Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Nov. 28 2014 11:31 AM

Let There Be Sunlight: Belgium's See-Through Church

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

Like other countries in western Europe, Belgium is littered with stunning, Gothic-styled churches whose flying buttresses and soaring stained-glass windows inspire awe. But the country is also home to a church that, while tiny, monochromatic, and lacking adornment, is breathtaking in its own way.

Located in a field in the Flemish province of Limburg, and accessible only by foot or bicycle, Reading Between the Lines is a church that appears either solid or half-dissolved, depending on the angle from which you view it. Installed in 2011, the structure, created by Belgian architectural duo Gijs Van Vaerenbergh, was inspired by the traditional churches of the region. Reading Between the Lines is 33 feet tall and consists of 100 layers of stacked steel plate, interspersed with short columns to create the see-through effect.

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The church is part of a public art initiative led by Z33, a contemporary art museum in the Limburg town of Hasselt. No scheduled worship services take place inside, but visitors are welcome to enter the church and praise their deity of choice, whether it be God, art, or Carl Sagan. 

Other double-take-inducing churches:

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Nov. 26 2014 1:52 PM

Amalfi’s Abandoned, Overgrown Flour Mills

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In a verdant valley overlooking the Amalfi Coast, dotted with waterfalls, lie the overgrown remains of medieval mills that once churned out the flour for Amalfi's pasta. The oldest dates back to the 13th century. These mills, built from stone, spent hundreds of years grinding grain, powered by water from the stream flowing through the valley.

Around 25 mills were built in total. Output peaked during the 18th century, but industrialization and streamlined production methods saw the gradual closing of each business. By the 1940s, all were abandoned.

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The hike through the Valley of the Mills is a spectacular walk filled with crumbling stone bridges, ancient buildings succumbing to unfurling greenery, and a panoramic view of Amalfi.

More magnificent ruins to explore:

Nov. 25 2014 9:06 AM

Termas Geometricas: The Winding Red Path to a Breathtaking Bath

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

Deep in a lush forest canyon at Villarrica National Park in Chile, a bright red boardwalk beckons. The wooden path, serpentine and shrouded in mist, leads to one of the world’s most spectacular spas.

Termas Geometricas, or the Geometric Hot Springs, are 17 slate-lined thermal pools built into a ravine that teems with wild ferns, moss-covered rocks, and a rushing stream. The pools, fed by naturally heated water from the area’s hot springs, vary from 95 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. The red boardwalk running through the narrow ravine provides a walkway connecting each pool. At the end of the path is a waterfall, which you are welcome to stand beneath.

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The springs are open year-round, meaning you can soak in the warm water during a snowstorm if you so desire. During winter, the temperature of the waterfall plunges to around 43 degrees Fahrenheit, making for a bracing conclusion to an afternoon of relaxing dips.

Termas Geometricas is the creation of Chilean architect Germán del Sol, who designs hot springs and hotels that blend into their natural surroundings—his Remota Hotel in Patagonia features a roof covered in wild grass.

More hot springs:

Nov. 24 2014 1:18 PM

The Painted Polish Village of Zalipie Bursts With Blooms

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

Zalipie, a small Polish village east of Kraków, is forever in bloom. The walls of its wooden homes, both interior and exterior, are decorated from floor to ceiling with painted flowers. The village well is covered with carefully colored blossoms. At St. Joseph’s church, a sculpture of Jesus on the cross is surrounded by sprays of flowers painted on the wall. Floral murals curl their way around ovens, roofs, dog houses, and chicken coops. 

The Zalipie tradition of painting flowers on every available surface likely began during the late 19th century as a way of dealing with the soot spewed into the air from wood-burning stoves. To hide stubborn spots on the blackened walls, the women of Zalipie took to painting over them, first with a lime whitewash and then with colored flowers. By the time chimneys and modern ovens replaced the soot-spewing stoves, floral murals had become a hallmark of the village.

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During the 20th century, the standout artist among many painters was Felicja Curyłowa, who went all-out in the floral decoration stakes. In addition to painting murals all over the walls and ceilings, Curyłowa decorated her home with hanging bouquets made of crepe paper and painted blooms on her plates and kettles. After she died in 1974, Curyłowa’s flower-filled home was kept intact and opened to the public as a museum.

Zalipie’s flower-painting practice continues to this day. Every spring, the village holds a competition for the best painted cottage.

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Another room in Felicja Curyłowa's home.

Photo:Henryk Żychowski/Creative Commons

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Felicja Curyłowa's kitchen.

Photo: Andrzej O/Creative Commons

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Jesus surrounded by flowers at St. Joseph's Church in Zalipie.

