Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Most Amazing Dollhouse . . . Ever!

An unnamed artist recently built a dollhouse that's an absolutely perfect copy of the Hobbit's house from Lord of the Rings. I've never seen such incredible detail--there are even tiny eggs and and bottles of wine in the pantry! Check out the "Hobbit-eye views" here.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Subterranean Fossilized Forest

Miners working in two neighboring Illinois coal mines have made one of the most astounding discoveries of the 21st century. As they dug deep beneath the earth, they began to notice that the ceilings of their tunnels displayed an astounding variety of plant fossils, including 130-foot club mosses and tree-sized horsetails that resembled giant asparagus. As it turns out, they had unwittingly uncovered the remains of one of the planet's first rain forests.

Scientists estimate that the forest was buried by an earthquake around 300 million years ago. Thousands of extinct species were preserved in exquisite detail. Today, the fossil forest rests more than three hundred feet below the surface and extends over forty square miles. (An area roughly the same size as San Francisco.)

Read more here.

(Below: One of the fossils.)

Friday, April 27, 2007

My Favorite Poet

A blogger in Atlanta recently posted this "springtime" poem, which was written by an eight-year-old Georgia boy. I think you'll agree that the kid's got talent. See if you can find the secret message.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

What an Odd Looking Poodle

An incredible Internet scam was recently uncovered when Japanese film star Maiko Kawakami appeared on a talk show with photos of her new pet poodle. A sharp-eyed host informed the poor girl that her beloved dog was in fact . . . a lamb with an elaborate haircut.

How could this happen? Well, it seems poodles are quite rare in Japan, and few people know how to spot them. So a criminal mastermind started a website called Poodles as Pets (in Japanese, of course) and began selling "poodles" at discount prices. Thousands of people in Japan couldn't resist. What they received were British and Australian lambs styled to resemble the fancy pooches. As you might imagine, a police investigation has been launched.

(Below: A real poodle.)


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Fine Art of Making Mud Balls

Who knew a mud ball could be transformed into an object of beauty? The Japanese, of course! Kids across Japan are crazy about making what's known as hikaru dorodango. These simple, lovely handmade spheres can be crafted from most varieties of mud and require nothing but time and attention to detail. Even the ones shown above are 100% natural. They contain no other ingredients other than a little wet soil--no polish, no chemicals, no paints.

Simple instructions for making your own dorodango can be found here. (Just scroll down to the bottom of the page.) Experiment with different kinds of mud, and you'll end up with a range of colors.

(Below: Look how much fun you can have with your own dorodango!)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Edinburgh's Mysterious Underground World

Despite a life-long interest in subterranean worlds—and a fair amount of time spent in Scotland—I must admit that I only recently learned about the mysterious underground rooms beneath Edinburgh that are known as Gilmerton Cove.

Those who would like to visit must first find the old plumber’s workshop that hides the last remaining entrance to the “cove.” Then, they must descend more than thirty feet beneath the streets until they reach a tunnel carved out of sandstone. This long, winding passage provides access to six strange rooms, each decorated with stone pillars and furniture.

For centuries, Gilmerton Cove was believed to have been the work of a blacksmith named George Paterson, who claimed to have built the chambers between 1719 and 1724 as a home for his family. However the origins of the underground structure may be far more bizarre. Unusual carvings on the walls and furniture have led many people to believe that Gilmerton Cove is much older than Paterson alleged.

Some experts have suggested that the cove was built in the seventeenth century by Roman Catholics who practiced their religion in secret to avoid persecution by the English. Others think that the rooms may have used by the Freemasons for their mysterious ceremonies. Still others (perhaps not experts) believe Gilmerton Cove was the site of a witches’ coven.

However, the most interesting (and wacky) theory was proposed after a hidden door was discovered behind a pile of rubble in one of the underground rooms. Though it can’t be excavated (the street above would collapse), there may be another tunnel that leads in the direction of nearby Rosslyn Chapel. The fifteenth century church is famous for its rumored connection to the Knights Templar—the Christian military order that some believe may have discovered the Holy Grail. Could the Templars have used Gilmerton Cove as their secret hiding place?

(Below: Rosslyn Chapel)

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Devil's Tramping Ground and More

Since everyone seems to be on vacation, I'm taking the weekend off. Here are a few fun sites to explore while I'm gone.

