Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Aug. 31 2016 12:30 PM

Bon Echo Walt Whitman Monument

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

Everyone has a favorite writer, but few take their love of literature as far as Flora MacDonald Denison, an Ontario-based inn owner who had her favorite poet's words etched forever (well, sort of), into a granite cliff.

Denison was already a successful Toronto business woman when she took over ownership of the Bon Echo Inn in 1910. An early feminist, Denison had started the Canadian Suffrage Association with a number of like-minded female activists and was also a staunch proponent of the arts, especially writing. When she and her husband took over the Bon Echo Inn, she turned it into a haven for artists and thinkers, a quiet place in the Ontario wilderness where they could work and relax.

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Her true passion, however, was the work of poet Walt Whitman. She started the Walt Whitman Club of Bon Echo around 1916, but in 1919 she put her fandom in stone, literally. Employing a pair of Scottish stonemasons, Denison had some of Whitman's words etched into the granite cliff face near Mazinaw Lake in 1919, the 100-year anniversary of Whitman's birth. The monument was dedicated to his "democratic ideals," carrying the following passage:

"MY FOOTHOLD IS TENON'D AND MORTISED IN GRANITE
I LAUGH AT WHAT YOU CALL DISSOLUTION
AND I KNOW THE AMPLITUDE OF TIME."

Today, nearly a hundred years later, the etching is almost completely weathered out of the stone, but it can still be found, a near immortal tribute to one of the greatest poets in history.

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. 30 2016 2:45 PM

Haute-Isle’s Troglodyte 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.

Haute-Isle has been settled since the prehistoric age, and for most of that time its inhabitants lived in caves. Right up to the 19th century, in fact, most people in this rare troglodyte (that is, cave-dwelling) village lived in what they called “boves,” which were homes hollowed out of the white chalk cliffs rising above the Seine river valley.

Thus, when the town became an independent parish in 1670, it didn’t take long to decide how they would build their parish church.

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The construction—or rather, excavation—of the Church of the Annunciation was financed by one Nicolas Dongois, a local bigwig and bureaucrat who was instrumental in elevating the status of Haute-Isle. Finished in 1673, the church has a main body roughly 20 meters long and 20 meters wide, an arched ceiling about 8 meters high, four simple windows carved into the exterior “wall,” and a small steeple built on top of the cliff.

While generally light on ornamentation, the interior contains a richly detailed, carved wooden screen (dividing the nave and the choir) and altar that are remarkably beautiful. Made in the late 17th century, these two lovingly adorned pieces were originally intended for the Palais du Justice in Rouen. The interior also features a tondo above the altar from the same time period.

Due to significant deterioration, the Church of the Annunciation had to close in 1999. Thanks to a considerable restoration effort, it is once again in use as parish church today; however, there is much work yet to do, which will take a long time for a commune of only 330 inhabitants to finance and complete.

The original cave houses of Haute-Isle can still be seen today, but virtually none of them are used as living quarters anymore. Conventional houses finally came into use in the little town, and now the old boves are mostly used as sheds or garages. Many of them are simply abandoned.

Contributed by Atlas User, Christine Williamson

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. 29 2016 12:30 PM

EVE Online’s Player Monument

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

Most video games honor their players with monuments created in their virtual worlds, but the makers behind EVE Online created a real life tribute to its players to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the game.

Erected in 2014, the trio of stone monoliths look not unlike something that would have been made by the futuristic society in the game. The monument is located in Reykjavik, Iceland, where the game was actually created. Standing over 15 feet tall, the monument consists of three differently shaped spires, two made of stone flanking a shining metal center pillar. The obelisks stand on a wide base that is engraved with the names of every single player registered for the game as of March 2014.

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Buried beneath the statue is a laptop containing video messages, files, images and other data from the game as a digital time capsule. There are plans to unearth the laptop on May 6, 2039, 25 years from the statue's dedication.

Of course a bit of the sometimes toxic world of online gaming spilled out into the real world along with the monument when it was defaced just days after it's unveiling. The symbol of one of the game's largest factions was plastered to one of the pillars and the name of one of the players was scratched out. The culprits were eventually found out and banned from the game. Apparently the game world–real world connection goes both ways.

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. 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.

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