FRANCESCO RODELLA | Tungsteno
Spending one’s holidays amidst rubble, desolate landscapes, abandoned cities or polluted areas, often the scenes of serious catastrophes, is an option that seems to attract the attention of more and more travellers. The success of productions such as Chernobyl, a newly released miniseries on the famous Soviet nuclear disaster of 1986, only feeds this attraction. Fans of this controversial practice —usually called dark tourism— can find programs, books and documentaries that suggest all kinds of such destinations. Among these are also dark engineering works, built for very different purposes and located in the most unexpected of places. Here we will visit some.
Before we begin this journey, remember that some of the destinations mentioned were the scene of human or natural tragedies that caused death and suffering. In some of these places, warnings have already been issued to visitors inviting them to respect the memory of the victims. This happened a few months ago when the Auschwitz authorities pleaded on Twitter for people not to take inappropriate images during their visit to the site. Craig Mazin, producer of the series Chernobyl, did the same in another tweet published in June, after learning that the success of his work had spurred a wave of tourism around the nuclear plant where the disaster occurred.
Tourism has become an economic engine in areas plagued by nuclear catastrophes, such as Chernobyl, in the image, or Fukushima (Japan). Credit: Wendelin Jacober.
Fascination with nuclear apocalypses
Chernobyl is not the only scene of a serious nuclear accident that generates fascination among visitors. The same is also true of Fukushima (Japan) after it was hit in 2011 by a powerful earthquake and resulting tsunami. The Daiichi nuclear plant, built in that locality, did not adequately withstand the devastating impact of these two phenomena, which triggered a series of technological failures, the loss of control of the plant and the release of dangerous radiation.
Some places in the area affected by the tragedy were evacuated due to the risk of radiation exposure, but the government later lifted the restrictions, according to the documentary presented by New Zealand journalist David Farrier, which shows abandoned places, rubble in areas razed by the tsunami, and zones where levels of radioactivity much higher than normal are recorded. The local authorities, for their part, are trying to promote tourism that highlights the attempt to start over from scratch in the affected region. Tours are also offered at the Daiichi nuclear plant.
Cities and dams hit by natural disasters
Natural catastrophes seem to arouse particular fascination. If we stay in Asia, one example is the tourist attraction of the Sichuan Wenchuan region (China), where just over a decade ago an earthquake killed at least 70,000 people. There, as photographer Ambroise Tézenas related through a series of images, it is possible to see the aftermath of that devastating earthquake in buildings, bridges and other structures built in this mountainous region located in the centre of the country.
There are similar cases in Europe as well. One of the most striking in a mountain environment is that of the Vajont dam, in the area of the Dolomites (Italy). There, in 1963, a huge avalanche occurred, which caused a mega-tsunami in the artificial lake created when the dike was built. This 70-metre-high super-wave swept over the dam, which suffered no significant damage, and razed the valley below with terrible consequences. Today the dam, (no longer in use) and the surrounding areas, are visited by 100,000 tourists every year.
Buzludzha, one of the greatest ideological monuments built by the Bulgarian socialist party in the 1970s. Credit: Stefan Spassov.
Cold War inheritances
Other infrastructure that arouses great interest in fans of dark tourism are those that have remained as a heritage of the Cold War. One of them is Teufelberg, a former listening post built by the US in an elevated area of Berlin, known as Devil's Hill. After ceasing to operate in 1989, the base first became a meeting place for graffiti artists and other urban artists, and then, thanks also to a report from The New York Times, a tourist attraction. According to the official website of this place, until 2020 we won’t be able to learn the content of what the American and British agents who worked there heard because the archives remain secret.
The socialist bloc also left many traces of that past. One of the most impressive is Buzludzha, a monument built in the 1970s by the Bulgarian Socialist Party. This work, located in the central part of the Balkan country, about 250 kilometres from the capital Sofia, was abandoned after the fall of the USSR and other governments of countries in the Soviet orbit, and became a destination for tourists attracted by its ruined appearance and its symbolic significance. There are plans for the restoration of the monument, including one proposed at the end of last year by the NGO Europa Nostra.
A semi-abandoned train station in Spain
Dark tourism based on engineering is also possible in Spain. One of the most striking works is a semi-abandoned train station, 241 metres long, located in the Pyrenean municipality of Canfranc (Huesca). It was inaugurated by King Alfonso XIII in the late 1920s, with the idea of creating a great line of interconnection with France. Between 1945 and 1949 it was closed due to disagreements with the French Government. In 1970, international train traffic was definitively blocked, and from that year on the station has been in decline. Currently only the Renfe Canfranc-Zaragoza regional line is active.
In this case as well there are projects that seek to restore the site, which is currently accessible all year. There has already been rehabilitation work carried out in the past decade, some of it by Sacyr.
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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.