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It's Europe day, so what better way is there to celebrate this incredible continent than by discovering it's hidden gems.
The Stelvio Pass, or Passo dello Stelvio in Italian, is the second-highest paved mountain pass in the Alps. The road zigzags for about 29 miles up and over the Ortler Alps in northern Italy, a stone's throw from the Swiss border. While not ranked highly among the most scenic passes in the Alps, it is considered one of the most dramatic and challenging to drive thanks to its 48 hairpin bends.
The road was built by the Austrian Empire between 1820 and 1825, to connect the then Austrian province of Lombardy (now in Italy) with the rest of the country. Then as now, it climbs for about 6,140 feet from its base up to the snow-covered mountain pass.
The Stelvio Pass has been regarded as an excellent driving road—at least for drivers looking for a challenge—since August 1898, when it held its first hill-climb event (with motor vehicles whose top speeds were under 20 mph).
World War I then intervened, and the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Italian Kingdom fired at each other from across the hills. But the Swiss, who had an outpost above the pass, complained about stray bullets coming their way, at which point the Austro-Hungarians and Italians agreed to only fire at each down the valleys, so as not to endanger the neutral Swiss.
Racing returned to the Stelvio Pass after the war, on both two and four wheels. Cyclists also compete along the pass, most famously in the Giro d'Italia, which has crossed the Stelvio Pass on 12 occasions between 1953 and the present day.
The Stelvio Pass began to attract widespread international attention in 2008 when the hugely popular British automotive TV show Top Gear named it the greatest driving road in the world. Since then, serious drivers have come to Italy to take on the pass, despite the Top Gear team changing their minds in 2009 and giving the title to the Transfăgărășan Highway in Romania.
It’s a sunny summer morning on the Mongolian taiga—a remote, high-altitude area bordering Siberia—but I’m wearing a winter coat. My host Otgontsetseg, though, doesn’t seem to mind the almost-freezing temperature. She’s wearing a winter deel, a traditional Mongolian garment that’s worn here year-round, and rises at 5:30 a.m. to do this every morning.
Otgontsetseg and her husband, father, and two children are one of 44 families left in the Tsaatan tribe, a nomadic group of herders in northern Mongolia whose name literally translates to “those who have reindeer.” And she’s up early to milk her herd.
Pail in hand, she heads straight for a young female that is staked furthest from her ger, an easily assembled and reassembled structure known elsewhere as a yurt, although up here they resemble teepees more than the traditional yurts found around Mongolia.
The herd is staked up for the night as protection from wolves—the family’s dog can guard them this way—and before letting the herd loose to graze in the surrounding mountains, Otgontsetseg needs to milk about eight to ten of the females so she has enough milk for the day. She crouches down and adjusts her deel, and the spray of milk against the pail rings loud in the morning silence.
Compared to cattle and other livestock, reindeer don’t produce much milk. So the jug that Otgontsetseg fills to the brim over the next hour is a precious commodity.
The Tsaatan rely on their reindeer for just about everything: food, fur, and even transportation. (Members of the tribe learn to ride reindeer as children.) But they never slaughter their reindeer, and they only eat the meat (and use the hide) if the reindeer has died from natural causes. Instead, they add their milk to their tea and use it to make cheese and bake bread—a deliciously moist and dense loaf that’s offered at just about every meal. While nomadic families across Mongolia make bread in their gers, this is the only place where it’s made with reindeer milk.
After the morning’s milking, Otgontsetseg makes tea, prepares breakfast, and gets her kids dressed. Once that’s done, she’s excited to show me how she makes the bread she’s seen me enjoy so much. She knows I can’t resist it, and smiles each time I go for a second or third piece.
The ingredients are a touch of reindeer milk with flour, salt, yeast, and water. The water came from a small river not far from the ger, but Otgontsetseg rode for a full day (on reindeer) to buy the other ingredients in the nearest soum (village). So they have to be carefully rationed.
The family’s situation is unusual, but it’s not exceptional for Mongolia, a country where 25 percent of the population still lives a traditional, nomadic lifestyle. Historically, the country has been sparsely populated by nomads who move to avoid overtaxing the grasslands—a result of Mongolia’s unique geography, which cannot support much agriculture and farming. In recent years, modern conveniences, as well as droughts, have drawn or pushed nomads, including reindeer herders, to towns and cities. But families like Otgontsetseg’s can’t imagine any other way of life.
Otgontsetseg switches into an automatic rhythm of motions, straining the reindeer milk through a sieve before adding water, carefully measuring everything by sight. Following the recipe she learned, like every woman in the tribe, from her mother, she adds flour, yeast, and salt into a pot that’s been in her family for more than 20 years.
Now that I’m a more familiar presence in her home, Otgontsetseg is opening up. She gestures as she bakes, motioning across the language barrier, and explains through an interpreter how she’ll start teaching her daughter (now six) these baking techniques once she turns nine.
