10 Towns That Seem Straight Out of a Storybook

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While the world's biggest cities have spent centuries competing over the tallest towers and grandest innovations, these lovely towns have held on to their quaint houses and curious designs. Check out 10 destinations fit for a storybook.

1. MITTENWALD, GERMANY

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Featuring gables carved with character, house fronts in bold colors, and splendid murals, Mittenwald has been called "the most beautiful town in the Bavarian Alps." Though the town offers walking paths and ski slopes, it was the medieval town's architecture that led 18th century German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to declare it "a picture book come alive." Residents have preserved Mittenwald's heritage by keeping all main roads outside of the area. They also restored the stream that once bubbled through the area’s market square.

2. CORINALDO, ITALY

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Corinaldo abounds in neoclassical- and Renaissance-style buildings, with fortifications dating back to the 14th century; the area’s ramparts, towers, and alleys boast a medieval flare. One particularly picturesque pathway called Piaggia leads tourists down a wide series of 109 stairs, lined with old buildings, and to a well, a perfect location for pondering, taking pictures, or making a wish. Once a year, this stretch is flooded with locals in medieval costume, jugglers, jousters, and acrobats for the lively re-enactment of the Contesa del Pozzo della Polenta, the tale of a peasant who accidentally dropped a bag of corn flour into the well, went in after it, and failed to return. According to legend, the peasant was feasting on the boundless quantities of polenta that he had in the well.

3. GRUYERES, SWITZERLAND

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This cheese-loving village at the foot of the Alps dates back to the Middle Ages. With the magnificent mountains as a backdrop, its cobblestone streets, and collection of charming, old-fashioned buildings, Gruyeres is a place of natural and man-made majesty. It also has a castle, which now welcomes visitors as a museum, and there are plenty of attractions that center on the region's world-famous cheese and chocolate.

4. ESSAOUIRA, MOROCCO

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This 18th century port town and UNESCO World Heritage Site is iconic for its fortified red walls, narrow alleyways, and doors painted in traditional and vibrant blues. The area has been known by many names over the years, including Mogador (based on the Phoenician world for "small fortress"), the Port of Timbuktu, and Wind City of Africa for its unfriendly winds. But to fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones, this coastal wonder is Astapor, the Red City, where Daenerys Targaryen released the Unsullied warriors from their enslavement.

5. ČESKÝ KRUMLOV, CZECH REPUBLIC

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This UNESCO World Heritage Site can be spotted even from distance, thanks to its signature red roofs and distinctively colorful castle. In fact, the State Castle is the second largest in the Czech Republic behind the Prague Castle. The old world cobblestone passageways are idyllic for a peaceful stroll. But for more of a rush, you could ride the popular rapids of the Vltava River, just a little upstream of this otherwise antique town.

6. BRUGES, BELGIUM

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Because of the picturesque beauty it offers at every turn, this medieval town is frequently flush with tourists. Cobblestone streets wind past canals, towering churches, centuries-old pubs, a historic market, and a courtyard carpeted in daffodils each spring. To really indulge, take a horse drawn carriage or a canal tour. And don't miss seeing Bonifaciusbrug, a bridge so enchanting you might think it's bewitched!

7. SHIRAKAWA-GO, JAPAN

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This mountain village has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its collection of 114 gassho-zukuri farmhouses, distinguishable by architecture that resembles "palms placed together and fingers pointing upward in prayer." The structures’ thatched roofs are crucial for keeping out the heavy snowfalls for which the area is known. Though no nails or metal were used in their construction, the exemplary craftsmanship has ensured that some of these structures are still standing more than 250 years later. Walking through these streets or taking in these buildings from the Ogimachi-Jyoshi (observation platform) is like strolling into Japan's vibrant past and heritage.

8. COLMAR, FRANCE

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With tall buildings side-by-side with ornate carvings and facades painted in candy colors, it's no wonder that Colmar is one of the most popular tourist destinations of the Alsace region. One of the more curious details of the town's homes is how they build up and out, which originates from a clever way of getting around tax laws that based rates on property's square footage at street level. This town was considered such a treasure during World War II that Allied forces were careful not to bomb its 15th and 16th century wonders while attempting to oust the Germans from France.