The Devil's Tramping Ground

Eat Bunny

Square Up Your Squirrel

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Electric Shoes

The Guardian is reporting that a Swedish hospital may soon ban employees from wearing the rubber clogs known as Crocs--and it isn't because the shoes are so mind-bogglingly ugly. Instead, authorities are worried that Crocs might be deadly. The hospital suspects that static electricity generated by the clogs has already led to several respirator malfunctions. A hospital spokesman even suggested that large numbers of employees wearing the slip-ons could "turn into a cloud of lightening!"

On a related note, there have been reports of "electric humans" whose bodies produce unexplained sparks. (Although I should probably point out that most scientists reject the idea.) More on the phenomenon--and handy tips for those who suspect they might be "electric"--can be found here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Kung-Fu Robots

In three years, the greatest amusement park in history will open in the city of Shunde, China. Dedicated to the legendary kung-fu fighter, Bruce Lee, the park will feature a martial arts academy and a rollercoaster designed to issue the master's trademark grunts and screams. But the very best part? Dozens of remote control Bruce Lee "robots" will patrol the grounds, taking out evil-doers one-by-one. (Okay, maybe not. But the robots will be controlled from inside a giant statue of Lee at the center of the park, which is strange enough, I think.)

Shark in New York Harbor!

(Okay, it's just a whale, but it's still pretty unusual.) Earlier this week, a young minke whale was spotted in the waters off Brooklyn. According to the New York Times, the animal almost took a swim in the Gowanus Canal, which was once renowned for being among the most polluted waterways in the country. Fortunately the whale had the good sense (of smell, perhaps) to avoid it.

A video of "Sludgie" (as the whale is now known to New Yorkers) leaping from the water in typical whale fashion can be found here.

(Below: A minke whale at rest and play.)

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Porthole

I woke the morning after the dinner party to discover I’d slept through my alarm and missed the day’s classes. I bolted upright in bed and whacked my head on the sloped ceiling of my garret (attic) room. Three cups of coffee and four painkillers later, I took a seat in front of my computer and typed an email to Kiki that detailed the previous evening’s adventure.

Claire hadn’t been able to account for Maurice’s disappearing act. He wasn’t the sort, she’d said, to hide out in subway tunnels, particularly if it meant getting one of his custom-made suits dirty. Still smarting from his snub, I’d suggested that Maurice was a spy, but Claire wouldn’t buy it. He was too rich—and lazy—to sell his friends out. And who on earth would want information about the Ariadne Society anyway?

I wondered if Kiki might have an idea or two, but she didn’t respond to my email, and the rest of the day passed slowly. As I waited for the evening’s explorations to begin, I Googled Maurice’s family. I discovered that many of his ancestors had lost their heads during the Revolution, and that his father had been a notorious playboy, but I found nothing about Maurice. When the clock struck seven, I abandoned my research, gathered my supplies and set off to meet Claire.

After several wrong turns, I finally reached our meeting place in an alley in the 6th Arrondissement. I found Claire dressed in black and swinging a heavy crowbar as if it were a stick.

“Are you ready?” It was a challenge, not a question.

When I nodded, she dug the tip of the crowbar under a manhole cover and wrenched it out of the street.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

London's Mysterious Bus-Riding Cat

The London Daily Mail has an interesting article today about a mysterious white cat that hops on the #331 bus several times a week and gets off at the same stop each time. According to the article, the unusually intelligent feline appears to be commuting to a nearby fish and chips shop.

(Above: Another gifted member of the species.)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Disappearing Act

The members of the Ariadne Society knew how to throw a party. I ate until I was painfully full, and we all traded stories of our underground adventures. (I stuck to tales of sewers and subway tunnels. I didn’t know them well enough to reveal the secret of the Shadow City.) The only thing that dampened the festive (sometimes raucous) mood was the presence of a rather obnoxious young man seated directly across the table from me.

He’d been introduced as Maurice, and I’d seen him smirk when he shook my hand. But he was so ridiculously handsome and impeccably dressed that I couldn’t resist sneaking a few glances at him. He never looked my way. And while my other dinner companions graciously switched to English whenever my brow wrinkled with confusion, Maurice refused to speak anything but French. The snub couldn’t have been more obvious.

