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Strange Geographies: Quick Facts About the Netherlands

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I just got back from a week in the Netherlands (and Belgium and Luxembourg) and my head's still spinning -- from the jet-lag, heavy beers, and dizzying awesomeness of that part of the world. I'm just starting to go through the intimidating mountain of images and videos I took while there, but just to kick off what will be probably several weeks of occasional posts about the region, I wanted to do a quick overview of Holland, which as it turns out has a lot more to offer than tulips and wooden shoes (though it's got those, too).

The first thing you notice about Amsterdam are its canals. The second is all the bikes. It's got more of both than anywhere else -- more canals than Venice, and more bikes than people, some 1,000,000 unsexy-but-practical granny bikes for a population of just 700,000. Decades ago, the city had a lot more cars speeding down its narrow lanes, but Amsterdammers realized that fitting any more automobiles into Amsterdam was going to require paving some of their historic canals. So they decided to encourage bike use by making the city friendly to bikes, building thousands of km of bike lanes and giant bike parking lots (one of which -- the top of a multi-storied structure -- is pictured below) and unfriendly to cars. It's very expensive to own a car, buy gas for a car, park a car, or even get a license to drive a car in Holland -- the test costs more than 500 euros, and if you fail, which is easy to do, you've got to pay it all over again on subsequent attempts. Little wonder then that so many people ride bikes. It's the fastest way to get around -- and fun, too!

Everyone rides -- little kids, old people, businesspeople, couples on dates (one does the pedaling while the other rides on the luggage carrier). It's not uncommon to see extremely well-dressed people riding bikes, either. This may be part of the reason that people in Holland don't seem to take themselves too seriously. Vespas and Smartcars are popular, too, though lately in Amsterdam there's been a problem with rowdy gangs of kids picking up the Smarts and tossing them into canals. So, yeah.

One of the reasons that everyone can bike is that the whole country is flat as a pancake. Some parts -- the airport, for instance -- are actually several meters below sea level. (Lucky for them, it's not a tsunami-prone part of the world.) Much of the province of Flevoland was underwater just 30 years ago; the city of Almere, with a population in the hundreds of thousands, was sea bed before a series of massive dike projects turned back the water. The Dutch have been doing this sort of thing for centuries, of course, and as a result of their expertise, the US government turned to them for advice about the best way to repair the levees after Hurricane Katrina. For helping Egypt save countless treasures during a flood in the 80s, the country gave them a museum wing full of priceless antiquities.

Yes, some drugs are legal there, though sold in shops with misleading names -- you'll find various kinds of pot on offer at "coffeeshops" and some varieties of mushrooms and hash at "smart shops" (one is pictured above). The red light district, which wraps around one of the largest and most beautiful old churches in the city, is where hookers strut their stuff in windows (or chat on cell phones, or do their nails). But it's not as if the Dutch are sex-and-drug-crazed maniacs; in fact, the majority of people who visit these places are tourists, and the city of Amsterdam has been clamping down on the spread of both coffeeshops and red light-establishments of late, considering them an unsightly but somewhat necessary nuisance.

Speaking of unsightly nuisances, the more touristy sections of the city are crammed with the same gaudy shops you can find in any city -- but in a touch that seems distinctly Amsterdam, you'll find all sorts of surprises in the nooks and crannies. See the church in the picture above? It's one of the narrowest in the world, built in secret during the Reformation, around 1700, when Catholics were forced underground in many parts of Europe. (The obviously-churchy facade dates from sometime later.) It was closed when I visited, or I totally would've gone in. It's known as the Parrot Church, I assume because of this exterior detail:

They have some great beers in the Netherlands. Sure, you've heard of Heineken and Amstel, but as I discovered in a delightful little pub called t'Arendsnest, which serves only Dutch beer, there are hundreds more. The few I tried rival anything you can get in the US or Belgium. I mean, seriously -- a stout aged in Bruichladdie scotch whisky barrels from 1972? It tastes as good (and strong) as it sounds.

Also, since almost every bar is within spitting distance of a scenic canal, the atmosphere (provided it's not raining) is hard to beat.

