Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Jan. 29 2016 12:30 PM

The Norwegian Cliffs Where You Can View the Midnight Sun

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At the northern tip of the island of Mageroya, at a place called Knivskjellodden, is the very top of Europe. You are still in Norway but standing at the gateway to the Arctic.

North Cape, or Nordkapp, is on the northernmost Norwegian island of Mageroya. The dramatic landscape, with giant cliffs jutting straight up out of the frigid waters, fits perfectly when you consider North Cape’s home at the handshake of two seas (the Barents and the Norwegian), and the bumping of two oceans (the North Atlantic and the Arctic). For hundreds of years, travelers scaled or sailed around these rocky cliffs, some looking for the Northwest Passage, like English explorers Richard Chancellor and Steven Borough, who coined the name North Cape in 1553. Others were looking for knowledge or solace or both, like Franciscan priest Francesco Negri, who made it there in 1664 and is widely considered to be its first "tourist." And still others were simply showing off their power and wealth—Emperor Wilhelm of Germany, King Louis XVIII of France, King Oscar of Norway and Sweden, and even King Rama of then-Siam all made pilgrimages to the end of Europe. The trip was rough and usually required both perseverance or money.

You no longer need to have the wealth of monarchs or the stoicism of a Franciscan monk to make it there. Modern roads and transportation have made it much easier than trying to find the Northwest Passage. Once there, the clifftop Globe Monument has become the meeting place of travelers who still want to see the jumping-off point of Europe into the Arctic. (Please don’t jump—the water is very cold.)

And as long as you’re there between mid-May and the end of July, you can see the midnight sun of Nordkapp, clouds and fog permitting. Because when oceans collide, the weather doesn’t always cooperate.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor mariellealien.

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Jan. 28 2016 12:30 PM

This Once-Bustling Fishing Village Sunk Into the Chesapeake Bay

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A town can change a lot in 100 years. In the case of the settlement on Chesapeake Bay’s Holland Island, the land itself can disappear.

Once one of the most populated islands in the bay, Holland Island was first settled in the 1600s and grew to a community of around 350 people by 1910. There were dozens of homes, a post office, a schoolhouse, and a church. Most of the townspeople were fishermen, spending their days out on the water, casting fishing nets or dredging for oysters. Somewhat ironically, the water that provided the community’s livelihood would also be its undoing.

After hundreds of years of continuous settlement, erosion began to take a significant toll on the west side of the island beginning in 1914. Stubbornly rising sea levels continued to eat away at the silt and clay shoreline in the coming years, forcing a mass exodus. The last remaining family moved off the island in 1918.

Once it became clear that the tide could not be contained, many of the buildings on Holland Island were torn down and reassembled on the mainland. The local church, for example, was relocated to Fairmount, Maryland, in 1922. As the island continued to sink from solid ground to marshland and from marshland to open water, soon only one structure remained—a two-story house that at high tide seemed to rise directly from the water. It crumbled following a storm in November 2010, leaving the island just barely discernible—patches of marsh and debris. By 2012, Holland Island had eroded completely. Although nothing can be seen from the surface, the town is still down there, its homes and graveyard somewhere under the bay’s lapping waters.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor The Minx.

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Jan. 27 2016 12:30 PM

On Japan’s Tashirojima Island, Cats Are King

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On the island of Tashirojima, the cats outnumber people, and the people like it that way.

It's no accident that the cats who inhabit Tashirojima, or what has become known as "Cat Island," in Japan have come to be the island's primary residents. Cats have long been thought by the locals to represent luck and good fortune and doubly so if you feed and care for them. Thus, the cats are treated like kings, and although most are feral because keeping them as "pets" is generally considered inappropriate, they are well-fed and well cared for.

Despite this, luck and fortune hasn't exactly come to the human residents of "Cat Island." In the last 50 years, the human population of the island has dwindled from 1,000 to fewer than 100. As more and more people have shunned the island as it became dominated by felines, the people who have remained have become ever more protective of the cats. Currently, dogs are not allowed on the island to protect the well-being of the cats—and presumably any dog foolish enough to venture onto an island full of feral cats.

The cats may end up bringing luck after all, however. Tourism has been picking up as the island has become an attraction for curious travelers, thanks to all of those cats.