“Don’t let him bother you.” Claire finally leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Maurice is a terrible snob. He is not very popular in the Ariadne Society. Many of us do not trust him.”

“Then why is he here?” I asked.

“Maurice is the last of an old aristocratic family. His father and grandfathers were notorious cataphiles. It's said they had their own maps, and we thought Maurice might have information to share. But if he knows anything, then he hasn’t told us. He’s been completely worthless. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that he’s afraid of the catacombs. Some of my friends think Otto must have needed him for business contacts. After all, it was Maurice’s uncle who commissioned Otto’s last hedge maze.”

As she finished, Maurice’s eyes landed on me for the first and last time that night. His sly smile made me wonder if he’d heard our conversation, but I refused to squirm. Instead I offered an unfriendly wink and turned my attention back to Claire.

Around two in the morning, the party came to an end, and the members of the Ariadne Society trickled out of the subway station one by one to avoid attracting attention. Claire and I were among the last to leave.

When our turn came at last, Claire flipped the switch on her flashlight, and the station went dark. “Where’s Maurice?” Claire asked once we were halfway up the stairs. “I didn’t see him leave.” I paused to think and heard the sound of footsteps below us. Claire heard them too, and I felt myself being pulled back into the station and shoved through a doorway.

Our eyes adjusted to the darkness, and we peeked at the platform. Maurice was lowering himself onto the tracks. He crossed to the other side and hoisted himself onto the opposite platform. There, he stood motionlessly, and I knew he was listening for movement. When he decided the coast was clear, he called out hoarsely and a second figure emerged.

“Nothing new.” We heard him say in French as the platform began to vibrate beneath my feet. An empty train sped through the station. When it was gone, so was Maurice.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Vampire Killing Kits

The photo above shows a work of art by Dominic McGill, but there are many vampire killing kits floating around these days whose owners or sellers claim they're the real deal. Most of the kits were supposedly assembled by a mysterious Professor Ernst Blomberg in the 19th century. One such kit, which was auctioned off in 2003, included the following instruction label.

"Vampire Killing Kit

The accoutrements for the destruction of the Vampire

This box contains the items considered necessary for the protection of persons who travel into certain little known countries in Easter Europe where the populace are plagued with a peculiar manifestation of evil, known as Vampires . . . The items enclosed are as follows . . .

1. An efficient pistol with its usual accoutrements
2. A quantity of bullets of the finest silver
3. Powdered flowers of garlic (one phial)
4. Flour of Brimstone (one phial)
5. Wooden stake (Oak)
6. Ivory crucifix
7. Holy Water (one phial)
8. Professer Blomberg's New Serum"

Apparently, very little is known about Ernst Blomberg. But many experts have speculated that his vampire killing kits, such as the one shown below, were actually assembled in the 20th century to capitalize on the success of Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula.

But by far the most unusual kit is the one displayed on the Museum of Supernatural History's website. It's said to contain a pistol that has not only dispatched countless vampires and werewolves, but also Jack the Ripper and Adolf Hitler. Hmmmm.

See the kit and the miraculous firearm here.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Treehouses, Cannibals, and Roadside Attractions

The New York Times has a story today on the subject of treehouses, and it's accompanied by some pretty spectacular pictures. Almost makes me wish I lived in the countryside . . . almost.

Most treehouses are follies, but there are people who live in their treehouses year-round. Among them are the Korowai tribe of Papua, New Guinea, who are said to be the last people to practice cannibalism. (Those particularly interested in cannibalism can read more about the Korowai in this Smithsonian article.) The tribe builds its houses high above the jungle floor--some more than 150 feet off the ground--and its members share their living space with their dogs, pigs, and kids.

Back in the US, motorists can visit the "World Famous Treehouse" in Leggett, California. Built into the stump of a still-growing giant redwood, the treehouse holds the world record for tallest room. See a panorama of the treehouse here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


(The name of my favorite British TV show, which explores all things Japanese.) In Japan, a large percentage of the population enjoys engaging in what's known as "cosplay" (short for costume play). In other words, they dress up like their favorite manga, anime, or video game characters. (It doesn't seem quite as odd in Japan.)

In this video, dozens of people who met online in a cosplayer chat room gather together on a Tokyo street for a spontaneous syncronized dance routine. You've got to appreciate their professionalism. Of course, it all ends very quickly once the police arrive. But it's truly fantastic while it lasts.

