Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

April 18 2014 10:04 AM

Cerro Negro: Surf Down a Volcano

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

Today's installment of our exciting new series, I Didn't Know You Could Surf That, features a Nicaraguan volcano.

Cerro Negro is Central America's youngest volcano, having popped up in 1850.* It is also the first volcano to offer ash boarding.

Ash boarding, also known as volcano surfing or volcano boarding, involves strapping a wooden plank to your feet and coasting down the 1,600-foot ash-and-pebble slope of Cerro Negro. Boarders, wearing gloves, goggles, and jumpsuits, reach speeds of up to 50 miles an hour, kicking up clouds of dust on the way down. Those of a more timid disposition can opt to sit on the board or simply run down the steep slope.

The ascent is less thrilling—it's an hourlong hike—but the summit brings its own rewards. A stunning 360 degree panoramic view reveals the chain of active and dormant volcanoes, lined up one after the other, surrounded by blue skies and lush green foliage. Cerro Negro itself is an active volcano whose crater often emits smoke. It has erupted 23 times, most recently in 1999.


Photo: Beth and Anth/Creative Commons


Photo: Roman Königshofer/Creative Commons


Photo: Chiara/Creative Commons

Other volcanic vacation spots:

View Cerro Negro in a larger map

*Correction, April 18: The post originally described Cerro Negro as a South American volcano. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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April 17 2014 1:43 PM

How to Go Surfing in the Middle of Munich

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

If you're riding the Munich subway in the dead of winter and you see someone carrying a surfboard, chances are they're headed for the Eisbach, a stream that runs through the city's biggest park, Englischer Garten.

A one-and-a-half-foot stationary welle, or wave, at a spot beneath a bridge was once an occasional sight, until local surfers funneled it into a more forceful, permanent swell by installing planks of wood on the sides of the river. Now the site attracts wave riders who brave the cold water — 39F in winter, 60F in summer — to surf the stream in front of a crowd of onlookers.

So popular is the site that queues of surfers form on both sides of the narrow river. Authorities have threatened to shut down the wave on account of its perceived danger, but a "save the wave" campaign won out, and surfing is now officially allowed. That said, the Eisbachwelle is not for newcomers — a sign on the bank warns, "Due to the forceful current, the wave is suitable for skilled and experienced surfers only."


Photo: lxgr/Creative Commons


Photo: digital cat/Creative Commons

Other watery wonders:

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April 16 2014 12:00 PM

The Rat King: So Much Worse Than it Sounds

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

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase "rat king"? Perhaps a sniffy-nosed rodent scampering about in a crown? Or maybe a ballet dancer in a rat costume, a la the Mouse King in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker? Well, take those innocent visions, dash them, and report to Room 101. There, in your bespoke face-cage, you will meet the real rat king.

A rat king, or roi-de-rats if you want to get all classy and French about it, is a pack of rodents whose tails have become entwined. The adhesive for this rat tangle may be dirt, blood, or feces, or the tails may simply be knotted together. The number of rats in a rat king varies wildly — two rats can make a rat king, albeit a pretty pathetic one.

Reported rat king sightings date back to at last as far as the 16th century. Germany is a particular hotspot, for reasons unknown. The largest known specimen is a mummified 32-rat snarl, on display at the Mauritianum museum in Altenburg, Germany.

Behold the monstrous majesty: 


Photo:Naturkundliches Museum Mauritianum Altenburg/Creative Commons

There are also rat kings on show at France's Natural History Museum in Nantes (nine rats), the Zoological Museum of Tartu, Estonia (16 rats), and the Zoological Museum of Strasbourg (10 rats).

The big question in all this is whether rat kings can form without human intervention. Certainly a portion of the "found" specimens are best consigned to the category of Cryptozoology along with the Feejee Mermaid and the Skunk Ape. But did any of the rodents become entangled of their own accord? Are there real rat kings? The answer is a definite maybe. Sweet dreams.

The Nantes rat king.

Photo: Selbymay/Creative Commons

Other creatures to make you squirm:

April 15 2014 2:09 PM

Oradour-sur-Glane, France's Chilling World War II Ghost Village

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

The village of Oradour-sur-Glane in central France has stood in ruins since 1944. Among the scorched, crumbling buildings are things owned by the people who lived here 70 years ago: burnt shells of cars; browned sewing machines; bed frames; the skeleton of a stroller. All sit quietly, at the mercy of nothing but weather and time.

