There’s a figure of an unusual woman on the cathedral in Worms, Germany. She’s just above the south portal on the right hand side.

article-imageThe front of the statue at Worms (photograph by Jivee Blau/Wikimedia)

She’s beautiful and there’s something about the luxurious folds in her dress and the crown sitting on top of her perfectly coifed hair that instantly tell you she’s rich, too. She smiles serenely into distance while a tiny knight clings to the hem of her dress. He gazes at her adoringly. She doesn’t seem to notice. He’s hierarchically scaled so his small stature lets you know this piece isn’t about him. It’s all about her. She doesn’t have any religious attributes, the symbols shown with saints that clue you in to their identity. So who is she?

She’s Ms. World, Frau Welt.

article-imageThe back of Frau Welt at Worms (photograph by Jivee Blau/Wikimedia)

Take a look at her back and you’ll find her identifying feature — she’s covered in toads, an allusion to Revelation 16:13.

And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.

Her body is being eaten alive by snakes and worms. She’s an allegory for vanity, a symbol for all that’s evil and sinful in the world hidden behind a seductive façade. She was a favorite character in German morality tales and sermons around 1300, just after the cathedral was constructed.

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article-imageClay McLeod Chapman reading at the Pierrepont monument in Green-Wood Cemetery (photograph by Mitch Waxman)

Robert Suydam sleeps beside his bride in Greenwood Cemetery. No funeral was held over the strangely released bones, and relatives are grateful for the swift oblivion which overtook the case as a whole. The scholar’s connexion with the Red Hook horrors, indeed, was never emblazoned by legal proof; since his death forestalled the inquiry he would otherwise have faced.
— H. P. Lovecraft, The Horror at Red Hook

It was with those strange words in mind from the the late H. P. Lovecraft's lexicon of unfathomable horror that Atlas Obscura staged a candlelit reading in Brooklyn's historic Green-Wood Cemetery. Lovecraft lived in Brooklyn Heights near Red Hook at 169 Clinton Street from 1925 to 1926, rather unhappily, and is said to have roamed the lush grounds of Green-Wood. It's during this time that he wrote "The Horror at Red Hook," which, while heavy on his outright xenophobia, tapped into an unsettling urban anxiety. 

This Monday we invited an intimate group of Atlas Obscura followers to Green-Wood Cemetery to hear the story read in its entirety, responding to the real presence of the Suydam family interred in the 19th century burial space. Respecting the grounds as a place of memorial, we visited the Whitney mausoleum, paused beneath a weeping beech tree, stopped amongst relocated 18th century tombs, and ended at the Pierrepont memorial, a monument to one of the prominent Brooklynites who helped establish the cemetery in 1838. Readers Clay McLeod Chapman, Bess Lovejoy, and Mitch Waxman each gave the stages of the sinister narrative of occult mysteries a distinct and resonant horror. 

Our final destination was the Suydam mausoleum (usually closed to the public), where the eerie notes of the Saw Lady, aka Natalia Paruz, accompanied the serving of drinks along the cemetery road from the Lovecraft Bar (opening next week in the East Village). 

Below are some photographs from the evening by Kathryn Yu and Mitch Waxman. Many thanks to all who joined us for the adventure, to readers Clay McLeod Chapman, Bess Lovejoy, and Mitch Waxman, as well as the Saw Lady and Lovecraft Bar for making it a success. And of course, thanks to the Green-Wood Historic Fund for collaborating with us on an event that was able to showcase the beauty of the cemetery and link in this literary history. To join us on our next event, sign up for the NYC Obscura Society mailing list

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Clay McLeod Chapman reading in the Whitney Mausoleum (photograph by Kathryn Yu)

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Departing the candlelit Whitney Mausoleum (photograph by Kathryn Yu)

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With more than 1,500km (932 miles) of underground tunnels hidden beneath its streets, it’s no wonder Melbourne has grown into something of a mecca for urban explorers. Its complex network of storm water drains is often cited as one of the most elaborate in the world, and the labyrinth has drawn its own string of admirers.

