EU flag painted on its stomach, and European Union Diktat Number 342, subsection B4 apparently states that you must have your photograph taken with Continental Harmonisation Turtle; even if you don’t particularly want to. Those that don’t desperately wish to gurn for the camera with the garishly-coloured amphibian are effectively wrestled to the floor until they comply, and if that means making young toddlers cry at the sight of their mum being manhandled, so be it. Rules are rules, after all.
Once the guardturtle has been negotiated, Europe is sprawled before you, largely at waist height. That some of it is not is an astonishing indication of how incredibly large some of the continent’s oldest, largest buildings are. For a rough approximation of scale, bear in mind that the average suburban semi would probably come to just below the knee of a medium height adult male if built to these proportions. In Mini-Europe, that standard man will reach the first floor of the Eiffel Tower if stood on tiptoe and perched on the hill next to it. The miniature model is still 13 metres high.
As you wander round, the buildings are arranged by country, an arrangement that has clearly not been thought through properly. The expansion of the European Union has caused all sorts of problems here, as suddenly another ten countries have had to be squeezed in to a park that was already as good as full. So, while the likes of Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Spain receive wee approximations of just about every building in the land, others have a token building each and are crammed into a tiny space. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have been thoughtfully re-united again, while Hungary and Slovenia clearly haven’t got any tourist attractions worth recreating. They have to make do with a signpost in a bush.
The park’s directors and model makers must be having cold sweats at the thought of the EU’s further expansion. What is there in Romania and Bulgaria, and where are we going to put it? Is there room on top of the Stockholm City Hall if we pretend Croatia is a dependency of Sweden?
Then there’s the issue of splashing out for yet more models. They don’t come cheap, that’s for sure, and given the level of detail, that comes as no great surprise. According to the park guide, each model cost an average of EUR75,000 (£50,500) to make, using advanced moulding techniques. Workshops from across the Union were called in to shape the tiny wall decorations and statue bumps required, and it didn’t get done quickly. The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, for example, took 24,000 man hours to complete. The real thing probably didn’t take that long.
Being terribly official, there is a certain pomp to the place. By every country’s models, there is a big button to press, which is very satisfying until you get utterly sick of hearing national anthems. When 25 of them are piping away at a time, the novelty value quickly fades, but it can’t detract from the impressiveness of the work that has gone on here. For example, with Dover, you don’t just get the castle, but the white cliffs and the row of terraced houses at the bottom.
It’s fitting that the whole park sits in the shadow of another fantastic piece of frivolous architecture. The Atomium is the complete opposite of the town halls and places of worship it looms over and dwarfs. Built for the Brussels World Fair in 1958, it is a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. With nine spheres of shining steel, it’s a terrific sight, and makes for fabulous photographs from any angle. It’s so dominant, in fact, that it almost detracts from the models. But that’s about size, and these are about intricacy; different things altogether, and both equally mesmerising.
Mini-Europe (+32 2 474 1311, www.minieurope.com) is in the Bruparck, which is in the Heysel district of Brussels. To get there from Brussels central station, take the 1A Metro, and get off at Heysel. Entry costs EUR12 for adults and EUR9 for children under 12 years old. You can also go into the Atomium (+32 2 475 4777, www.atomium.be) for EUR9, but it’s not worth the money – stick to revelling in it outside.
For more by David Whitley, go to www.happenedhere.com
on 7 November 2006.
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