Atlas Obscura
Your 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.

July 29 2016 12:45 PM

Swarovski Crystal’s Surreal Theme Park

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

Hiding in the verdant hills of Wattens, Austria, is a foliage-covered giant who spews a waterfall from his mouth and guards over a dozen fantastical crystal chambers beneath a hill. And it is all owned by Swarovski.

Swarovski's surreal museum/theme park Crystal Worlds was first opened back in 1995 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the company's founding. Like something out of a fairy tale, the park's main attraction is the "Chambers of Wonder" exhibition, which is contained within a green hill, the entrance of which is made to look like a crouching giant. The exhibition itself consists of over a dozen different rooms decked out in Swarovski crystals, creating uniquely themed, glittering spaces that could just as easily be a dwarf king's treasure hall.

In 2015, the park was given a facelift and expanded to almost double the original size. Now it also features a large, outdoor green space with attractions throughout, including a playground tower for children and a "Crystal Cloud" made up of over 800,000 separate gems. There is even a hedge maze shaped like a giant hand.

Whether or not you could actually afford anything studded with actual Swarovski crystals, Crystal Worlds is an incredible sight for anyone with a love of fantasy.

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.

July 27 2016 1:30 PM

The King of Lighthouses Covers Its Entire Island

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Miles off the coast of southwestern England lies an archipelago of islands called the Isles of Scilly, regarded as the southernmost point of the United Kingdom and the westernmost point of England. Comprised of 145 islands, only six of the isles have been inhabited at any one point in time, the smallest of which, Bishop Rock, is a mere 0.000736 square kilometers—under 8,000 square feet at low tide.

On this minuscule island stands a single lighthouse that covers nearly every inch of the island. It was the permanent home to a small team of lighthouse keepers from its construction in 1858 until the year it became automated in 1991. Nowadays, it serves as both a beacon of light for sailors and a miniature hotel for any group of four eccentric history buffs looking to live in complete isolation for a few weeks.

Why was this thing constructed in the first place? Shipwrecks. It all started in 1707, when the HMS Association and three other ships crashed into a rock nearby Bishop Rock, killing 1,550 people—the worst crash in the history of the British Isles. Over 100 years later, Bishop Rock itself was struck, twice. The wrecks prompted the construction of a lighthouse, on the westernmost rock, to warn incoming ships as early as possible.

The lighthouse on Bishop Rock must have been extremely difficult to build. At high tide, the base of the lighthouse covers practically every square inch of the island, giving no room for proper footing. After three years of construction, a storm in 1850 blew the lighthouse off the ground, destroying £12,500 (modern day $1.9 million) of work.

But after being completed in 1858 and renovated in 1887, the structure has been dubbed “King of the Lighthouses.” It is indeed a beauty, the second tallest in the U.K., at 167 feet. Its 10 floors hold a water tank, two oil rooms, a living room, a bedroom, and even a helipad on top.

The lighthouse has also collected world records. When inhabited, Bishop Rock can qualify as the the world's smallest island. And year-round it has the peculiar distinction of being the world’s smallest island with a building on it—that is until someone decides to build a structure on an even smaller isle.

This place submitted by Atlas user lewblank

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.

July 26 2016 5:00 PM

The Taxidermy Treasures of the Pember Museum

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

For nearly 50 years, from 1924 to 1971, the second floor of the Granville library was the stuff of local rumor and legend.

Occasionally a kindly librarian might let an inquisitive child tiptoe up the grand wooden staircase and through the mysterious second-floor door. He or she would find the room dusty, dark and smelling of mothballs. Within that gloom it was packed full to bursting with creatures from all around the world. Thousands of glass eyes reflected the little light that made it in. A portal to the past, the cobwebbed collection was almost exactly as it was when it was premiered in 1909.

Today the Pember Museum has been re-opened and is in active use, but thankfully it hasn't changed much in terms of aesthetics. It is still very much the Victorian natural history museum it's creator Franklin T. Pember intended. Pember was born in South Granville, New York, in 1841 the son of prosperous farmers. An early collector of natural specimens Pember began his collection when he was only 21. However much of Pember's personal and financial success would come after he met and married his wife Ellen Wood at age 27 in 1868.

Ellen and Franklin Pember were a kind of Victorian power couple and throughout their lives their partnership was remarked on for its closeness and love. Together they began to build a small empire based around the natural world. Franklin made much of his wealth not through farming—he wrote to Ellen that he thought it was too much damn work for the reward—but through the fur trade, establishing the "Pember and Prouty, Commision Dealer of Furs and Skins" in New York City. As the Pembers grew in wealth, they traveled the country and the world where Franklin continually hunted and collected an ever-increasing set of natural specimens.

The Pembers eventually funded the building of Granville library that the museum was to go into, and in 1909 Franklin's life's work was assembled and opened as the Pember Museum. It is displayed today much then as it was then, an incredible natural history collection displayed in wood and class cases. Victorian maximalism at its best. Unfortunately not long after the Pembers’ deaths (they died within a few weeks of each other) in 1924, the Pember Museum fell into neglect and disuse.

Today, revitalized by in the 1970s by the local community of Granville, the Pember is open and active. As one explores, Pember's presence can be felt throughout. Pember did much of the collecting, as well as the taxidermy in the museum himself, and his obvious love of natural history and his skillful hand at taxidermy are on beautiful display.

Place contributed by Dylan

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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