This is my first #1 of 1 NFT, minted 11 March 2022 on Opensea. It's an image made by combining the first line of my first novel with a photo I took in Varanasi, India, in 2006 which inspired the opening scene.[Read more…] about Rain soaked the ashes of the dead
In this video, I explain how I get my story ideas from travel — from how I decide to go to a place, and where I go when I get there, as well as how some of my thrillers have evolved from different trips.
You can watch the video below or here on YouTube.
Hello from Bath in the Southwest of England. I'm Jo Frances Penn and I write thrillers as J.F.Penn. In this video, I'm going to talk about the number one question that I get asked and all authors get asked which is, “Where do you get your ideas from?”
There are a number of ways I get ideas, but probably my number one is traveling. And I wanted to record this video because as I record it in mid-May 2020 I'm in lockdown. Bath is a lovely place to be locked down, but still, I can't travel. So in this video, I'll be talking a bit about how I usually travel.
In many ways, San Francisco is a high-tech city, with Silicon Valley just down the road, Twitter on Market Street and Ubers on every corner.
But it also has a rich religious history and some unusual places to visit if you want to venture further than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Here are some of the places that I found interesting when I visited on a book research trip for my thriller, Valley of Dry Bones.
(1) San Francisco Columbarium
The city banned burial and cremation in the early 1900s when bodies and graves were moved out to Colma, where the dead outnumber the living. The Columbarium is one of the few places left for human remains within the city limits.
It's a Neo-classical building with a copper-domed roof surrounded by red and white sculpted rose bushes in well-kept grounds. Inside, the circular space opens out into a spacious central hall with three gallery levels filled with glass-fronted niches, each with an urn or casket inside holding the remains of a life.
I first learned to scuba dive on the West Coast of Australia and have spent a lot of time diving off the coast of New Zealand. The picture below is from the Poor Knights Islands. Living in England now means I don't dive much – it's just too cold around the coast here, but watching Blue Planet II recently definitely gave me the itch to get back underwater!
Diving is a fantastic way to reach the world’s strange underwater places, some of which I've featured in my thrillers.
For example, The Sunken Cities exhibition at the British Museum in 2016 laid bare the lost Egyptian cities of Thonis-Heraklion, and inspired my short story The Dark Queen.
Here are 15 more sites around the world that harbour strange underwater places.
1) The Sea of Galilee ‘Mound’
A circular stone structure lies 9m beneath the Sea of Galilee. Found in 2003 following a sonar survey of the lake, the ancient structure is made of basalt rocks arranged in a cone shape. Around 70m wide, it reaches 10m in height. It’s also twice as large as Stonehenge.
According to archaeologists, it could be an ancient burial or ceremonial site. No other structures this size are currently known, so experts can only guess at how it was built or used. Its location makes it difficult to study, and experts place its age between 2,000 and 12,000 years old.
Traveling south from Galilee, you reach the Dead Sea, where the salt water can kill you if inhaled. Morgan Sierra dived there in Gates of Hell, looking for an ancient key. My research process just involved watching videos on YouTube, in case you were wondering!
2) The Stonehenge in Lake Michigan
Another stone henge lies at the bottom of Lake Michigan. Discovered in 2007 during a sonar survey, the stone circle lies 12m beneath the water. One stone bears what looks like a carving of a mastodon. They became extinct 10,000 years ago, adding to the mystery of the circle.
You might not be able to visit yet, but you can still imagine the people that built it.
3) An Underwater City near Cuba
Archaeologists conducted another sonar survey off the coast of Cuba in 2001. It revealed mysterious submerged structures. They cover an area of almost 2sq km, at varying depths between 609m and 750m.
Some experts believe the structures are too deep to be man-made. Yet both the Maya and the Yucatecos told ancestral stories of an island that sank. Geologist Manuel Iturralde points out that naturally occurring unusual structures also exist elsewhere. There's no guarantee that the ‘city' belongs to an ancient civilisation.
But it’s easy to imagine the daily lives experienced in such strange underwater places.
4) Port Royal, Jamaica
Once branded “the most wicked and sinful city in the world”, Jamaica's Las Vegas was an infamous pirate town. It was also badly built, and a 7.5 earthquake in 1692 sent 33 acres of the town into the sea.
The town was the second largest city in the New World (after Boston). In 1675, it was so lawless that a pirate even became the Lieutenant Governor – the notorious Henry Morgan. He died in 1679, and even the cemetery where he lay ended up beneath the waves.
The ruins of the city now lie 12m underwater. Archaeologists continue to find well-preserved artefacts on the site. It became a National Heritage Site in 1999. You need special permission to dive there. Instead, see recovered artefacts at the Museums of History and Ethnography in Kingston.
5) The Yonaguni Monument, Japan
Discovered in 1986, the Yonaguni Monument lies off the coast of Japan. Experts debate the provenance of the massive rock formation – is it natural or manmade? Some believe the site began as a natural monument, later modified by humans.
Ten structures lie near Yonaguni, while five lie near Okinawa. Marine geologist Masaaki Kimura has identified man-made structures. Roads, temples, a castle, retaining walls and even a stadium lie among the ruins.
