Atlas of Unexpected Places
Atlas of Unexpected Places
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The quirky, enormously enjoyable Atlas of Unexpected Places has just been reissued in paperback. Its subtitle tells you everything you need to know about the content: Haphazard Discoveries, Chance Places and Unimaginable Destinations. Can there be anywhere on earth that is still unmapped or un-Instagrammed?

Places that were once entirely unknown are now available to us in full colour, at our fingertips. Are there any surprises left? British cultural historian Travis Elborough believes there are, and crisscrossed the globe finding them: odd, enchanting places and buildings that remind us that there is still much to know about the world.

In this collection of delirious essays, Elborough takes us to an underground city in Cappadocia and to Shanxi province in China, where a hanging temple is affixed to the sheer cliff face of Mount Heng. Just looking at it makes one dizzy. There are other underground dwellings in a place called Coober Pedy in the godforsaken desert of South Australia where opals are mined. A few thousand troglodytes live below the pitted surface, popping up to play golf or buy food.

If that sounds like a sci-fi movie, there’s another remote place that was used as the setting of the first Star Wars movie — Matmata village in Tunisia.

Its Berber buildings were immortalised as dwellings on the planet Tatooine, with its two moons.Not all settings for fascinating destinations are exotic.In Illinois, US, in a quiet town called Collinsville, there was a drive-in called The Mounds. “Few of those

pulling up in their Plymouth Belvederes or Chevrolet Impalas would have given much thought to the mounds which gave the area its name,” he writes. Nor would the mobile moviegoers have been bothered to know that some of the mounds had been bulldozed so as to squeeze in more cars on the level. Yet beneath their whitewall tyres were the last remaining traces of an ancient metropolis. The city, named Cahokia, is thought to have been the most magnificent city north of Mexico at its peak, and was built by the Mississippian people centuries before the Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s. The old drive-in is long gone, its speaker posts now recycled as trail markers in the park.

There’s no end to the number of intriguing places in Japan. One tiny island is inhabited by hundreds of feral cats and a handful of elderly people. In the Hitachi Seaside Park in the Pacific coastal city of Hitachinaka, the vast flower gardens act as a calendar in colours, with millions of daffodils and dozens of varieties of tulips changing with the months. In April and May, one section turns “eyeshadow blue”, the result of more than 1-million famous nemophila flowers blooming. It’s best to dip into this book with your iPad at hand. It’s rather refreshing in an analogue sort of way that the pictures are all in black and white, but you’ll be drawn to look up some of the places, like those blue fields.

The one place I searched for immediately was Canfranc Station, a building straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. Built as a bridge between Spain and France, high up in the Pyrenees, it is a grand Art Nouveau folly. Fortunately, it was rescued from certain ruin by a hotel group and has recently been opened as a very smart inn.

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