Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Aug. 16 2016 5:45 PM

Hogan’s Alley, the FBI’s Fake Training Town

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When the FBI needs to train its new recruits on executing urban maneuvers, there is one place where they can be certain something criminal is going down: Hogan's Alley, a fake neighborhood with one hell of a fake crime rate.

"Hogan's Alley" is actually a catch-all term that refers to any tactical training ground, taking the name from a bad neighborhood in an old comic strip. The FBI's 10-acre Hogan's Alley was first opened in 1987 on the grounds of their training facility in Quantico, Virginia. Since FBI engagements are more likely to result in so-called "shoot–don't shoot" scenarios than local police forces (or so the thinking goes), it was decided that they needed as realistic a training ground as possible. Thus the official Hogan's Alley was born.

In order to role play as many dangerous scenarios as possible, the little neighborhood has a number of businesses and apartment buildings. There is a bank (which is always getting robbed), a post office, a pool hall, a barber shop, and more. They even had set designers from Hollywood come in to assist with the area's development to make it as realistic as possible. The businesses are staffed by actors playing terrorists, civilians, bank robbers, and other criminals as the scenario demands. The place is so realistic they had to weld the mail boxes shut because they kept filling up with actual letters.

Obviously Hogan's Alley isn't normally open to the public, but if you find yourself lost in Quantico and end up in an eerily deserted little neighborhood in the middle of a wooded clearing, just look for the sign warning of fake ammunition firing and people holding guns. You'll know you've found Hogan's Alley.

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

Aug. 15 2016 12:30 PM

Bavaria Filmstadt Has a Luck Dragon

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

One of the easiest complaints about the film The NeverEnding Story is that it does in fact have an ending. At the German film studio where most of the movie was filmed, you can continue the adventure yourself, using actual props from the film.

Bavaria Film is a large European film studio based in Munich, Germany, and like the American Universal Studios, it has a portion of its facilities that are devoted to visitors who want to step inside and see where the movie magic happens. Known as the Bavaria Filmstadt, this attraction offers set and prop tours of the many film and television productions that have taken place on the site. In addition to the guided tour through the actual film leftovers, there are also rides and a stunt show to complete the experience. But make no mistake, it's the film props that are the major draw.

A number of famous films have been filmed at the studio, most notably for American audiences, Das Boot and The NeverEnding Story. From Das Boot there is a scale exterior of the titular submarine and some interior sets to explore, but it is the NeverEnding Story stuff that really stands out. One of the original Falcor models is here, and you can ride it (although it looks a bit shaggier than you may remember)! Brave the Southern Oracle (or at least the scale models)! Take a selfie with the Rock Biter! At the Bavaria Filmstadt, the story never did end!

Bavaria Filmstadt might not have the bombast or spectacle of a Universal Studios or even a Knott's Berry Farm, but it does have a ridable luck dragon, which actually sets it above all comers.

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.  

Aug. 12 2016 2:00 PM

The Man-Made Gut Stones Once Used to Thwart Assassination Attempts

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Poisoning used to be a much more effective method of doing away with your enemies, thanks largely in part to the ineffectiveness of historical antidotes and medicine. One fabled poison cure was the bezoar, a hardened spherical deposit of indigestible material that forms in the gastrointestinal tract of hoofed animals.

For hundreds of years, bezoars were believed to be able to render any and all poison inert. And when you couldn’t get your hands on a naturally occurring bezoar, you could, for the right price, opt for an artificially created bezoar known as a Goa stone.

Bezoars, which appear as stonelike lumps, can form from hair, seeds, fruit pits, rocks, calcium, or pretty much anything that has trouble passing naturally through an organic system. They are most often formed in the bodies of hoofed animals like goats or deer, although bezoars taken from Asian porcupines were also popular.

As to their healing properties, it was believed that you could either ingest some crushed up bezoar, or more commonly, drop a bezoar into a drink that was suspected of being poisoned. If you were too poor to afford a bezoar of your own, you could work around it—alchemists were known to rent them out for general healing.

Possibly the most famous use of a bezoar was in an experiment by the 16th-century French surgeon Ambroise Paré, who set out to prove that they were not actually the cure to all poison. A cook sentenced to be hanged agreed to be poisoned instead, just so long as he could be administered a bezoar immediately after, to be set free if he lived. The cook died just hours later, and Paré’s experiment had proved that the power of the bezoar was not quite what it seemed.

However, even with Paré’s deadly experiment proving that bezoars weren’t magic, their fabled efficacy wasn’t so easily defeated. By the 17th century, a group of Jesuit monks in the small Indian state of Goa had begun manufacturing artificial bezoars to sell to wealthy English patrons and royalty. The polished balls of crud were made of all sorts of strange ingredients including narwhal horn, amber, coral, and crushed up amethyst, emeralds, and other precious gems, to name a few. Sometimes they would even include bits of a naturally occurring bezoar. The makers of the Goa stones still believed in their usefulness as a cure-all, as did the rich recipients who purchased them for as much as 10 times their weight in gold.