Been Searching for a Talking Cow?

I can't tell you how many times I've tried to find a animatronic shark or a life-like rhinoceros suit and come up short. Now I know where to look for the finest quality animatronic animals and animal costumes.

Animal Makers is a company that specializes in creating animatronics to fit your every need. Want a robotic sheep for your backyard? They can make one. An octopus to sit on the bottom of your pool? No problem. Dancing bears that will obey your every command and make you feel like the queen of the circus? Just pick your species.

Animal Makers can build anything from mosquitoes to velociraptors in styles that range from cartoon-like to frighteningly realistic. And considering the craftsmanship, they aren't even that expensive. I'm going to start saving up now for a remote control chicken.

(Below: A two-person rhinoceros suit.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Guy Who Takes His Job Too Seriously

Shaun Ellis is the real Wolf Man. An expert on wolves, he has chosen to abandon human society and live among his subjects. He eats, sleeps, and fights with his adopted pack. His ultimate goal is to bridge the gap between wolves and men. Unfortunately, that requires neglecting his personal hygiene, braving the fangs of beasts that couldn't care less about his noble intentions, and hiding his food inside the carcasses that the other wolves eat from. Want to watch? The National Geographic's documentary airs next week.

Perhaps now is a good time to introduce another of my interests: Feral Children. Think "raised by wolves" is only an expression? It's not. There are well-documented cases of abandoned children being raised by apes, wild dogs, bears, and wolves. Unfortunately, unlike Tarzan or Mowgli, most are unable to adjust to the human world, and their stories rarely end happily. One of the few who has managed to thrive is John Ssabunnya of Uganda, who spent three years of his childhood being raised by green monkeys.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Okay, London's Pretty Cool, Too

The world's first chocolate billboard was erected in London this Easter. Weighing 860 pounds and featuring 72 giant chocolate eggs and 10 bunnies, the advertisement for Thortons chocolatier was meant to last at least a week. Instead, gluttonous passersby consumed it in a mere three hours. The girl below is said to have eaten her weight in hazelnut cream filling before embarking on sugar-crazed rampage. (Alright, I made that up. But I wouldn't put it past her.)

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Artists Take Over the Subway

I've been missing all the good stuff out there lately. (Maybe I've been spending too much time on the blog.) Yesterday, a team of guerilla artists took over one of New York's subway cars. But it wasn't like the old days when artists covered the trains with graffiti (see above). These artists stated their intentions in advance: "commuters will be greeted by welcome mats affixed to the floor in front of each door. Curtains will be hanging from the windows, houseplants attached to the overhead bars, and magazines will be distributed for reading pleasure. The subway ads will temporarily be replaced by 'family portraits' and images of book and record collections. Carpeting will be installed. The artists themselves will be relaxing in the car, wearing their pajamas and enjoying coffee."

Sure enough, they pulled it off. (Despite the fact that New York's transit cops are famously humorless.) You can see some fabulous pictures in this New York Post story. Just one more reason New York is the greatest place on earth.

Photo from the very cool Wooster Collective

Get Lost

If you ask me, there's nothing more sinister than a hedge maze. (Of course, I have a good reason for feeling that way--more on that later.) Even on the sunniest spring day, it's hard not to imagine someone or something waiting for you around one of the bends. (Which explains the role hedge mazes play in movies like The Shining and ghost stories, such as Mr. Humphries and His Inheritance.) But in honor of Otto, I'm offering a list of some of the world's most famous mazes (hedge or otherwise).

The Egyptian Labyrinth

Said to be more impressive than the pyramids, the Egyptian Labyrinth was an enormous temple complex surrounded by a wall. Hallways snaked through three thousand rooms and twelve courtyards--some above ground and some beneath it. As one witness remarked, the maze was so complex that "no stranger can find his way either into any court or out of it without a guide." Adding to the atmosphere were false exits and statues of "hideous monsters." (Above: The remains of the labyrinth as sketched in 1700.)

The Minotaur's Labyrinth

You're probably familiar with the myth. Each year (or every nine years, depending on which account you read), King Aegeus of Greece was forced to pay tribue to King Minos who ruled the island we now call Crete. The tribute was in the form of fourteen young men and women who would be fed to the fierce Minotaur that lived in a maze beneath King Minos's palace. Eventually, the hero Theseus slayed the Minotaur (though he'd probably have been the Minotaur's lunch if it hadn't been for King Minos's daughter, Ariadne) and put an end to the gruesome sacrifices.