While Otgontsetseg mixes the dough by hand, using the ground as her makeshift table, she explains the importance of the size of the dough. If it’s too large, it has to be baked differently, using the embers of the fire to cover the top of the dough and cook it all the way through. But luckily for us, today’s loaves—she’s made enough dough to bake two of them—are perfectly proportioned. We let the dough sit and rise before moving it to the stovetop to bake for 15 minutes on each side.
It’s a simple process, but Otgontsetseg stays busy. While she bakes, she manages the children, chats with neighbors, and boils reindeer milk to make cheese. For the reindeer-milk cheese, she reduces the milk for 30 minutes, until it starts to form clumps and harden, and sets aside the reduced milk to cool before transferring it to a cheesecloth and straining out the remaining liquid. From there, she and her husband, Ganbat, press it into its final shape.
The cheese has to dry and harden for a day (the almost-parmesan-like cheese is absolutely worth the wait), but once the bread cools, it is ready to eat. On the same board that she just used to mince mutton for a noodle soup, Otgontsetseg cuts the bread and passes it around for everyone to taste. Otgontsetseg and Ganbat cover their pieces in a layer of sugar, which is common here. But I eat mine plain, because I want to taste this bread for exactly what it is: the only bread in the world made with reindeer milk.
The Great Sand Hills in southwestern Saskatchewan are a spectacular active sand dune anomaly in the prairies. The dunes and surrounding lands are largely in their natural state and offer a glimpse into how diverse and beautiful the prairies can be beyond the normally seen agricultural farmlands.
These dunes are very lightly visited, and many western Canadians don't even know they exist. Yet the dunes are very accessible, within an hour's drive of the Trans-Canada Highway. This unique spot is definitely worth a detour from the very long prairie drive, and is also a worthly destination on its own.
The Great Sand Hills are located within an ecological reserve so are not accessible for overnight camping, but there is a public access point in the northwestern section. From there you can access the dunes and as well as find interpretive signs about the geology, wildlife, and current use of the lands. The sand is very fine so be sure to kick off your shoes and walk along the dunes in your bare feet. Some people have even been known to toboggan down the dunes.
The Netherlands is the largest user of bicycles in the world, with a staggering 25 million bikes currently in the country—about 1.5 times more bikes than people. A lot of people have more than one bike, and public transport hubs have special places to store all these two-wheelers.
The bike garage near the central station in Utrecht is the world's largest such place. The underground parking garage is a staggering three stories and was made entirely to house bikes. It's shaped like a rolled-up snake, creating a winding passage lined with bikes. It cost the city 30 million euros and is part of a larger initiative to promote green transportation.
There are many interesting historic features that can be found while freely wandering about or touring the former Traverse City State Hospital properties. To discover one of them, you'll have to pop into the visitor's center gift shop at the Botanic Gardens at Historic Barns Park.
Tucked in the back of the shop is an approximately 50-foot long brick tunnel. It connects the store to the subterranean cellar once used to store root vegetables grown on the hospital's farmland. Workers would back wagons to the tunnel, load the vehicles with vegetables from the root cellar, and then transport the produce to the hospital kitchens.
The tunnel entrance from the gift shop has been adorned with a handcrafted metal gate that depicts the site's former agricultural use. Look closely, and you'll spot wheat shafts representing the past and flowers representing the grounds' reincarnation as a botanical garden.
Portions of the tunnel are adorned with gift items for sale, while at the far end is the entrance into the root cellar. Access to the tunnel is available when the gift shop is open, and the staff is often pleased to open the entrance to the root cellar or to give an informative tour of the entire site.
The name “Mathematical Bridge” derives from the fact that this bridge is built with entirely straight timbers, though it maintains an arch shape. This makes for some interesting architectural study while punting down the river below it!
The legends surrounding the bridge are just as intriguing as its shape. According to local lore, the Mathematical Bridge was built in the mid-18th century by Sir Isaac Newton as an exemplary example of physics.
According to this tale, it was held up entirely by its own design and did not require any nails, screws, or bolts. The story goes that a group of Cambridge University students—or, in some versions, academics—took the bridge apart to prove that it was, in fact, only built with wood, and failed to be able to put it back together again.
The real story is slightly more mundane. The bridge was designed by William Etheridge and built by James Essex in 1749, 22 years after Newton's death, though he may have influenced its structure. The bridge is not and has never been built without any bolts or nails, though when first constructed, iron spikes driven into its joints gave the impression that it was built with only wood.
About 19,000 miles (some 55 tank refills) from the Prudhoe Bay at the northern end of the Pan-American Highway lies this quiet bay in Tierra del Fuego, surrounded by the tail of the Andes Mountains.
