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

Madison Berndt, Flickr // CC-BY-2.0

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

Andrea Santoni, Flickr // CC BY ND-2.0

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

Chris Yunker, Flickr // CC BY SA-2.0

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

Fonzie D, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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.

The Netherlands Is Asking the World Not to Call It “Holland” Anymore—Here’s Why

Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
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If you avoided ever referring to the Netherlands as “Holland” because you weren’t quite sure if that was correct, keep doing what you’re doing. The country kicked off 2020 by officially striking the name from use.

Though Holland technically refers to only two of the Netherlands’ 12 provinces, North and South Holland, citizens have long accepted and even embraced it as another moniker for the entire country. But because those two provinces are home to popular destinations like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Leiden, and The Hague, unmanageable masses of tourists are clogging the region and inching the Netherlands towards an over-tourism crisis.

Terminating references to Holland is part of the Netherlands’ nationwide endeavor to remind prospective tourists that the country isn’t just Holland, and it has plenty of other appealing locales beyond the quaint canals and cat houseboats of Amsterdam. As part of the rebrand, Holland will be replaced with the Netherlands in all promotional and marketing materials, as well as at companies, embassies, government offices, and universities. The country’s official logo is changing, too—instead of Holland beside an orange tulip, it’ll be the word Netherlands to the right of the initials NL (which are designed to resemble a tulip).

It’s not the Netherlands’ first attempt to keep tourism in check. According to Forbes, the Board of Tourism stopped promoting Holland as a tourist destination last May, and they’re shutting down offices in Spain, Italy, and Japan to help curb the influx of visitors. Amsterdam, meanwhile, is planning to increase its tourist tax for the second time in two years.

This latest campaign coincides with an especially significant year for the Netherlands in terms of international exposure. Not only will the country compete in this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, it’s also slated to host the Eurovision Song Contest and four soccer matches in the UEFA Euro tournament.

[h/t Forbes]

7 Mysterious Geological Formations That Still Baffle Scientists

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bennymarty/iStock via Getty Images

Earth is covered with incredible geological structures, from volcanos to crystal-encrusted caves to awe-inspiring canyons. While some of our planet’s mysteries have been solved, some of its formations defy easy explanation. Here are a few that continue to baffle scientists.

1. The Eye of the Sahara // Mauritania

The Richat Structure, a.k.a. the Eye of the Sahara
ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center, NASA // Public Domain

The Eye of the Sahara, also known as the Richat Structure, is a 28-mile-wide site of huge concentric circles found in the western African nation of Mauritania. Geologists initially thought the site was created by an asteroid impact, but there isn’t enough melted rock among the rings to support this theory. Similarly, there’s no evidence to suggest a volcanic eruption. New Age enthusiasts hint that the Eye of the Sahara could represent the remains of the mythical sunken island of Atlantis, based on Plato’s allegory.

More recently, geologists have proposed that the Eye of the Sahara could be an eroded, collapsed geological dome, formed some 100 million years ago when the supercontinent Pangea broke up. Bolstering this theory are ancient rocks found on the surface, which originated as much as 125 miles beneath the Earth’s crust and before life existed on Earth. Research continues.

2. Lake Hillier // Australia

Pink Lake Hillier in Western Australia
Kurioziteti123, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

This small, saltwater lake on an island off Western Australia is only one-third of a mile long, but its bubblegum-pink color makes it especially striking. The lake was documented in 1802 by British explorer Matthew Flinders, who took a sample of its waters but failed to understand how it got its startling hue. Tourists can visit only by helicopter, though it is safe to swim in the waters.

Scientists today suspect the color is due to the presence of a pink alga, Dunaliella salina, and/or a pink bacterium, Salinibacter ruber. But unlike other pink lakes around the world, such as Lake Retba in Senegal, Lake Hillier’s color doesn’t fluctuate with temperature or sunlight—so the investigation goes on.