In 1986, three teenagers from Melbourne banded together to form the Cave Clan, a clandestine group dedicated to recreational trespassing in the city’s hidden underworld. Today, the Cave Clan is still going strong, and larger than ever with local chapters in each of Australia’s main cities. 

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Drain explorers beneath Melbourne (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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A subterranean waterfall in the Melbourne storm drain network (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

Naturally, exploring urban storm drains comes with some obvious risks attached: flash floods, bad air, steep shafts and reservoirs, and of course, the hefty fines that you’ll be served should the authorities catch you in the act. And don’t forget, this is Australia, which means these tunnels often serve as prime nesting or hibernation spots for some of the world’s most deadly creepy-crawlies.

Danger aside, the complex systems of tunnels, waterfalls, gates, ladders, and reservoirs beneath Melbourne combine to create a fascinating — albeit challenging — urban assault course, which draws in visitors from all around the world.

Here’s a quick introduction to five of the Cave Clan’s favorite hang-outs in the Melbourne drain network:

ANZAC Drain

article-imageEntrance to the ANZAC Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

The ANZAC Drain was first charted by the Cave Clan on April 25, 1987, or as it’s known here, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day. Since then this relief drain has served as a kind of local headquarters for the Clan, and it’s one of the easiest drains in the city to access.

Entering from the river outflow, a wide, red brick passage curves gently into the dark recesses — an arched tunnel which rumbles and rings with the sound of traffic passing overhead. The aliases of Cave Clan members appear on the walls like sentries, painted high in block white capitals.

article-imageAt low tide, this is one of the least challenging drains in Melbourne (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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When it first opened its doors last year, this crowd-funded Paris café – based on a Japanese concept Frenchified in the heart of the trendy Marais — was rumored to have a four-week waiting list for Saturday brunch. But that had nothing to do with the food, or the coffee. Ailurophiles and Francophiles can get a double shot of sheer pleasure at the Café des Chats, where the twelve adorable live-in cats are the star attraction.

article-imageInside the Paris cat cafe (all photographs by the author)

Carefully chosen from shelters for their sociable personalities among both humans and other cats, the feline residents spend their days in the lap of luxury — or indeed in the lap of anyone they choose — imparting ronronthérapie ("purr therapy," that’s the scientific term) and relaxed vibes while you sip your café crème.

There are strict rules in place to maintain all-round hygiene and the well-being of the animals, but they basically roam free over two levels, curling up atop the piano or in plush leather seats and comfy corners of this charming rock-den; the Aristocats could have done worse.

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I used reverse psychology and a dangling toy to distract the inquisitive black-and-white Orea from my tuna tarte — feeding is forbidden — while the regal Khalessi lolled like a Manet nude on a nearby canapé as an artist sketched her from life. (The names are helpfully etched on the tables and listed on a photo chart so you can try to summon your favorite.)

I'm not sure the ronronthérapie really worked wonders on me this visit. A little cat-challenged, perhaps? Rather than swooning in a state of warm, fluffy bliss, I was a little perturbed by the fact that none of my advances were met with outright enthusiasm; that the cats seemed to prefer the company and caresses of my date, and that he, at that moment, preferred theirs. I eventually sank into a velvet armchair and looked on as a group of elegantly dressed elderly American ladies and two French bearded hipsters suddenly found themselves on the same social plane, speaking the same language: cutesy-wootsey.

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We aspire to climb to the summit of Mount Rainier in Washington, as well as Charles Mound, at the top of a family’s driveway in northwest Illinois. We wish to ascend to the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains — Colorado’s Mount Elbert — as well as Panorama Point, a low rise on a bison ranch in Nebraska. We want to climb the very pinnacle of the continent — Denali in Alaska at over 20,000 feet above sea level — as well as Britton Hill, at 345 feet above sea level in a park in the Florida Panhandle. We are highpointers.

article-image Highpointer convention on Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, in 2006

As a kid, I would read my father's Rand McNally Road Atlas. Mountaintops were designated by a hollow triangle with the name and elevation. One mountaintop, however, was filled in and had some extra text to it, saying it was the highest point in the state.