Although a labyrinth has yet to be discovered on Crete, Minoans are known to have been quite fond of both mazes and bulls. Some have suggested that the vast Palace at Knossos, with its thirteen hundred rooms, may have inspired the legend.

Hampton Court Palace

Once home to King Henry VIII--and now home to quite a few ghosts (see post for 6/6/06), Hampton Court Palace boasts the best-known hedge maze in the world. Planted at the end of the 17th century for King William III of Orange, the maze's paths are more than half a mile long. A downloadable puzzle version can be found here.


The world's longest hedge maze can be found at Longleat, the stately English home (turned theme park) of the Marquess of Bath. It was commissioned in 1975 by the extremely (and I do mean extremely) eccentric 7th Marquess.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Got a Question?

Cosimacat has started a forum here. Kirsten Miller has agreed to answer a few of your questions. She does eat, sleep, and occasionally work, however, so if your questions aren't answered immediately, don't be disturbed.

Otto Moreau (Alias)

Here are a few things I learned about Otto Moreau.

Born ca. 1985
Disappeared late June 2006

Real name unknown. (Not necessarily a matter of secrecy. Apparently his given name was somewhat embarrassing.)

Otto claimed to have attended high school at the Lycee Montaigne near the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. The school sits atop one section of the catacombs. During World War II, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) occupied the building and built what’s known as the Bunker Allemand (German Bunker) in the catacombs below. Otto’s explorations began at the age of twelve when his found an entrance to the bunker. The story cannot be checked since Otto’s real name remains unknown.

A maze enthusiast, Otto postponed college in order to start his own business designing holly and hedge labyrinths for the country estates of wealthy French businessmen and aristocrats. His last project was a three-dimensional maze inspired by the catacombs.

A fan of boudin noir—blood sausage (which I was forced to choke down in his honor).

Mother is American. Spoke fluent English.

Resembled a young Alain Delon. Not bad.

In 2001, he founded the Ariadne Society, a group devoted to the exploration and preservation of the catacombs.

In early 2006, Otto announced he had made a discovery, but refused to share full details. He began to spend more time in the catacombs, and by March was rarely seen on the surface. He soon took to communicating with his friends through cryptic notes hidden in crevasses throughout the tunnels. Some made sense—others were rambling and incoherent. Many may not have been found. The last note asked society members to gather at “la pinacotheque” (art gallery), but did not provide directions.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Chicago Coyote

It seems a coyote wandered into a Quiznos restaurant in downtown Chicago yesterday. The full story, which can be found on the Chicago Sun Times, is quite entertaining, but I was more amused by the two customers who refused to leave before they'd finished their chicken sandwiches.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

New York's Secret Subway

Thirty-four years before the New York subway was first opened to the public, another underground railroad was secretly built beneath Manhattan. Today, most New Yorkers are unaware of its existence, but parts of Alfred Ely Beach's pneumatic subway may still lie under the streets, waiting to be rediscovered.

Alfred Ely Beach was an inventor, lawyer, and newspaperman whose offices at the New York Sun looked down on the streets of Lower Manhattan. In the 1860's, traffic in the city was worse--and far more dangerous--than it is today. Pedestrians who dared cross the crowded roads were often trampled by horses, and traffic jams regularly paralyzed the city. Add to this the fact that the garbage piled on the streets and sidewalks could reach knee-deep (horses contributed four hundred tons of manure a day), and you can see why a genius inventor might look for a solution below ground.

Unfortunately, at the time, New York was ruled by a corrupt politician named Boss Tweed. Nothing was built in New York unless the project lined the pockets of Tweed's cronies. So rather than pay "political blackmail," Beach decided to construct his subway in secret. He and his brother rented the basement of a clothing store on Broadway and started to dig. Every day, workers would bore through the earth, and each night, other men would furtively cart the dirt away.

In 1870, Beach opened his subway to unsuspecting reporters, politicians, and members of the public. Beneath the basement of a house on Warren Street, they found a lavish underground waiting room, complete with frescos, a fountain, flowers, a grand piano and chandeliers. Then they were allowed to ride--ten at a time--in a richly-upholstered car which was blown through a 312-foot tunnel by an enormous fan.

