Photo Of The Day: Le Mont Saint-Michel

Across the Cherbourg Peninsula from the infamous Omaha Beach in Normandy is one of France‘s most striking landmarks, as well as one of the most popular outside of Paris, Mont Saint-Michel. Dominating the the landscape of this tidal island turned commune is the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey, a place so beautiful Victor Hugo lobbied to preserve it. Over the millennia and a half that the island has been inhabited, it has seen quite a lot of history, from being in British hands to being a prison for over 70 years.

This shot of the Le Mont Saint-Michel, which shows off its beautiful symmetry against a perfectly blue sky, was captured by Flickr user annegbt. If you have a great travel photo, submit it to our Gadling Flickr pool and it may also be featured on as our Photo of the Day.

Intense National Geographic Series, ‘Locked Up Abroad,’ Documents Inept Travelers

Last week’s arrest of diaper-wearing cocaine smugglers at JFK proved more laughable than horrifying to those not directly involved. Drug busts are in the media so often, we rarely pay attention to them. They’re certainly not something I care about.

Yet, I’ve recently become obsessed with a National Geographic show called “Locked Up Abroad.” I don’t recall hearing about this harrowing documentary series when it first aired in 2007, but it caught my eye about a month ago, during a late-night Netflix bender. It’s now in its sixth season on the National Geographic Channel.

Each episode profiles one or two subjects, most of whom have been imprisoned in developing nations. While a few episodes detail hostage and other kidnapping situations (Warning: if you’re at all easily disturbed, please don’t watch … nightmares are almost guaranteed), most involve drug smuggling gone awry.

As a die-hard adventure traveler, I find “Locked Up Abroad” absorbing (that’s not an intentional diaper pun) because it’s a real-life dramatization of my worst fears. As a solo female wanderer, I can’t help but worry sometimes about kidnapping or becoming an inadvertent drug mule, no matter how self-aware I try to be. Many of the episodes on “Locked Up Abroad,” however, involve people with the intellect of dead hamsters, and it’s hard to feel much in the way of empathy, given their greed and gullibility.Still, it’s hard to resist a good prison story, especially when it involves South America or Bangladesh, and pasty, bespectacled English blokes or naive teenage girls from small-town Texas. The psychology behind why these people take such enormous risks, and how they manage to survive in inhospitable and downright inhumane conditions is fascinating.

Perhaps I’ve just watched “Midnight Express,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Return to Paradise” one too many times, but I’ve often wondered how I’d fare in such a situation, and I hope I never have to find out. But documentaries like “Locked Up Abroad” are more than just sensationalism. They’re a window into our desperate, greedy, grubby little souls, as well as testimony to the will to survive.

For some reason, YouTube and National Geographic Channel video links are disabled or broken, so if you want to check out some footage, click here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Svadilfari]

Canon City, Colorado: Prisons and Paddling

You know how when you’re driving out in the middle of nowhere, and you see those signs warning you not to pick up hitchhikers because you’re passing a correctional facility?

Because, you know, it totally makes sense to locate prisons in isolated areas. Because, for most towns, being home to a prison isn’t usually a tourism selling point – especially if they’re already touted as a tourist destination for other reasons, like outdoor recreation.

That’s why Cañon City (inexplicably pronounced “Can-yun, despite the nya over the “n”) was such a surprise when I was there last week … researching a story on one of its correctional facilities (there are nine state and four federal). It’s a little-known fact that when I’m not writing for Gadling, I’m doing things like visiting inmates and writing magazine features on agricultural and animal-assisted correctional industries programs.

Located 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs (which as I type, is on fire…PLEASE DON’T MAKE OPEN FIRES OR TOSS YOUR CIGARETTE BUTTS IF YOU’RE VISITING COLORADO RIGHT NOW, I BEG OF YOU), Cañon City is one of the state’s historic “Gold Belt” towns, which connects Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District, site of the world’s largest gold rush. It’s an isolated, high-desert region of ochre-colored rock, scrub and pines, at once beautiful and forbidding.

So there I was at the East Cañon City Correctional Complex in 105-degree heat, touring its goat and water buffalo dairies for a magazine feature. I’m a big supporter of these programs, but I also find the psychological aspects of criminology fascinating, as I’ve alluded to in previous posts. If mayhem, murder and madness are involved, I’m interested. But I also knew that the region is famed for the Royal Gorge (the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River“), which is home to the world’s second highest suspension bridge at 1,053 feet above water level, a scenic railroad and some of the nation’s most epic whitewater.

I’d planned to run the Class IV/V Royal gorge on day two of my visit, but the lack of snowpack has resulted in a less-than-stellar whitewater season, so, with time to kill (that is not a prison pun), I wandered historic downtown Cañon city, and discovered the Museum of Colorado Prisons.