75% of the world's flower bulbs come from the Netherlands. It's tough to take a trip anywhere in the country and not pass fields and fields of tulips growing, as I did on a quick jaunt down to Leiden. This is a tiny part of what I saw out the window -- psychedelic stripes of blooming color -- so common a sight, I suppose, that almost no one else in the car with me even bothered to look.

Here's an interesting little fact -- there's almost no abandoned stuff to explore in the Netherlands. Part of the reason I went was to meet up with a Dutch explorer friend and find some abandoned chateaus to photograph the insides of, but to do that we had to drive down to Belgium, where they're plentiful. The Dutch, it seems, don't waste anything, including land or old buildings; as soon as something becomes abandoned, it's knocked down or re-purposed. This probably has something to do with A) the Netherlands being the most densely populated nation in Europe and B) the Dutch being an extraordinarily tidy and practical people. There's also the old cliche that they're penny-pinching cheapskates. While I'm not ready to weigh in on that just yet, I can tell you that they do get as much as they can out of their real estate -- every bathroom in Holland, for instance, contains JUST enough square footage for a sink, a toilet, a shower, and your body. Given that, it's not surprising that haunted-looking ruins like this don't exist there:

That'll have to wait for another post. (Cue spooky laughter.)

All photos © Ransom Riggs

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10 Legendary (and Probably Made-Up) Islands
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Often, islands come to represent places of extremes: they serve as utopias, purgatories, or ultimate dream vacation destinations. When it comes to mythological islands, utopias are especially popular. The Greeks had their Fortunate Islands, or Islands of the Blessed, where the luckiest mortals whiled away their time drinking and sporting. The Irish had a similar concept with their Mag Mell, or Plain of Honey, described as an island paradise where deities frolicked and only the most daring mortals occasionally visited. 

But mythology isn't the only engine creating islands that don't actually exist—some of these legendary land masses popped up on maps after miscalculations by early explorers who interpreted icebergs, fog banks, and mirages as real islands. Some of these cartographic “mistakes” may have been intentional—certain islands depicted on medieval maps might have been invented so they could be named after the patrons who funded the explorations. Even explorer Robert E. Peary wasn't immune: Some say he invented "Crocker Land," a supposedly massive island in the Arctic, to secure funding from San Francisco financier George Crocker. Crocker Land didn’t exist, although that didn’t prevent major American organizations (including the American Museum of Natural History) from sponsoring a four-year expedition to find it.

Much like the fictional Crocker Island, here are 10 more imaginary isles, all of which have a place in world history, literature, or mythology—despite not having a place on the map.

1. Isle of Demons 

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Supposedly located off the coast of Newfoundland, this landmass (sometimes depicted as two islands) appeared on 16th century and early 17th century maps, and was named for the mysterious cries and groans mariners reported hearing through the mist.

The island was given a somewhat more solid identity after 1542, when nobleman and adventurer Jean-François Roberval was instructed by the King of France to found settlements along the North Atlantic coast. He brought his niece, Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, along for the voyage, but she began a passionate affair with one of Roberval's officers. Annoyed, Roberval put his niece (and maybe the officer—accounts differ), as well as her nurse, ashore on an otherwise unspecified "Isle of Demons" in the St. Lawrence River. Marguerite gave birth on the island, but the child died, as did Marguerite’s lover and nurse. However, the plucky Marguerite survived alone for several years, using her firearms against the wild beasts. After being rescued by Basque fishermen and returning to France, she reported that she had been beset "by beasts or other shapes abominably and unutterably hideous, the brood of hell, howling in baffled fury."  

Marguerite’s story appears in several historical accounts, including versions by Franciscan friar André Thevet and the Queen of Navarre. Still, the location of the “Isle of Demons” on which she landed has never been found for certain. Maritime historian and veteran Atlantic sailor Donald Johnson thinks he has identified it as Fichot Island, close to the Strait of Belle Isle at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Johnson notes that Fichot Island lies on Roberval's course, and is home to a breeding colony of gannets—a type of seabird whose guttural cries, heard only while breeding, may have been taken for the sounds of demons.

