Squirrelled away up in the waterfront warehouses of Hamburg’s 19th century Speicherstadt is the eighth wonder of the world.
Miniatur Wunderland is a permanent exhibition that attracts over a million visitors a year, matching Berlin’s Pergamon Museum or Mad King Ludwig’s castle at Neuschwanstein. As these numbers suggest, it is far more than just a giant train set. Its setting, in aristocratic brick warehouses in Hamburg’s old harbour, is well chosen, not least because this whole area of Hamburg is being redeveloped into a German version of London’s Docklands, spearheaded by a hugely ambitious cultural centre called the Elbephilharmonie, designed in the shape of a wave.
The Speicherstadt is not far from the new cruise ship terminal, so it is appropriate the Miniatur Wunderland’s miniaturised landscapes are very international, arranged continent by continent. They have been created with an imagination and an attention to detail that will outstrip the expectations of even the most geeky, anoraky, trainspottery kid, as well as bring out the inner child in the most grumpy adult.
The trains are an excuse for an extravaganza of story-telling
But Miniatur Wunderland is not really about trains, all 800 of them. Essentially, the trains are just an excuse for an extravaganza of story-telling, and the beauty is in the accurate representation of reality, and in the quirky detail. Blink and you’d miss the couple making love in the middle of a field of sunflowers. Blink again and you’d miss another couple making out in the Alps, this time being photographed by a voyeur while another man makes away with their underclothes. And then there’s the Red Bull diving team, hurling themselves off the model Speicherstadt itself, a world within a world.
The German section is understandably strong, but so also are the Swiss, the Scandinavian and the American, along with their most iconic landscapes, such as the Matterhorn and the Grand Canyon. And then there are the push-buttons. The one that makes the drinkers in a beer garden clink glasses, the one that works the lights on a fire engine attending a hole in the dyke near Amsterdam and another one that sets off a shark attack in underwater Florida. And so on.
Wunderland has its own diurnal rhythm. Stage lighting produces dusk, then night, then dawn, and 300,000 tiny bulbs light up offices, houses, vehicles (the computer-controlled even have working brake lights), ships and station platforms.
Meanwhile the traffic moves down the roads, aircraft come and go from the airport, the ships move round the harbours and the trains keep their own mysterious timetable. It really is like spectating on a parallel universe. Captivating stuff.