Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 19, 2009

All aboard to Miniatur Wunderland

Husband Art and I had been so busy up to our May departure that we'd had little time to investigate what places we might visit during the family vacation this year. But one place we decided to see was Hamburg, Germany, where most of Art's mother's family had set sail for America in the mid-19th century.

A bit of serendipity came into play just as we arrived. Friend Bruce in Wichita suggested in an e-mail that if we happened to be near Hamburg, we should consider visiting the model train exhibit in that city. Art checked it out on the Internet and, after reading the description, we decided to go.

While Art enjoys driving and isn't intimidated by large-city traffic, finding a parking place can be a hassle. He decided we'd park on the outskirts and ride the U-bahn into the city. The automated ticket machine required 8.90 Euros - about $11 - for an all-day group ticket on any type of public transport for as many trips as we wanted to take. Figuring out where to go was no problem as all trains lead to the Hauptbahnhof - the main train station - where the public information center is located.

The man behind the desk at the tourist office spoke English as well as Art did. When Art asked where the model train display was, the man pulled out a map, circled its location, handed the map to Art and told him to take the U-3 to the Baumwall station. Less than 15 minutes later, we were walking the two blocks between the station and the water-front building housing the exhibition.

We were surprised we didn't have to wait to get into the exhibit that hosted more than a million people last year and is listed by Guinness as the biggest such display in the world. It isn't really so much a model train display as a miniature world that is laid out on several floors of a rehabilitated warehouse-like building.

The area is divided into geographical zones such as Scandinavia, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, the Alps and yes, Hamburg. One area had a soccer stadium and in another, a rock concert was in progress. Miniature cars moved to intersections, stopped with directional signals flashing and then proceeded as cross traffic cleared. At one location, a "fire" had broken out in a building and fire trucks rushed to the scene. The overhead lighting in the display area cycled from day to evening, night, dawn and back to day again.

The exhibit was the brainchild of twin brothers Frederik and Gerrit Braun. They are 41 now, but have been avid modelers since childhood. They began in 2001 and it has grown every year to become one of Hamburg's prime attractions.

Art, who worked for a real railroad while in college, said the dispatching room would do a modern railroad proud. Men sit at consoles with scenes displayed before them from cameras positioned throughout the display. More than 20 computers are required to control the miniature world.

Art said he had been a bit hesitant at first to suggest we go as he thought he might be the only one interested. But on the U-3 back to the main station, older daughter Mariya was beaming from ear to ear and younger daughter Katie commented she had taken more than 100 photos.

Later, I thought of people who plan their vacations out to the day and some even to the hour. I could never do that. Missing from the thoroughly-planned itinerary is the element of surprise, whether it is something we stumble across on our own or it arrives in an e-mail from back home.

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