Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Aug. 25 2016 12:30 PM

I Made a Shipwreck Expert Watch The Little Mermaid and Judge Its Nautical Merits

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

If I were asked to picture a shipwreck, a clear image would pop into my mind. I’ve never seen a shipwreck in real life; most of us haven’t. My imaginary shipwreck has a very clear source, though, one that was influential on my young mind. I'm imagining the shipwreck from Disney's The Little Mermaid.

For me, the shipwreck that Ariel explores was iconic. But, if this is the vessel that defines shipwreck for me, how much of my idea of a sunken ship is pure Disney magic? Is there any truth to it?

Kevin Crisman, the director of the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M University, immediately knew the genre of ship I was talking about: maritime archaeologists joke about “Hollywood shipwrecks” all the time, he says. One of the shipwrecks they “love to hate to watch" is the 18th-century ship that Nicolas Cage finds frozen in Arctic ice, at the beginning of National Treasure. (It’s very shortly blown to pieces with centuries-old gunpowder.)

The Little Mermaid shipwreck was not one he had considered closely before, but Crisman graciously agreed to watch a few clips from the movie and give me his professional opinion about the wreck where Ariel famously finds a dinglehopper (also known as a fork). Now that I write about real shipwrecks, I wanted to know: What type of ship were we looking at? What made internal sense? And what was total fantasy?

Aug. 24 2016 12:30 PM

The Day the Music Died Memorial

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

Some call it "The Day the Music Died" thanks to a reference in Don McClean's song "American Pie," but no matter what it is called, the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson marked a dark day in American history. This tragic accident is still remembered by a couple of unique memorials.

It was on Feb. 3, 1959, that the small Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft carrying the musicians crash landed in a farmer's field in Clear Lake, Iowa. Holly and the others had been on a taxing road tour that gave Holly the flu and some of the other bandmates frostbite from the freezing cold bus rides. Having had enough, Holly charted the small plane, which was unequipped to handle the severe weather they were flying in. The weather was poor and wintry, and unfortunately the pilot lost control of the plane, which crashed, killing all aboard, including the pilot himself.

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The trio of musicians were returned to their respective home states and buried there, but the spot where the plane went down was not forgotten. In 1988, a guitar-shaped memorial to the tragic crash was installed on the spot where the plane went down, still a private cornfield. Later on, another permanent monument to the crash was put up just off the highway. This memorial is a bit simpler, just a giant pair Buddy Holly's iconic glasses, sitting on pillars.

Even today, people pay their respects to the memorials, leaving little tokens to their dearly departed musical idols. The glasses can be found on the roadside, but the actual crash site is set back from the road a bit, and can be harder to find. However, people have reported that the locals, including the farmer on whose property the memorial resides, are more than happy to help.

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. 23 2016 5:45 PM

The Bats of Monsted Kalkgruber

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

If the walls of Monsted Kalkgruber could talk, they could say a lot about the thousands of people who have come through the mines over the centuries but probably even more about the thousands of bats that currently live there.

The caves are very, very old. When Denmark was becoming an increasingly Christian nation around the 11th century, limestone mining was a profitable industry because the stone was used in cathedrals. From this time up until the 19th century, the miners used practically the same technique of assembly line–style limestone ferrying. Machinery was introduced in the mid-1800s, individual mines merged together, and the tunnels were mined more extensively. Limestone remained profitable until the mid–20th century. The mines closed in 1953.

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The caves changed hands many times in the years following the quarry's closing. At one point they were property of Anker Buch, a concert violinist who staged performances in the acoustically accommodating caves, a practice that continues even now. In addition to cultural events in the caves, a museum dedicated to showcasing Denmark's oldest industry also operates within the mines.

Sixty kilometers (about 37 miles) of underground paths comprise the caves of Monsted Kalkgruber, though only two kilometers of that are electrically lit. The tunnels vary wildly in size: Some are cathedral-height, some are low enough that an adult can't walk through upright. These tunnels open up into various cave "rooms," some of which contain entire underground lakes. Visitors to the Monsted Kalkgruber museum can wander through the caves on their own or take a train-ride tour throughout.

The train rides are only available between May and August however, out of respect to the caves' inhabitants: some 18,000 bats. In spring and summer the bats fly all over Jutland, eating insects to their hearts' content. In the fall and winter months the bats retreat to the caves, when they need quiet for hibernation (hence no trains). During the beginning of the cold season, they tuck themselves into crevices in the caves, out of view from the museum visitors. In the latter half of the season though, the bats emerge from hibernation to test the climate. They fly about and hang from the ceilings as they wait for spring. The Monsted Kalkgruber museum is intent on preserving the bat population, so much so that they feature a bat counter, noting each bat's entry and exit from the caves.

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. 22 2016 12:30 PM

Australia’s Abandoned Antarctic Huts

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

Sitting on the edge of Cape Denison in Antarctica is a small group of huts that were built by Australian antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson in the early 20th century; however they have been abandoned for decades, preserving much of the effects and decor of the original expedition.

Constructed between 1911–1914, the small research station now known simply as the Mawson Huts stand as one of the last outposts leftover from the so-called Heroic Era of Antarctic Exploration and the only one created by Australians. Mawson and his team of 17 men, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, traveled to Commonwealth Bay to conduct experiments on a variety of subjects including continental drift, local wildlife, and glaciation, among a number of other scientific and survey interests.