Divers discovered fireplaces, pottery and even stone tools that date to 2500 BCE. But other experts dismiss the drawings and carvings present on the monument as scratches. But it's unlikely that so many would be present in the same place.
The strange underwater places could even be the remains of the lost civilisation of Mu. According to legend, Mu disappeared beneath the sea like Atlantis.
Tourists can dive at the site so why not visit and make up your own mind?
6) Shi Cheng, China
Built between 25-200 CE, Shi Cheng (or “Lion City”) spans around 62 football fields. It also lies over 30m below Quiandao Lake, created in the 1950s as part of a dam. Surprisingly, flooding the city helped to preserve its ancient architecture. The water shields it from sun and wind damage.
Much of its arches and buildings remain intact. Shi Cheng's strange underwater places aren’t yet open to divers. But Quiandao Lake is a popular tourist destination if you want to visit the area.
7) Cleopatra's Palace, Egypt
Much of ancient Egypt's history disappeared over the centuries, looted by tomb raiders or reclaimed by the sea.
Many believe the palace of Cleopatra to be one of these lost secrets, sunk during an earthquake. Archaeologists point to a temple to Isis, a tomb (believed to be that of Cleopatra herself) and a museum on the site.
Experts have reclaimed over 140 artefacts. It isn't currently accessible but there are plans to one day open it to divers.
8) Neptune Memorial Reef, Miami
Yes, I've even sneaked a cemetery into an article about strange underwater places! This subaquatic cemetery is also an artificial reef. It’s home to coral and sea creatures such as angelfish and loggerhead turtles.
It combines fake ruins with concrete memorials containing cremated remains. The Neptune Society, who sponsor the reef, balance the eco-system with the memorials.
Divers can explore the 16-acre site and access is even free. You can find the Neptune Memorial Reef 3 miles off the coast of Key Biscayne.
9) Dwarka, India
According to legend, Lord Krishna had a city comprising 70,000 palaces made of precious metals. When Lord Krishna died, the whole city, Dwarka, disappeared beneath the waves.
In 2000, experts discovered a series of ruins 40m under the waters near Dwarka’s modern-day settlement. The city is one of the seven oldest cities in India. Engineers conducted acoustic studies and found the ruins were geometric.
While archaeologists have recovered lots of artefacts, one caught their eye. Dated to 7500 BCE, it suggests the ruins could be ancient Dwarka after all.
10) Ginnie Cavern, Florida
Divers in Florida enjoy a range of freshwater caves. But Ginnie Springs features one of the most accessible. It also boasts crystal-clear water which makes the experience so much more magical.
You can take lights into Ginnie Cavern but the upper room of the cave already enjoys natural daylight. Its limestone walls help to reflect that light. The “Ballroom”, further inside, is the cavern that contains stunning rock formations. This is where you’ll need lights.
Open-water certified divers can even enter to explore the 100ft cavern.
11) Museo Subacuatico de Arte (MUSA), Mexico
We're used to museums as having guides, description panels, and walls. The Museo Subacuatico de Arte (also known as the Cancun Underwater Museum) has none of them. It's also underwater.
Located on the Yucatan Peninsula, the museum fulfils two intentions. Artist Jason deCaires Taylor wanted visitors to appreciate art in beautiful surroundings. His art drew visitors away from the nearby struggling reefs.
Over 400 of his sculptures act as artificial reefs on the seabed. The two galleries are both open to snorkelers, and one of them is also accessible to divers. If you don’t fancy diving, you can also see the sculptures from a glass-bottomed boat.
12) Rummu Underwater Prison, Estonia
The Soviet Union established a prison near Rummu, Estonia, in the 1940s. A nearby limestone quarry provided backbreaking work for the inmates.
The authorities abandoned the prison and quarry in the 1990s after Estonia regained independence. With no one to pump water out of the quarry, it filled up and formed a lake. Some buildings disappeared beneath the water.
While it's not open to the public, adventurous divers often brave the wall anyway. Beyond, they explore the machinery and buildings submerged in the quarry.
13) Christ of the Abyss, Portofino
Diver Dario Gonzatti died while diving at San Fruttuoso, near Portofino, in 1947. His friend, Duilio Marcante, wanted to memorialise him. He commissioned a sculptor to create an underwater statue of Christ. The 8ft tall bronze statue stands 50ft below the waves. Christ of the Abyss isn't just a subaquatic memorial. He also acts as a reference point for divers if they get into difficulty.
The statue was removed for refurbishment in 2003, but he returned in 2005. Copies also exist in Key Largo, Florida, and St George, Grenada.
14) The Underwater Sculpture Park, Molinere
If you go to St George to see Christ of the Abyss, pay a visit to the underwater sculpture park in Molinere Bay. Created in 2006, it helped regeneration of the area following storm damage. The statues provide a home for coral and algae.
Sea life in the area gives an otherworldly feel to the sculptures. Creatures colonised the statues, making them look like lost shipwreck treasures.
Perhaps they inspired Damien Hirst’s Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable exhibition in Venice.
