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Cultivating Wonderlust

Lost cities. Enormous treehouses. Islands covered in deadly snakes. Crystal caves. Bio-luminescent grottoes. Secret passageways. Underground tunnels.

There are places that evoke a sense of wonder just in the describing; eyes widen, mouths hang open. These places wear wonder on their sleeve.

As amazing as those places are (and they really are—although you couldn't pay me to visit Snake Island), what they represent is a way of looking at the world that can apply in Angkor Wat or downtown Chicago. Wonder is a lens through which you see the world, and cultivating a sense of wonder does not require exotic locales. An example:

A few years ago on a rainy evening at the end of a hellish ride on the autostrada, five of us packed into a two-door Fiat, I arrived for the second time in my life in the old town of Lucca, Italy. For those who have never been, it is picture-postcard charming, a labyrinth of tiny crooked lanes tucked inside massive city walls. What I had missed on my first trip was why the town was set up this way.

Tuscany in the middle ages was run by armies for hire—land pirates that would loot, burn, and pillage everything in their wake unless they were paid off. In 1314, Lucca was captured by the mercenary condottiero Castruccio Castracani. For the next several hundred years the city was passed back and forth between various Tuscan powers, all the while staving off plagues and repelling the advances of other mercenaries.

I know this because I happened to pick up the only non-German book on the hostel's book-swap table: It turned out to be a history of these mercenaries. For the next few days, this book became my guide, revealing an entirely new way of looking at the city. Lucca was once full of multi-story tower houses; in the middle ages there were as many as 250. These houses were status symbols, lookout towers, and retreats of last resort when the mercenaries came calling. A favorite way to attack these towers, the book informed me, was to lob dead pigs at the upper stories with a trebuchet. Sturdy walls were important.

When I departed Lucca by train, I saw with new eyes the fortified hilltop towns as I passed. Lucca had always been beautiful, but now it felt fuller. The concentric walls surrounding the Tuscan city of Lucca are lovely to look at no matter who you are, and sometimes aesthetic beauty is all you need. But when you can stand atop them and visualize the hoards of mercenaries gathering on the horizon, fields ablaze, the first wave of pigs flying through the air, that's when things get interesting.

I grew up just outside of San Francisco, and consider it my home town. Like a lot of people, I am guilty of taking my local history for granted, which is a terrible mistake. San Francisco's relatively short history is full of gloriously shady characters and sordid tales of vice and infamy, and there are plenty of ordinary-looking places that transform before your eyes once you know what you are seeing.

About a block away from my old office in the city, an intersection is marked with a large brick circle. I passed it every day for years, and only gave it enough thought to figure it must have been some sort of old traffic marker. Then, in reading up on the 1906 earthquake and fire, I discovered that the brick circle marks one of the 172 underground water cisterns designed in 1908 to ensure that the city never burned again. Now that I know what they are, I see them everywhere.

Stories transform a place. A beautiful palace can become a scene of horror, and an bunch of bricks can become amazing.

Annetta Black is the senior editor of Atlas Obscura. Image: Bicycle´s Lady / La chica de la Bicicleta, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from pasotraspaso's photostream

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