2. Antillia 


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Also known as the Isle of Seven Cities, Antillia was a 15th century cartographic phenomenon said to lie far west of Spain and Portugal. Stories about its existence are connected to an Iberian legend in which seven Visigothic bishops and their parishioners fled Muslim conquerors in the eighth century, sailing west and eventually discovering an island where they founded seven settlements.  The bishops burned their ships, so they could never return to their former homeland. 

According to some versions of the legend, many people have visited Antillia but no one has ever left; in other versions of the tale, sailors can see the island from a distance, but the land always vanishes once they approach. Spain and Portugal even once squabbled over the island, despite its non-existence, perhaps because its beaches were said to be strewn with precious metals. By the late 15th century, once the North Atlantic was better mapped, references to Antillia disappeared—although it did lend its name to the Spanish Antilles.

3. Atlantis 

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First mentioned by Plato, Atlantis was supposedly a large island that lay "to the west of the Pillars of Hercules" in the Atlantic Ocean. It was said to be a peaceful but powerful kingdom lost beneath the waves after a violent earthquake was released by the gods as punishment for waging war against Athens. There have been many attempts at identifying the island, although it may have been entirely a creation of Plato’s imagination; some archeologists associate it with the Minoan island of Santorini, north of Crete, whose center collapsed after a volcanic eruption and earthquake around 1500 BC. 

4. Aeaea 

In Greek mythology, Aeaea is the floating home of Circe, the goddess of magic. Circe is said to have spent her time on the island, gifted to her by her father, the Sun, waiting for mortal sailors to land so she could seduce them. (Afterwards, the story goes, she would turn them into pigs.) Some classical scholars have identified Aeaea as the Cape Circeium peninsula on the western coast of Italy, which may have been an island in the days of Homer, or may have looked like one because of the marshes surrounding its base.  

5. Hy-Brasil 

Also known as Country o'Breasal, Brazil Rock, Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), and by many other names, Brasil (Gaelic for "Isle of the Blessed") is one of the many mythical islands of Irish folklore, but one that nevertheless made several appearances on real maps.   

Like the Mediterranean's Atlantis, Brasil was said to be a place of perfect contentment and immortality. It was also the domain of Breasal, the High King of the World, who held court there every seven years. Breasal had the ability to make the island rise or sink as he pleased, and normally only let the island be visible when his court was in full swing.  

According to legend, Brasil lay "where the sun touched the horizon, or immediately on its other side—usually close enough to see but too far to visit." It first appeared on a map made in 1325 by Genoese cartographer Daloroto, who depicted it as a large area to the southwest of Ireland. (Later maps placed it farther west.) Its shape was usually drawn as a near-perfect circle, bifurcated by a river. Numerous explorers searched for the island, and some, including Italian navigator John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), even claimed to have found it. 

Today, scholars think Brasil may have been a reference to Baffin Island, or to now-sunken lands visible only when sea levels were lower during the last Ice Age, or else an optical illusion produced by layers of hot and cold air refracting light rays.  

6. Baralku 

Among the indigenous Australians of the Yolngu culture, Baralku (or Bralgu) is the island of the dead. The island holds a central place in the Yolngu cosmology—it's where the creator-spirit Barnumbirr is said to live before rising into the sky as the planet Venus each morning. Baralku is also the spot where the three siblings who created the landscape of Australia, the Djanggawul, originated. The island supposedly lies to the east of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, and the Yolngu believe their souls return there after death.

7. Saint Brendan's Isle  

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This piece of land was said to have been discovered by Irish abbot and traveler Saint Brendan and his followers in 512, and to be located in the North Atlantic, somewhere west of Northern Africa. Brendan became famous after the publication of the Latin Navigation of St Brendan, an 8th/9th century text that described his voyage in search of the wonderful "Land of Promise" in the Atlantic Ocean. The book was a medieval best-seller, and gave the saint his nickname, "Brendan the Navigator." The island was said to be thickly wooded, filled with rich fruit and flowers. Tales of St. Brendan's Isle inspired Christopher Columbus, among others, and had an important influence on medieval cartography. Sightings were reported as late as the 18th century.