Beach's subway was a sensation for months, but he never received the city funds he needed to extend it. Ultimately, people stopped visiting, and by the 20th century, it was largely forgotten. When workers happened upon the tunnel in 1912, they had no idea what they'd found. Then they discovered Beach's tiny train, still sitting on the tracks. It was New York's first abandoned subway station.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Dinner Party

Once lunch was over and the waiter had arrived with the check, Claire passed me list of the supplies I’d need to purchase for our expedition into the catacombs. The tall rubber boots and flashlight were self-explanatory. But the list also included four cans of confit, three types of cheese, two baguettes, and a bottle of cheap wine. I asked if we’d be having a picnic, which made Claire laugh.

“The food is to keep us out of trouble with the troglodytes,” she told me.


“People who live in the catacombs. It’s best to have something to trade with them in case we need help. Underground, a good baguette can save your life.”

“I’ll buy everything this afternoon,” I told her. “What time should we meet tonight?”

Claire shook her head. “Not tonight. We will go on Monday. The catacombs are full of teenage boys and tourists on the weekends, so there are more police in the tunnels. All serious explorers go during the week.”

I couldn’t stifle my sigh. Monday was still two long days away, and I’d already grown to loathe Sundays in France. With all the stores shuttered, and no English-speaking friends to amuse me, my homesickness grew deadly. Claire seemed to understand my predicament.

“There is a dinner party on Sunday night,” she said. “It’s in honor of my friend Otto. Maybe you would like to come?”

“I’d love to!” I hated to sound so eager. The French seldom showed such enthusiasm.

“Then you should meet me at nine at the McDonalds on the Place de la Republique.” She looked me over and grinned. “Wear something chic.”

At 9:15 on Sunday, I was waiting outside the garish McDonald’s, wondering if I had fallen victim to a cruel prank, when I heard Claire call to me from across the street.

“I’m sorry. I’ve made us late,” she said. “We must hurry.”

Her red dress floated in the wind as she guided me to nearby a metro (subway) entrance. The station had long been abandoned and a metal gate blocked the stairs. Claire scanned our surroundings, taking note of a woman with a dachshund and a man relieving himself against a wall, before pulling out a set of keys. She opened the gate, and we both hurried into the darkness.

“They closed the Saint-Martin station during the Second World War,” Claire told me. “Part of it is used as a homeless shelter, but this part is ours.”

“Ours?” I asked.

“The Mexicans are not the only subterranean society,” she informed me.

When Claire turned on a flashlight, I wondered if a war had taken place inside the station. Everything that wasn’t burned or broken was caked with black grime. Tiles had fallen from the arched passages, and razor-sharp shards littered the floor. Rats frolicked in tall piles of garbage and debris. I’d visited several of New York’s abandoned subway stations, but I’d seen nothing that compared to the Saint-Martin metro stop.

We heard a rumble in the distance, and the platform began to vibrate beneath my feet. Claire flicked the switch on her flashlight, and we stood perfectly still in the darkness. A train shot past us, the eyes of bored commuters staring blindly out its windows.

When the train vanished, we approached a door composed of several old subway signs nailed together. A mouthwatering aroma wafted past my nose. Claire knocked and the door opened at once. Clean, white subway tiles gleamed in the light of countless candles. Massive 1930's advertisements for liquor and laundry detergent lined walls of an unused metro track. Seated at a long, beautifully-set table were more than a dozen people in formal clothing. A man in a chef’s hat toiled over five camping stoves at the end of the platform while a waiter filled water glasses. A banner on the wall read, “Bon Voyage Otto.”

“Where's your friend going?” I whispered to Claire.

“Heaven if he’s lucky,” she said. “He was declared dead last week. He disappeared in the catacombs three months ago, not long after he discovered the new passage.”


Sunday, April 01, 2007

Top 100 April 1st Hoaxes of All Time

The Museum of Hoaxes has a very entertaining list of the top April Fool's hoaxes "as judged by notoriety, absurdity, and number of people duped." Highly entertaining.

Where We Left Off . . .

(June 24, 2006)

I will soon be spending some time in Paris. While there, I intend to investigate (and hopefully join) a group known as the Perforating Mexicans. (Also known as the Mexican Perforation and La Mexicaine De Perforation.)