15) Shipwreck of the Sweepstakes, Lake Huron, Ontario, Canada
Speaking of wrecks, shipwrecks are more obvious strange underwater places you might visit. Few are as accessible as the Sweepstakes. After sinking in 1885 in Lake Huron, it lies just 15m from the shore.
It's also only 6m down, making it easy for visitors to Fathom Five National Marine Park to see her. While divers can swim around her, a wire fence stops them from going inside, to preserve the wreckage.
That’s a lesson we need to learn where these underwater secrets are concerned. While they might be lesser known now, they still need to be preserved for future generations.
I'll be revisiting some of these places in future stories, but for now, sink beneath the waves in this supernatural short story, The Dark Queen.
A sunken city. A lost goddess … and the woman who longs to find her.
Lara is part of a dive team exploring the sunken city of Thonis-Heraklion off the north coast of Egypt. When a storm threatens the site, there's only time for one last dive and Lara is determined to be on it – even if it means diving with the man who threatened her this summer.
Because The Dark Queen is down there and Lara intends to find her before it's too late …
Sink beneath the waves in this supernatural short story from New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author, J.F.Penn. Available now in ebook editions.
Purchase now in ebook format
My fascination with maps and cartography led me to research and write Map of Shadows, which features the Mapwalkers, who can travel through maps into the Borderlands, a world adjoining our own made from places we push off our maps, and creatures and people we write out of history.
When Sienna and the Mapwalker team need to travel over into the Borderlands to follow in the footsteps of the lost expedition before them, they travel through the Hereford Mappa Mundi.
Here's an excerpt from Map of Shadows chapter 9 when the team arrive at Hereford cathedral:
“Mappa Mundi means map of the world,” Mila explained, as they walked across the forecourt. “It dates to around 1300AD and gives a view of how the medieval monks understood the world back then.”
They entered the temperature-controlled room to find the Mappa Mundi lit with dim lights behind glass. Sienna walked closer to get a better look. It was truly incredible, a single piece of vellum illustrated by the hand of faith, with representations of myth and legend next to places that really existed. Perhaps this was the truth of maps. In part, they reflected the world as it actually was, and in part, they reflected the way the world could be, or as it was imagined. As Sienna looked at the Mappa Mundi, she began to understand why her father had gone on this quest.
At the very top, an enthroned Christ held his hands up to show the stigmata, the wounds of crucifixion. Next to him, believers rose from their graves and entered Heaven, while on the other side the damned were stripped, chained and dragged down to Hell where a great beast waited to devour them. Sienna shivered as she looked at the creature, imagining an Illustrator like Xander drawing it and calling it into existence. She looked over at his handsome profile. Was it possible that he and others like him could create something so terrible?
Sienna turned back to the map. An inaccessible circular island at the top of the world represented Eden, surrounded by a ring of fire and closed gates. A serpent waited while Eve held out her hand to accept the apple, ready to taste the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Sienna understood her temptation, her need to know, because that's just how she felt about the Borderlands right now.
There was a picture of Noah's Ark, the woven hull floating above a sea of red when God sent the great flood to wipe out the wickedness of humanity. The map showed a path through the Red Sea, the color still fresh after so many years, marking the wanderings of the Israelites from Egypt, out of slavery and into the Promised Land.
There were beasts on the map, a unicorn, a lynx slinking towards the southern coast of the Black Sea, a war elephant with a tower on its back, a strange parrot creature with a curled tail. There were strange-looking people too: a man with no head, only eyes on his chest holding a sword, another with one huge foot. There were troglodytes, cave dwellers in Africa, and men with heads of dogs.
“What is this map about?” Sienna asked. “It can't be real, surely?”
“A map is never truly real,” Mila said. “It's only one aspect of the reality of the creator. But we need to pay attention to the cities on the map. Maybe your father took the Force through one of those?”
Hereford was marked by a tiny building on the River Wye, almost rubbed off by pilgrims touching it over the years. Jerusalem was right in the center of the map, with a circular wall and a castle city with eight towers, marking the place of crucifixion.
Rome was shown as a towering cathedral with text next to it: ‘Rome, head of the world, holds the bridle of the spherical earth.' Towers and pinnacles marked Paris, where the medieval University focused on philosophy and theology.
“The map is apparently a single piece of calfskin, but I think it's something different.” Xander bent as close as he could get without the alarms going off. The map was drawn on the flesh side of the skin, not the hair side, making the map undulate as one was naturally more taut than the other. “I think it's the skin of an animal from the Borderlands. There's a vibration from it as if it calls to go home. Maybe something wandered over back then, but it's certainly more than just calfskin from Earth-side.”
A labyrinth caught Sienna's eye, a circular maze, like the one in Crete with the Minotaur at the center. In the Middle Ages, many medieval cathedrals had labyrinths and pilgrims would walk around them looking for a way to the center, metaphorically searching for a way to God. She had visited Chartres Cathedral with her father years ago and they had walked the famous labyrinth together.
Mila pointed to a particular area of the map. “This is the camp of Alexander the Great. His conquest of the Persian Empire and domination of the known world was a popular theme, and there are several references on the map about Alexander. This restraining wall was built to save the world from the destructive force of the Sons of Cain.” She turned to Sienna. “Does anything here seem familiar?”
