Mini-Europe model cities and gardens: Brussels' daggiest day out

Mini-Europe offers tourists a one-stop tour of the continent's most famous buildings.

"If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium." As I clatter down the steps of the Brussels Metro, I'm thinking of the 1969 movie title that made fun of the breakneck pace of European sightseeing tours.

As it happens, it's Sunday here in the Belgian capital. But I'm in just as much of a rush as the harried cinematic passengers on their cross-European coach trip. I've just arrived from London on the Eurostar train, and only have an hour before admission closes at Mini-Europe.

Yes, Mini-Europe. The Continent might have a worldwide reputation for stylish, urbane design (where would we be without the French word chic?), but instead I'm headed for Belgium's daggiest attraction.

Spread across beautiful landscaped gardens in the city's north are replicas of 350 famous buildings and monuments from across the European Union, recreated at a scale of 1:25.

Thus, the model of London's clock tower that houses Big Ben is four metres high, and the replica Eiffel Tower is as tall as a three-storey building.

As if it really were a strange European Lilliput, Mini-Europe has its own waterways, airport, rail network, and tiny model citizens.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, I have to thread my way from Heysel Metro Station through the other sections of Bruparck, a jumble of recreational facilities built on the site of the 1958 World's Fair, Expo 58. There's a water park, a cinema complex, and numerous eateries in a replica Belgian village known as, well, The Village.

All of this is overshadowed by the giant Atomium. Once described as "Europe's most bizarre building" by CNN, it's a 100-metre-high replica of an atom, containing nine gleaming steel spheres connected by walkways.

It's too late in the day for me to enter the Atomium, but I'm after more pint-sized amusement as the sun slowly lowers towards the horizon.

Mini-Europe has an attractive setting, its gardens spread over gently undulating slopes. But the stars of the show are its replicas, including such well-known structures as Athens' Acropolis, Pisa's Leaning Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe of Paris. Modern architecture is represented as well, including Paris' Pompidou Centre.

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So far, so good. But what makes this exhibition guaranteed fun are all the added details. As if it really were a strange European Lilliput, Mini-Europe has its own waterways, airport, rail network, and tiny model citizens.

And they move. Planes taxi across the miniature airstrips, cargo ships move their loads of tiny containers from port to port, model trains zip along tracks, and a ferris wheel turns. In an exciting moment, the metal plate I'm standing on shakes as an undersized Mount Vesuvius erupts.

These effects are enhanced by buttons on the fences in front of each structure. When pressed, they play music associated with the country being showcased.

Interspersed with the international buildings are models of many Belgian structures, giving me a chance to have an up-close look at the sized-down belfry from Bruges, Leuven's town hall, and the Castle of Veves at Celles.

Dotted among the architecture, model citizens attend concerts and demonstrations. In one detailed scene, dozens of tiny people cluster around a replica of the annual carpet of flowers laid out in Brussels' Grand Place.

The attention to detail is impressive, with the figures each distinctively painted. In one corner of the square, a group holds up a banner supporting the Belgian national football team, the Red Devils. Further on, diminutive residents clamber on top of a replica Berlin Wall as it snakes its way past the Brandenburg Gate, to hammering sounds suggesting its imminent demolition.

A more sombre note is struck by a tableau combining models of several war cemeteries from World War I, a conflict which overwhelmed Belgium a century ago.

Thoughtful notation explains the details of the replicated Belgian, French, British, Italian and German cemeteries, including replicas of emotive statues of grieving parents located at the Vladslo German war cemetery near Diksmuide, Belgium.

The sun will soon set, so it's time for me to go.

Back in the city centre, having dinner at a steakhouse, I'm surrounded by a typically Brussels mix of art nouveau and modernist buildings – but this time at full size.

The steak with green pepper sauce and frites, along with a large beer, is anything but miniature. At any size, however, it's the taste of Belgium.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Railbookers Australia.

THE FACTS

FLY

Emirates (emirates.com) flies to Brussels via Dubai, from $1800 return.

Alternatively, Railbookers (railbookers.com.au) can arrange a rail itinerary to Brussels from London and other European cities.

STAY

Hilton Brussels City, Place Rogier 20, Brussels (hilton.com).

Pantone Hotel, Place Loix 1, Brussels (pantonehotel.com).

EAT

Brussels Grill, Avenue du Boulevard 21, Brussels (brussels-grill.be).

Volle Gas, Place Fernand Cocq 21, Brussels (restaurant-volle-gas-bruxelles.be).

SEE

Mini-Europe, Boulevard du Centenaire 20, Brussels (minieurope.com). Admission €14.50 ($23).

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