%Gallery-159440%One of the many things I love about Colorado is that it’s not ashamed of its rowdy past. Cañon City is the epicenter of that heritage, as it’s the location of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Center, established in 1871. The Prison Museum, which is housed next door in the former Women’s Correctional Facility, celebrated its Silver Anniversary last week, so what better way to celebrate that fact than by sharing the wonders within with you?

The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum grounds was the gas chamber housed beside the parking lot. I took a lot of photos because it’s soothing, pale mint color is just the shade I’ve been longing to paint my office.

Once in the museum proper, I met Mary LaPerriere, the cheerful curator and a DOC (Department of Corrections) employee for over 20 years. She obligingly took me on a tour (audio tours are available for the general public) and answered my many questions before leaving me to explore on my own. I was touched when she brought me a biography on Alfred Packer, the notorious Colorado cannibal who served time in the penitentiary next door, after I mentioned my interest in him.

Among the displays and artifacts housed in the prison, you’ll find weapons made from all manner of everyday objects (toothbrush shiv, anyone?); photos depicting prison life; clippings and information about famous inmates such as Edna Vanausdoll, falsely accused of murdering her husband in the early 1960s; exhibits dedicated to the region’s K-9 programs; and beautiful saddles and other leatherwork crafted by inmates in correctional industry programs (Explained Mary, “The cowboy, the horse, and the dog have been part of the history of Colorado’s state penitentiary system from 1871 to the present.”). Other oddities, to quote the museum website, include:

  • The hangman’s noose used for the last execution by hanging in Colorado
  • Displays of disciplinary paraphernalia used from 1871 to the present
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons display
  • Inmate Arts and Crafts
  • Gift Shop
  • And much more!

What is not to love? I should add that Mary’s office is also a former cell used to house inmate trustees employed in the kitchen, and still retains the original barred door.

So the next time you find yourself with time on your hands in Colorado (as long as you’re not serving time, yuk yuk), pay a visit to Cañon City. Even if the weather or water levels aren’t cooperating, there’s plenty to see. Visitors should note that there’s a $25 fee to cross the Royal Gorge Bridge. Click here for information and tickets.

Museum of Colorado Prisons, open May 15-Labor day, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; Labor Day-mid-October 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily; Mid-October-May 14 10 a.m.- p.m., Weds-Sun.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Alcatraz Marks 50th Anniversary Of Famous Escape

They said Alcatraz was escape-proof, but 50 years ago yesterday, three prisoners made an ingenious break out, paddled out into the cold waters of San Francisco Bay and disappeared.

On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin were ready to bust out of prison. Over the past year they had patiently chipped away at the air vents in their respective cells with spoons. At night they’d replace the vents and cover the expanding tunnels with pieces of colored cardboard.

On the night of the breakout they squirmed through the tunnels into an unused service corridor and made their way to the roof. To keep the guards from noticing they were gone, they left behind dummy heads in their beds made of paper maché and real hair gathered from the prison barbershop.

From the roof they climbed the barbed wire fence and floated away on a raft made of rubber raincoats. They were never seen again. Fragments of their raft and plywood paddles were found on Angel Island, two miles away from Alcatraz. Footprints led away from the raft and a car was stolen that night.

A fourth man, Allen West, didn’t make it to the rendezvous in time and was left behind.

Did the three men escape? Despite many rumors, none of them were ever found. A ship’s captain said he spotted a body floating in the bay wearing a prison uniform. The body wasn’t recovered. Their files remain open.

%Gallery-158021%According to legend, they would return to Alcatraz for a visit on the 50th anniversary. As unlikely as that sounds, US Marshal Michael Dyke spent yesterday on Alcatraz hoping to catch the aged fugitives. He left at the end of the day disappointed.

Alcatraz, also known as “The Rock,” started life as a fort. During the Civil War, local Confederate sympathizers and privateers were imprisoned there. It continued as a military prison through World War I, when it housed conscientious objectors. Alcatraz became a Federal prison in 1933 and was used to keep the most troublesome prisoners. Its guests included such model citizens as Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly. It was closed in 1963.

Now Alcatraz is a National Park and open to the public. Visitors can see the prisoners’ cells and other areas, as well as the escape route of Morris and the Anglin brothers. All access to the island is via the private ferry company Alcatraz Cruises from Pier 33. Check out the gallery for some views of the prison, as well an intriguing shots of the escape route.

[Photo courtesy Bruce C. Cooper]

10 historical hostels with unique pasts

Former prisons, renovated brothels, converted convents; sometimes, you get more than just a cheap bed when choosing a hostel. In fact, with a little research you can find yourself relaxing in the same room a king once did, or dining in a kitchen where soldiers from WWII slept during the war. To help make your next trip a bit more historical, here are ten hostels from around the world with unique pasts.

