We talked to Kristan Lawson, co-author of "Weird Europe: A Guide to Bizarre, Macabre and Just Plain Weird Sights" (St. Martin's Griffin, $16.95).
Q: What distinguishes the weird from the stupid?
A: They overlap a lot. "Weird" is a word that people seem to have many definitions of.
What's your definition?
Anything that's out of place, kitsch, badly done, funny, ironic or the product of an obsession.
Can one man's mental illness end up as another man's tourist attraction?
Yes. There's the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic. Hundreds of years ago, these monks buried their colleagues in graveyards, exhumed them when the graveyards became overstuffed, then stored them in charnel houses. . . . An eccentric local woodworker started taking the bones and making art out of them.
What's the weirdest country in Europe?
France. And I'm not quite sure why. In second place would probably be Great Britain, which has all these obsessive museums like the Potter's Museum of Curiosity, which is run by a guy who collected stuffed animals and arranged them into tiny little tableaus . . . odd arrangements where kittens and bunnies are in school or going off to war. Italy takes third place, lots of gruesome dead bodies in museums of the anatomy.
Any idea why so many museums feature preserved, diseased body parts?
Most started out as medical museums. Up until the 19th century, when the church stopped dominating European culture and society, you couldn't use corpses for dissections. Medical schools had to make wax models of bodies for medical students. . . . They made wax models of every diseased body part imaginable.
What was the creepiest thing that happened to you during your five-month quest for weirdness?
My wife and I were in a pet cemetery somewhere near Paris and one of the graves had her name on it, which is Anneli Rufus.
Relying on your book, plan a week-long tour of the weird.
Start in Paris at the Fragonard Veterinary Museum. They display preserved animals and humans, using a process from the 1700s that no one can figure out. Next day, visit the Ideal Palace of Cheval the Mailman in Hauterives, France. He built a huge castle out of cement and stone that he'd collected on his route. Day 3: Stop by the Casa Anatta in Switzerland, a museum devoted to counterculture, which the members of this commune basically invented.
On Day 4, it's off to the Interlaken Jungfraujoch Ice Palace, which is carved out of a glacier. On Day 5, as long as it's a Sunday in March, April or May, watch a cow battle in the southwest corner of Switzerland. Day 6, head to the Criminal Museum in Vienna. Besides corpses, they display actual murder weapons, like a knife protruding from a skull.
End the tour at Franz Gsellmann's World Machine. A farmer in the Austrian village of Kaag spent 25 years building this machine that, to the sane mind, doesn't do anything. It just sort of spins, twirls and whirs. The components include toys, Hula-Hoops, bells, Christmas lights, metronomes, candelabras, chains, cages, clocks, a crown, a windmill and oxygen tanks. He had some sort of metaphysical belief that it keeps the world going.
Do you think that's true?
If you saw it, you'd believe it.
CAPTION: Give him a hand: "Weird Europe" co-author Kristan Lawson.