Tiny slivers of the fist-sized balls would be shaved off and mixed into drinks to thwart assassination attempts or cure sickness, but the stones themselves were also seen as status symbols (as traditional bezoars were often considered). Thus many of the Goa stones, or at least the surviving ones, were encased in ornate gold and silver orbs. The stone’s casings were a sharp contrast to the muddy-colored balls of pseudo-magical detritus inside, looking like intricately carved cages. Arabesque designs with intertwining lines were mingled with animal symbols, including, in some cases, mythical creatures like unicorns.

A rise in the sale of artificial bezoars, possibly including Goa stones, that contained unhealthy minerals like mercury, actually ended up making people more sick, leading to the use of the stones waning around the 1800s. But the use of bezoars as healing items can still be found in Chinese herbology.

Today a few Goa stones are on display in museums, including one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and another in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. They are gorgeous to look at, but relying on them to stop any poisonous assassination attempts is not advised.

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

Aug. 11 2016 12:30 PM

What Was Wrong With 16th Century Europeans That They Didn’t Like Tomatoes?

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

There are some people who don't like tomatoes. It's confusing, and wrong, but a fact. However, this reporter believes that tomatoes are the perfect food. As this summer fruit comes into season on the East Coast, if they are red, ripe, and juicy, I could eat them for every meal—sprinkled with salt and drizzled in olive oil, set between two pieces of mayo-slathered bread (Harriet the Spy–style), as a BLT, the best sandwich ever invented, or in basically any combination with corn. Or basil. Or cheese.

Back when tomatoes first came from this side of the Atlantic to Europe, though, Europeans were a whole continent of tomato skeptics. They grew them only in gardens—as ornamental plants—and ate them rarely, if ever. And as a tomato lover, I wondered—what was 16th-century Europeans’ problem? How did they not fall in love with tomatoes at their first opportunity?

It seemed unlikely that the tomatoes themselves were the issue. South and central Americans had already done the long work of domesticating the tomato plant; the seeds that Spanish travelers brought back grew lumpy red tomatoes similar to today’s “heirloom” varieties. In southern Spain, where tomatoes were first grown in Europe, the climate was favorable for tomato plants, and it seems likely that tomatoes would have been eaten freshly pulled from the vine, i.e., in their ideal state.

Aug. 10 2016 12:30 PM

The Friendly War Over Hans Island

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Hans Island is a small, uninhabited, barren rock in the arctic with no known reserves of oil or natural gas. Yet still, there is an ongoing territorial dispute between Denmark and Canada over who owns this little rock, and a very odd one at that.

Unlike many other territory conflicts, this one is fought in a markedly peaceful way. The potential serious diplomatic implications aside, the Canadians and Danes take turns placing their flags on the island, a curious practice that has been going on since the 1980s.

But it gets even more odd. The island was first disputed in 1933, but largely forgotten during World War II. The unusual dispute began again in earnest in 1984 when, during a visit to the island, the Danish Minister for Greenland planted the national flag and left a message saying "Welcome to the Danish island" ("Velkommen til den danske ø" in Danish) along with (it is said) a bottle of brandy.

Ever since then, when the flag on the island is periodically changed between the Danish and Canadian flag, the bottle is also replaced on each visit. The Canadians leave a bottle of Canadian Club and the Danes a bottle of schnapps.

The conflict is as of today still unresolved but there are suggestions on how to move forward. Arctic experts from Canada and Denmark propose making Hans Island into a condominium, a solution that has proven to resolve other conflicts in the past. But in a region of growing importance as natural resources are becoming available and new shipping routes are opening up, it is unclear if both countries can settle for such a solution.

This place was contributed by Atlas Obscura user, hrnick

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

Aug. 8 2016 5:30 PM

Iraq’s Bisected Onion Dome

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Rising out of an artificial Baghdad lake like some kind of surreal relic from a bygone civilization, Iraq's Al-Shaheed Monument is an unforgettable reminder of the lives lost in the Iran-Iraq war.

The Al-Shaheed Monument was built under the regime of Saddam Hussein, during his push to fill Baghdad with lasting monuments during the 1970s and ’80s, so in retrospect it may strike some as a troubling artifact from a despot's rule, but it is hard to deny that it is a stunning work.

The towering memorial was completed in 1983, designed by Iraqi sculptor Ismail Fatah Al Turk. It consists of a 132-foot tall arabesque dome, covered in teal-colored ceramic tiles. The huge bulb is split down the middle, with an eternal flame in between the hollow insides. The whole thing sits on a large, circular square that is itself held in an artificial lake.

Beneath the monument are a library, a museum, and other facilities, all centered around the memory of the Iraqi soldiers who died during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. There are also playgrounds and lawns surrounding the strange central monument, making the whole thing a sort of oasis.

It may have been the product of a despicable Iraq ruler's demands, but the Al-Shaheed Monument seems almost all the more amazing for it.

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places:Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

Aug. 5 2016 2:30 PM

The Lonely Devotion of Cross Rock

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Staring out to sea from the coast of Cape Fiolent on the Crimean peninsula, the most stunning thing that stands out across the picturesque seascape is a single giant cross, jutting up from a small rock island.