On June 10, 1944, the Waffen-SS, an armed division of the Nazi SS, stormed Oradour-sur-Glane and ordered every resident to assemble in the village square in order to have their identity papers examined. The promised inspection never happened. Instead, the SS unit led the men to barns and sheds, where they had set up machine guns. They took the women and children to the church, locked them in, and set the building on fire. Anyone who tried to escape through a window met with a hail of gunfire.

Within hours, the Waffen-SS had murdered 642 residents of Oradour-sur-Glane. Satisfied, they left, but not before torching every structure in the village.

When World War II ended, then French president Charles de Gaulle declared that while a new Oradour-sur-Glane would be built next to the original, the old one must be kept in ruins as a reminder of the atrocities of war. Apart from the addition of signs, plaques, and a museum, the ghost village is untouched. A sign above the entrance reads "Souviens-Toi" — "Remember."


Photo: Gvdbor/Creative Commons


Photo: MPhotographe/Creative Commons


Photo: Jon's pics/Creative Commons


Photo: Pug Girl/Creative Commons


Photo: Verity Cridland/Creative Commons


Photo: Alejandro Mallea/Creative Commons

Other remnants of World War II:

April 14 2014 10:26 AM

The Italian Job's Grand Torino Rooftop Racetrack

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

During one of the many action scenes in The Italian Job — the Michael Caine original, not the Mark Wahlberg remake — the Mini Coopers race around a rooftop track in Turin. It's one of cinema's most civilized car chase scenes, as evinced by the thoroughly British line, "Try putting your foot down, Tony, they're really getting rather close."

Here's the scene:

The track featured is a real race track, built on the roof of a Fiat factory that opened in Turin's Ligotto district in 1923. The factory's assembly line began at the ground floor and ended on the top level, where cars were taken for a test run around the track. Spiraling ramps inside the building allowed the cars to be driven back down and into showrooms.

The factory closed in 1982, after which Fiat held a competition for its redevelopment. Architect Renzo Piano, whose work includes the New York Times building, and London's "vertical city," the Shard, secured the commission. His workshop transformed the old factory into a public space complete with shopping center, theater, hotel, convention center, and art gallery. A helipad and bubble-shaped, blue glass meeting room were added to the roof to cater for business travelers with big expense accounts.

You can still visit the rooftop test track, but the days of Fiat cars looping around the course are gone. If you can't shake the urge to race around a circle, head downstairs to the speed skating rink, which was built for the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.  


Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Creative Commons


Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Creative Commons


Photo: Franklin Heijnen/Creative Commons


Photo: Arjen Rienks/Creative Commons


Photo: Raffaele Sergi/Creative Commons

The track in 1928.

Photo: L. Francesetti/Creative Commons

Other lofty diversions:

View NH Lingotto in a larger map

April 11 2014 9:52 AM

How a Real Corpse Ended Up in a California Fun Park Spookhouse

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

It was 1976. Crew members from the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man were preparing to shoot on location at the Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California. The plan was to capture Steve Austin, the titular pricey fellow, riding in one of the cars along the track of a spooky ride called the "Laff in the Dark." The ride featured a tunnel in which ghouls, demons, and skeletons would pop up and scare you as your car jolted from side to side in the dark.

While sprucing up the set, a Six Million Dollar employee spotted a mannequin hanging from a noose in the corner. He reached for the mannequin's arm — and the arm broke off in his hand. Looking at the dismembered limb, the worker was astonished to see what looked like bone beneath layers of desiccated skin. This was no mannequin. This was a man.

The hanging corpse in question was once Elmer McCurdy, an outlaw who died in a gunfight with police 65 years before being found in the funhouse. In 1911, the mischief-making vagabond robbed a train near Okesa, Oklahoma, then took his spoils — $46 and two jugs of whisky — north, where he holed up in a barnyard on the Kansas border. Police pursued him and ended up killing him in a shootout among the hay.

McCurdy's body was taken to a funeral home in Pawhuska, but no-one claimed it. Seeing a money-making opportunity, the undertaker embalmed him and allowed visitors to view the preserved corpse if they placed a nickel in its mouth.

Five years into this lucrative scheme, a carnival man turned up at the funeral home claiming to be a long-lost relative of McCurdy and requested to take the body so it could be laid to rest properly. He was, of course, lying through his teeth. Within weeks, the McCurdy corpse was the star attraction of a traveling carnival.

For 60 years, McCurdy's mummy made the rounds of carnivals, wax museums, and haunted houses, until it turned up, inexplicably, at The Pike in Long Beach. By this time, the legend of Outlaw McCurdy was long forgotten, and the body was assumed to be a fake. After the Six Million Dollar discovery, police identified McCurdy and sent the body to Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma, for long-delayed internment.