Sienna stared at the map, trying to see it with her father's eyes, trying to understand what he might have seen. He had traveled to many of the places portrayed but her eyes kept being drawn back to the labyrinth.
To read more of the Mapwalker adventures, check out Map of Shadows, available in ebook and print editions.
I've been living in Bath for several years now, and although on the surface, it seems like a genteel little place, there is a darker side to the city – if you know where to look.
Bath straddles the River Avon in Wiltshire in the South West of England. Made famous by Jane Austen costume dramas, the city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
But beneath the charming streets, Roman baths, and Georgian grandeur, lies a weird city. A strange Bath, a place haunted by Druids with Masonic symbols hidden in plain sight. Ley lines crackle with mysterious power along the same streets used by tour buses, and under these streets lie curses to ancient gods.
(1) Ancient curses in the Roman Baths
In the pre-Roman era, a hot spring existed in the area frequented by the local pagan population. Dedicated to Sul, the goddess of healing, the spring’s popularity drew the Romans’ attention. They combined Sul with their own goddess, Minerva, to create Sul Minerva. They built a temple to her and the resulting town became Aquae Sulis. It sounds idyllic, but excavations in the late 1970s revealed a darker side to the Romans in Bath.
Archaeologists uncovered around 130 thin sheets of metal in the waters of the King's Bath. They turned out to be curse tablets rolled into tubes and dating back to the earliest centuries AD.
Curse tablets occur across the Greco-Roman world and they fall into two categories. One group takes the form of binding curses. These were ideal if you wanted to curse love rivals or sporting competitors. The Romans were asking the gods to take matters into their hands.
The second group involves asking the gods to mete out justice against thieves and the Bath tablets fall into this category. Some of them address Sulis Minerva as the guardian of the spring. The text asks her to persecute the guilty party until they return the stolen property. Many of the tablets refer to small items stolen at the baths.
It gives a whole new insight into the people frequenting the Roman Baths in their ancient heyday.
(2) Druids, The Circus, and the Freemasons
The Circus is a gorgeous, circular Georgian terrace with three layers of classical columns. Five enormous plane trees stand in the central garden, blocking the view of the buildings and it's really hard to get a picture of the curved facade. I walk through The Circus almost every day, so it's a place I have come to love. When I wrote Map of Shadows, which opens in Bath, I started to research the area and found it has an incredible background.
Inspired by Bath's alleged druid past, architect John Wood the Elder designed the Circus by modelling its dimensions on Stonehenge. The outer circumference matches the ancient Druid standing stones, as well as incorporating the pagan circle and crescent of The Circus and The Royal Crescent just along the street.
Freemasonry was used in the design. The layout of The Circus, Gay Street and Queen Square form a key, a common symbol in Freemasonry, representing power or hidden secrets. There are over 500 carved emblems along the frieze of the columns, including serpents, stone tablets of the 10 commandments, lightning bolts, and more.
According to legend, a ley line connects Bath Abbey and The Circus, cutting along Brock Street. If that’s true, it makes The Circus the heart of strange Bath, and it plays an important part in my story, Map of Shadows.
(3) A pagan god in the Botanic Gardens
The Botanic Gardens are fantastic to visit in any season, with its ever-changing landscape of trees, flowers, fat pigeons and cheeky squirrels. I walk there several times a week and enjoy watching the seasons pass.
But there is one strange object in the gardens – a huge pagan deity carved from a tree.
William Lobb brought twelve Giant Redwoods to the UK in the 1850s. One of them ended up in Bath's Botanic Gardens and it died after contracting Honey Fungus. In 2001, the council commissioned a local artist to create a piece celebrating its life. Lee Dickson created the chainsaw sculpture that stands near the Dovecote. The 7m-tall Mankind’s Hand in Nature preserves what's left of the redwood. It helps to celebrate the Druid roots of the city.
(4) Literary inspiration and Gothic horror
Jane Austen is Bath's most famous literary inhabitant. She lived in the city between 1800 and 1809. But many overlook the short presence of an even greater writing resident – Mary Shelley.
She came up with the idea of Frankenstein and his monster during the infamous evening at the Villa Diodati. Later in 1816, the writer arrived in Bath with Percy Shelley and took rooms at 5 Abbey Churchyard (now long gone) and 12 New Bond Street. When they left the city five months later, she'd finished the first volume of the novel that would make her famous.
Shelley may have given birth to Frankenstein in Switzerland, but she brought him up in strange Bath.
Charles Dickens also paid frequent visits to the city. He stayed at the Saracen's Head on a visit in 1835. Rumour has it that Dickens created The Old Curiosity Shop’s Little Nell during a stay in St James' Square in 1840. Bath's nineteenth-century social life appears in The Pickwick Papers.
(5) Angels and the dead at Bath Abbey
The most arresting view of Bath Abbey comes at the grand West facade where angels climb stone ladders alongside the stained-glass windows, a gorgeous carved entrance doorway, and carved figures from Biblical history.
According to abbey legends, Bishop Oliver King dreamed of angels climbing to heaven in the early 1500s, and although Jacob's Ladder is a common enough motif on cathedrals, if you stand beneath the angels, you'll see some are climbing down. Are they angels – or demons?
