Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Atlas Obscura’s new book catalogs 700 marvelous sights across all seven continents.
The gardens of the Parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo, Italy, are full of sculptures straight out of a trippy nightmare. A giant rips another apart, a house is knocked askew. An ogre—mouth gaping, nostrils flaring, moss clumping on his fanned-out beard—invites visitors to clamber up a flight of stairs and into his toothy maw, which houses picnic tables.
The 16th-century garden, commissioned by a grief-stricken prince, is one of 700 delightfully weird sights cataloged in the new book Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders (Workman, $35). Each entry, written by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton, the team behind the website of the same name, includes a write-up and GPS coordinates—and sometimes, instructions for finagling your way in.
The book is a compendium of sites across the globe. It meanders past ancient, salt-cured bodies trapped in mines and mummified by salt in Tehran. In Tokyo, it stops at a shrine to insects slaughtered in the name of a science textbook, for which they were artists’ models. In Fez, it detours at the world’s oldest tannery, where animal hides are dunked in a “cow urine, pigeon feces, quicklime, salt, and water” to strip their hair—and visitors receive a mint sprig upon arrival to cloak the aroma. It gawks at the 14-foot plexiglass tuber towering in the Potato Museum in Canada’s Prince Edward Island, and marvels at glowworms flickering in New Zealand’s limestone caves.
Some of the sites are tourist draws, even in the smaller crannies. Darwin, Minnesota, is a sliver of a town. It spans just over 2 square miles; at the last Census, its population hovered around 350. But the little town has a lot of love for balls of twine.
At the center of the main drag is a Plexiglass gazebo, sheltering a corpulent ball of twine clocking in at 12 feet in diameter and 17,400 pounds. A man named Francis A. Johnson spent decades adding on; sometimes, he worked four hours a day. Eventually, he enlisted a crane. A Kansas town gives chase to Johnson’s masterpiece in terms of size, but that one has been a collaborative effort; the one in Darwin was a resolutely solo mission. "We don't have much of a town left,” one local told Roadside America. “But the twine ball really draws 'em in." The local Twineball Museum even sells starter kits with the beginning of a ball.
Many of the sites wouldn’t make for an ideal family vacation—some spew lava; the Poison Garden, in Northunderland, is teeming with lethal plants, like hemlock and superlatively psychedelic mushrooms.
And in many cases, physically transporting yourself to the site is actively discouraged: some of the ecosystems are delicate, and too much foot traffic could exact a high toll. (We’ve previously written about Skellig Michael, a the 7th-century Irish monastery that made an appearance in the latest Star Wars movie. Its terrain groaned under the boots of fans eager to retrace Luke Skywalker’s footsteps.)
In that sense, the book is an encyclopedia to wander through. As the authors write in the introduction, the book is “a wunderkammer of places, a cabinet of curiosities that is meant to inspire wonderlust as much as wanderlust.” These places remind readers to raise your eyes from sidewalks and look further afield; they’re a testament to the wonderfully bizarre stuff you can encounter by straying.
Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, $35 at Amazon.