9. POTES, SPAIN

This town along the Quiviesa and Deva Rivers looks like a page from an ambitious pop-up book. The walls and bridges that have defined the city's structure and sightseeing were a matter of necessity as Potes is placed on the joining of four valleys, amid an mountainous area and streaked with rivers. Its origins date back to the 8th century, though most of its acclaimed architecture comes from the 13th to 18th centuries. These include a labyrinth of alleyways and stairs, the gothic church of San Vicente, stately ancestral homes, the Bridge of San Cayetano, and its hermitage.

10. GÖREME, TURKEY

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This Turkish town, which dates back to the 4th century, owes its surreal and signature look to the natural landforms of the Cappadocia region and master carving. Originally, the land was studded with "fairy chimney" rock formations, which appeared to jut out from the earth in crude towers. Eventually, Göreme's founders chiseled those structures into homes and churches. The unique architecture is what led UNESCO World Heritage to dub the area "one of the world's most striking and largest cave-dwelling complexes." But calling the chapels—which boast breathtaking post-iconoclastic Byzantine art—caves is underselling the unique constructions that have fascinated visitors for centuries.

Welcome to Cool, California. Population: 2520

Alan Levine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Alan Levine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s not hard to find U.S. towns with some pretty weird (and sometimes depressing) names, so we shouldn't be surprised that people have the option of settling in the tiny town of Cool, California.

Initially named Cave Valley, due to the limestone formations nearby, the town popped up around 1849 during the California Gold Rush. The population eventually grew to 4100 people.

It's unclear when the town went from Cave Valley to being Cool. One legend suggests that a beatnik named Todd Hausman bequeathed the name after passing through in the 1950s, but the veracity of that story is doubtful since the Cool Post Office was founded as early as 1885. According to Condé Nast Traveler, records show that a reverend named Peter Y. Cool came out to pan gold and settled in the town in 1850, possibly serving as the source of the change.

Whatever the origin of its name, the town of Cool has ample branding opportunities. There’s the Cool Grocery Store and the Cool Beerwerks brewery and restaurant, which specializes in Hawaiian-Japanese fusion cuisine. Cool has held the Way Too Cool 50K Endurance Run every year since 1990.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

11 Weird Place Names From Around the World

The sign on the train station platform helps you pronounce this 58-letter-long Welsh town name.
The sign on the train station platform helps you pronounce this 58-letter-long Welsh town name.
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Shakespeare wasn’t wrong when he said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But if these places had any other names, they probably wouldn’t have made this list (or international headlines, in a couple of cases). Read on to discover the fascinating details behind Tasmania’s Eggs and Bacon Bay, French Polynesia’s Disappointment Islands, and other strangely named locales from all corners of the globe.

1. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales

At 58 characters, this tiny Welsh village on the isle of Anglesey has the longest place name in Europe. Translated to English, it’s a phrase that describes the town’s location: Saint Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio of the red cave. According to Atlas Obscura, the town has existed in some form for thousands of years, but in 1880 a publicity-oriented tailor changed its name from Llanfairpwll to its current moniker in an attempt to attract tourists. Luckily for us, Llanfairpwll is still an acceptable nickname, as is Llanfair PG. Listen to weather reporter Liam Dutton pronounce it like a pro here.

2. Batman, Turkey

Both a Turkish province and its capital city are named Batman for the nearby Batman River. Batman itself could have come from the ancient unit of measurement (equal to 16.96 pounds), or it could be a shortening of the name of the nearby Bati Raman mountains. Either way, the city became the source of scandal in 2008 when its then-mayor, Huseyin Kalkan, threatened to sue Warner Bros. and director Christopher Nolan over their use of the term in the Dark Knight trilogy. (No lawsuit was ever actually filed.) There are also plenty of people who want to reinforce the connection between the place name and superhero—over 26,000 have signed a petition to change the province’s borders to look like the bat symbol.

3. Eggs and Bacon Bay, Tasmania

eggs and bacon flower
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Tasmania’s Eggs and Bacon Bay is named after a regional wildflower commonly known as eggs and bacon, whose petals are a mixture of the sunny yellow of egg yolks and the deep red of bacon. The bay made national news in 2016 when PETA petitioned unsuccessfully to change its name to a more animal-friendly “Apple and Cherry Bay.” It doesn’t look like the idea ever made it to a vote at the local council, and officials didn’t seem keen on it. Huon Valley deputy mayor Ian Paul told The Guardian that the idea was “ludicrous,” adding “I feel pretty strongly about it. This is our heritage, it is our history.”