In 2004, French police were training in an uncharted section of the Paris Catacombs when they happened upon a secret room deep beneath the city. Unlike most chambers in the catacombs, which are filled only with dirt and ancient bones, this had been turned into a movie theater and restaurant, complete with electricity and a couscous maker.

It seems a group of enterprising Parisians had combined their love of subterranean spaces with their passion for the cinema and created a movie theater in a forbidden part of the catacombs. When the authorities finally arrived for a formal investigation, they found nothing left but a note that read, “Do not try to find us.”

No one has heard from The Perforating Mexicans since, but I have a hunch that they haven’t abandoned the catacombs altogether.

For more information, see the Wikipedia entry, which includes an interesting picture of the secret society at play.

(August 12, 2006)

(Which I learned the hard way, as usual.) Finding a way into the catacombs that stretch beneath Paris is not difficult. With a bit of luck, a runaway monkey could find an entrance. Finding a way out is the problem.

Law abiding types can always take the official tour, which guides you past the past the bones of six million Parisians which are stacked in a tidy fashion in a small section of the subterranean tunnels. An ancient and ominous warning greets all visitors, (“Stop, this is the empire of death.”), but unless you try to leave with a thighbone in your bag, you’re unlikely to end up into too much trouble.

Those who would prefer to pay a less legal visit to the catacombs, however, have a wide variety of options. Climb down any number of manholes around Paris, and you may find yourself in a dark passage that’s more than a thousand years old. (The entrance to a theater built by the Perforating Mexicans, for instance, can be accessed through a drain not far from the Eiffel Tower.)

Once you’re inside, you may want to keep an eye out for the policemen who periodically patrol the catacombs, but odds are you’ll see no one. There are more than 180 miles of tunnels under Paris, and only a handful of people can find their way around them.

Which brings me back to the monkey. Among the many who’ve met their fate in the catacombs was an orangutan that escaped from the Paris zoo over 200 years ago. But perhaps the most famous victim of Paris’s “Shadow City” was Philibert Aspairt who disappeared in 1793. His body was discovered many years later, a few feet from an exit. In his hands was a set of keys that could have saved his life. He was later buried on the spot where he was found. For a picture of his tomb, click here.

So now perhaps you’ll understand how it came to be that I got lost on my very first trip inside the catacombs.

If you'd like a little more information on Paris's Shadow City, and you can't wait, click here. Otherwise, stick around.

(September 5, 2006)

As I mentioned earlier, I first arrived in Paris in July. Verushka Kozolva had provided me with the telephone number of a young woman named Claire (for legal reasons, I can’t give her last name) who could serve as my guide to the catacombs. Her grandfather had been a member of the French Resistance during World War II, when both the Nazis and the Allies had used parts the underground tunnels to their advantage. In time, he had passed his knowledge of the catacombs along to his son (whom Verushka had befriended during year she and Kiki Strike lived in Paris) and his granddaughter.

Claire was vacationing in Romania during my first week in France. While I waited, I downloaded maps of the catacombs from some very impressive websites, but I didn’t trust them (or myself) enough to begin my explorations without an experienced guide. Instead, I tried to get in the mood by visiting other underground attractions around Paris. My first stop, of course, was the sewers.

Anyone with a particularly sensitive nose should steer clear of the sewers. It’s not that they smell the way you’d expect them to smell. If I had to describe their unique bouquet, I’d say it was a mixture of pond water, mold, kitty litter, and garbage can on a hot summer day. But if you’re able to breath through your mouth, the sewers are well worth the trip.

Dig deep beneath any street in Paris and you’ll find an arched tunnel made of brick or stone. In fact, the sewers follow course of the streets so precisely that they form a mirror image of the city above. (You’ll even find street signs to guide your way.) There are more than 1,300 miles of tunnels—some are enormous, more than 12 feet across, and others too narrow to enter. All are gloomy, dark, and dangerous. With a little rain, they become roaring rivers of filth, and toxic gasses are known to accumulate, killing the unprepared in seconds.

Despite the peril, there are many tales of those whose desperation or dimwittedness has led them to pry open one of the manholes that line the streets of Paris and drop into the darkness. Perhaps the most best know is that of Jean Valjean, hero of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables. (It was Hugo who famously referred to the sewers as “the intestine of the leviathan.")

