Monday, 25 August 2008

Europe in a day – Mini-Europe in Brussels, Belgium

Mini-Europe in Brussels, Belgium is the perfect cheat’s tour of the greatest buildings on the European continent. And a very bizarre theme park.

The Parthenon... but not in Athens?
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.

Houses of Parliament, Leaning Tower of Pisa and Brandenburg Gate
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.

Vanity project
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, Belgium is a bizarre combination of art showcase, theme park and propaganda stunt.

Europe at waist-height
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.

Expansion of the European Union
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, whilst 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, whilst Hungary and Slovenia clearly haven’t got any tourist attractions worth recreating. They have to make do with a signpost in a bush.

Cost of models
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 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.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
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.

Getting to Mini-Europe in Brussels, Belgium

Nearest international airport: Brussels

Using public transport: If coming to Brussels by train, get off at Brussels Central, then take the 1A Metro service and disembark at Heysel.

More information: Mini-Europe

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