Some time later, I needed to hit the road, and bought a road atlas. Looking for a destination, I found Pennsylvania's highest point, Mount Davis, and then found directions. It was an easy drive up, with a tall observation tower, a surrounding forest, and unique geology. Then, I was hooked. I discovered there were guidebooks for the highest points of the 50 American states, and a club for those interested in this quest.

The Highpointers Club

In October 1986, climber Jakk Longacre wrote to Outside magazine to see if anyone else was as interested in climbing the state highpoints as he was, after seeing familiar names in summit registers. Thirty climbers wrote back, and the Highpointers Club was born. The club now has grown to over 2,000 members, holds a yearly convention in a city near a selected state highpoint, and sponsors a foundation to make improvements to highpoints. 

article-imageView from Mount Mansfield, highest point in Vermont

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Mount Sunflower, the highest point in Kansas

The Journey Through, and Up, the United States

With most highpoints away from well-known tourist destinations, the journey brings travelers to parts of the country few tend to visit. Not many people I know would put southwest North Dakota or the Oklahoma Panhandle on their itineraries. Through going to the highpoints, one sees the whole variety of landscapes the country offers: the desert and salt flats of west Texas; forests and hilltops in the South and East; the suburbia of Wilmington, Delaware; Midwestern prairie and badlands; and remote mountains of New England and the West.

To take part in the journey, one does not have to be an expert mountain climber or outdoorsman. Of the 50 state highpoints, 30 are simple drive-ups and/or require a hike of less than two miles. However, since most of the points are “off the beaten path,” a guidebook or article and a good sense of direction are necessary.

Reaching the loftier and more remote highpoints, though, requires longer hikes. However, most of them can be done in one day by someone in good shape. For people getting fit, these hikes make great goals to measure one’s progress. While climbing Mount Marcy in New York’s Adirondacks, I nearly gave up at mile 6 of the 7.2 mile hike, but I saw the summit just one mile away and 500 feet up. I did say to myself, “You should have eaten more vegetables.” Now 30 pounds lighter from that day, I wish to conquer even more challenging peaks.

The hikes clamber through badlands, wilderness, and alpine terrain, allowing for great photography of pristine landscapes and maybe even wildlife. Moss-covered trees surround the summit of Mount Rogers, Virginia. A tree grows on a rock on the Van Hoevenberg Trail up Mount Marcy, New York. Lucky hikers might see mountain goats on Mount Elbert, Colorado. Incredible sunsets are de rigueur on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Views from the top over the surrounding land give a personal sense to how vast the country really is.

Here are some of the intriguing and beautiful highpoints of the United States, and you can find even more on the map below:

MOUNT MARCY
5,343 feet above sea level; Keene Valley, New York
Climbed by then-Vice President Theodore Roosevelt just before he found out President McKinley wasn't likely to survive his assassination attempt

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article-imageAerial view of Mecca in 2010, showing new construction alongside the Kaaba (photograph by Fadi El Benni, via Al Jazeera English) Mecca is one of the "unruly places" featured in a new book by Alastair Bonnett. 

With Google patrolling the streets and even far flung locales like Mount Everest, and the proliferation of geotagged documentation of the planet on social media, it can feel like every corner has been catalogued and confirmed. Yet it was only two years ago that Sandy Island, illustrated on maps for over a century, was proved fictional, and even some of the world's most iconic locales like Mecca are in a rapid state of flux with new construction paving over the old. In Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett, published this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, these "feral" destinations are explored.

Bonnett is a professor of social geography at Newcastle University in England, and also was the editor of Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration, a psychogeography magazine. Throughout Unruly Places, whether it's the town of Baarle chopped through with Dutch and Flemish enclaves, the Manila cemetery that has turned into a community, or Gordon Matta-Clark's Fake Estates that claimed the gutter spaces of New York City, Bonnett emphasizes a sense of discovery in geography, even if it's experiencing the world of the traffic median in your own town. This is a concept Atlas Obscura wholeheartedly embraces — that the world is much stranger, and unknowable, than you think. We asked Bonnett a few questions about Unruly Places and the myth of a fully-documented world. 