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Jan. 26 2016 12:30 PM

The Elephant Path at Lahore Fort

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Because it would be a shame to leave one’s elephant parked outside the citadel, the magnificent Lahore Fort in Pakistan features an entranceway crafted for an entire pachyderm parade.

As the Mughal Empire expanded across the Indian subcontinent in the 16th century, Lahore became an increasingly important stronghold. Its strategic location was key in tying the expanded Mughal territories to the fortified cities of Kabul, Multan, and Kashmir. The city’s fortress was built under the reign of Emperor Akbar between 1566 and 1605 and housed several Mughal (and later Sikh) rulers over the following centuries.

The two sections of the fort are divided by usage—an administrative portion and a residential portion. The elephant stairs (or Hathi Paer) are part of the private entrance to the royal quarters and effectively allowed royalty to ascend all the way to the doorway before dismounting. In order to accommodate the lumbering creatures, the stairs were designed with wide treads but minimal height (a balking elephant can really dampen the mood of a procession).

Although it's been centuries since a herd of jewel- and silk-laden elephants traveled several abreast along this sloping corridor, it was once certainly the most magnificent driveway in the world. 

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Tawsam.

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Jan. 25 2016 12:30 PM

The Tribeca Fire Station That Got a Starring Role in Ghostbusters

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Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!

But where ya gonna call them? At their iconic firehouse headquarters, of course. In the film, the spook chasers' firehouse is as much of an iconic piece of the action as the Ecto-1 car or their homemade proton packs. It appears in Ghostbusters video games and even has its own LEGO set. But in reality the firehouse has a history that is more Old New York than supernatural hot spot.

Hook and Ladder 8, the building used for the exterior shots of the Ghostbusters' HQ, is a working firehouse that has been around for more than a century. In fact, the firehouse even predates the Fire Department of New York. When Hook and Ladder 8 was established, the firefighting forces of New York were made up of a bunch of loosely affiliated companies of volunteering men.

In 1866, just one year after these disparate fire brigades were incorporated under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Fire Department, the Hook and Ladder 8 company moved its operations to the current spot on North Moore Street in Tribeca. At the time, an older school building occupied the site.

Jan. 22 2016 12:30 PM

The Watermills of Jajce

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Jajce, in the central region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a historic city all about falling water. Famous for its enormous waterfall in the middle of town, the meeting of two rivers—the Pliva and the Vrbas—established the region in the 14th century as the capital of the then–Kingdom of Bosnia. There’s a town castle, old fortified city walls, high mountains, and deep river valleys. And just downstream, in the area of the Pliva Lakes, is a collection of about 20 little huts that once served as watermills for local farmers.

The little windowless huts sit on top of skinny stilts right over the gushing water. Since the flow here is spread out, by using a series of little mills instead of one big water wheel, the diffuse water power could be aggregated. Pretty ingenious. Most of the huts go back to the period of the Austro-Hungarian empire (about 1867 to 1918), and they give the impression of a little storybook village.

No longer used for actual milling, the Pliva Lakes watermills draw tourists down the river from the giant waterfall in town. That waterfall is certainly impressive with its showy 65-foot drop. But the little shingled watermills feel like they might be home to some local trolls, with their dragons hitched up out back.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor mandacvitic.

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Jan. 21 2016 12:30 PM

A Beautiful Library in Sárospatak, Hungary

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Some of the oldest and most valuable books and manuscripts in Hungarian history are housed in the beautiful library of a small university town in the Bodrog river valley.

The Protestant Reformation took root quickly in Hungary, where enthusiasm for a new vision for participation in religious and intellectual life proved infectious. In the mid-to-late 1500s, several Calvinist colleges sprang up across the country, with the mission of training ministers for the new Hungarian Reform Church. Sárospatak College was one the earliest and the most notable of these institutions, hosting some of the country’s most influential thinkers. Notably, the famous Czech educator and pedagogical historian Jan Comenius spent several years here, developing his own modern vision of a college education, which included the introduction of pictorial textbooks and an emphasis on critical thinking over rote memorization. 

Although it existed in some form since 1531, the college’s library was scattered across several storage facilities until 1843, when it moved into its current building. The facility features high windows and an intricate, trompe l’oeil painted dome. Having exploded in size in the 20th century, it now contains over 25,000 volumes. 