In 2011, excavations revealed the bodies of around 6000 people beneath the floor of the abbey. Interred at the abbey until the mid-19th century, the burials stopped when they ran out of space. As the corpses decomposed, they caused voids under the stone slabs. Work is underway to repair the floor before it collapses.
(6) Ghost signs preserve Bath’s literary heritage
Ghost signs are the remnants of old advertisements painted onto walls. Sometimes the signs are legible, reminding passersby of long-gone products or local businesses. In places, you can see several signs painted one on top of another.
On Milsom Street, a building bears the ghost sign of the Circulating Library and Reading Room. The sign dates to the early 1820s and Sébastien Ardouin notes Frederick Joseph ran a bookshop at no. 43 – the building bearing the sign.
Circulating libraries found popularity in the 18th century due to the cost of books. Booksellers founded them to lend copies of the books to earn extra income. Members paid a subscription fee to borrow one or two books at a time. They were much like an early literary version of Netflix.
(7) Kennet and Avon Canal
The Kennet and Avon Canal stretches for 140km, linking the River Avon and the River Kennet. Built between 1794 and 1810, the canal fell into disrepair after the Great Western Railway opened. Volunteers restored the canal which reopened in 1990, and I walk along it several times a month. It's one of my favorite walks, and one of the characters in Map of Shadows, Mila, lives on a canal boat.
The canal is now a popular destination for boating and it's an important site for wildlife. But we're interested in strange Bath, so if ghosts are your thing, head to the Cross Guns pub in Avoncliff. You can see the canal’s aqueduct from the gardens.
Reports tell of a Blue Lady in the women's toilets, though she appears elsewhere. She dresses in Victorian fashions and looks down to the river. Witnesses describe feelings of being watched and a sudden drop in temperature before she appears. Staff see shadows in the kitchen while patrons also see an old man in the bar. The figure of a monk sometimes appears near a fireplace in the lounge where there is a priest hole.
So, if you visit Bath, be sure to look beneath the tourist facade to the dark side beneath …
A map of skin etched in blood.
A world under threat from the Borderlands.
A young woman who must risk the shadows to save her family.
When her Grandfather is murdered under mysterious circumstances, Sienna Farren inherits his map shop in the ancient city of Bath, England. Once there, she discovers that her family is bound up with the Ministry of Maps, a mysterious agency who maintain the borders between this world and the Uncharted.
With the help of Mila Wendell, a traveller on the canals, Sienna discovers her own magical ability and a terrifying place of blood that awaits in the world beyond.
But when she discovers a truth about her past and the Borderlands begin to push through the defenses, Sienna must join the team of Mapwalkers on their mission to find the Map of Shadows – whatever the cost.
In a place written out of history, a world off the edge of the map, Sienna must risk everything to find her father … and her true path as a Mapwalker.
This dark fantasy novel is the first in the new Mapwalker series.
Available now in ebook or print format!
Spain is one of my favorite places, somewhere I return to over and over again. I particularly love the Sagrada Familia and the beachside tapas of Barcelona, the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, the chilled vibe of Malaga, and the cultural heritage of Granada and Cordoba.
But Spain has a darker side.
Bloody religious statues and relics fill the Catholic churches, resonant with the history of the Inquisition and the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, who forced the Jews to convert, leave, or die. Their empire took the faith to Latin America in search of gold and converts … at any cost.
Much later, Spain suffered during the Spanish Civil War with torture, killings, and mob violence. The fight against fascism characterizes memorials around the country and still scars many of those left behind.
The deep religious and cultural history brings beauty in the strange and wonderful places that you can still visit and many writers find inspiration there. My ARKANE thriller, Gates of Hell, delves into sites related to Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, while Dan Brown's latest novel, Origin, has scenes in Madrid, Seville, Barcelona and Bilbao.
So which of Spain's strange places should you visit?
1) Sagrada Família, Barcelona
The Sagrada Família church has been under construction for over 100 years. Begun in 1882, it's estimated to be finished in 2026.
Architect Antoni Gaudí scrapped the original plans for a neo-Gothic cathedral and turned the building into a monument to Modernism. Only 15-25% of the building work was finished when he died in 1926 but his vision lives on. Two of its three major façades have been finished (the Passion and the Nativity). Work only began on the Glory façade in 2002.
The church is famous for its incredible stained glass windows and awe-inspiring towers. Inside, a forest of columns stretches into the gloom above. It really is jaw-dropping and a must visit if you're in Spain. The Sagrada Familia proved an ideal location for one scene in Gates of Hell. Click here for more of my pictures from Barcelona. Here are Morgan Sierra's thoughts on entering the church.
“An elvish kingdom, a fantasy forest of marble pillars rose from the floor separating into branches that supported the high coffered ceiling in Gaudí's unique design. The impression was organic, as if the earth had grown up into this space, reaching to meet high above them in a forest canopy.