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Given the harsh climate, life in the huts was miserable. Blizzards and hurricane force winds were the norm, and communication was difficult despite a radio relay that was set up on a nearby island. Mawson would later write of the experience, saying, "Temperatures as low as -28 degrees F. (60 degrees below freezing-point) were experienced in hurricane winds, which blew at a velocity occasionally exceeding one hundred miles per hour. Still air and low temperatures, or high winds and moderate temperatures, are well enough; but the combination of high winds and low temperatures is difficult to bear."

When the expedition left the site, they left their huts in place and headed out. The site simply sat in the cold and wind for decades before being briefly put back into use in the 1930s, before being abandoned once again. A number of the huts succumbed to the harsh winter conditions, but the main hut and the adjoining magnetograph house are still intact, retaining some of the original equipment such as the iron stove.

While reaching Mawson's Huts is not exactly easy, they remain there for any enterprising explorer interested in paying a visit. They are a protected historic site, so if the weather doesn't destroy them, they should be there for some time to come.

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. 19 2016 4:15 PM

Ireland’s Barack Obama Plaza

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

Located at a highway junction along the R445 motorway, the Barack Obama Plaza appears, at first glance, as nothing more than a gas station. The outside has gas pumps, and the inside looks like it might house a few snack kiosks and a restroom. But oh how deceiving looks can be.

The entirety of this plaza is a tribute to the first U.S. president to ever have roots in Moneygall. And while rest stops are rarely destinations in and of themselves, the modest Barack Obama Plaza in Moneygall, Ireland, has become a very popular port of call for the many organized tours traversing the country, which now include a stop in what is described as “Obama’s ancestral homeland.”

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Most people don’t know that President Obama has Irish blood on his mother’s side—his Kenyan heritage gets far more attention. But in 1850, a 19-year-old shoemaker named Falmouth Kearney set out on one of the so-called coffin ships that left Ireland and its Potato Famine for the promising new world. Kearney was from Moneygall. This little-known fact about Obama’s maternal relative came to light when he was running for president in 2007, immediately creating a sensation in Ireland.

On his first and only official visit to Ireland in 2011, the president said, "My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall O'bamas ... I've come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way." On a 90-minute visit to the village, he visited the remnants of his ancestor's home and drank a pint of Guinness.

But the real fun for Moneygall started after the commander in chief left. Immediate plans were set to immortalize the political celebrity’s connection to this largely forgotten locale. The $9 million Barack Obama Plaza project was one of the largest single investments in a decade in Ireland’s Midlands region.

Inside, tourists can purchase everything from mugs, magnets, and cigarette lighters to T-shirts proclaiming “Is Feidir Linn” (Gaelic for ‘Yes We Can’) and “What’s the Craic, Barack?” (What’s Up, Barack?).

Before Obama visited Moneygall on May 23, 2011, the small village in County Offaly was nothing more than a quaint highway village in the center of Ireland. Just 310 people called it home. Nowadays, the village draws at least a dozen tour buses daily, plus other tourists who deliberately choose to fuel up there.

The entire plaza is covered with Obama marketing—everything from the frosted emblems on the windows to the trash cans boasts an Obama seal, lest you forget why you’re there.

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. 18 2016 5:45 PM

A Museum Shaped Like a Giant’s Heart

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

Standing in sharp contrast to the more traditional historic architecture of Graz, Austria, the Kunsthaus Graz art museum was designed to break out of the usual white-box museum design, and it ended up looking like a giant robot/demon heart from the future.

The modern museum was built in 2003 during the time when Graz served as the European Capital of Culture, a roving honor that is awarded to a different European city each year. Rather than install another bland box among the lovely, aging buildings of the city, the designers went in the completely opposite direction, giving the building a more rounded, organic look. It also manages to look completely otherworldly. The bulbous shape and the skylight shafts that protrude from the top of the structure make it look like a metallic monster heart.

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The gleaming surface of the museum is also embedded with nearly 1,000 fluorescent rings that can be programmed to create patterns, making the building even more spectacular and strange at night. Much of the structure's power is absorbed by solar panels on the gleaming roof of the building, so it is almost as though it is gaining energy like an actual living being.

While the museum definitely stands out among the rest of Graz's uniformly historic buildings, it is now a beloved landmark of the city and well worth a visit whether you are a fan of art or just looking to see what a giant's silver heart would look like.

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. 17 2016 12:30 PM

The Stone Bridge Where the Devil Would Sunbathe

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

The longest and oldest bridge of its kind, the Tarr Steps in England's Exmoor National Park is made of a closely connected series of stone slabs that date back thousands of years and are rumored to be where the devil sunbathes.

Known as a "clapper bridge," which is a type of span built out of flat stone slabs lain end to end and supported by stone stacks, the Tarr Steps are maybe the best-known example of this type of construction. It is unclear exactly when the bridge was first created but it could date back as far as 1000 B.C. The 17 massive stone planks/slabs that make up the path of the bridge each weigh up to two tons and have managed to survive down the millennia. Spanning the River Barle, the bridge has long been both a simple way of crossing the river as well as an attraction for tourists looking to take in a remarkable piece of history.

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Even though it has managed to survive down the millennia, that is not to say that it hasn't had its fair share of wear and tear. A number of times, strong storms have managed to wash some of the slabs down river despite their massive size. This is usually helped along by debris that is washing down river. However, the huge rocks have always been recovered and replaced in the bridge. To combat this, a guard wire has been installed upstream from the bridge, and each of the stones has been numbered so that they can be more easily recovered and replaced should another disaster occur.

The ancient bridge even has its own myth. According to local legend, the bridge was built by the devil as a place to lay out and take in some rays, but he was eventually run off by a local parson. There is no trace of the devil left at the bridge, but it is still an impressive sight and a fine way to get across a river.

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. 16 2016 5:45 PM

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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