You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2012.


Until I got my bright red, ten-speed Raleigh bicycle, the best present I received as a child was a Lionel electric train. I still remember the smell of the oil, the sound the engine made as it came into contact with the tracks, the hum of the transformer, the physical heft of the black steam engine in my young hands, like a small sack of silver dollars. I spent hours setting up the layout and seeing how fast I could make the train go without sending it off the tracks.

My generation may have been one of the last to be absolutely mesmerized by the electric train, but from two visits to Miniature Wonderland in Hamburg, it is evident that the magic has not completely gone away. The attraction is located on three floors of one of the wonderful old brick warehouse buildings called Speicherstadt, situated on two islands adjacent to the city center. The huge brick warehouses were constructed as something like architectural machines, designed to make the most of Hamburg’s designation as a Free Port.

20120126-P1261975.jpg

While the models of the trains, boats, planes, cars, fire engines, mountains, lakes and building may be small, the layout itself is enormous. No wonder it is the biggest tourist attraction in Hamburg. During my visits, there were kids of all ages gawking at the multi-story layout that was, as a Hollywood publicist might say, twelve years in the making. This is the world’s largest computer-controlled model railway, covering 14,000 square feet, or 1300 square meters. There are 930 trains pulling countless carriages along eight miles, or thirteen kilometers of tracks. But it is the landscape, the lighting, the miniature scenarios, the staggering imagination and attention to detail that is so enchanting.

20120209-P1000703.jpg

The trains are a rhythmic backdrop to a world in motion. Transport trucks lumber toward warehouses, fire trucks speed toward burning buildings, traffic jams hold up long lines of frustrated motorists and jetliners actually take off and land. It is as if Walt Disney had stuck with his original vision, retaining a child-like delight in his wonderful sense of play. The quarter million inhabitants of Miniature Wonderland are busy at all sorts of activities, doing everything from nude sunbathing to coal mining, cheering on football teams to washing cars, steering antique British sports cars up twisting alpine roads to blasting through thick walls to get at bank vaults.

20120207-P2072073.jpg

It all started with a dream, of course. In 1967, Frederik Braun was born a few minutes earlier than his twin brother Gerrit, so he got to be the “dreamy” one while his brother took on the mantle of responsibility and practicality. Initially, Frederick dreamt of childish things such as collecting “a 10,000 copy collection of Mickey Mouse comic books” or a “huge collection of autograph cards from sporting stars.” For a decade, he and his twin brother started and ran a successful club, the Voila.

20120209-P1000726.jpg

In July, 2000 a new dream emerged, triggered by a visit to a model railway store he and his girlfriend stumbled across on a trip to Zurich. It was a vision of the world’s largest model railroad layout. But Frederick wasn’t interested in the kind of layout that would appeal only to model railroad fanatics; he wanted to create a world bustling with action and intrigue, founded on activities and characters that were silly and scary, as well as everyday activities, like in the world around him.

20120207-P2072082.jpg

Fortunately, the enthusiasm and drive of the twins brought them in touch with talented technicians and marketers who could help make it happen. They began modestly enough, with the Harz mountains of Germany, the fictional town of Knuffingen, and Austria. They moved on to Hamburg and central Germany, followed by a cross-section of American landmarks, Scandinavia, and the technically taxing three-story construction of Switzerland.

20120209-P1000710.jpg

This section alone took two years, but it was topped by the stunning reproduction of Hamburg’s airport, which was started in 2005 and only completed in 2011. France and Italy and parts of Africa are in the works. They don’t plan to have the complete layout finished until 2020.

20120209-P1000692.jpg

I’m sure it gets very crowded in the summer, as most of the available space is dedicated to the displays. You can check out some videos on the website or order a DVD called “Small World, but Larger than Life.” It may just whet your appetite for seeing it in person, but in the meantime you will have a ringside seat in front of your T.V. Most of my visuals are in video format rather than stills, but it may be a month before I have my mini-movie up on Flickr. Check back, and stay tuned. We’re off to Berlin.

Advertisements

We are fortunate enough to be within walking distance of a large lake, offering us a pleasant place to  walk every morning. I wrote it up for the blog shortly after we arrived in Hamburg.  This time of year it is usually fairly quiet except on weekends, when the walkers and joggers come out in earnest no matter how cold it gets.

The Alster lake freezes over every decade or so, on average, but the last couple of years have been exceptionally cold.  When the temperature drops to below freezing for a sufficient number of days for the ice to get thick, the city allows commercial vendors to invade the perimeter, setting up booths for the sale of everything from skates to mulled wine, mittens to waffles. The Alster Ice Festival is on!

Then the hordes descend. The estimates vary considerably, but 100,000 Hamburgers were out on the ice on Saturday, and the current guess is that a cool million, over half the population of the city, will have visited the lake by the end of the festivities on Sunday night.  The ice was jammed!

20120211-P1000765.jpg

The official festivities started Friday, February 10, and will run through Sunday, the 12th. It’s being billed as Germany’s largest winter party. The lake froze last year, but the last Alster festival was fifteen years ago. Yesterday, there were impromptu ice hockey games, children playing with adults, awkward amateurs with flashy stickmen.