I, of course, chose to visit Le Musée des Égouts de Paris. It’s a strange museum built around a working part of the sewer system not far from the Eiffel Tower. You’ll see and smell everything you need to make the experience worthwhile, and you’ll learn to pity the people who lived in the days before the sewers were built. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the museum is that you're often on your own, away from guards and tourists. It would be easy to slip into the tunnels and make your way through underground Paris.

(September 6, 2006)

In preparation for my journey into the forbidden passages of the Parisian catacombs, I also visited the tunnels that have been opened to the public. I expected a well-lit, heavily-guarded, tourist-filled environment—an underground Disney Land. I was wrong.

Two tips for visiting the catacombs. First, don’t go alone. (I did.) It’s dark. It’s quiet. And you don’t know who’s down there. Second, wear boots or sneakers. (I didn’t.) There’s water dripping (sometimes pouring) from the ceiling in most of the tunnels. The floor in many sections is one large puddle. But despite all this, if you follow my advice, you should have a fabulous time.

The highlight of the catacombs is, of course, the ossuary where human bones line the tunnels. But in order to see it, you must be prepared to walk quite a distance through dimly lit, stone-lined passages with ceilings that hover only a few inches above the top of your head. In many respects, this is the creepiest part of the journey. As the tunnels twist and turn, you can only imagine what might lie in front of you.

When at last you reach the entrance to the ossuary, and read the warning above the door (“Stop, this is the empire of death”), you may feel as if you’re ready for anything. You aren’t. There’s nothing that will prepare you for the sight of human bones stacked in neat piles that can reach more than six feet in height. These are the remains six million Parisians who were buried in the city’s cemeteries before the 19th century.

In the late 1700s, when Paris’s cemeteries had been crammed (literally) beyond capacity, the dead developed a nasty habit of tumbling into the cellars of nearby buildings. The stench from the graveyards was reported to be overpowering, and those who lived in the surrounding areas often fell prey to the “bad air.” That’s when the authorities decided to empty the cemeteries and deliver the remains to the ancient Roman quarry that stretched beneath the city. The men who carted the bones were only allowed to work at night, and it was years before the last of the dead made the trip.

In the passages that are marked for sightseers, the bones of the dead are still artistically arranged, with skulls and femurs forming bizarre (often surprising) patterns. But if you pause to peer though the gates that block less traveled routes, you’ll see that many parts of the catacombs have not fared so well. Walls have crumbled, and the dead lay in chaotic heaps. A sharp eye will also find proof of the catacombs’ multiple layers. Look beyond the barriers, and you might find yourself staring down at a tunnel that weaves beneath your feet.

This was the first glimmer of what I might find in forbidden passages. But as fascinating as the ossuary was, I had no idea how little I’d seen.

(September 12, 2006)

My first meeting with the girl who was to guide me through the catacombs took place on the morning of July 15th. I met her at a café in the Latin Quarter, one of the oldest and bloodiest parts of the city. For hundreds of years, foreign students from the nearby universities and the native people of Paris staged gruesome and deadly battles in the warren of little streets just off the river. (Many over nothing more than the cost of wine.)

It was ten o’clock on a Saturday, and other than our waiter, it seemed as if we were the only people awake in town. Bastille Day celebrations had ended just hours earlier, and most Parisians were still sleeping off the effects. It was the perfect time to plan our expedition.

Though she’s only a year or two older than I am, Claire has been visiting the catacombs for more than a decade. But she only gives tours to those who come with a personal recommendation. Kiki Strike has seen the tunnels with Claire. So have several macho movie stars, one of whom didn’t like the idea of being guided by a girl. He took off on his own and was discovered twelve hours later, huddled in a corner crying softly to himself.

Claire said she had met members of the Perforating Mexicans while exploring the catacombs. She’d considered joining the club herself, until she found that their taste in movies didn’t suit her. She agreed to take me to see their underground cinema. (The one the police have yet to discover.) But there are far more interesting things in the catacombs, she assured me, than film clubs. Not only are there bunkers and crypts and rooms made entirely of chalk, but her grandfather had always sworn that there were passages under Paris that not even the most intrepid explorers had discovered—tunnels dug by the Nazis during the war. He had spent his entire life searching, and died before he could find them.