McCurdy's grave is marked by a stone that lists his death date as 1911 and burial date as 1977, with no elaboration on the matter. A thick layer of concrete atop the casket ensures the corpse won't go walkabout again.


Photo: Allison Meier

Visit Atlas Obscura for more on Elmer McCurdy. For the full run-down of McCurdy's travels — pre- and post-mortem — check out Mark Svenvold's book, Elmer McCurdy: The Life And Afterlife Of An American Outlaw.

Dark amusement parks:

View Summit View Cemetery in a larger map

April 10 2014 8:56 AM

A Visit to Germany's Real-Life Grand Budapest Hotel

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

It turns out the fictitious European town in which The Grand Budapest Hotel was set isn't so fictitious after all. Hidden amidst the Brandenburg forest nine miles north of Berlin are buildings seemingly lost in time and built in such grandiose socialist-classicism style, you wouldn't be surprised if a concierge named Gustave greeted you at the door or a "Boy With Apple" painting adorned the walls. Winding back the clock a few decades to the Cold War era, it was within these very four walls that the German Democratic Republic (GDR) brainwashed young people and officials from all around the world with propaganda about the ideals of socialism and the evils of the capitalist West.

From 1951 to 1990, the FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend) youth academy was the top-secret educational facility for the official communist youth movement of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, occupying a vast 460,000 square feet at Bogensee near Wandlitz. Today, despite being relinquished and left to decay for over two decades, these buildings haven't lost their majestic, otherworldly charms.


Photo: Mathias Wasik


Photo: Mathias Wasik

Goebbels' Love Nest
In 1936, the city of Berlin gave Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels the Bogensee property and its surrounding terrain, along with a humble log cabin, for his 39th birthday. Three years later, Goebbels built a grand villa there costing 1.5 million Reichsmarks. Otherwise known as his "Liebesnest" ("love nest") where he brought his long succession of affairs, the forest retreat comprised 30 private rooms, 40 day rooms, a bunker, a guest house in which the SS guards stayed, and a cinema where he examined the newest Nazi propaganda films.

Establishment of the FDJ Elite
After the end of World War II, the property was first used as a military hospital by Western allies before it was taken over by the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD) on March 9, 1946, and the FDJ youth academy was established there. In 1951, Berlin's Stalin Allee architect Hermann Henselmann was entrusted with the construction of a complex of monumental buildings, encompassing conference rooms, interpreter cabins, dance halls, boarding school dormitories and banquet halls — turning the once-private country estate into a small Soviet gingerbread-style town.


Photo: Mathias Wasik


Photo: Mathias Wasik

Intended to be the source of a socialist stimulus for the world, the institution taught students philosophy, Marxism-Leninism, scientific communism, dialectical materialism and the political economy of capitalism. Liberation organizations across Africa, Latin America and Asia started sending their young members to the academy, and, from the mid-70s, even students from West Germany and Western Europe, delegated by their Communist parties, were enrolled, in the hope that the seeds of socialism would be carried to the West.

The End of the Palace of Red Dreams
The end of the GDR and a divided Germany also meant the end for the elite at Bogensee. By January 1990, the FDJ broke up, by March the last People’s Police guarding the area finally withdrew, and by summer, the last students left the campus. Saying the derelict property has fallen on hard times today is an understatement. Dripping — in the truest sense of the word — with history, the grand hall's roof is leaking, rotten floorboards crunch beneath your feet, and the musty "smell of the East" permeates through the damp peeling walls. In a losing battle against Mother Nature, there’s no longer a guest in sight for poor Gustave to greet, the only patron getting a spin on the old dance floors is tumbleweed and the "lobby boy" holding up the fort today is an old janitor named Robert.


Photo: Mathias Wasik


Photo: Mathias Wasik

View Bogensee in a larger map

April 9 2014 11:25 AM

Bedrock City, the Run-Down Home of the Flintstones

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

In the middle of the Arizona desert, south of the Grand Canyon, is a real-world version of Bedrock City, the Flintstones' home town.

Established in 1972 — six years after the animated show ended its 166-episode run — the roadside attraction features replicas of Fred and Barney's favorite haunts, including their homes, a grocery store, movie theater, gas station, doctor's office, and a dinosaur with a built-in slide. The famous foot-powered cars also make an appearance, though attempting to drive them is an exercise in exhaustion.