Out on the broad white expanse, people of all descriptions took delight in simply walking on water.  Some skated, others cycled, parents pulled the children on sleds, offering many youngsters a first time experience.  Dogs barked.  Teenagers looked cool, which wasn’t hard to do with the wind chill.

20120211-P2112144.jpg

There is even an Alster Golf tournament! No need to worry about your ball landing in the water.  Just be sure to bring a colored golf ball.  It is all very peculiar and interesting. It is the first time I have ever witnessed well-dressed matrons strolling along in fine mink coats and hiking boots.  There were rescue teams, paramedics and helicopters hovering overhead.  The surface is very rough in places, and I saw one poor skater being taken off the ice in a sled.

20120210-P1000730.jpg

I am delighted that we happened to be here for this event, but I suspect that global warming will throw a spanner in the works sooner rather than later.  I doubt if my grandchildren will be able to see this even if they put it at the top of the bucket list.

The festival is a little too popular for my taste, but the ambiance has charm, reminiscent of the paintings of Bruegel and other Dutch artists. I am glad to say that the sleds are made of wood and everyone is self-propelled. Some of the fuel may be alcoholic, but by Monday everything will be back to normal.  The Alster will be ours again for another week.  Although the days are getting longer,  our time in Hamburg is running out.

Click on any picture alongside this post to see more action.

20120212-P2122151.jpg


One of the perks of a professor’s life is the opportunity to chat up people and to give talks in interesting places. Despite the fact that my wife spent three and a half months teaching at the International University of Torino, the Director was good enough to ask her back when he discovered that she was going to be on the same continent for an extended period. The date that seemed to work the best for the talk happened to be my birthday. I was hoping that we might spend another memorable afternoon at Combal Zero, the restaurant that made my day on the same occasion just three years ago, when I was 64. Check out the post.

It was a fine idea, but it was not to be. The restaurant is on the outskirts of the city, and the best time to go is during the day, for a very leisurely lunch, in fact. But talks always entail preparation, and the delivery of my wife’s speech had been scheduled for six to seven PM on January 31. Our flight back to Hamburg was booked for the following morning.

20120130-P1301994.jpg

We didn’t know it at time, but the onset of winter weather had just preceded us in Turin. It was cold and white, but most of the residents of the city had been wondering for a couple of months where winter had gone. As we waited for our luggage to appear, ski sack after ski sack came down the carousel. Finally, our bag arrived and we headed in to the center of the familiar city.

Our host had arranged accommodation at the Hotel Victoria, which has much to recommend it. It is on a cul-de-sac, for one thing, and it is very close to the center of Turin. In addition to the lovely decor and the excellent breakfast spread, they have a sybaritic spa influenced by the Egyptian Museum, which is just around the corner.

20120131-P1310004.jpg

By the time we checked in, unpacked and checked our email, it seemed like ages since our miserable lunch at the Frankfurt airport.  Seven o’clock is very early for eating in Italy, but we headed out into the snow and slush to a restaurant that had been recommended by the concierge.  We were the first ones there.  My wife had been suffering from a pinched nerve since our arrival in Hamburg, and as soon as she sat down to order, everything seem to come to a head. She felt absolutely wretched and could not eat!  Not being able to eat in Italy is as close as you can come to an emergency without actually having a stroke or a heart attack.

If you show up at the emergency ward of a hospital, you will be admitted immediately.  To be sure that this was not something life-threatening, we did just that.  Unfortunately, it was a Sunday, so the waiting room was jammed full of people in various states of distress or despair.  Losing one’s appetite is not actually considered life-threatening, even in Italy.  So we had to wait and wait.

20120130-P1302000.jpg

An Italian colleague from the C.T.L.S. program in London had invited us over for lunch, but when he heard of the dire situation, he insisted on meeting us at the “Ospedale” and taking on the role of interpreter. In my book, spending Sunday morning in an emergency ward of a hospital on behalf of a colleague is enough to merit guaranteed entrance in Paradiso.

All is well that ends with an Italian meal. But a home cooked meal that begins with risotto and ends with a spectacular, delicious tiramasu is worth the price of visit to any hospital.  And this particular meal seemed to require four different kinds of wine, not to mention a bottle of Barolo for cooking the main course.  That kind of repast is worth braving the torments of the Inferno and Purgatorio to boot.

I simply had to abandon my recent conversion to vegetarianism for the afternoon, but it was a small price to pay for the wonderful cooking and the hospitality of Roberto and Maria Elena, as well as the opportunity to meet Giacomo, the new addition to the family.

20120130-P1301993.jpg

We managed to fit in several more meals before our departure, including an ad hoc “dinner” at a cafe immediately after my wife’s talk. It was good to be in a place that I know, where we have some friends, and where I could speak some of the language and understand more.

We have come back to a different city. The Alster has frozen over, and the lake that was full of boats not so very long ago is a huge expanse of white snow. A high pressure has come in, bringing sunshine and cold, clear air.  It is beautiful.

Flickr Photos

Categories

Blog Stats

  • 40,667 hits
February 2012
M T W T F S S
« Jan   Mar »
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
272829  

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 141 other followers

Top Rated

February 2012
M T W T F S S
« Jan   Mar »
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
272829  
February 2012
M T W T F S S
« Jan   Mar »
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
272829  

Categories