We at Atlas Obscura love places that don't fit neatly into geography. But sometimes it feels as if these crooked sites are all being straightened out, and the world made less interesting. How can people fight the good fight of keeping a sense of place?

No one should pretend this is easy: the forces flattening out the world, and making everywhere seem similar, are colossal. But equally powerful are our need for and love of place; it’s an important part of what makes us feel human. I think that most people understand this, that’s why so many of us invest so much of our time and energy fixing up and making special our own, private, places — our homes, cabins, even our vehicles.

The challenge is to expand that sense of care. Every time we go on vacation, or go traveling, and search out unique and authentic places, we are part of a quiet resistance movement. Another form of resistance is seen when we protest about the way our town is sliding into the mire of non-place banality. In my adopted home city of Newcastle, in the far north of England, I’m just one of thousands who’ve tried, many times, to stop an endless succession of "executive housing" schemes being built on the margins of town, drawing out in the innards of the city. It’s perverse: finding anyone who actively wants this kind of development is almost impossible, yet they nearly always get built.

Maybe we need a pro-place protest movement, a bit like the "occupy movement" (which was, in its own odd way, a place making movement), but one that makes the pro-place case and shouts out that, when it comes to place, the concerns of the great majority, the 99%, just aren’t being heard.  Because place is fundamental to our freedom and well-being. Indeed, I have come to think that living in a "real place" should be thought of as a human right. It is that important and should be in UN declarations of rights and in national constitutions.  

In a world of floating islands and ever shifting borders how do you define “place”? What then makes it "unruly"?

It’s a question that a lot of people are wondering about. For me, a place is somewhere distinct and somewhere that has its own story: the richer and deeper that sense of distinction, and those stories are the more likely it is to feel like a "real place."

An "unruly place" is somewhere that disrupts the usual and conventional stories we tell about place.

But I don’t just use the term "unruly places" to talk about quirky or quaint places. Many of the places in my book are very dark, and a look at the map of Syria or Iraq today shows shifting multitudes of unruly places that are anything but cute. The destitute enclaves and tribal pockets that now scatter those countries are both fascinating and appalling: they remind us that our relationship to place is a very fierce thing and how quickly and easily ordinary-looking and "boring" places can mutate into places with strange and disturbing stories to tell. 

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Ordos, China's biggest ghost city (photograph by Uday Phalgun)

article-imageThe new city of Kilamba in Luanda Province (photograph by Santa Martha)

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article-imagephotograph by Darmon Richter

This underground realm in London is rarely accessible, but Sunday, July 20, it's opening to the public. No, it's not some sort of secret druid lair; it's a marvel of 19th century ingenuity.

The Ice Wells at King's Cross Station were constructed in 1847 by Italian-Swiss immigrant Carlo Gatti to hold ice imported from Norway. Impressive in size, they stretched 42 feet deep and 30 feet in diameter. At the time, ice was an incredible luxury, and Gatti quickly became rich, dying a millionaire in 1878. The wells continued to be used until 1904, but new technology for artificial ice production then made them obsolete.

Over the 20th century they were built over and forgotten. Now, however, the London Canal Museum has them illuminated and viewable from an observation platform. Once a year they're opened to visitors. So stop by this Sunday for the annual event, as these are the only ice wells of their kind still in existence. 

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photograph by Darmon Richter

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Once the domain of only the most determined of oddballs, micronations are a more common phenomenon since the advent of the internet. These days, you don't even need a physical territory to declare yourself a head of state — you only need a website — and even if you do have a property to claim, a populace of fellow oddballs to be your country's citizens is a lot easier to come by when you have access to the whole world's supply.