From a distance, Bedrock City appears abandoned. Everything is run down and you're likely to encounter at least one "Out of Order" sign. But that only adds to the bizarre charm of the place.

Pose for photos next to giant bones, pet the "goatasauruses" (a.k.a. sleepy goats wandering around a pen) and crawl through the giant concrete snake, watching out for pebbles and burs along the way. Then get in your car, speed away, and wonder if it was all a fever dream.


Photo: Jason Shultz/Creative Commons


Photo: Jason Shultz/Creative Commons


Photo: Jason Shultz/Creative Commons


Photo: Jason Shultz/Creative Commons


Photo: Jason Shultz/Creative Commons


Photo: Jason Shultz/Creative Commons


Photo: Jason Shultz/Creative Commons

As seen on TV:

View Bedrock City in a larger map

April 8 2014 11:18 AM

The Dramatic Remains of Canada's Deadliest Landslide

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

At 4 am on April 29, 1903, the 600 residents of Frank in Alberta, Canada, were sound asleep when a terrific rumble rang out above them. Less than two minutes later, 15 percent of the population was buried beneath 90 million tons of rock.

Founded as a coal mining town just two years earlier, Frank lay at the base of Turtle Mountain, a 7,251-foot-tall limestone peak. On the morning in question, a section of rock 1,400 feet tall — the height of the Empire State Building — 3,280 feet wide, and 500 feet deep plunged from the summit of the mountain. The southeastern part of Frank, home to 100 people, two miles of railroad, and the coal mine, instantly disappeared beneath 50 to 150 feet of rock.

Amid the destruction came tales of extraordinary survival. The parents of Gladys Ennis, 15 months old at the time, found her choking on mud after the rock slide destroyed the family home. Two-year-old Marion Leitch landed safely on a pile of hay when the rock torrent threw her from her house. Seventeen coal miners, trapped inside the mine, spent 14 hours digging their way out.

Multiple factors led to the rock slide, but Turtle Mountain's unstable geology was a primary cause. Tectonic shift during the creation of the Rocky Mountains caused structurally stronger rock layers to sit on top of weaker ones. Water seeped into the mountain through surface cracks, eroding the limestone. When it froze and thawed, the cracks widened, breaking apart the rock from the inside. Mining operations may have contributed to the mountain's instability, but they were not the main cause of the slide.

Of the approximately 90 victims of the slide, only 18 have been recovered. Those found were beneath shallow rubble — the rest are still buried under the rocks that killed them in 1903.


Photo: Luke Ratzlaff/Creative Commons


Photo: Paul Jerry/Creative Commons

Frank before the rockslide.

Photo: jaosnwoodhead23/Creative Commons

Other geological oddities:

View Frank Slide Interpretive Centre in a larger map

April 4 2014 9:52 AM

E.T. Post Home: The Alien Mailbox of Area 51

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

On a desolate stretch of Nevada's State Route 375 — also known as Extraterrestrial Highway — is a white mailbox. Well, two mailboxes, actually — one atop the other. The top one is labeled STEVE MEDLIN. The bottom one is labeled ALIEN.

Steve Medlin is a real person. He and his wife Glenda moved to a 900-square-mile cattle ranch in Tikaboo Valley in 1973. That was 16 years before Bob Lazar appeared on television claiming that the Air Force base near the ranch, known unofficially as Area 51, was hiding alien spacecraft that crashed in the desert.

Lazar, who says he worked at Area 51 as a scientist and engineer in 1989, has never been able to provide proof of the facility's alleged extraterrestrial connections. But he did ignite a frenzy among UFO hunters, who continue to visit this remote part of Nevada with the hope of spotting alien craft.

This is where the mailboxes come in. Given they're the only landmark for 40 miles along the 375, they provide a handy meeting spot for UFO enthusiasts scanning the skies at night. Originally there was just one mailbox — Medlin's — and it was black. Following Lazar's extraordinary claims, people began to fill the box with messages addressed to aliens. A few of the more audacious visitors stole the Medlins' mail in the belief it might contain clues about Area 51. When someone took it even further and shot holes into the mailbox, Medlin swapped it out for a white, bulletproof version and added the Alien box beneath.

The pair of mailboxes, located 12 miles from Area 51, is still known as the Black Mailbox. The landmark is an essential stop for Nevada UFO roadtrippers, along with the Little A'Le'Inn restaurant and the (sternly patrolled) perimeter of Area 51.


Photo: Craig Mirkin/Creative Commons


Photo: Cooper/Creative Commons

Extraterrestrial extras:

View Black Mailbox in a larger map