Published in The Australian Newspaper, Travel and Indulgence, June 2018

Photo credit: Ricky French

One of the most surprising things about Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland – the world’s largest model railway, under permanent construction by self-confessed nerds for the last eighteen years – is how much sex is going on.

Behind the bushes in Austria, on a balcony of an apartment on the Amalfi Coast, beside the Rocky Mountains or a glowing fireplace in a snow-covered hut in Scandinavia no less than forty couples are going about their raunchy business, some in positions surely only a German mind could think of immortalising in miniscule model form. In 2017 alone 1.4 million visitors were unwitting voyeurs, although you could quite easily scrutinize the entire 1490 square metre exhibit and not notice a single amorous couple among the 260,000 figures, such is the level of detail on display.

Consisting of nine layout sections, including Middle Germany, Austria, Hamburg, Switzerland, Scandinavia, America, Italy and the imaginary region of Knuffingen, Miniatur Wunderland is the passion of twin brothers Frederik and Gerrit Braun, who opened the doors in 2001. Since then over 15 million people have visited. For the last two years it has been voted most popular tourist attraction in Germany in a survey run by the German National Tourist Board, and the waiting time to get in sometimes exceeds two hours.

The term “model railway” is completely inadequate. Miniatur Wunderland is a diorama of supreme detail and breathtaking beauty. It’s a faithful reproduction of all facets of human endeavour coupled with inspired imagination, a visual experience nothing short of overwhelming, with a port with tides and cruise ships that dock, fire engines that race to burning buildings, Mount Vesuvius erupting and the space shuttle launching. Night falls every fifteen minutes and the scenes are set alive by 390,000 lights.

After a while you tend not to notice the trains slicing their way through the exquisitely sculpted landscapes, but they’re still essential. You need the movement. Their steady whirring and clicking provides a comforting timbre, like rain on tin, and the tunnels and bridges that link them to other sections give a natural segue to your travels through the displays, literally carrying your train of thought. A transparent, trans-Atlantic tunnel connects Europe to America, part of the 15 kilometres of track that carry over a thousand trains and ten thousand rail cars through the fantasy lands.

Fantastic as it might be, the display is steeped in reality and part of its charm is how accurately it reflects the world we see every day, but from different angle. You are granted the gift of perspective, hovering above as if in a drone. To watch a young child who has only ever been dwarfed by the world go silent as she suddenly sees cities shrunken down below them is startling. Grown men stand over the airport and stare as a tiny air-bridge moves into precise position at the door of a recently arrived A380 (yes, planes actually take off and land at the replica of Hamburg Airport) and shake their head in wonder, as if it’s the most miraculous thing they’ve ever seen.

The humour instilled in the installations gives us licence to laugh at ourselves, our countless trivial failings mocked by tiny plastic figures. Like the way we step out of a portaloo trailing toilet paper from our shoe, put our jumper on backwards or accidently upend a bench seat. The whole gamut of our strange existence is painstakingly recreated; the humdrum of life juxtaposed with the absurdity of it. We’re shown how we manipulate our planet; build cities, tame landscapes, entertain ourselves, how we make our home functional and beautiful. You’ve never seen it like this.

Some model train enthusiasts build their train set then add a background. Nothing at Miniatur Wunderland is background. The achievement of detail and the commitment to perfection, won through 17 years, 300 employees and nearly 800,000 working hours, is what makes this place so special, such a work of art. As you wander through the places so recognisable as the planet you call home, you think to yourself: I could live here.

Read the story online here