4. Wonowon, British Columbia

It’s not a coincidence that this Canadian town, pronounced “one-oh-one,” is located on Alaska Highway’s Mile 101, where the U.S. Army operated a 24-hour checkpoint during World War II. The town was originally named Blueberry after the nearby Blueberry River, but was eventually changed to Wonowon to prevent people from confusing it for another Blueberry in the southeastern Kootenay region. It’s not clear when the name officially changed to Wonowon, but according to a mention in a 1956 issue of the Northern Sentinel, the Post Office recognized it as Wonowon, while the residents still called it Blueberry. Why Blueberry in the first place, you ask? Possibly because British Columbia produces 96 percent of Canada’s cultivated blueberries.

5. Spa, Belgium

fountain in Spa, Belgium
Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Spa, Belgium, sounds relaxing, and for good reason. The word spa comes from this eastern Belgian town, whose curative mineral springs have been visited since the 16th century and were even mentioned by Pliny the Elder. Spa itself could be derived from espa, the Walloon word for "spring" or “fountain,” or the Latin word spagere, meaning “to scatter, sprinkle, moisten.” Or it could be an acronym for the Latin phrase sanitas per aquas, which fittingly means “health through water.”

6. Westward Ho!, England

book cover of Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley
Frederick Warne & Co, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1855, Charles Kingsley published a book called Westward Ho!, in which a young man leaves his home in Bideford, England, to pursue a seafaring life of adventure under the tutelage of famed explorer Sir Francis Drake. The book became a bestseller, and some enterprising folks formed the Northam Burrows Hotel and Villa Building Company in 1863 with the intention of capitalizing on the attention. They started by building the Westward Ho! Hotel, and continued to develop the area by constructing terraces, lodges, bath houses, stables, and a golf club. As development progressed, the village that sprung up around the hotel became known as Westward Ho! also.

7. The Office Girls, Antarctica

The Office Girls are two glacial islands, also called nunataks, about seven miles away from Welcome Mountain near the Southern Ocean coast of Antarctica. There are so many tiny pieces of land to map in Antarctica that the U.S. has an Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names to name them all—and in 1970 they chose “The Office Girls” as a tribute to all of the personnel who assisted with the administrative side of the missions from home in the continental U.S.

8. Punkeydoodles Corners, Ontario

The origin of the name of this tiny hamlet has been debated for decades. Some people say it’s the product of a German tavern owner’s slurred rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” while others say Punkeydoodle was an insult thrown at resident pumpkin-grower John Burbrigg by a vexed neighbor, and from then on his plot of land was called “Punkeydoodle’s Corners.” The charming Canadian town was once home to a somewhat charming Canadian crime: Mischief-makers often stole the town’s sign, until Canada Day in 1982, when community members replaced it with a concrete monument that weighs almost a ton.

9. Malpelo Island, Colombia

Sunset over Malpelo Island
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The Spanish words mal pelo translate to “bad hair” in English, implying that this island is in some way a nightmare for bouffants, beehives, and blowouts. It’s more likely the result of a metaphorical game of telephone that spanned half the globe and several centuries. It could be derived from the Latin malveolus, meaning “inhospitable” or “spiteful,” which might’ve become malbolo and later mal pelo [PDF]. It’s also on a world map from 1550 as ye mallabry, which probably means malabrigo, a word for “shelterless” that Spanish cartographers used to mark some islands and bays. Malabrigo sort of sounds like mal pelo, at least if you’re shouting it to someone on the opposite side of the island.

10. Hotazel, South Africa

Welcome to Hotazel, where it’s hot as hell—or at least it was on the day in 1915 when a group of land surveyors assessed a farm in South Africa and named the whole place “Hot As Hell,” now spelled “Hotazel.” The climate is actually pretty reasonable, with summer temperatures sometimes reaching the 90s (in Fahrenheit) and winter temperatures sometimes dipping into the 30s.

11. Disappointment Islands, French Polynesia

In 1765, Lord Byron’s grandfather John Byron was sailing around the tip of South America when he chanced upon a tiny island in the distance. To him and his scurvy-ridden crew, it looked like paradise, but he soon realized the high surf and coral reefs prevented safe anchorage. That, in addition to the spear-wielding natives stationed along the shore, dashed their hopes so severely that Byron named the island (and its nearby sister landmass) the Islands of Disappointment. This may have shielded the islands from centuries of follow-up explorers, but it also literally gives them a bad name. In reality, says BBC Travel’s Andrew Evans, they’re "timeless."

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