It’s a well-worn, but absolutely true, travelling cliche that the best way to get to know a place is to get lost in it. The aim of most travel sites on the internet is to enable you to plan your trips better, separating the wheat from the chaff and ensuring that not a second is wasted. Several Nazi Party rallies were less well planned than your average TripAdvisor aficionado’s holiday. Atlas Obscura is different. It’s a worldwide database of interesting but obscure places, which anyone can join and contribute to. Using it, you feel like an armchair explorer, unearthing those serendipitous finds that make getting lost so much fun, and discovering great places you might otherwise never have known about.
Example: I recently visited Salzburg for the second time. It’s a smallish city, I’ve read a few guide books, and I was accompanied by Julie, a seasoned visitor to Sazlburg, so I smugly thought I had a pretty good handle on most of what’s worth seeing there. Wrong. A few minutes on this site wiped the smile off my face, revealing the existence of things I must have literally come within metres of but remained utterly oblivious to. There’s the Dom Museum inside the stridently baroque Cathedral, which houses the restored Cabinet of Curiousities of the distinctly worldly Archbishop Wolf Dietrich ( who served from 1587 to 1612). There’s the magical water-powered mechanical theatre at Schloss Hellbrunn (which I had visited, but in winter when the theatre and the palace’s famous playing fountains are in hibernation). And, most intriguingly, there’s the skull in the University Mozarteum, said to have been lifted from the grave Mozart shared with 5 or 6 others, and claimed by some to be the bonce of the great composer himself. DNA tests have proved frustratingly inconclusive, but the skull bears the marks of a blow to the head sustained about a year before its owner shuffled off, which may explain the persistent headaches that plagued Mozart in the last year of his life.
The real joy of Atlas Obscura lies in the fact it’s not just a travel guide, but a compendium of places with stories to tell. Mercifully, the descriptions are free from irritating, overwrought, self-congratulating traveller’s tales, opting instead for good solid research and revealing explanation (as you might expect from a site co-founded by the author of the blinking marvellous Curious Expeditions blog). Typical of this is the page on the Broad Street Cholera Pump, revealing how an innocuous looking water pump on a London street marks the spot where 500 people died in a single outbreak of cholera in 1854, prompting Dr John Snow to discover the link between the disease and London’s foul drinking water.
Atlas Obscura is a highly diverting read now, and I for one hope it continues to grow with input from the community, because this idea has the potential to become very exciting indeed.
The image used to illustrate this article is from Atlas Obscura’s page on the Globe Museum in Vienna. Now that sounds like a day out, how did I miss that? O why was I so blind? Curse my blinkers!