Photo: Luxetowiec/Creative Commons

Other vibrant villages around the world:

Nov. 21 2014 12:33 PM

Belchite: A Spanish Civil War Town Left in Ruins

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 two villages named Belchite sitting side by side in the south of Spain. One is home to about 1,600 people. The other is a ghost town, ruined during Spain’s Civil War and left untouched as a reminder of the destruction wreaked across the country.

The Spanish Civil War began in 1936. Since winning the general election in February, the left-wing Republican government had been struggling to contain Nationalist uprisings. Assassinations on both sides in July—followed by police-militia shootouts at the murdered men’s funerals—paved the way for full-blown rebellion across the country. War was declared on July 17. By the end of the month, the Nationalist insurgents controlled about a third of Spain.

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By mid-1937, the Republicans were fighting back hard, bolstered by the Nationalists’ two failed attempts to capture Madrid. In order to slow the Nationalists’ southward advances, the Republican Army, along with volunteer fighters from the International Brigades, launched an offensive around the town of Belchite. For two weeks, the Nationalists resisted Republican attempts to recapture the village. Thousands died on both sides. By Sept. 7, when the Republicans finally wrested control of Belchite, the place had been decimated.

Since that day, the village of Belchite has been kept in its hollowed-out, rubble-strewn state. A new town was built beside it in 1939, but the old one remains as a living monument.

The victors of the Battle of Belchite ended up losing the war, which plunged Spain into a totalitarian state that lasted until the death of its fascist leader, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, in 1975.

Other magnificent ruins:

Nov. 20 2014 12:49 PM

The Remains of a Columbus Controversy That Just Won’t Die

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

He may have died over five centuries ago, but Christopher Columbus has still had an eventful year.

Things kicked off in April, when the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day. Seattle followed suit in October. There are now 16 states that do not recognize Columbus Day as a public holiday, and a growing number of jurisdictions shifting the focus from the explorer to the effects of colonization on America’s indigenous population. These changes exemplify a growing national sentiment best expressed by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight: "How is Columbus Day still a thing?

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In May, American underwater archeologist Barry Clifford claimed to have discovered the wreck of the Santa Maria, Columbus’ flagship that ran aground off the coast of Haiti on Dec. 25, 1492. "I am confident that a full excavation of the wreck will yield the first-ever detailed marine archaeological evidence of Columbus' discovery of America," Clifford told the BBC. A UNESCO mission, requested by the Haitian government, headed over to examine the wreck, ultimately with anticlimactic results—in October, the team reported that the shipbuilding techniques used to construct this supposed Santa Maria dated to the 17th or 18th century. Case closed; ship still missing.

June saw the introduction of "Columbus" as a verb. Columbusing, according to College Humor, is when white people "discover" a place or phenomenon already well-known to people of color and blithely claim credit for it. (See: twerking; the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy; the term "basic bitch.")

Then there was last month’s left-field lob from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During a speech delivered in Istanbul on Nov. 15, Erdogan claimed Muslim sailors "discovered" America in 1178, a solid three centuries prior to the arrival of Columbus. His evidence for the claim was a 1492 diary entry written by Columbus that mentions a mosque on a hill in Cuba. It was a metaphorical mosque, most likely a natural feature of the land, according to most scholars who’ve delved into the issue. But that didn't stop Erdogan from claiming a 12th-century Muslim presence in America. (The indigenous population, present in North America for thousands of years before any of this went down, did not get a mention. Nor did the Vikings, who made it to Newfoundland circa 1000 A.D.)

Columbus would be rolling in his grave at all of this, but there’s a problem there, too: it’s not certain where he lies, exactly. Due to a lot of posthumous travel, the Italian explorer rests in pieces. Two sites claim to hold his remains: Seville Cathedral in Spain, and the Columbus Lighthouse at Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

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The Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo.

Photo: Daniel Lobo/Creative Commons

Columbus was buried in the Spanish city of Valladolid after dying there in 1506. His son, Diego, wasn’t satisfied with this arrangement, and had his father’s remains disinterred and sent to a monastery in Seville. There they stayed until 1542, when they were packed up and put on a boat bound for Santo Domingo in what is now the Dominican Republic. (The grand new Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor had just been built in Santo Domingo, and it seemed a fitting location for Columbus' remains.)

The cathedral, however, was far from Columbus’ final resting place. In 1795, when France ousted Spain from Hispaniola (the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Columbus’ remains were taken to Havana, Cuba. Following Cuba’s 1898 independence from Spain, Columbus ended up back in Andalusia, interred in an ornate tomb at Seville Cathedral.

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The Columbus tomb at Seville Cathedral.