This is Bahia Lapataia (Lapataia Bay), the most southern point of the longest motorway in on the planet. Here you'll find a handsome sign marking the end of the National Route 3, the last leg of the Pan-Am road network. This is the furthest south you can drive in the Western Hemisphere.
Near the sign is a boardwalk leading out to the bay, a remote fjord at the tip of Argentine Patagonia. The fjord is a branch of the Beagle Channel, which was named after the boat carrying Charles Darwin on his journey. The area is still popular for naturalists looking for sea birds, dolphins, and other cold-water animals. Most all the land around the bay is now protected.
This secluded wilderness has been inhabited for 10,000 years, recently only by the indigenous Yámana people, who gave the bay its name, which means "Bay of Forests" in the native Yámana language. They were known to build fires as a form of communication between islands, which inspired the name Tierra del Fuego, or "Land of Fire." The rough seas and sub-polar climate were scarcely seen by outsiders until the 1600s. From this bay, you would sail west and quickly be in the Pacific Ocean, or east and be in the Atlantic.
The mid-sixth century inspires strong feelings, even today. Recent research has placed it among the very worst of times to have been alive in all of human history, partly because, in 536, the sun slid behind a haze that hovered over Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia—and stayed there for 18 grueling months. According to Byzantine historian Procopius, “the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed."
A year and a half without sunlight, it turns out, is a lot worse than just gloomy. Temperatures dropped, crops refused to grow, and people couldn’t eat. Heck—some draw a connection between this event and the first pandemic of bubonic plague, which began to course through the Eastern Roman Empire in 541. All told, temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere remained too cold for comfort until about 550; that first European summer of 536 was more than 30 degrees cooler than the average for the previous 30 years.
Scientists believe the chill was brought on by not one but two volcanic eruptions that sent ash and other particles flying into the atmosphere, where they deflected sunlight that could have otherwise nurtured crops. It is thought that the first eruption took place in 536, somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, maybe in Iceland. Now, researchers believe they have located the site of the second one, thought to have occurred in 539: Ilopango, just east of San Salvador, capital of El Salvador. They published their findings recently in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.
Researchers have long known from volcanic deposits that Ilopango erupted furiously sometime between the third and sixth centuries. For Payson Sheets, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder and a coauthor of the new paper, that window was far too wide to draw any conclusions. He has been studying volcanic ash in El Salvador since 1969, and he made himself a promise long ago: “Before I die,” he says he told himself, “I really want to get a good date on the Ilopango eruption.”
To do that, the team studied three tree trunks coated in ash from the eruption (known as Tierra Blanca Joven, or TBJ, which means “white young earth”). The trees’ rings, which record years of growth and can be correlated with other trees to provide a detailed, year-to-year climatic history, indicate that each tree had died between 500 and 545. That provides a far more precise timeframe than even radiocarbon dating can, and one that lines up directly with the global cooling period. Further supporting the notion that TBJ was one of the two eruptions responsible, the researchers studied the thickness of Ilopango’s deposits, as well as their distances from the volcano's actual caldera—now Lake Ilopango. Those measurements indicate that TBJ qualifies as a Volcanic Explosivity Index 7 event, and one of the 10 most powerful eruptions to take place on Earth in the past 7,000 years.
Today, Ilopango is no longer active, and it certainly doesn’t contribute to any kind of cooling. But according to Sheets, those who go scuba diving in the lake have to take care to avoid hot water vents spewing sulfurous residue from the volcano’s old magma chamber.
Eston Hemings was born an enslaved person on May 21, 1808. His mother was Sally Hemings, and his father is believed to have been, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States.
Hemmings spent his early life in Monticello, Jefferson’s primary plantation just outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Eston’s mother was a mixed-race enslaved person, and he along with his siblings were all ⅞ white, “legally” white in Virginia at the time. Hemmings was a trained carpenter, and because Jefferson was so fond of the violin, he and all his siblings were taught it from a very young age. When Jefferson died in 1826, his will freed Hemmings and his siblings.
Now a free man, Hemmings married a formerly enslaved person, Julia Ann Isaacs, and they had three children. In 1837 he moved his family to Ohio. He became a professional musician there and had his children educated in integrated schools.
The family left in 1852 due to the Fugitive Slave Act, which put pressure on ex-slave communities in free states bordering slave states. Hemings moved his family to Madison, Wisconsin, and changed their surname to Jefferson. He died in 1856, a well respected and loved man.
The Red Lion Pub located in Avebury holds the distinction as being one of the most haunted pubs in the entire United Kingdom. Encircling the pub is a strange collection of ancient stones from the Neolithic period in Britain. They were first excavated by Alexander Keiller and are believed to have served religious purposes.
Inside the pub is just as fascinating as its surroundings. The Red lion is home to a 17th-century well, now fashioned into a table complete with a window to peer inside. Ghost stories and other tales are common here, where the staff is more than willing to relay a chilling tale.