THE brochure bids you ``Welcome to the Smallest Town in the World.'' ``Madurodam'' - also described as ``Holland in a nutshell'' - is in the seaside resort of Scheveningen on the outskirts of The Hague. It is a Dutch city entirely in miniature, filled with buildings of all kinds and periods, from the Middle Ages to the present.
With a scale of 1:25, these small buildings make even six-year-olds look like giants. But people of all ages wander around this ``city'' in a state of childlike wonder, staring and pointing and lost in thought.
No effort has been spared to achieve incredible accuracy in miniaturizing anything from Gothic cathedrals to windmills, from royal residences to railroad stations, and from oil refineries to rows of 17th-century Dutch houses sporting characteristic gables and beautiful brickwork, all squashed together along canals highly reminiscent of that other great Dutch city, Amsterdam.
This city-in-little is a history, geography, and architecture lesson all rolled into one - but it wears its didacticism quite lightly. Above all, it is a tourist attraction boasting over 33 million visitors since it opened in 1952.
If it is the ``smallest city'' in the world, Madurodam (so called after George Maduro of Willemstad, Cura,cao, a young hero of World War II whose parents provided the original capital for the project) is also surely the largest small city in the world. It is set out in an area the size of a football field. If you follow its carefully organized routing - and you won't want to miss any of the 130 points of interest numbered and described in the essential guidebook - you actually walk about two miles.
In the company of a crowd of Dutch weekenders, we studied its meticulously detailed sights inch by inch and were amazed at its ambitiousness.
One of the first buildings encountered is a replica of an elaborate cathedral, Sint Jan Basiliek 's-Hertogenbosch - the most important medieval church in the Netherlands. It is ``on the same plan,'' we are informed, ``as the cathedral of Amiens in France, but with five instead of three aisles.'' The guidebook (which swings amiably between mock-solemn ``Madurodam history'' and factual descriptions of the real buildings of which the models are replicas) observes that the St. Jan was built between 1330 and 1550 - taking over 200 years to complete. The miniature copy of it at Madurodam, almost as amazingly, took five years. It, like all the other buildings here, is constructed in wood colored and protected against the weather by paint. Each building is repainted every five years. Since every slate, stone, and brick appears to be present and correct, it is very hard to believe that Madurodam's architecture is made of nothing but wood.
Amazed visitors on every hand look delightedly at the Royal Golden Coach and procession of tiny figures outside the ``Binnenhof'' (the old administrative center of the Netherlands in The Hague), or peer down at the shoppers milling about under the brightly colored canopies in the ``B. Boon-Vander Starp Square'' (named after the initiator and founder of Madurodam), or discover the ``genuine'' Dutch street organ and the old-fashioned scissors-grinder at work in front of a row of houses with shop windows displaying minuscule goods. (The organ gives you a tune for a small payment, which, like rest of the $250,000 yearly profit from the city, goes to charity.)
Or visitors watch the trains that wind continually throughout Madurodam at alarming speed, only stopping for signals and at stations; and the planes that taxi magnificently on the tarmac at Schiphol-Madurodam Airport; and the boats and ships moving majestically about the great port.
Then there is the motorway, with its continuous line of traffic; the Royal Dutch Automobile Club Skidding School (watched inevitably by a row of fascinated youngsters intent on learning the skill of getting safely out of a skid even before they have learned to drive).
There is a football (soccer) match under way at the Madurodam Sports Park. And sunbathers lie around on the silver-gold beaches at the Watersports Centre, while other leisure enthusiasts go waterskiing or windsurfing in the blue water nearby. It is a city full of life and incident, all to scale. Even the endlessly pruned trees are in keeping, and the bulbs and annual flowers are chosen for their smallness.
After dark the entire place lights up with some 50,000 little lights - a sight we unfortunately missed, but plan to see next time. It is reportedly spectacular.
This year Madurodam is presenting for the second time nightly hour-long sound-and-light shows. They are to start half an hour after the usual closing times. Audiences of 450 people, each equipped with headphones and a commentary in his or her own language, sit on the ``dike'' that surrounds the city and listen to stories about many of the buildings. This will start May 1 and continue through the end of September. There are also some special exhibitions this year - one about board games, another about scale models, and a display of Argentine crafts. But these are extras. It is the extraordinary miniature metropolis that is the main attraction.
The miniature city is open every day from March 26 to Oct. 26 at 9 a.m. Closing times are as follows: March, April, May - 10:00 p.m.; June, July, Aug. - 10:30 p.m.; Sept. - 9 p.m.; Oct. - 6 p.m. Admission is 8 guilders ($3.89) to see the city, 10 guilders ($4.86) for the sound and light show.
For more information call 070-553900.