Photo:Pom²/Creative Commons

If only the journey had ended there. Back in the Dominican Republic, a worker at the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor had discovered a box of bones marked "The illustrious and excellent man, Don Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea." ("Colon" being the Spanish way of saying Columbus.) The implication of this find was that the Spanish had taken the wrong guy's remains back to Seville and left Columbus, the "illustrious and excellent man," in Santo Domingo. But there was a catch: Diego, Columbus’ son, was also known as Don Colon, Admiral of the Sea. Those remains could have been his—or even someone else’s, placed in the wrong box.

Undeterred by the possible case of mistaken identity, Santo Domingo built a massive, blocky cruciform "Columbus Lighthouse" to serve as the explorer’s tomb. The 688-foot-long complex opened in 1992, in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ 1492 voyage.

Both Seville Cathedral and the Columbus Lighthouse claim to be the keepers of the Italian explorer’s remains. Science has intervened in the argument—in 2006, DNA testing on the Seville bone fragments confirmed they belonged to Columbus. That did not, however, negate the possibility that some of Columbus is still in Santo Domingo. Administrators of the Columbus Lighthouse refuse to allow the remains they hold to be disinterred, citing respect for the dead as their reason. 

Visit Atlas Obscura for more on the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo and the Columbus tomb in Seville.

Other intriguing tombs:

Nov. 18 2014 12:43 PM

A Busy Public Road Runs Right Through This Airport Runway

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

Space is at a premium in tiny Gibraltar—so much so that the British territory’s only airport runway intersects with its busiest road. Cars traveling along Winston Churchill Avenue must stop for planes several times a day. For about 10 minutes, traffic stays at a standstill to allow a flight to depart for—or arrive from—London, Birmingham, or Manchester.

In 2007 the government released plans for a new four-lane road that would divert traffic through a tunnel under the runway, although cars would not be required to use it. The road, scheduled to open in 2009, has still not been completed.

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The airport is, by necessity, small. The Spain-Gibraltar border lies just north of the runway. South of the runway, in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar, is North Front cemetery, the only graveyard in the territory where burials are still conducted.

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A plane landing as stopped traffic looks on.

Photo: Tony Evans/Creative Commons

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The Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, the airport and the cemetery, viewed from Gibraltar's Great Siege Tunnels.

Photo: David Jones/Creative Commons

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The airport is within walking distance from the Rock of Gibraltar.

Photo: Tony Evans/Creative Commons

Other risky runways:

Nov. 17 2014 8:29 AM

How to Keep a 101-Story Skyscraper Steady in High Winds

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 view of Taipei from the 89th floor of Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings at 1,667 feet, is spectacular. But turn your back to the urban panorama and you’ll see something equally fascinating: a huge yellow sphere, suspended from eight steel cables in the center of the building between Floors 87 and 91.

The 728-ton globe is a tuned mass damper—a device designed to counter the effects of wind and seismic activity on a skyscraper. TMDs, as they’re known in the mechanical engineering biz, consist of two components: a heavy mass, and a springy, shock-absorbing suspension mechanism. Common types include pendulums, columns filled with water that sloshes back and forth, and concrete blocks on springs.

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In strong wind, the upper levels of a skyscraper will sway a few feet back and forth. A TMD like the Taipei 101 sphere reduces the motion of the building by swinging in the opposite direction, which dissipates the vibrational energy.

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Taipei 101's tuned mass damper.

Photo: Armand du Plessis/Creative Commons

TMDs are present in tall buildings around the world, particularly those in earthquake-prone zones. The World Financial Center in Shanghai, the sail-shaped Burj al-Arab luxury hotel in Dubai, and One Rincon Hill South Tower in San Francisco all have them. Several buildings in New York also have TMDs, including Citigroup Center, Trump World Tower, and Random House Tower.

Taipei 101 is unique in that its TMD is accessible to the public. In fact, it’s marketed as a big attraction, complete with a “Damper Baby” character that serves as the building’s mascot. For 500 Taiwanese dollars—about US$16—you can go to the 88th floor and stand within feet of the world’s largest and heaviest wind damper. If you’re there on the day of an earthquake, you may see it sway an alarming distance, as happened during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008:

Other scintillating skyscrapers:

Nov. 14 2014 7:32 AM

Messages to the Universe: A Short History of Interstellar Communication

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

Nov. 16, 2014, marks the 40th anniversary of the Arecibo message, an interstellar communiqué transmitted from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico toward Messier 13, a globular cluster of stars located more than 22,000 light-years away.

The content of the message was determined by astrophysicist and Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) founder Frank Drake, with a little help from luminaries like Carl Sagan. It used a string of 1,679 binary digits—the idea was that the alien civilization who receives the message will recognize 1,679 as a semiprime number and multiple of 23 and 73.* “Ah,” they will think (in their native language, obviously), “this binary string of unknown origin is intriguing. Let’s lay out the info in a 23-by-73 grid and see what emerges.”