It was light and airy and Morgan could imagine Cirque du Soleil performers in here, leaping and twisting in praise to the Creator. It was a far cry from the austerity of Gothic architecture and somber darkness of most great European cathedrals. This was all light and pattern, rippling in the evening sun. The palette of color moved across gentle pinks and blues from the Montjuïc stone to darker granite and the almost burgundy of Iranian porphyry. Light streamed in through multi-hued windows of rainbow glass, all circles and curves, caressing the flagstones as light would ripple through the forest leaves.
Those who worshipped the pagan gods of nature would feel at home here. The only obvious nod to Christianity was the figure of Christ on the cross under a parachute above the simple altar. But it was dwarfed by the sheer overwhelming beauty of the stone trunks and intricate design of the basilica, lifting the worshippers' spirits above their earthly pain.”
Excerpt from Gates of Hell, Chapter 6.
2) Museo de las Brujas, Zugarramurdi
Apart from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall, there aren’t many witchcraft museums. But many consider the small town of Zugarramurdi in the Navarre region the centre of witchcraft in the nation’s history. The Museo de las Brujas takes visitors back to the Inquisition, one of Spain’s bloodiest periods.
Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. Heretics formed the original focus, rooting out spies among apparent converts from Islam and Judaism. In 1610, the Inquisition arrived in Zugarramurdi to investigate rumours of witchcraft. Officials tried over 7,000 people and found 53 guilty. Many now condemn the atrocities of the Inquisition, recognising the ‘witchcraft' as being simple folk medicine.
Located in a disused hospital, you can explore occult myths and legends surrounding the town. The museum aims to dispel the myths and misconceptions around witches. Exhibitions explore herbal remedies to explain how some may have confused them with witchcraft. The town celebrates the summer solstice in nearby caves and the Witch Museum takes part in the festivities.
3) Cave of the Moon, Titulcia
Titulcia lies to the south-east of Madrid, home to a bizarre underground world. Restaurant owner Armando Rico discovered the subterranean complex in 1952. The archways, medieval art and plasterwork show potential Renaissance origins, but no one knows who built the catacombs – or why.
Tunnels link a series of domed chambers where symbols cover the walls. German researchers in the 1970s thought the tunnels may have been a meeting place for the Knights Templar. It derives its name, the Cave of the Moon, from the fact some believe the central vault represents the full moon.
But researchers also found Celtic, Roman, and other medieval remains in the cave. Some visitors believe it holds psychic power while Rico believes it to represent the Earth and the moon. If you want to explore for yourself, you'll need permission from Rico to enter through his restaurant.
4) The Temple of Debod, Madrid
As weird places go, you can’t improve on an Egyptian temple in a Madrid park. Yet that’s what you can see in the Parque de la Montaña.
Many historical sites faced destruction during the construction of the Aswan Dam. The Spanish government helped saved some of these sites, including the Abu Simbel temples which appear in ARKANE thriller Ark of Blood.
Egyptian authorities gifted the 4th century BC Temple of Debod to Spain as a thank you. The single-room temple stood in the Nile Valley near the temple complex of Philae, used to worship the goddess Isis. Specialists dismantled the temple and shipped it to Spain in 1968. The site proves a popular attraction for photographers at sunset!
5) Gernika (or Guernica)
Guernica stands for devastation and loss in the annals of European history, made famous by the Picasso painting of the same name.
German forces targeted the old city during the first aerial bomb attacks on civilians and the rebuilt city now houses a Peace Museum. The museum tells the story of the 1937 bombing alongside other war atrocities, and explores conflict resolution and human rights.
The original Picasso painting now rests in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, and a tapestry version of it hangs in the United Nations Headquarters in New York, at the entrance to the Security Council room. A reminder of the horrors of war.
6) Montjuïc Cemetery, Barcelona
No article on weird places to see in Spain would be complete without a graveyard. You don't imagine the dead needing a good view, but they have one anyway in Barcelona's Montjuïc Cemetery. High on the hill overlooking the city, the cemetery opened in 1883. Its 57 acres have seen over one million burials across 150,000 plots and cremation niches.
Much like the city itself, the cemetery boasts monuments in classic, Gothic, Art Nouveau and Modernisme design styles. Surrealist artist Joan Miró rests here.
There's a Roman crematorium at the top of the cemetery, while el Fossar de la Pedrera lies to the west. This silent area, the Grave of the Quarry, is the resting place of around 4,000 people executed by the Franco regime. If you want to see the whole park, it can take over 3 hours to walk around it.
7) Casa Batlló, Barcelona
You can’t miss the influence of Antoni Gaudí around Barcelona–he’s the king of weird sculpture and architecture in Spain. The Casa Batlló is one of the more obvious examples. The architect re-designed the facade and the interior of the building for the wealthy Batlló family.
Sometimes called the House of Bones, the lower floors resemble a giant ribcage. The exterior decoration further up the facade looks more like blood vessels. Many compare the ridged, undulating roofline to the back of a dragon.
If you enjoy his work, take a trip to the Park Güell overlooking the city. Gaudí’s former home in the park is now a museum, and you can’t miss its shocking pink exterior.
8) Museo Lara, Ronda
This private museum is one of the best weird places to see in Spain. Founded by Juan Antonio Lara Jury, the museum displays his vast collections. You'll see anything from vintage typewriters to old watches, handguns and microscopes.
