St. Petersburg Times Online: Floridian

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Sizing up The Hague, both large and small

Huge palaces and stately government buildings here are offset by Madurodam, an exhibit where the Netherlands' most notable sites can be seen during one short stroll, in captivating miniature.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2001

Huge palaces and stately government buildings here are offset by Madurodam, an exhibit where the Netherlands' most notable sites can be seen during one short stroll, in captivating miniature.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Honey, they've shrunk the Netherlands!

That's the enjoyably weird sensation you get as you wander through Madurodam, one of the world's smallest and most unusual tourist attractions.

Covering just a few acres, Madurodam boasts it is "everything worth seeing in Holland," from the Royal Palace to the Anne Frank House to the Rijksmuseum. The catch: Each site is in 1/25th scale, making even the youngest visitor feel like Gulliver in Lilliput.

At Madurodam Airport -- modeled after Schiphol outside Amsterdam -- visitors loom over the runway as 747s taxi by the terminal. A few feet away, one of Madurodam's 11 passenger trains roars past working windmills and a crowded soccer stadium where the Dutch national anthem blares over loudspeakers.

Watch where you step -- a Liberation Day parade is wending through the streets of a typical Dutch town. Here, by your left foot, the North Sea flood barriers are about to swing shut to keep low-lying fields from tidal surges. Got a 10-cent coin? It will set in motion the merry-go round, roller coaster and Ferris wheel at the tiny Fun Fair.

I confess: I loved Madurodam, the last stop on a four-hour bus tour that included a visit to a Delft Blue china factory and a hurried swing through The Hague, the seat of Dutch government and the International Court of Justice.

Face it: Holland's scenic attractions tend to be modest ones compared to the soaring Alps of Switzerland or the rugged moors of Scotland. So while I enjoyed the drive through the flat Dutch countryside, the tour did not rank as especially memorable.

Until we reached Madurodam.

Here the attention to detail is so incredible that the miniature version of the Peace Palace looks better than the real thing we had just seen in The Hague. Adults and kids alike oohed and aahed at the amazingly realistic ships, churches and even glass-sheathed office towers.

Except for the hairy human legs moving among the structures, you might think you were in a helicopter flying over real villages and cities.

The story behind Madurodam is sweet and poignant. After World War II, the Dutch Student Sanitorium was looking for a way to pay for the high cost of caring for students with tuberculosis. Officials hit on the idea of building a miniature city -- modeled after that in Beaconsfield, England, which had generated so much money its owner was able to make large annual donations to London hospitals.

At the same time, the parents of George Maduro were looking for a way to honor their only son, a law student turned soldier who had died in a German prison camp. Instead of a more conventional memorial, they decided to contribute money toward the construction of the little Dutch city.

The project quickly gained steam. The city government of The Hague provided land under a long-term lease. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and other companies gave money and corporate backing. Juliana, then Queen of the Netherlands, agreed to let her daughter, Crown Princess Beatrix, serve as mayor of the pretend city.

Madurodam opened in 1952 and quickly captivated visitors with its pint-size recreations of Dutch cityscapes, countryside and everyday life. Today it draws about 1-million visitors a year, half from outside the Netherlands. Because tuberculosis is no longer a problem, after-tax profits now go to a fund that provides social and cultural activities for young people.

Working from photos, Madurodam's 35 engineers, carpenters and other experts make all of the scale models. Some -- such as the office block of Amsterdam's ING Bank -- are so intricate they take years to build.

Originally, everything was made of wood; because the structures are exposed to Holland's damp, chilly climate year-round, workers now use brass and strong synthetic materials.

As the result of a major expansion in 1996, Madurodam now has 338 buildings, 27 bridges, eight waterways and six motorways. More than 2,500 tiny cars, trucks and other vehicles travel its streets. At twilight, 3,150 street lamps and more than 50,000 other miniature lights cast their soft glow over the entire scene.

Enhancing Madurodam's realism and appeal is the spectacular landscaping. In spring, 57,000 bulbs and similar plants burst into flower, followed in summer by 25,000 annuals. Streets and village squares are shaded by miniature trees, including Japanese cherry and lime.

Gardeners weed throughout the summer and are quick to pick up fallen leaves in autumn. After all, even a little leaf might be big enough to hide one of the 63,000 tiny inhabitants of this fascinating attraction.

If you go

Madurodam is near The Hague, about an hour's drive from Amsterdam. It is included on some sightseeing tours from Amsterdam. From Sept. 1 to March 17, 2002, it will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is about $9 for adults and $6.25 for children, with discounts for groups and seniors.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.