"When we launched the Atlas Obscura website in 2009, our goal was to create a catalogue of all the places, people and things that inspire our sense of wonder,” says co-founder Dylan Thomas.
“We wanted a way of finding curious, out-of-the-way places that don’t often make it into traditional guidebooks – the kinds of destinations that expand our sense of what is possible, that we would never be able to find without a tip from someone in the know.
"Over the years, thousands of people from all over the world have joined us in this collaborative project by contributing entries to the Atlas.” Here are a handful of the weird and wonderful recommendations contained in the first print version of the Atlas Obscura.
Park of the Monsters
The stone sculptures in the Parco dei Mostri emerged from the tormented mind of 16th-century Italian prince Pier Francesco Orsini. Pier endured a brutal war, saw his friend killed, was held for ransom for years, and returned home only to see his beloved wife die.
Seeking a way to express his grief, Orsini hired architect Pirro Ligorio to create a park that would shock and frighten its visitors. The park exhibits the 16th-century Mannerist style – an artistic approach that rejected the Renaissance’s elegance and harmony in favor of exaggerated, often tortured expressions and a mishmash of mythological, classical, and religious influences.
Its wretched sculptures – including a war elephant attacking a Roman soldier, a monstrous fish head, a giant tearing another giant in half, and a house built on a tilt to disorient the viewer – caught the attention of Salvador Dalí, who visited in 1948 and found much to inspire his surrealist artwork. A trip to the park isn’t complete without a walk up the stone stairs leading into the “Mouth of Hell”, the face of an ogre captured mid-scream. Walk into its gaping maw, inscribed with “all reason departs,” and you’ll find a picnic table.
Bomarzo, Lazio, Italy
The Great Guatemalan Sinkhole
There used to be a three-story textile factory at the corner of 11 Avenida A and 6A Calle, but the ground swallowed it. In May 2010, just an hour after the textile workers had gone home, a 65-foot-wide section of the earth caved in, pulling the building and a huge chunk of the road into a 10-storey-deep sinkhole. The colossal chasm, which is an eerily perfect cylindrical shape, is not Guatemala’s first sinkhole. Due to the region’s past volcanic activity, Guatemala City sits on top of hundreds of feet of loose, easily eroded pumice — former volcanic ash that has hardened into rock. The sinkhole was not just the work of Mother Nature, however: leaking underground pipes had already caused significant erosion by the time the rains arrived. This hole remains a shockingly vast chasm in the middle of an inner-city intersection.
11 Avenida A and 6A Calle, Zona 2, Guatemala City
Mount Athos Monastery
Mount Athos, known to Greeks as the “holy mountain,” is the home of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. Self-governed, and running on Byzantine time – in which the day begins at sunset – Mount Athos accommodates 1,500 monks within its monasteries, most of which were built during the 10th century. Every waking hour is spent praying or reflecting in silence. Monks, who wear long, black robes to signify their death from the surrounding world, live in one of 20 communes, or, for those who prefer greater solitude, in cloisters or cells. There are eight hours of church services every day, beginning at 3am.
Women are forbidden from visiting or living on Mount Athos in accordance with the belief that a female presence would alter the social dynamics and impede the monks on their journey toward spiritual enlightenment. According to Athonite tradition, the Virgin Mary was blown off course during her journey to Cyprus and landed on Mount Athos, where she converted its pagan tribes to Christianity. Banning women from the peninsula allows the Virgin to be revered as the only female influence.
Mount Athos, Greece
World's Largest Solar Furnace
A solar furnace uses a large concave surface of mirrors to reflect sunlight onto a focal point the size of a cooking pot. The temperature at this point may reach above 6,000°F (3,315°C), enough to generate electricity, melt metal, or produce hydrogen fuel. The world’s largest solar furnace is located in Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via, a commune in the sunny Pyrenees mountains on the French-Spanish border. Operational since 1970, it uses a
field of 10,000 ground-mounted mirrors to bounce the sun’s rays onto a large concave mirror that shows a distorted, upside-down reflection of the countryside. Tours of the site include workshops and demonstrations on renewable energy and the solar system.
Odeillo, Languedoc-Roussillon, France
Victoria’s Way Indian Sculpture Park
Covering 22 acres, this park includes sculptures of an emaciated Buddha, an enormous disembodied finger, and The Split Man, a figure ripping itself in two, representing “the mental state of the dysfunctional human.” Victor Langheld established the park in 1989 after traveling to India in search of enlightenment. The sculptures, carved in stone by craftsmen in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, represent spiritual progression, from Awakening (a child emerging from a decaying fist) to The Ferryman’s End (a cadaverous old man in a sinking boat, pictured left). Jolly figures of Hindu dieties Ganesh and Shiva dancing and playing the flute help lighten the mood.
Roundwood, Wicklow, Ireland