Traboule: The Secret Alleyways of Lyon

Below is a satellite image showing the old quarters of the French city of Lyon, by the river Saone. As you can see, there are a couple of streets running parallel to the river but not many side streets connecting the parallel streets. Using the distance scale given at the bottom of the map, I would guess the connecting streets are located about 200 meters apart, which should be a comfortable two minute walk or less, assuming you are a tourist. But when you are a 15th century silk trader carrying bolts of precious silk weighing hundreds of pounds, the shorter the distance you have to travel the better. So these traders began to take shortcuts cutting through houses and private courtyards to reach the opposite street. Over time, these shortcuts began to develop into a well-known network of passageways called traboules. The word comes from the Latin trans ambulare which mean “to cross”.

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Satellite image of Old Lyon.

The Backstugas of Sweden

In a forest in southern Småland, in southern Sweden, there is a small earthen cabin you can rent on Airbnb. The cabin is partially buried in the ground with its sod roof almost flush with the ground level, which renders the cabin nearly invisible. This type of house is known as “backstuga” in Sweden, which is literally "hill cottage". They are not very common today, but back in the 17th and 18th centuries, some of the country’s poorest people lived in them.

Many backstugas had just a single room and were often built into a hillside. It had three walls made of wood, while the hill served as the back and the fourth wall of the house. This style of building was common in southern and southwestern Sweden, where wood was expensive.

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A backstuga in Småland. Photo credit: theworkofcastor.com

Rhythmic Springs

Rhythmic springs are those springs that exhibit tidal characteristics. In other words, the water level of these springs rises and falls over a fairly regular time period. Sometimes the spring would stop flowing completely and start again after a couple of hours or minutes. The cause of this periodicity is not truly understood but there is a fairly sound theory.

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The Intermittent Spring of Wyoming. Photo credit: www.travelwyoming.com

The Otherworldly Colors of Morocco’s Deserts

It’s amazing what a little change in light can do to a landscape. Blue skies can turn red, orange sand can turn purple. In this photo series, Milanese photographer Luca Tombolini shows the sun’s extraordinarily ability to render a landscape almost unrecognizable and soften even the most harshest and blandest of environments such as a desert.

These images were taken during the summer of 2015 in Merzouga and Ouzina in Morocco. Tombolini would roam the desert looking for a place with just the right aesthetic. When he finds one, he would set up his camera and then wait for the light to change. Tombolini says he doesn’t have to wait for more than four hours.

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The Wooden Wagonways of Britain

Two hundred years before the first steam locomotive carrying passengers chugged out of the Heighington railway station in the English town of Newton Aycliffe in 1825, British engineers were laying wooden tracks across the island connecting coal mines to canal wharfs. These wooden trackways, called wagonways, were the world’s first true railroads, and the predecessor to steam-powered railways.

The history of rail transport goes back further than you think. According to the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, “in basic terms, a railway is simply a prepared track that guides vehicles so that they can’t leave the track”. By that argument we can say that railways date back to the rutways of ancient Greece and Rome where two parallel channels were cut into the surface rock to guide wheels along a specific route. One of the most important rutways are located in the Isthmus of Corinth. They were built in 600 BC and were in use until the 1st century AD.

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A coal waggonway, circa 1870.

The Secret World of Number Stations

Back in the days of Cold War espionage, foreign intelligence agencies used to communicate with agents on the field via shortwave radio. Radio transmitters placed at secret locations around the world would broadcast coded messages usually in the form of an automated voice reciting a string of numbers or letters. The message often began with a melody, or a set of beeps, or a buzz, followed by the actual coded message read aloud by a voice. Anyone with a radio receiver tuned into that frequency could hear it, but only the intended recipient with proper decoding instructions could decipher the message. For the rest of the listeners, they were just a string of random numbers. Ham radio operators, who frequently stumbled upon these secretive transmissions, called them “number stations”.

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Photo credit: k'nash/Flickr

World’s First Nuclear Power Plant

Spread over nearly 900 square miles in the high desert of eastern Idaho, lies the vast campus of the Idaho National Laboratory. Much of the campus is closed to the public, except a small part where you can see what remains today of the world’s first nuclear power plant.

The Idaho National Laboratory has been involved in nuclear research for close to seventy years now. Much of what we know today of nuclear reactors and how they behave and misbehave was discovered here. More than 50 nuclear reactors have been built on this site, including the world’s first electricity-generating nuclear power plant and the power plant for the world's first nuclear submarine.

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A mock setup of the four bulbs that lit up on the historic day. Photo credit: Kelly Michals/Flickr

The Pig of Lucerne

Below is a photograph of one of Lucerne’s most famous tourist attraction. You may recognize it as the “Lion of Lucerne”— a rock relief sculpture of a mortally wounded lion hewn into the rocky face of a large cliff in a former sandstone quarry near Lucerne, in central Switzerland. The monument was dedicated in memory of the Swiss Guards who lost their lives defending the Tuileries Palace in Paris during the 1792 French Revolution. The dying lion symbolizes the soldiers’ courage, strength, and willingness to die rather than to betray their oath of service.

In the last two centuries, hundreds of millions of tourists have seen this monument, which Mark Twain described as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world". But few people realize, when they look at the monument, that there are not one but two different animals carved in the rock face.

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Photo credit: Churchil Angelio/Flickr

The Towers of Bologna

In mediaeval times, the city of Bologna in Northern Italy must have looked not unlike what Manhattan appears today. Hundreds of high-rising towers stood against the sky overlooking a sea of red-tiled rooftops. These towers were status symbols built by the city’s rich families to demonstrate their power and importance.

Between the 12th and the 13th century, Bologna had as many as 180 towers, possibly more. In the 13th century, many towers were taken down or demolished, and others simply collapsed. The surviving ones were later utilized in different ways, serving as prison, city tower, shop or residential building. The last demolitions took place in the 1917 when two towers were taken down for an ambitious, but retrospectively unfortunate, restructuring plan for the city.

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A computer generated 3D model of mediaeval Bologna. Photo credit: www.cineca.it

SS Richard Montgomery: The Thames’ Ticking Time Bomb

On 20 August 1944, an American cargo ship named SS Richard Montgomery carrying huge amount of explosives, meant for use in the ongoing Second World War, ran aground on a sandbank in the Thames Estuary, near the town of Sheerness, in England. A salvage operation was launched, but before the ship’s cargo could be recovered in its entirety, the ship broke in half and sank.

To this day, the wreck of SS Richard Montgomery remain in place, lying in the shallow waters of the estuary about 2.5 km from Sheerness. The masts of the ship can still be seen above water. Buoys float near her carrying warning signs that state: “Danger – Unexploded ammunition. Do not approach or board this wreck.”

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The wreck of SS Richard Montgomery poking out of the water near Sheerness, in England.