3. The Great Unconformity // United States

Great Unconformity at the Grand Canyon
Alex Demas, USGS // Public Domain

The Great Unconformity is a huge gap in the geological record: Layers of rock dating from about 1.2 billion to 250 million years ago are completely missing from certain areas around the globe. This enormous chunk of lost time can be seen clearly in the stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Geologists studying the anomaly there have noted that there is plenty of rock, full of fossils, from the Cambrian period (540 million years ago) but the layer beneath it is basement rock, formed roughly 1 billion years ago and empty of fossils. So, what happened to the stuff in between?

An emerging theory—"Snowball Earth”— may explain where the rock disappeared to. Around 700 million years ago, Earth was encased in snow and ice. Moving glaciers peeled off the planet’s crust with the help of lubricating sediments, pushing it into oceans, where it was reabsorbed by subducting tectonic plates. Many questions remain unanswered, though—such as the multimillion-year gap between the end of Snowball Earth, around 635 million years ago, and the start of the Cambrian period.

4. Nastapoka Arc // Canada

Aerial view of Hudson Bay
Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the southeast corner of Hudson Bay, Canada, lies a near-perfect arc. The mysterious half-circle, also known as the Hudson Bay Arc, was first thought to be an impact crater from a meteorite. But none of the usual confirming evidence, such as shatter cones or unusual melted rocks, has been found in the vicinity.

The most commonly accepted theory for the arc, based on geological evidence collected in the 1970s and later, is that it is a boundary formed when one shelf of rock was pushed under another other. That doesn’t explain how or why is it’s so perfectly round—so the Nastapoka Arc remains subject to ongoing study.

5. Mima Mounds // United States

Mima Mounds in Washington
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The Mima Mounds are mysterious, uniform undulations in the grasslands of Washington State near Olympia, ranging from 10 to 164 feet in diameter and up to 6.5 feet tall. When American explorer Charles Wilkes set eyes on them in 1841, he believed they were human-made burial mounds and had three of them excavated, only to find them filled with loose stones. Similar mounds are found from California to Colorado and have puzzled naturalists for years.

Scientists suggest that some of the mounds may be 30,000 years old, which makes decoding them complex; humans are believed to have arrived in North America several thousand years later than that. Many theories about their cause—glacial flooding, whirlpools, and even wind-blown sediment clumping around vegetation—have been dismissed. The current leading theory, based on computer modelling, is that pocket gophers created the mounds. Yet doubts remain: No one has ever witnessed a pocket gopher building one.

6. Fairy Circles // Namibia

Fairy circles in Namibia
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Up close, the fairy circles in the Namib Desert are just circular patches of bare red earth, surrounded by tufts of grass. But from a bird’s-eye view, these spots stretch endlessly across the arid landscape, creating a regular polka-dot pattern. Folktales claim the spots are the gods’ footprints, but scientists have searched for an evidence-based explanation.

At first, some proposed that the circles are created when plants compete for water: The root systems of the successful vegetation dominate the ground, while smaller plants are unable to compete, leaving bare patches of desert. In 2017, a promising new theory appeared in the journal Nature. Excavations of several circles revealed termite nests under each one, implying the circles were created by the termites eating the vegetation above their territory, allowing desert grasses to flourish only between each nest. Ecologists modeled both the plant-competition and hungry-termite theories, and found that both supported conditions conducive to fairy circles. But with such a complex ecosystem, scientists say more research is needed.

7. Yamal Craters // Russia

Aerial view of the Yamal Peninsula, Siberia
Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, NASA // Public Domain

In 2014, a helicopter pilot flying over the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, which juts into the Kara Sea, noticed an enormous hole in the permafrost. Scientists rushed to analyze the nearly 100-foot-wide crater and determine its origin. A meteorite impact, a natural gas explosion, or alien interference were all floated as possible causes.

Tests of the air at the bottom of the crater revealed very high levels of methane, pointing to an explosion—possibly brought on by several unusually warm summers that destabilized the permafrost. But an equally likely explanation, according to some researchers, is that the crater represents a slow, long-term collapse of the permafrost itself rather than a recent explosion. Since then, more craters have been discovered. Further study is needed, but the treacherous permafrost makes research difficult.

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