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When the ones and zeroes are put into grid form, what results is a pixelated summary of humanity. It contains seven parts. The first part of the message shows the numbers one through 10. Next are the atomic numbers for carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus. A very simple representation of the DNA double helix follows. Then there is a blocky image of a human, a depiction of Earth’s position in the solar system—with Pluto still shown as a planet, a matter that is still up for debate—and an image of the Arecibo telescope that, to a 2014 eye, resembles the Gmail logo.

Even if the folks in Messier 13 were to respond promptly to this message, we’d still have to wait at least 43,960 years for their reply. But the Arecibo message was never really intended as genuine interstellar communication—it was chiefly a demonstration of the Arecibo telescope’s might. (The dish was upgraded in 1974, and the three-minute digital transmission, ostensibly sent to an alien civilization, was quite the celebratory attention-getter.)

Messier 13’s assumed inhabitants may never become our pen pals, but the tantalizing prospect of interstellar communication continues to entice Earthlings. Since the Arecibo message was transmitted into the universe, at least eight other interstellar radio messages have been beamed into the sky—all within the last 15 years.

In 2001, Russian astronomer Aleksandr Zaitsev and a group of Russian teenagers broadcast a series of transmissions collectively known as the “Teen Age Message.” Targeted at six stars located between 45.9 and 68.5 light-years away, the messages included Russian folk music and works by classical composers such as Beethoven and Vivaldi. All of this music was played on the theremin—Zaitsev referred to the message as the “First Theremin Concert For Extraterrestrials.” Sent from Yevpatoria Planetary Radar in Crimea, the transmission was the first interstellar musical radio message. There have been more: In 2008, NASA sent the Beatles song “Across the Universe” across the universe, targeting the Northern Star, Polaris.

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“Teen Age Message” being sent into the universe from Crimea in 2001.

Photo: Rumlin/Creative Commons

The question of how best to communicate with extraterrestrials is one of SETI’s ongoing concerns. Earlier this week, the organization held a workshop in California with the title “Communicating Across the Cosmos.” A common theme was humanity’s self-obsession. In composing interstellar messages, we tend to assume the intended recipients will get what we’re trying to say. But the scientific knowledge and physiology of nonhuman civilizations may be so different to our own that a Beethoven composition or a stick-figure human is totally indecipherable.

Even the supposedly universal language of mathematics may not be the best lingua franca. During a talk at the SETI conference, Carl DeVito posed a mind-bending question: “Are the natural numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, … merely creations of the human mind or do they exist independently of us?” You can watch his talk for more, but for the record, here is his own answer: “I think the natural numbers do exist independently of us. The rest of mathematics, however, might not exist anywhere but in our minds.”

Of the eight interstellar messages sent since 1999, the first to reach its target will be A Message From Earth, which was sent to extrasolar planet Gliese 581 c in October 2008 and is scheduled to arrive in early 2029. The transmission, intended as a digital time capsule, was initiated by now-defunct RDF Digital—a subsidiary of the U.K. production company responsible for the TV show Wife Swap—and Bebo, a social networking website that declared bankruptcy in 2013. The 501 photos and text messages in the transmission were selected by Bebo users via web vote. In about 15 years, the residents of Gliese 581 c, assuming there are any, will receive a deluge of information about faded British pop stars.

Though each interstellar transmission has varied wildly in tone and content, each reflects a common core message: “We are here. This is us.” Whether they reach other civilizations is almost irrelevant. The chance to sum up humanity to an extraterrestrial audience is an alluring task, and one that allows us to feel absurdly important while inhabiting, as Carl Sagan wrote in Pale Blue Dot, “a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

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The heart of Messier 13, target audience for the Arecibo message.

Photo: ESA/Hubble and NASA/Public domain

More out-of-this-world observatories:

*Correction, Nov. 14, 2014: The post originally misstated that 1,679 was a prime number. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Nov. 13 2014 8:15 AM

The Most Metal Cemetery in New York

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

Glimpsed from the L train as it rumbles up to the open air at the Wilson Avenue station in Bushwick, Most Holy Trinity Cemetery isn't immediately different from the other numerous burial grounds that cluster around the Brooklyn-Queens border. Yet step inside its entrance at 685 Central Avenue before it dead ends, and a rolling landscape of rust stretches before your eyes.

All except the most recent graves are wood or metal, an early regulation set in place by the German Catholic Most Holy Trinity Church to enforce a posthumous equality. As the church's website explains, "from the earliest days, stone monuments were not allowed because no distinctions were permitted to be made between the rich and the poor."

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