The difference between a nation and a micronation is a small but important one: A micronation is one that's not officially recognized by world governments. Also, a mcironation is usually, but not strictly, a secession from an established nation. Beyond that, there are two general conventions that define the conditions of statehood: The Montevideo Convention requires a) a territory, b) a permanent population, c) a government, and d) the facility to enter into discussions with other states, while the constitutive theory of statehood adds a fifth criterion: the recognition of the rest of the world as a separate state, which disqualifies the vast majority of micronations.

Either way, if we're counting virtual space, i.e., on the internet, all of this is a lot easier to attain and document online than it used to be. But back in the day, it took some hardcore chutzpah, creativity, and organizational skills to pull this feat off — emphasis on the creativity. It's no surprise, then, that so many of the first micronations were established by artists. Here are a few of the most original ones we've come across.

 

THE REPUBLIC OF ROSE ISLAND

article-imageIn 1967, Giorgio Rosa, an Italian artist and architect, funded and spearheaded the construction of a 4,300-square-foot sea platform in the Adriatic Sea between Cesenatico and Rimini. Originally, he did this under the premise of it being a tourist destination, and it was replete with a night club and a gift shop. 

But on May 24, 1968, immediately upon completion of construction, Rosa declared sovereignty from Italy, dubbing the platform "Insulo de la Rozoj" ("The Republic of Rose Island" in the universal language of Esperanto, which Rosa declared his new nation's national language, the only place to ever do so).

After hiring employees to help run the new nation, Rosa then named himself the President, instated a crest, and issued a number of stamps depicting the republic's approximate location, 6.8 miles off the coast of northern Italy. The Italian government didn't do much until Rosa announced several days later that he would be printing up his own currency, which gave them cause to think he would use it as a platform to avoid paying taxes on his tourist trap.

They responded by sending the military police to evict Rosa and his employees. Then, on June 29, the Italian Navy showed up with explosives and blew the entire structure up, just 55 days after sovereignty had been declared. As a sassy riposte, Rosa printed up another batch of postage stamps, bearing an image of the platform being dismantled, and issued from Rosa's self-declared government in exile. Since the island was destroyed, however, Rosa stopped exercising his rights as a citizen, although the legend of Rose Island lives on in the form of a 2008 play, a 2009 documentary, and a semi-abandoned Facebook group.

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THE KINGDOM OF ELLEORE

article-imageLocated not far from Copenhagen in the Danish Roskilde fjord, the tiny, kind of crescent-shaped island of Elleore was purchased in 1944 by a group of school teachers who purported to use it as a summer camp. 

Instead, they established a tongue-in-cheek independent kingdom as a sarcastic gesture to the Danish government — as well as to Nazi Germany, which had been occupying Denmark since 1940. Erik I, Elleore's first king, was crowned a year later, followed by a new king (and, once, a queen) every decade or two. Seventy years later, with its original population no longer in the picture, the island, also named Elleore, sees its citizens only one week per year, during an annual holiday wherein the dozens of nationals claim to be returning home after a 51-week vacation. Elleore has no permanent structures; its citizens camp in tents during their stays. Legally, it's still a part of Denmark

Although it was started as a flip-off toward Denmark's royal and governmental traditions, Elleore is run as kind of a Monty Pythonian joke these days; its place names are satirical versions of Danish ones, and it observes Elleore Standard Time, which is 12 minutes ahead of Central European Time. Elleore does issue stamps and coins, though, sort of straddling the border between complete joke and actual micronation. It probably can afford to be more of a joke now that Denmark isn't occupied by the Nazis and things are little more chill. 

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Much of the Atlas Obscura is created by intrepid users around the world, out exploring the places no one else is noticing, or jumping into historical research that's been all but forgotten. In appreciation, we are highlighting five of our favorite recent additions to the Atlas. Have a place we've missed? Create an account and become a part of our community. 

KIPTOPEKE'S CONCRETE FLEET
Cape Charles, Virginia

article-imageBow of the SS Slater (photograph by Matt Flowers)

Decaying in Virginia is the Concrete Fleet, a weathered group of nine of the 24 concrete boats that the U.S. Maritime Commission contracted during World War II. Since 1948 they've been left to guard the Kiptopeke Beach, now worn through with holes. Atlas Obscura user Matt Flowers also added these gorgeous photographs of the rare retro-tech in all its decrepit glory.

