Strange Geographies: Abandoned Belgium (and Luxembourg), Part II

So last week, I told about half the story of my recent adventure to Belgium and Luxembourg, where I was looking for atmospheric abandoned chateaus to film inside for a book trailer I'm making for a novel I have coming out in June called Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. I was, ostensibly, looking for the Home, trying to find an exterior and some interiors that looked something like the grand-but-decaying house that figures somewhat centrally in my book. I found the perfect exterior right away -- you can see it at the top of last week's post -- and while the long-disused garden statuary workshop we discovered further down the road from it was fascinating, it wasn't really what I needed for an interior. I was looking for that rarest of abandonments: a place filled with objects from another time, gathering dust but more or less undisturbed.

Usually, when a place is abandoned for awhile, local kids and vandals find it before explorers do, and all the original character of the place disappears: things get broken or stolen, spray-painted, and generally messed-up. But my explorer friend and I would get lucky on this trip. We found a couple of places that really and truly seemed like time capsules.

Before we crossed into Luxembourg, we stopped in the dark and forested Ardennes in Belgium, where American tanks still rust on the outskirts of some towns, vestiges of the fierce Battle of the Bulge that was fought here against the Nazis during WWII. But the forests have secreted away much more than just tanks. Take, for instance, this disused train station we found. The story I heard (but couldn't verify) is that it was built more than a century ago for the private and sole use of the king of Belgium -- and then left to the elements when he didn't take to it. It's been empty ever since, trees growing up through the middle. Trains still run past it, but never stop. Today, explorers use it as a camping and party spot. Scenic, no?

We slept that night in a castle -- an actual castle! -- which was, surprisingly, one of the cheapest sleeping options nearby. The reason, we discovered, is that there was no one else staying in it but us -- it was out of season -- and none of the castle's usual amenities, like multiple bars, a restaurant, and a movie theater, were all closed. We headed to a nearby town for a bite to eat, and unable to read the menu or really ask what anything on it meant, my friend and I pointed at the next table's meal and indicated, somehow, that we'd have what they were having. I wondered why the people at the table we'd pointed at kept staring at us afterward, until the meal arrived -- it was a stew made from the face and brain of a pig! Nose, cheeks, gray matter -- the works. So much for being a pseudo-vegetarian! In halting English, the next table eventually informed us that the dish is colloquially known as "the wine of Jacques Chirac." God knows why.

The castle, by the way, was called Chateau de la Poste, which I can highly recommend as an awesome place to stay -- in season, that is.

The next morning, we left our nice orderly chateau and drove to an abandoned one -- known among explorers as Chateau Noisy. It was an old school for girls, and though the inside's a bit worse for the wear, the outside looks like a fairytale castle:

Unfortunately, we didn't get much closer than that. After a 20-minute hike and hauling ass up a giant hill to get to the entrance, my friend spotted a black security van -- and we got out of there. On the other side of the property, we found a gate with a buzzer box, and figuring that actually asking permission, having failed to gain entrance the, er, normal way, couldn't hurt. A woman answered, and though we couldn't understand most of what she said, we caught two words: prive! and chien! (Private! Dog!) Needless to say, we made tracks out of there.

We had much better luck in Luxembourg, a tiny country of beautiful, rolling hills and ancient little villages, where everyone in the city seems to be a banker and in the country a farmer. And if you know where to look, there are plenty of time capsules to be discovered. The first one we came to had its front door open, but being in the middle of a village (and it being the middle of the day when we arrived), we decided to play it safe and find a way in around back, instead. As luck would have it, there was an open window on the second floor, right next to a big, easily-climbed tree. We shimmed up and slipped inside, unnoticed.

The house was amazing -- once full of opulent furnishings and religious objects, now in decay. That's a decomposed fox on the floor in front of the bed.

I think you could safely assume that this was the ceiling of a wealthy person.

This amazing spiral staircase led from floor to floor. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

We'd been in the house about ten minutes when we heard voices from outside, circling the place. We froze, then tiptoed from window to window trying to get a bead on what they were doing, and whether they were onto us. A moment later, we got an answer of sorts -- they came inside, their footsteps echoing up the stairs, through the half-empty rooms. We were on the second floor, and they were below us. We were trapped, essentially, unless we wanted to attempt an escape out the window and down the tree, a slow, somewhat noisy process that, undertaken carelessly, could've resulted in a broken leg or worse. So we held our ground and waited.

The men's voices didn't seem angry or suspicious; they didn't know we were inside. I didn't want to scare them too badly, and since they were coming toward us anyway, I called out, bonjour! in my friendliest tone. They jumped about ten feet in the air -- and then I saw their tripods. They were explorers, just like us. This house, apparently, was not exactly off the beaten track. We talked for a bit, letting our hearts slow down, and then went about our business.

One of the other guys:

The last thing we found before leaving was the strangest thing I'd seen the whole trip -- a pair of gravestones. Inside the house. My theory is that they used to be outside, marking an actual pair of graves, but that they had fallen over at some point, and rather than repair them, or let them sit tumbled in a tall patch of grass somewhere, they were brought inside -- where they seem just deeply, wrongly out of place.

We left out the front door, figuring that since we were going it didn't matter so much if we were seen, and drove on. We spent a night in Luxembourg, had somewhat less exotic food for dinner (escargot pizza -- somewhat adventurous, but nothing compared to brain-and-face stew), and then in the morning, hit our last spot. It turned out to be the best, and most untouched, abandoned house I'd ever been in.

It was another little house in the middle of a village, but we showed up early on a Sunday morning, just after sunrise, and the sleepy villagers were nowhere to be seen. We got in with no problem, only to find this creepy-as-hell hallway, a tunnel of darkness --

-- at the end of which was the inside of the front door. Judging from the legions of cobwebs along its jamb, it hadn't been opened in a very long time. This was most definitely a time capsule -- still sealed.

Nearby, brittle from rust, sat the key.

Upstairs, the time capsule was in full effect. The rooms looked as if they'd just been vacated -- and I would almost have believed they had been, if everything in them weren't an antique, encrusted with layers of dust and dryrot. The dinner table, for instance, with an old man's glasses and pipe laid out, an open book, a sweater thrown over the back of the chair, a bottle of bitters, white chunks of mildew floating in the glass. Yes, explorers had been here before us -- they had almost certainly been the ones to arrange this scene -- but not many explorers. My friend said he doubted if more than ten people had ever seen this place before we had. That so many potentially valuable antiques and souvenirs remained seemed evidence of that.

Walking into this upstairs bedroom was incredible -- it had more personal effects, more clothes and antiques, than I'd ever seen in a place like this. Not only were the sheets still on the bed, but clothes were in the closet, a chamber pot on the floor, pictures on the wall -- and that hat on the bed was, no pun intended, the capper.

The town was beginning to wake up. We'd been inside for almost three hours without realizing it -- we really were in a time-warp. There were too many things I hadn't seen yet and hadn't photographed -- a cobwebbed alarm clock, for instance, that my friend found -- but we had to go. I'd like to think it'll still be there to explore years from now, but I doubt it; once explorers find a place, it's just a matter of time before vandals and thieves do, as well. I was just lucky to be one of the first inside. I'm not sure I'll ever be as lucky again.

By the way, I know I usually offer links to larger versions of my pictures, but in this case, I can't -- because these are all frame-grabs from videos. Every one of these stills is part of a moving shot, which I'm editing together into an Abandoned Belgium short film right now. Watch out for that in the next few weeks!

You can follow me on Twitter or keep track of Miss Peregrine on Facebook.

More Strange Geographies...

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Quick Facts About The Netherlands

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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