Tourism à la Gulliver
by Jack Aslanian
Victor Hugo must have had a premonition of the effect of France Miniature when he wrote, "The image of a thing is much more breathtaking than the thing itself..." Deep into a long stay in Paris several year ago I admitted to myself that there was every reason for a visit to France Miniature and no serious arguments against it. It is shameful that I haven't gone yet, I told myself. No one needs to know after I do. At the worst, I will have lost a slice of self-respect and a few hours (of increasingly idle time). Several visits have followed that first one alone or in the company of others who were to experience the park first hand. Its initial magic has remained fresh and strong; and each visit adds to geographic insights about France.
If Gulliver's itinerary had included France, he would have seen it the way contemporary travelers do when they visit France Miniature. The 12-acre park is a miniaturized re-creation of the country. Villages, churches, Paul Bocuse's famous restaurant, the Tour Eiffel, the Arc de Triomphe...: models of about a hundred-fifty of France's most important historic monuments, touristic and cultural locales all painstakingly crafted and meticulously detailed are on display at their actual geographic positions in relation to the roughly-hexagonal shape made by the borders of France.
The generosity and accuracy of detail, and the precision of workmanship with which the sites are reproduced most of them at 1/30th of actual size immediately capture the interest of the modern-day Gulliver and inspire his or her admiration. But it is the miniaturized landscapes which help overcome disbelief, magically rendering the France at visitors' feet into reality. There are uphill grades and undulating planted terrain where France has mountains and hills, gorges, and forests; flowing streams are its major waterways; large ponds stand where one's imagination, seeking authenticity, looks for the Mediterranean or the Atlantic and the Channel; there are freeways (but with traffic which moves in a more orderly manner than is characteristic of French traffic); and for the model railroad buff there are ample real kilometers of rails, stations, bridges, tunnels, and of course locomotives and wagons of every size and vintage.
The details of construction inspire awe and mesmerize: a historic building made entirely of bricks and tiles sized to scale, a toy motorcycle by a shed, a cow, a working fountain, a man fishing off a bridge under the overhang of a bonsai tree. Clever auditory embellishments enhance realism and invite the visitor's smile: birdsong, farm animals, heated and proud political debate inside a public building, the lines of a play (one of Moliere's) emanating from the Grand Theater of Bordeaux... and ecclesiastical music and hymns from countless churches and monasteries.
Like the country it represents, the park changes over time. The changes here, however, do not include tearing down the old to make room for the new, but are additions of new displays. One of the recent additions is the American Cemetery. It is one of the easier sites to model (because of its relative sparseness). It readily evokes, however, the vastness of the memorial, the large number of the buried (nearly 10,000), and the solemn calm which prevails in the final resting place of some of those who were lost during the invasion of Normandy by the Allies in 1944.
Another new attraction in the park one which alone would deserve a visit is Le Palais de la Miniature. It is not a downsized monument, but a bona fide gallery of the miniatures of artist Daniel Ohlman. In this collection one appreciates, in addition to the fecundity of his imagination and the perfection of his craft, the good humor and the obsessive personality which serve a master miniaturist well. Ohlman has re-created a variety of locales: from a pool the simplest and most mundane, to the most luxurious the interior of Maxim's Paris (2,700 hours of labor), to the decrepit an abandoned, dusty garage, to the serene a Japanese temple, to scenes from fairy tales or popular culture. The most engrossing and vertiginously detailed is an interior where counterfeit money is printed fresh bills they appear to be 200 franc notes (which the euro is going to render defunct, counterfeit or not) bills emerging from a press, hanging to dry [!], in suitcases...
While English language guidebooks to Paris and France have come about to providing ample coverage of Euro Disney, many of them don't mention France Miniature among attractions readily accessible to travelers in Paris. Guidebooks which do not shun it refer to it as "theme park" and "family entertainment." But what a shame it would be for children and adults young at heart and in imagination not to experience France Miniature at least once. It is education, entertainment, and escape.
Qualities become concentrated and enriched in a [well made] miniature," declared Gaston Bachelard. Distanced from the hazard and noise of French traffic, and from modern signs and advertisements, the traveler in France Miniature experiences the essence of the country.
Visitors to France Miniature receive a 36-page guidebook (available in English). Allow at least three hours to see the park, a little more if you plan to have lunch or dinner there (plus travel time of about two hours round trip).
France Miniature has souvenir stands which sell regional products and film (to replenish a supply which is apt to be depleted quickly). Visitors will also find a variety of food services, including two excellent restaurants serving regional cuisines.
The park is open daily in the summer, and operates on an abbreviated schedule in the spring and fall. Weekends are busier, with many children running about, but if possible, arrange to visit a weekend afternoon in the summer and linger into the evening. Carefully designed lighting makes the miniatures even more charming at night. France Miniature delights visitors with fireworks (not miniaturized) on Saturday nights.
Copyright © 2001 Jack Aslanian All Rights Reserved. Reproduced with permission of the author.