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12 Amazing Underground Destinations to Visit

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Instead of the same old beach vacation this summer, why not beat the heat by heading underground? From amusement parks in salt mines to subterranean gardens, there are a variety of fascinating underground travel destinations where you can relax, see the sights, and cool off.

1. SALINA TURDA // TURDA, ROMANIA

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Salina Turda (Turda Salt Mine) was a salt mine in Transylvania that operated for hundreds of years, up until 1932, when it was repurposed to serve as cheese storage and as a bomb shelter. In 1992, parts of the mine were converted into something more fun: an amusement park.

At 400 feet below ground, the park features an amphitheater, mini-golf, basketball courts, a bowling alley, a Ferris wheel, a carousel, and a spa. The latter takes advantage of the chambers' supposedly health-giving temperatures—a constant 54 degrees with 80% humidity—and relative freedom from allergens and bacteria. Tourists can also rent rowboats and paddle around on an underground lake.

2. RUBY FALLS // CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE

 

Leo Lambert bought land above the Lookout Mountain Caverns in Tennessee in 1928, hoping to open a new entrance to the caves and make some money from tourists. Instead, he found an entirely new cave that contained its own underground waterfall. Lambert named the cave and its waterfall after his wife, Ruby. Ruby Falls, located in Ruby Falls Cave, is now one of Tennessee's best-known tourist attractions.

3. UNDERGROUND CITY OF NAOURS // NAOURS, FRANCE


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Cité souterraine de Naours, or the Underground City of Naours, was originally a limestone quarry. Many centuries ago, local residents in this part of northern France discovered that the underground chambers were a great place to store supplies, hide from raiders, and find shelter from the elements. By the 17th century, the chambers had been turned into a city of 3000 people, complete with homes, chapels, businesses, meeting rooms, and even livestock facilities. Cité souterraine de Naours was abandoned as the area grew more peaceful, but was rediscovered in 1887.

4. CAVE HOMES // GUADIX, SPAIN

Gordito1869 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

 
Residents of the Andalucían town of Guadix began carving their homes out of limestone hundreds of years ago. They're usually recognizable by the chimneys that arise from the ground, with no houses visible underneath (some homes also have visible exteriors, but extend much further underground). Many of these homes were first built for protection from invaders, yet they are so comfortable and economical that they are still used today. While the private homes of Guadix aren't open to the public, the proud owners might grant you a peek. If all else fails, you can visit the Cave Dwellings Interpretation Centre in Guadix and learn about the history of the homes.

5. UMOONA OPAL MINE & MUSEUM AND THE SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH // COOBER PEDY, AUSTRALIA

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The town of Coober Pedy, South Australia grew up around the opal mining industry. But the desert conditions are so extreme that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was filmed there. Daytime temperatures regularly reach into the triple digits, and can reach 113°F in the shade during summer. To deal with the extreme heat, the residents tend to build their homes underground. Abandoned chambers that have been mined of their opals are also used for underground community buildings.

The Umoona Opal Mine & Museum is the town's largest underground attraction, and a good place to learn about the history of Coober Pedy and its opal mines. The town's Serbian Orthodox Church is also quite notable, with its sanctuary carved by volunteers under a sandstone hill, along with a fellowship hall, school, and parish house—all underground. The church is open to visitors.

6. PUERTO-PRINCESA SUBTERRANEAN RIVER NATIONAL PARK // PALAWAN, PHILIPPINES

 

The Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, surrounds one of the longest underground rivers in the world. The 5-mile underground section of the river empties into the ocean, after flowing through a limestone cave full of spectacular formations and populated by bats, monkeys, sea snakes, and other wildlife. Tour company PPUR offers excursions to the park starting from Puerto Princesa City, about 45 minutes away.

7. FORESTIERE UNDERGROUND GARDENS // FRESNO, CALIFORNIA

Carol M. Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
Sicilian Baldassare Forestiere immigrated to California around the turn of the 20th century, but soon found the heat of Fresno oppressive. Inspired by the catacombs near his home in Sicily, he began digging himself underground caverns in which to stay cool, and kept digging for the next 40 years. Along the way, Forestiere developed methods to deliver enough sunshine so that he could grow fruit trees and grapevines in his underground home. The result of his digging is now Forestiere Underground Gardens, where some of his original trees are still thriving 100 years later.

8. EDINBURGH VAULTS // EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND

 

After Edinburgh's South Bridge was completed in 1788, the space under its 19 massive stone arches was used for storage and small businesses such as taverns and cobblers. But as conditions beneath the bridge deteriorated (for one thing, it had never been properly waterproofed), businesses moved out and squatters, criminals, and fugitives moved in. The maze of rooms and corridors now known as the Edinburgh Vaults were rediscovered during an excavation in 1985, when evidence of past residents sparked interest in South Bridge history. The vaults are now a tourist draw, and it doesn't hurt a bit that the mysterious underground corridors are said to be haunted by the ghosts of those who used them.

9. BASILICA CISTERN // ISTANBUL, TURKEY

 

In the 6th century, Byzantine Emperor Justinianus I constructed a huge underground reservoir near the southwest corner of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It was built beneath the Stoa Basilica, why is why it's known as the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnici in Turkish. The brick-lined chamber is supported by 336 stone columns, and can hold up to an estimated 100,000 tons of water. The cistern has been abandoned and then restored several times over the centuries, most recently in 1985. The most striking features of the cistern's architecture are the two giant Medusa heads that support two of the columns. One is placed sideways, while the other is upside down. They may have been taken from a Roman building, and placed in their unusual manner to show disrespect for pagan figures. The Basilica Cistern is now a museum, open to the public.

10. NARUSAWA HYOKETSU ICE CAVE // NARUSAWA, JAPAN

 

The volcanic activity that led to the birth of Japan's Mt. Fuji also produced caves in the ground underneath the mountain. One of these is Narusawa Hyoketsu Ice Cave in Yamanashi Prefecture. The cave is near the east entrance of the Aokigahara Jukai forest, which is also known as the "suicide forest." Narusawa Hyoketsu is so cold that water dripping from the ceiling forms pillars of icicles year-round. The average temperature inside the cave is barely above freezing, which made the cave a perfect place to store ice before mechanical refrigeration. Today, it's open for visitors.

11. MEGA CAVERN // LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY

 

A former underground limestone quarry in Louisville, Mega Cavern spans about 4 million square feet. Much of that space is dedicated to a commercial storage business, but you might be more interested in the underground amusement park. The park includes the a 320,000-square foot bike park, a zip line, an aerial rope challenge course, and tours.

12. WIELICZKA SALT MINE // WIELICZKA, POLAND

Daniel.zolopa via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 pl

 
The Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow produced salt from the 13th century up until 2007, but even before mining ceased it became a national historic monument and a tourist attraction. The natural resource has figured prominently in Poland's history over the centuries, and miners created an underground world that includes chapels and artworks carved into the walls, with more added by modern artists. Wieliczka Salt Mine now has hundreds of miles of underground corridors, shafts, and chambers to see. Visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage Site can choose between several tours of various lengths and themes, visit the museum, relax at the underground health spa, have an underground meal, or see concerts and other events in the mine's chambers.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. KRAMPUS

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. JÓLAKÖTTURINN

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. FRAU PERCHTA


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. HANS TRAPP

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. PÈRE FOUETTARD

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. THE YULE LADS

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 

8. GRÝLA

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

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