Explore The Unknown In Your Hometown On Obscura Day

“Travel” is an activity many of us associate with leaving home in search of the new and unfamiliar. But the truth is, there are some strange and wonderful sites in the places we live, often right under our nose. It’s the idea behind a great event called Obscura Day, kicking off its third year this April 28 in cities across the US and the world.

Sponsored by Atlas Obscura, a website devoted to exploring the world’s “wonders, curiosities and esoterica,” Obscura Day aims to give participants insider access to local curiosities they might have overlooked, including access to typically off-limits locations and “unusual” guided tours. For instance, explorers in Philadelphia are invited to tour the spooky abandoned Eastern State Penitentary. Meanwhile, in Boston, participants will have a chance to partake in a mysterious murder-themed scavenger hunt through the Museum of Science. In Alameda, California, gaming fans should check out this chance to play vintage 30s and 40s pinball machines at the Pacific Pinball Museum.

Wherever you happen to live, head over to the Obscura Day website and type in your zip code to find out what’s going later this month at a location near you. It’s sure to be a chance to rediscover the surprising history, unique attractions and unexpected activities you might otherwise take for granted in your hometown.

[Photo by Flickr user country_boy_shane]

Six new Virginia tourist attractions to visit in 2012

Demonstrations by skilled artisans, Civil War attractions, an amazing new treehouse, and a historic home that will make you feel (or at least sing) “crazy;” visitors to Virginia in 2012 will find several new vacation experiences. Throughout the next year, here are some of the new reasons to travel to the state.

Heartwood
Abingdon, Virginia
Billed as “Southwest Virginia’s Artisan Gateway,” this new facility adjacent to I-81 is home to regional artisans working in music, crafts, food and wine. There are also galleries and interactive exhibits, a shop, restaurant, and coffee/wine bar.
Winchester, Virginia
If Patsy Cline makes you “fall to pieces,” then this new historical site is worth the trip. The modest white house that the music legend lived in from ages 16 to 21 is now open to the public. Furnished with period pieces and some originals, it has been revamped to look almost exactly as it did when Patsy Cline lived there. Guided tours are available for those who want to know all the details on where Patsy Cline lived while beginning her music career.
Hampton, Virginia
After more than 150 years as an army post, the largest stone fort ever built in the United States officially became part of the National Park System on November 1, 2011. Nicknamed “Freedom’s Fortress,” the fort provided a safe haven for hundreds or runaway slaves during the Civil War. In 2012, walking tours of the fort will be available during the summer.

Appomatox, Virginia
The buzz surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Civil War brought new opportunities for the Museum and White House of the Confederacy in Richmond, which will expand its presence with a secon facility in Appomattox set to open in Spring 2012. The $7.5 million museum will focus on the end of the Civil War, the surender at Appomattox, and the reunification of the country.

Williamsburg, Virginia
Known simply as “the Pottery,” Williamsburg Pottery has been a shopping destination since 1938. This April, the site will be reborn with a half-mile of new buildings–including a new cafe, restaurant, and bakery.

Meadows of Dan, Virginia
One of the world’s top treehouse architectural firms has designed a new, unique lodging experience at Primland Resort. Built on the boughs of one of the resort’s oldest and most beautiful red cedar trees (without the intrusion of a single nail), the treehouse overlooks the Dan River Gorge. Inside is a king bed, enormous deck, and other luxurious amentities.
The state will also host several new exhibits, including welcoming the Space Shuttle Discovery at the National Air & Space Museum in Chantilly and hosting a show of Andy Warhol Portraits at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach.

Archaeologists in Syria discover Byzantine mosaic

ByzantineJust when you thought all news coming out of Syria was bad, an archaeology team has discovered a Byzantine mosaic in a medieval church.

The mosaic was discovered last week at the Deir Sounbol Church on al-Zawieh Mountain. Syrian investigators say the mosaic measures 4×5 meters (13×16 ft.). While portions are damaged or missing, floral and geometric shapes are clearly visible and there are inscriptions in Greek. These are prayers that include the names of the owner of the church and the person who supervised the creation of the mosaic.

The Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Long after the Western Empire collapsed, the Byzantines continued Roman culture with a distinctive Greek flair. Syria was Byzantine territory and was the battlefront in the Empire’s grueling war with Persia.

The war weakened both sides so much that they were easy pickings when the followers of Mohammed burst out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century. Persia quickly fell, but Byzantium held on, shrinking gradually until the end came in 1453. In that year the capital Constantinople, modern Istanbul, fell to the Ottoman Turks.

One of Byzantium’s greatest achievements were its sumptuous mosaics. Made of little colored tiles called tesserae, they depict elaborate scenes and some have tesserae made of gold. A copyright-free image of the Syrian mosaics was not available. You can see them here. This picture, courtesy of Berthold Werner, shows a mosaic floor in Jerash, Jordan. It’s interesting in that it contains swastikas, a symbol of peace and harmony for centuries before the Nazis twisted its meaning.

I love the fact that Syrian archaeologists are continuing to dig despite the chaos and repression going on in their country. These guys obviously love their work and won’t let anything stop them from doing what they feel is important. It reminds me of a literary journal that was published in Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war. The offices were right next to the no-man’s land between two factions, and yet they still managed to publish literature on a regular basis. The name of the journal escapes me. Any Lebanese out there remember it?

Space Shuttle Discovery comes home — and to a museum near you

Space shuttle Discovery’s last flight was yesterday, ending an era in American space flight. The vehicle’s retirement is paving the way for new developments in the space frontier, however, and with the fleet now out of commission, NASA can concentrate on International Space Station missions and development of the next generation of American space vehicles.

As for the current fleet, select spacecraft will be retired to museums around the planet, including the Smithsonian in Washington DC and any number of air and space museums scattered across the nation. According to yesterday morning’s Morning Edition on NPR, there is actually a bit of competition for the available shuttles, with several museums building massive new facilities and plans before even being promised the equipment.

Either way, the pollination of the craft throughout the nation means that tourists will soon have a new site to behold on their air and space vacations. We’re already looking forward to the new round of spacecraft designs.

Spacewalk today for Discovery astronauts

Spacewalking day for Discovery astronautsToday marks the first of a series of spacewalks on this, the last flight for space shuttle Discovery after 39 missions spread over 26 years.

On today’s spacewalk, astronauts Stephen Bowen and Drew will move a broken ammonia pump to a better storage area on the outside of the International Space Station and install an extension power cable.

The cable extension is needed to enable the installation of an Italian-built chamber full of supplies that will be mounted permanently on the orbiting lab. The chamber will serve as an extra closet.

Astronaut Bowen was just recently added to the mission. He joined the crew last month, replacing lead spacewalker Timothy Kopra, who was hurt in a bicycle crash.

The shuttle will be retired when it returns to Earth and sent to the Smithsonian. Two launches remain until the end of the space shuttle program, Endeavour scheduled for April and Atlantas in June.

NASA photo