But the Museo Lara is also home to the second Spanish Inquisition connection on this list. The cellar contains exhibits about the Inquisition and witchcraft. It includes torture equipment, mannequins in historical costume, and crazy taxidermy including a tarantula with the head of a bat. Perfect if you’re fascinated by the occult and the macabre.
9) Monumento del Angel Caido, Madrid
Cemeteries and parks play host to thousands of carved angels, but few focus on the fallen angel, Lucifer – except the Parque del Retiro.
Created in plaster in 1877, the sculptor drew inspiration from the Fallen Angel as he appears in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The statue won a prize during the National Exhibition of Fine Arts.
The recast bronze version became part of a fountain where devils form waterspouts. Inaugurated in 1885, the statue divided opinion. Many hated Satan’s beautiful appearance though critics appreciated the technical skill behind its creation. It stands at 666 metres above sea level.
10) Capilla Real de Granada
Catholic churches often have fascinating icons, depictions of saints and the method of their martyrdom. The Royal Chapel of Granada features some of the most bloody and explicit scenes I've seen in my travels around the world, perhaps appropriate since the monarchs buried there, Ferdinand and Isabella, presided over some of the most brutal times of Spain's religious history. Gruesome stuff!
12) Mezquita, Córdoba
This incredible building combines the beauty of Moorish architecture in the red and white archways with the ornate chapels and altars of the Catholic cathedral.
Córdoba was a hub of learning during the Caliphate over a thousand years ago, famous for the books collected by its knowledge-hungry rulers. Baghdad and the East were far in advance of Europe then, inventing the Arabic numerals and algebra still used today, along with decimal notation and the zero. The Mezquita was a mosque and later became a Christian cathedral during the Reconquista.
There are 856 columns inside, some of which become clues in Gates of Hell based on a Kabbalistic code that lead Morgan and Jake on to further adventures.
13) The Alhambra, Granada
With a name loosely translated as ‘the red one', the Alhambra contains stunning examples of Moorish architecture with a fantastical palace of courtyards inside the Nazrid Palace. Intricate geometric designs and Arabic calligraphy line the walls and the Court of the Lions seems to defy gravity with its slender columns and water features.
Book your slot early if you want to visit and try to avoid the crowds! More of my pictures of the Alhambra and Andalucia here.
14) Monastery of St Geronimo, Granada
This monastery is off the tourist beaten track and rewards visitors with a stunning chapel interior. You almost get vertigo staring up into the myriad vaults, all richly decorated.
There are also some freaky-looking relics and icons in the side chapels. Well worth a visit!
So these are some of my picks for weird and wonderful Spain – no doubt I'll add some more on the next trip! Happy travels.
When you book a trip to a new city, thoughts turn to popular attractions or places you might like to see. For most people, anatomical museums don’t usually rank high on the list.
But for a writer, medical museums prove fertile ground in which to find new ideas or story seeds.
If you write crime thrillers, they’re also an excellent way to ensure you’re getting the details right!
As an avid fan of such places myself, I’ve collected together 12 of the world’s best anatomical museums. If you're into the macabre as I am, then you might enjoy them too!
1. Anatomy Museum, The Hunterian, Glasgow, UK
There are two Hunterian museums in the United Kingdom because there were two Hunter brothers. The Glasgow collection is that of William, the famed teacher of surgery and obstetrician to the wealthy. William Hunter opened a ground-breaking medical school in Covent Garden to teach anatomy through practical classes.
After a rift with his brother John, William donated his collection to Glasgow University. Perhaps the most famous exhibit is the plaster cast made of a pregnant uterus. It accompanies his masterpiece textbook, The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures (1774). His preparations of lymphatic tissue, injected with mercury to highlight the vessels, are artworks in themselves.
Of course, with tales of resurrection men murdering people to provide bodies for the anatomy school, you have to wonder how many of these were voluntary specimens …
2. Hunterian Museum, London, UK
While William Hunter’s collection went to Glasgow, John’s collection stayed in London. The vast array of preserved specimens bears witness to Hunter’s tireless efforts to understand the body. The Hunterian Museum collects together preserved body parts and even the skeleton of a ‘giant’.
It’s also a central location for Desecration, the first book in my London Crime Thriller series. As fascinating as anatomical museums are, and they’re essential to medical progress, they raise ethical questions about the treatment of the deceased. That made the museum the ideal location for the story.
3. Mütter Museum, Philadelphia, USA
Founded in 1863 by Dr Thomas Dent Mütter, the museum is perhaps America's best known medical marvel. It uses a ‘cabinet museum' format to display the collections of specimens, instruments, and models.
Among other things, you can see part of John Wilkes Booth's spine, slices of Einstein's brain, and the famous skull collection belonging to Dr Joseph Hyrtl. The museum features a mix of temporary exhibitions and permanent displays. The Benjamin Rush Medicinal Plant Garden is a fascinating stop if you’ve also seen the Chelsea Physick Garden in London.
As their website explains, the Mütter Museum “helps the public appreciate the mysteries and beauty of the human body while understanding the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.”
