Kim Hays finds out how one family cut Switzerland down to size

Lizards like dragons sunning themselves on waist-high castle walls, ducks dodging car-ferries little bigger than themselves, and a model of Monte San Salvatore contrasting oddly with its real counterpart in the distance.

This content was published on September 7, 2000 minutes

These are some of the fascinating juxtapositions that awaited me at "Switzerland in Miniature" in Melide near Lugano.

It's an ideal introduction to Switzerland's top tourist attractions and a striking display of craftsmanship. A total of 120 models of famous castles, churches, villages, and alpine landscapes are laid out in perfect miniature, at a scale of 1:25.

Running between the different displays are 3,560 meters of automated miniature railway. Other forms of transportation are not neglected: a tiny cog railroad runs from Lauterbrunnen to Grindelwald, cable cars travel up to the Gemsstock, and boats traverse a pond-sized Lake Lucerne.

I feared the tacky but was delighted by the exquisitely built and extraordinarily detailed models and by the tasteful landscaping: the footpaths and tiny monuments are lined with thousands of flowering plants and small trees, many of them skillfully trimmed bonzai.

One charming scene is the main street of the medieval town of Murten, complete with fountains, arcades, and city walls. Each small shop along the street is perfectly rendered, and the even smaller shoppers seem to bustle from store to store.

Scattered among the many castles and cathedrals are also typical farmhouses from the different cantons, all complete with tiny barnyard animals and minuscule farmers driving tractors or raking hay. More unexpectedly, there is a helicopter base, a bobsled run, and a circus in full swing.

Switzerland in Miniature is owned and run by brothers Dominique and Jean-Luc Vuigner. Their father, Pierre, kept a grocery shop in Sion, but in 1958 he decided to build Switzerland in Miniature as a tourist attraction.

Vuigner senior found a beautiful site on the lake of Lugano, moved his family to Ticino and hired craftsmen to help him create the models.

"There were only one or two parks like this in Europe then," Dominique Vuigner told me, "and no one in Switzerland really knew how to build what my father had in mind. So it was all a kind of experiment and tremendously hard work."

In 1959, Pierre Vuigner's park opened with only fifteen miniature scenes; since then, it has grown every year.

The older Vuigner trained his sons from childhood to build models. "Years ago I helped to produce the Colombier castle and the village of Altdorf," says Dominique Vuigner. "It was fantastic."

"Every year there are three or four old models that need to be renovated or rebuilt," he adds, "and we also like to provide visitors with two new monuments each year. The next new one will be the church at Wassen, near the Gotthard tunnel."

Right now, the Vuigners are re-building one of the old buildings themselves, a model of Geneva's cathedral. "By the time it's as good as new again, it will probably have cost us SFr150,000," says Vuigner.

Today most of the new buildings, which are made of PVC - a strong and lightweight plastic - are produced in France or Italy. "There simply aren't the proper craftsmen here in Switzerland," he explains.

The miniature village's trains and train-tracks, however, are manufactured on site. Vuigner has two employees who work full-time just to build, repair, and run all the different railways.

Apart from the models themselves, the site also has an elaborate playground and a self-service restaurant, so it serves as an ideal outing with children. But it is definitely not just a place for kids.

Anyone who once loved dollhouses, had an electric train, played with blocks, or spent hours arranging toy soldiers into elaborate scenes can re-experience those pleasures by proxy at Switzerland in Miniature.

by Kim Hays

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