8. Avalon 

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First mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia regum Britanniae, Avalon is the place where the legendary King Arthur's sword is forged, and where he is sent to recover after being wounded in battle. The island was said to be the domain of Arthur's half-sister, sorceress Morgan le Fay, as well as her eight sisters. Starting in the 12th century, Avalon was identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, in connection with Celtic legends about a paradisiacal “island of glass.” Twelfth century monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered Arthur’s bones—although later historians believe their “discovery” was a publicity stunt to raise money for Abbey repairs. 

9. Island of Flame 

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Island of Flame (also known as the Island of Peace) was the magical birthplace of the gods and part of the kingdom of Osiris. It was said to have emerged out of primeval waters and to lay far to the East, beyond the boundaries of the world of the living. Associated with the rising sun, it was a place of everlasting light.  

10. Thule

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For the Greeks and Romans, Thule existed at the northernmost limit of their known world. It first appears in a lost work by the Greek explorer Pytheas, who supposedly found it in the 4th century BC. Polybius says that "Pytheas ... has led many people into error by saying that he traversed the whole of Britain on foot … and telling us also about Thule, those regions in which there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jelly-fish in which one can neither walk nor sail, holding everything together, so to speak." Later scholars have interpreted Thule as the Orkneys, Shetlands, Iceland, or possibly Norway, while the Nazis believed Thule was the ancient homeland of the Aryan race.  

Bonus: People Used to Think California was an Island  

Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, many Europeans believed that California was an island. Like other islands on this list, the place was reported as being a kind of paradise. In fact, the name "California" first appears in a romantic novel penned by Spanish author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, who described it as an island filled with gold and precious gems, populated by a race of Amazons who rode griffins.  

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Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
The Town Built On Asbestos (Population: 3)
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Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Welcome to Wittenoom, Australia, where the weather is beautiful, the scenery is unparalleled, and toxic substances seep from the earth.

Located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Wittenoom was once one of the top blue asbestos mining locations in the world, causing families to flock to the area for jobs. Also known as crocidolite asbestos, blue asbestos was a valuable commodity used for fire protection in ceiling tiles, insulation, electrical work, battery casings, and more. But it was also an incredibly dangerous one—all types of asbestos can cause fatal illnesses, but because crocidolite fibers are as thin as a strand of hair, they’re easily inhaled and may be responsible for more deaths than any other type of asbestos. In Wittenoom—where workers once held asbestos-shoveling contests, and families thought it safe to let their kids play in the stuff—thousands of former residents have died from asbestos-related causes.

The mining industry in Wittenoom was halted in 1966, not necessarily for health reasons, but for economic ones—the company which owned the mines was $2.5 million in debt. Health concerns weren’t really addressed until the late ‘70s, when the government started taking steps to shut the town down completely. Buildings were demolished, the airport was closed, and residents were urged to leave. By 1992, less than 50 citizens remained, and by 2007, it was down to eight. Today, just three brave souls still call Wittenoom home.

Why would three people stay in a town that’s still riddled with cancer-causing materials, a town with no electricity or water, one that has literally been erased from maps by the government because of the danger it poses? They all have different reasons.

Peter Heyward, a resident for more than two decades, stays for the nature and the “silent stillness” of the surroundings. “The hills, the plains, the openness, the quiet. I love the country," he told Australia's The Age in 2007. Since so many buildings were razed, he now has a perfect view of Hamersley Mountain Range.

Mario Hartmann stays put largely because he was unimpressed with the amount of money the government offered to buy him out—$40,000 plus $10,000 in moving costs: “What can you buy with $40,000? They'll have to offer $400,000, what it takes to buy a house somewhere else.”

This year, Lorraine Thomas, a 30-plus year veteran of Wittenoom, told WA Today she refuses to let the potential presence of asbestos scare her away. "It's only the dust that's dangerous," she said, a threat she believes has dissipated after the mines' closures. An official report begs to differ, calling the risk to tourists (of which there are still up to 40 a day) and residents alike "extreme."

Neither Thomas nor her fellow residents have any illnesses relating to the asbestos that still looms large in the area.

For a closer look at the ghost town's holdouts—filmed when there were still eight people residing there—the short documentary Wittenoom is worth a watch:

Wittenoom from Caro Macdonald on Vimeo.

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