VISCARDIGASSE
Munich, Germany

article-imageViscardigasse alley (photograph by David Holt)

We love reminders that even the most unassuming of places has a secret history if you know where to look.  Added by Atlas Obscura user jhavenhill, bronzed bricks curving through Viscardigasse alley subtly remember when the small thoroughfare was used to avoid giving the Nazi salute at a monument to Hitler in Munich.

BLUESPRING CAVERNS
Bedford, Indiana

article-imageNavigating the underground river at Bluespring Caverns (photograph by lahvak/Flickr user)

Discovering Bluespring Caverns in Indiana, added by Altas Obscura user baikinange, was a fascinating reminder that some of the world's greatest wonders are beneath our feet. With 21 miles of caves, the longest underground river in the United States flows through this subterranean realm. But you won't be along as you navigate it, for a whole thriving host of ghostly-hued. aquatic creatures live along its banks and in its waters. 

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article-imageGraceland Cemetery, Chicago (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)

The art of dying in the United States is in a league of its own in terms of options, and cost. While green burial sites sprawled through forests, and even underwater reefs where ashes have been transformed into future homes for fish, are growing in popularity, there are still the exorbitantly expensive coffins buried in carefully manicured cemeteries, the embalming, the obituaries. American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning by Kate Sweeney, published this March by the University of Georgia Press, goes on-the-ground in examining what the history of death is in the United States, and how it's rapidly changing. We asked Sweeney, an Atlanta-based author and award-winning radio story producer with NPR affiliate WABE, about her walk through the shadow of death. 

You did a lot of legwork in the book, wandering through Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, visiting roadside memorials, exploring green burial forests, riding the boat with families out to a memorial reef. Why do you think a sense of place is so essential to death in America?

We’re experiencing a period of change in this country, in which people are increasingly opting for cremation and scattering rather than traditional burial at cemeteries. We are a transient people, and that’s a big reason the family burial plot is dying off. (Cremation is also a lot cheaper, and another part of this may have to do with an increased squeamishness about dead bodies, but I digress.)

Still, people choose to scatter at the places their dead loved, or places of majestic beauty, and to we who survive, those places — the Grand Canyon, the Gulf of Mexico — become imbued with the spirits of the dead. And that’s kind of the ultimate testament.

A lot of people are scattering in more than one place, and maybe that’s a major statement about who we are as Americans. In life, we live out our American destinies manifest, traveling to where our careers and passions take us. Then in death, where our ashes are scattered reflects that: Here I am, in the Smoky Mountains, under my favorite tree in the backyard, scattered off of Maui, and hanging in a chain ‘round my daughter’s neck.

Much of American Afterlife uses the (now closed) Museum of Funeral Customs as a point of reflection on death in the United States. What drew you to center the narrative on the museum?

Other than the fact that the place was amazing?

Okay, so really: It’s always helpful for a writer to have strong scene with which to illustrate a point. As I wrote these stories of all these people making memorial choices today, I naturally ended up looking at how we got here as a nation. That involved reading and note-taking a great deal, going to research libraries, etc.

And that research was fascinating: learning, for instance, about our Victorian forebears, the folks who lived in the 1800s and influenced a great deal of what we think of when it comes to death and memorialization. These are the people who invented the deathbed scene, the cemetery as we know it, and even the conception of heaven that still holds sway in the popular imagination.

But when you’re telling tales of memorialization in America, there’s no substitute for actual scene, right? (People only want to read so much “I was sitting in the library, looked up from the microfiche and declared, ‘My god, that’s wild!’”)

The Museum of Funeral Customs was perfect. Want some Victorian jewelry made from human hair? Here are several cases! How about a collection of hearses? Cooling boards? A model of a home funeral from the 1920s? The place granted some great concrete jumping-off points for illustrating our nation’s fascinating past and present when it comes to death.

article-imageA viewing display at the Museum of Funeral Customs (photograph by Robert Lawton)

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