Known as Cross Rock or alternately the Rock of the Saint Image, this otherwise unremarkable oceanic feature is a lonely and stunning tribute to local faith. As the story of the rock goes, a ship carrying hundreds of Greek sailors was caught in a storm in 890 that threatened to kill them all, so they began to pray to St. George for help. The kindly saint went ahead and appeared on the rock and told the storm to chill out, which it did. As thanks for pulling them out of harm's way, the sailors created a monastery on the shore near where they were saved.

Over time, the monastery fell into disrepair, but the story was not lost. On the thousand-year anniversary of the sailors' miraculous rescue and the founding of their church, a restoration effort began that brought the monastery back to life. In addition to returning the monastery to good working condition, a cross was installed on the rock where the saint is said to have appeared. Standing over 20 feet tall and weighing over a ton and a half, the rock cross is hard to miss, and the story is hard to forget.

While it is not the largest monumental cross in the world, and the story that inspired it may seem a bit hard to swallow, even by early Christian allegorical standards, Cross Rock makes an unforgettably beautiful sight.

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

Aug. 4 2016 5:15 PM

Mexico’s Alley of the Kiss

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Among the many winding, claustrophobic alleys and thoroughfares in the Mexican city of Guanajuato, one alley stands out among all the rest both for its incredible tightness and for the tragic romance that is said to have taken place there.

Tucked away behind the Plaza de Los Angeles, the skinny gap between buildings that has come to be known as El Callejon del Beso, or the Alley of the Kiss, is not greatly different from a number of other tight alleyways throughout the packed city. It is a sloping passage that only has room for one or two people standing shoulder to shoulder between the towering orange buildings on either side. Overhead, window ledges and small plant boxes dangle, making for a rather lovely urban gorge. But the real draw is the story.

According to local legend a wealthy family lived in one of the buildings that helped create the alley, and their daughter, whose bedroom window looked out onto the alley, fell in love with a young man from the wrong side of the tracks. The young man rented out the room in the building across from hers with a window that was directly across from her own as well. Then they would secretly meet and kiss across the tiny alley. Unfortunately, the girl's father found out, and in a fit of rage, stabbed his daughter to death. Most accounts of the story end it there, but some go a bit further, saying the young man then threw himself to his death in the alley below. Either way, their tragic love forever changed the identity of the alley.

Today there is a gift shop in what is said to be the girl's old room, and people can come and hang love locks from the balcony bars. But most simply stroll through the narrow alley, many of them stopping for a kiss.

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

Aug. 2 2016 3:15 PM

The Tuhala Witch’s Well

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Located in the tiny village of Tuhala, the Witch's Well is a naturally occurring geyser that has been known to flood the entire area after heavy rains. Clearly the work of witches.

The Witch's Well is actually an example of what is known as a "karst spring." The opening from which the spring issues is located over an underground river, which is normally located far enough underground that it isn't a problem. But after extremely heavy rains, the river tends to swell up and issue forth from the well, completely flooding the surrounding area. The geyser effect can last for days, making for a major disaster for those effected by the flooding.

In olden times, this pandemonium was not seen as simply an unfortunate natural occurrence but was instead blamed on those perennial villains, witches. According to the local lore, witches would gather down in the well and lash each other with branches. This pagan reverie was thought to cause the catastrophic flooding that came periodically from the well. Unfortunately it was just nature and science.

The well does not flood each time it rains but just occasionally. It is often years between each flooding, so when it occurs, people now come from all around to check it out. A wooden cap has been placed over the natural hole, so even though it can be damaging, the Witch's Well certainly looks like it has caged a witch inside of its depths.

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

Aug. 1 2016 12:30 PM

Naki Sumo Baby Crying Contest

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Usually getting a baby to stop crying is the hard part of any parents' day, but during the Naki Sumo Baby Crying Festival the goal is to get the wee babes to start and keep crying to get rid of demons.

The traditional festival takes place at the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo each year, pairing up tiny little babies with a sumo wrestler who will then try to get the little tyke to shed some tears.

The origins of the bizarre practice date back hundreds of years to a simple proverb that states, "Naku ko wa sodatsu," or "Crying babies grow fat." The other reason behind the festival is the belief that somehow the piercing wails work to drive off nearby demons that would otherwise bring harm. While neither of these claims are proven to work, that hasn't stopped people from making their children cry in public.

During the ceremonies, sumo wrestlers take the stage and hold up the participating babies (their parents actually brought them to this) and try to get them to start bellowing. Among the techniques used to make the babies unhappy include putting on a scary mask to freak them out and the old standby of just yelling, "CRY! CRY! CRY!" into their little faces. But it's all worth it, because if they are the best crier, they are ensured a long, healthy life.

For all the seeming cruelty of the event, there is an air of frivolity, as the adults appear to realize that intentionally getting kids to cry is a little goofy. The kids don't seem to be in on the joke.

If you liked this, you'll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura's new book, which collects more than 700 of the world's strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders.

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