Some of the oldest and most important pieces of the Sárospatak collection recently returned to the country after more than half a century abroad. At the dawn of World War II, 170 of the library’s treasures were transferred to Budapest for safety. They were seized by the Soviet Army on its 1945 return from Germany, and spent over half a century in the regional library of Nizhni Novgorod. In 2006, they were given back to Hungary and are now on display at the Budapest National Museum.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor ahvenas.

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Jan. 20 2016 12:30 PM

The Story of Julian of Norwich, the Most Famous Anchorite of Her Day

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In 1413, Margery Kempe was embarking on a dangerous quest. She and her husband had agreed to be celibate: She was going to begin to live her life as a woman devoted to God, a mystic. She was about to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And she knew whose spiritual guidance she wanted: Julian of Norwich, the most famous anchorite of her day.

In England, from about the 12th to the 16th century, an estimated 780 people chose to live permanently shut up in a room attached to a church. They were called anchorites, from a Greek word meaning “to withdraw,” and most of them were women. They left little record of their lives behind, and they’re little remembered today.

But, in their way, they were powerful women. Julian of Norwich wrote the first published book attributed to a woman in all of English literature. And although they had just two or three small windows letting a sliver of the outside world into their chambers, anchorites were influential. They could give counsel from the wisdom they accrued in their contemplative lives, and in this way, have an outsized impact on the places and communities they lived in. 

Before anchorites retired from the outside world to dedicate their lives to religious devotion, a priest would say a rite of enclosure, akin to a funeral rite. The sealed rooms they lived in were not unlike tombs. (Some scholars have also likened them to wombs.) The small spaces were called anchorholds, and they were perhaps 12 feet by 12 feet, built onto the side of a church. They would have been sparsely furnished and dark: An anchorhold was supposed to have, at most, three small windows, sometimes called squints or hagioscopes.

One of these windows would have had a practical purpose: An attendant would pass simple meals and other necessities through it. One window would have given a portal into the church itself, so that the anchorite could receive the Eucharist and hear the services inside. The last window would have provided the anchorite with the only connection to the rest of the world.

Jan. 19 2016 12:30 PM

Italy’s Sammezzano Castle

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An overlooked Italian marquis left behind one of the finest examples of Moorish Revival architecture in the world … yet only a handful of people each year get a chance to bask in its glory.

Located in the midst of a sprawling wooded estate, the Sammezzano Castle occupies the same spot as a royal palazzo first established in 1605 by a Spanish nobleman of the name Ximenes of Aragon. Though long-lasting, the original was deemed unfit by Marquis Ferdinando Ximenes Panciatichi, who in 1853 undertook a complete rebuild of the site.

This historically overlooked marquis retreated from Florence's increasingly toxic political climate and decided to hire artisans and construct his ideal retreat in the form of what is now known as Sammezzano Castle. It was built entirely on-site over the course of 40 years.

Meandering through the castle, it's clear just how far the marquis went to ensure his architecture allowed visitors to feel utterly transported from their current circumstances. Embedded in the walls is the motto Non plus ultra, "nothing farther beyond," in reference to the uniqueness and originality of his creation. Though no two rooms are alike, among the most jaw-dropping are the Room of the Lilies, the Room of the Lovers, the Room of the Stalactites, the Room of the Mirrors, and the Room of the Peacocks.

After the marquis' death, Sammezzano was converted into a luxury hotel. The castle's commercial turn thrived in the post–World War II era, but as revenues dwindled, the hotel was shuttered and subsequently abandoned in the 1990s. Only in 2012 did the FPXA committee (short for Ferdinand Panciatichi Ximenes d’Aragon) acquire the property, since which time they have sought to secure funds to properly restore the masterpiece. In conjunction with their mission, the organization will invite visitors to Sammezzano for tours in its current, unrestored state

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Jan. 18 2016 12:30 PM

The Czech Republic’s Bone 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.

"Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return."

Any lapsed Catholic will remember this line, as it's part of the tradition of Ash Wednesday celebration. It has its roots in "memento mori," the Latin theory of death that was of great importance to medieval Christianity. Monks surrounded themselves with the bones of the dead, reminding them that life was fleeting and they would be with God soon. Churches were stacked with femurs and monasteries overflowed with skulls. What was philosophical was also aesthetic. The arrangement of human remains into fantastical forms became an art form. Nowhere is this more true than in Sedlec Ossuary, also known as "The Bone Church."

Watch the video above for the explanation of how this bone church came to be!

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