Hostel Celica
Ljubljana, Slovenia

While Hostel Celica is currently a cultural and creative hostel that features an art gallery, debate forum, inspirational workshops, concerts, and special events, the accommodation is actually a former military prison. Its use dates back to 1882, when the jail was within the military barracks of Metelkova Street. It wasn’t until Solvenia gained independence and the barracks were no longer necessary that the space was converted into what it is today. While there are no longer prisoners of war here, guests can still spend the night in a jail cell. Moreover, symbols of peace, like prayer rooms with alters for the world’s five major religions and a “Point of Peace” meditation space, celebrate the positive transition of the building.Bluehostel Rome
Rome, Italy

The Bluehostel Rome is not only well-situated near historical sites like the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, it’s also a historical site in itself. Once a 17th century convent, the basement of the hostel has been renovated from a 1st century Roman dwelling. Today, guests can still enjoy this unique past through old-world decor and the 150-year-old traditional wooden ceilings, which were recently discovered during a renovation in May of 2010.

Clink 78
London, United Kingdom

Located in central London is a trendy backpacker hostel that is actually a renovated 200-year-old courthouse. There are also seven original prison cells which guests can sleep in. Some fun facts about the hostel: The Clash once stood trial in what is now the TV lounge, and the current internet space, which was also once a courtroom, gave Charles Dickens his inspiration for “Oliver Twist.” With all of this history, it’s not surprising that Clink 78 is on the official National Heritage List for England.

Ethic étapes Cannes Jeunesse
Cannes, France

Located on a protected and nearly deserted island in the Mediterranean, this hostel is a historic fort from the 17th century. Built by architect Marquis de Vauban, well-known for advising Louis XIV on how to condense France’s borders, it was later made famous by the movie “The Man in the Iron Mask” as the place where the prisoner was held captive.

Belford Hostel
Edinburgh, Scotland

When visiting a Gothic city like Edinburgh, it would only be right to stay in an accommodation that reflects its rich history. Belford Hostel is actually a historic church building from the 19th century that has retained its features over the decades. High ceilings, stained glass windows, details and decor from the original building help take travelers back in time and to feel as if they are living in old-world Scotland.

Historical Ryokan Hostel K’s House Ito Onsen Accommodation
Higashimatsubara-cho, Japan

This historical building is over 100 years old and is the only hostel registered as a cultural property in Japan. Because of this, guests are metaphorically taken into the past as the property has changed very little in terms of structure and decor. What guests of this property enjoy more than anything is the 100% natural age-old hot springs with relaxation and healing properties, making it one of the most historical as well as luxurious hostels in the world.

Back of Chapel Backpacker
Melbourne, Australia

While the name of the hostel sounds happy and light, this newly renovated hostel has a bit of a seedy past. Over 100 years ago, the building was actually a brothel used by politicians and ministers, and a stay here will allow you to see firsthand the hidden escape door these men would sneak out through during police raids. You can actually read about the old brothel in the novel “My Brother Jack.” Today, this social hostel takes on a more moral air and features modern amenities to help backpackers feel comfortable and safe.

Jailhouse Accommodation

Christchurch, New Zealand

Jailhouse Accommodation has everything a backpacker could want: comfortable beds, TV lounges, a communal kitchen, a fun game room, and prison-style accommodation. The thick concrete walls of the building held not only a jail, but also a military camp and women’s prison. Although the prison was shut down in 1999, it wasn’t until 2006 that a couple transformed the building from a gloomy jailhouse to a friendly backpacker destination. Today, you can still experience the Gothic architecture from 1874 as well as sleep in a prison cell for yourself (they even have prisoner outfits that you can wear for photos). Jailhouse Accommodation is also listed as a New Zealand Historic Places Trust Heritage Building.

Old Firestation Backpackers
Fremantle, Australia

This fun and social destination is well-known for offering an array of free amenities, such as WiFi, video games, linens, lockers, an outdoor cinema, and a game lounge. According to the Australian Heritage Database, Old Firestation Backpackers is a restored heritage building from 1908 and was originally planned to house four horse-drawn carriages including an ambulance. Another interesting tidbit is that during WWII, the firemen were evacuated so the U.S. Marines could move in. Today, guests can still experience the history of the building, as little has been changed inside, from high ceilings to a fireman’s pole.

Hostelling International- Ottawa Jail Hostel
Ottawa, Canada

Located in downtown Ottawa, this hostel was once the Carleton County Gaol (Jail), and a stay here will allow you to sleep in a prison hospital room or a renovated jail cell with barred doors and arched ceilings. You can also take a Haunted Walking Tour of the jail, which will give you a spooky look into the history of the building. If your appetite for history still isn’t satiated, you can head over to nearby sites like Parliament Hill, the Museum of Civilization, the Canadian War Museum, or the National Gallery of Canada.