4. Old Operating Theatre, London, UK
While the steady march of progress continues in the nearby Shard, the Old Operating Theatre lies in a quiet Southwark garret above St Thomas Church. All that remains of the old St Thomas’ Hospital, the theatre served the women's surgical ward.
Hundreds of students would have watched the surgical procedures from the galleries surrounding the operating table and remember, this was before the invention of antiseptic or anaesthetic. Gruesome stuff!
You can attend fascinating talks about the equipment by museum curators and I've even attended a Death Drawing workshop there. Like the Hunterian Museum, it provided me with plenty of research material for Desecration.
5. International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago, USA
Founded in 1935, the IMSS aimed to promote surgical knowledge worldwide. In 1954, it opened to the public and in 1959, the museum dedicated galleries, hallways or rooms to individual nations and their surgical contributions.
The museum holds plenty of art and documentation to trace the development of surgical techniques. You can also see original x-rays, transplant equipment, and a cast from Napoleon's death mask.
The IMSS was also another of the anatomical museums to give me a story idea. It was there that I found the 4000-year-old Peruvian skull showing evidence of trepanation.
The skull inspired American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice, the dark fantasy novel I co-wrote with Lindsay Buroker, J. Thorn and Zach Bohannon on a train from Chicago to New Orleans in 2017.
6. Museum Vrolik, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Named after Gerard and Willem Vrolik, a 19th-century father-and-son who were both anatomy professors, the museum is an interesting place to visit in Amsterdam.
It started life as the pair's private collection, viewable at their house. Their specimens included both normal anatomy and malformed examples, such as one-eyed foetuses and corset livers. The museum stresses the importance of specimens such as Siamese twins, given how rare such cases are in the 21st century.
7. Warren Anatomical Museum, Harvard Medical School, USA
The Warren Anatomical Museum was founded in 1847. Attached to a working medical school, the anatomy lecturers still use the Exhibition Gallery as a teaching space. It’s a small museum, comprised of four display cases on a single floor, but if you’re in the area, it’s worth a trip. The 100 medical artefacts on display are less than 1% of the entire collection.
The displays contain actual human remains so photography is not allowed in the Exhibition Gallery. Its most famous exhibit is the skull of Phineas Gage (see image left), a railroad worker who suffered an iron bar driven through his brain. While he survived the trauma, the resulting change in his behaviour and personality revolutionised neuroscience.
8. Museum of Human Anatomy, Pisa, Italy
A lot of universities boast anatomical museums, but few have the lineage of the Museum of Human Anatomy in the Medical School of Pisa. The town was one of the first in Italy to get an anatomy school.
The museum itself dates to the early 19th century. A Second World War blast in 1944 caused flooding, damaging some of the exhibits, yet plenty of wonderful specimens remain. They specialise in osteology, displaying a range of different bones. One model is a skull, known as an exploded model, due to the separated bones on display. They also have other specimens representing different anatomical systems, such as circulation.
The museum even boasts a collection of embalmed Peruvian heads, alongside two Egyptian mummies. You can also pop next door to the Pathological Anatomy Museum to see all kinds of aberrations, including a two-headed cat.
9. Medical History Museum of the Hamburg University Teaching Hospital, Hamburg, Germany
Some anatomical museums attempt to trace the history of medicine. The Hamburg museum focuses on modern medicine, from the 19th century until now.
The curators are unafraid to face the darkest eras in human history. They included a display about Nazi eugenics programs. It returns a voice to those murdered by the regime for being deemed mentally or physically unfit to live. It’s a harrowing display, but it’s important to remember the sacrifices suffered by others in earlier times. I used aspects of the Nazi eugenics program in Desecration.
10. Paul Stradin's History of Medicine Museum, Riga, Latvia
The collection started in the 1920s, begun by Dr Paul Stradins. A two-headed dog rubs shoulders with Chernushka, the dog who travelled into space on Sputnik 9 and survived. Note the two-headed dog was a manmade creation. It seems horrifying today, but the work of Vladimir Demikhov inspired techniques still used in organ transplants.
Elsewhere, there are fascinating dioramas, including a medieval pharmacy and town which explains medieval healing.
11. The Museum of the History of Medicine, Paris, France
Some of this museum's collections date back to the 18th century. They specialise in the medical instruments, but they also hold anatomical specimens and other items related to surgery.
Chronological displays in the Museum of the History of Medicine lead you forwards through time as surgical devices evolve around you. From trepanning to anaesthesia, it makes you appreciate the advances of modern medicine. You can even see the autopsy equipment used on Napoleon.
12. Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité, Germany
This museum hosts a permanent exhibition that traces the past 300 years of medical history.
A specimen hall lies at the heart of the museum. Visitors can see 750 wet-and-dry examples on display. Like the Hamburg museum, the museum features displays that explore the ways in which the Nazis used science for their own ends. Elsewhere, temporary exhibitions shine a light on other aspects of contemporary medicine, such as forensics.
Any, or all, of these museums preserve knowledge that has been hard-won by ingenious–and diabolical–scientists. One thing is for certain–you’ll leave with a greater appreciation of modern medicine.