Weird Europe: A Guide to Bizarre, Macabre, and Just Plain Weird Sites

By Kristan Lawson and Anneli Rufus

St. Martin's Griffin, New York, 1999, 338 pp., paper, $16.95.

Reviewed by Douglas Chapman

If Americans think their own country is the weirdest, they should experience countries with longer chronicled histories. Kristan Lawson and Anneli Rufus have had much experience offering tours of the unusual in such books as America Off the Wall: The West Coast, Goddess Sites: Europe, and Europe Off the Wall.

Weird Europe is a travel guide that forteans are bound to like. Usually organized by country and city, the book lists much that any traveler will need to know for the most unusual excursion of his or her life. Addresses, admission details, phone numbers and hours of operation are included.

The attractions are wonderfully varied. In Sweden one can stay in a hotel constructed of snow, in Rome one may see the Museum of the Souls of the Dead, and in Paris one might take in the Absinthe Museum. The preface states that, "This Europe is minding its own business, waiting for you to match its obsessions with your own."

In the tiny country of Andorra, in Ordino, at the Museum of Miniatures, is a collection of tiny artworks, created by Nicolai Siadristy. Microscopes have been installed above the sculptures. Siadristy, who is of regular size, has put camels, palm trees and a pyramid inside the eye of a needle, and magnification is needed to see them.

In Kaag, Austria, one can visit Franz Gsellmann's World Machine, a device of uncertain purpose (Gsellmann died in 1981 without telling). But its components include tiny boats, clocks, a plastic Mary and Jesus, metronomes, drive shafts, toy gondolas, an iron rooster, and tiny windmills, all oddly interconnected. Whatever it does, it works.

In Salzburg, the House of Nature presents stuffed animal oddities including a cyclopic lamb and an encephalitic giraffe. Also shown is a framed Madonna constructed of insect bits.

Various places claim to have the Holy Grail. In Vienna, the Secular and Ecclesiastical Treasuries have an orangeish tureen made of stone that is said to be the sacred object. Genoa's Cathedral San Lorenzo has a glass goblet of greenish hue (like something one might win at a carnival) which is claimed to be the Grail. The cathedral on Plaza de la Reina in Valencia, Spain, owns a fancier "true Grail," jewel-studded, with gold and agate.

In southwest France, the Town of Mystery at Rennes-le-Chateau may offer up clues to the mysteries of the Holy Grail and the Merovingian Dynasty, regarding a purportedly married anointed person, written about in the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail. But the remodeled church only allows 15-minute visits, to keep the edifice from being ransacked for hints. (Visiting the place beats playing Myst or Gabriel Knight 3.)

Only those with strong stomachs should stop by the Fragonard Veterinary Museum in Paris. The most amazing/appalling thing in the museum is a horse and a human rider in a glass case. The authors write: "Posed authentically, the man sitting erect and the horse mid-gallop, they're partially flayed, the skin peeled away to reveal bones and sinews." The maker of this used special methods to create this evocation of the "horseman of the apocalypse."

In Bergen, Norway, the Leprosy Museum should not be avoided. And the Wellcome Museum of Anatomy and the Wellcome Museum of Pathology in London should -- never mind.

To be astonished in other ways, in southeast England one can visit the Cerne Abbas Giant, carved into a hill. He has a huge club and huge eyes and a huge something else. "They say he's an ancient fertility figure." Duh.

In other fertile endeavors, in West Wycombe the Hell-Fire Club once disported in the Hell-Fire Caves. Wax figures of Sir Francis Dashwood and Benjamin Franklin are displayed in The Circle there.

If a person likes fake frogs, he or she can visit the Frog Museum in The Hague (Netherlands). Enough frog figurines have been assembled to please any amphibian lover -- if over 5100 statuettes are sufficient viewing. One can also visit the Frog Museum in Estavayer-le-Lac in Switzerland. The clothed and posed frogs there are actual stuffed animals, so a visitor can see: "...the little dead things attend class, cheat at poker, cook meals and march off to war."

Places connected with weird phenomena are prevalent. For example, in Norway, the (allegedly) World's Largest UFO Ring can be observed on Bomlo Island.

These are but a smattering of places to which this book can steer one. Other attractions it recommends include odd artworks, underground cities, and tours of sewers. Its readers will not lack for fascinating vacation opportunities, and will have much to tell others afterwards.