For every unquestioned beauty such as the Taj Mahal or Grand Canyon, there are thousands of plucky battlers that attempt to appeal to tourists and fail. But then there are those that get everything wrong and somehow end up successful for all the wrong reasons.
From world famous landmarks originally dismissed as monstrosities to bungled construction projects and half-baked theme parks, sometimes getting it wrong makes a site far more attractive…
The Ecce Homo fresco
Sanctuary of Mercy, Borja, Spain
Before 80-year-old ‘artist’ Celia Giménez unleashed her distinctive talents on a largely unremarkable fresco in an obscure corner of Spain, it’s fair to say visitor numbers at Borja’s Sanctuary of Mercy amounted to little more than a trickle.
But when she took it upon herself to restore the Ecce Homo (“Behold The Man”) fresco, she made such a hilariously calamitous job of it that the new “Behold The Monkey” image went round the world. What started as a mocking internet meme has become a weird tourist draw – local officials 40,000 people have visited the out-of-the-way chapel since. Now petitions have been launched and cold hard cash has been raised to save Giménez’s, ahem, masterwork.
The Eiffel Tower
Now the city’s landmark, the Eiffel Tower drew howls of protest at the time of construction. Built as the entrance gate to the 1889 World’s Fair, it was the tallest building in the world for 41 years.
Many of Paris’ key artists and architects were aghast at the tower, saying it would ruin the “hitherto untouched beauty” of the city. Protest letters compared it to a “gigantic black smokestack” casting “a hateful shadow” over Paris.
The Tower was only designed to be a temporary thing – part of the reason that Eiffel won the competition to construct it was that his design was easy to dismantle. But when the time came to pull it down in 1909, the city authorities decided it was quite useful as a communications tower and meteorological centre, so kept it up. It has done alright for itself since.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
Were it not for dodgy 12th century builders, the world’s most famous bell tower would be a passing footnote to the much more impressive cathedral next to it. But inadequate bolstering of foundations meant that the common-or-garden Tower Of Pisa became the Leaning Tower Of Pisa, an obligatory stop on the European circuit for Grand Tourists and camera-wielding bus trippers alike.
In the 1990s, when collapse was feared, there was the option to stabilise properly and stand the tower up straight as originally intended. That would instantly dry up the tourist cash, though, so the salvage operation factored in the lean and kept the tower wonky.
The KGB Museum
Prague, Czech Republic
As museums go, the KGB Museum in Prague is a shabbily amateurish affair – something of a jumble sale of guns, costumes, maps and other assorted nostalgic Soviet paraphernalia. Yet look on Tripadvisor, and it has gained a snowball of rave reviews. It’s fair to say these are not coming from fans of old badges.
What this half-baked attraction has in its favour is owner and curator Andrei, a Russian who frogmarches visitors around his collection with such demented energy and zeal that it becomes an unintentional theatre performance. Surreal wins over high quality, every time.
Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery
Salem, Massachusetts, USA
Waxwork museums are generally pretty terrible, as are movie memorabilia museums. So a combination of the two, devoted to largely awful B-movies really, really shouldn’t succeed. But Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery somehow has enough care and attention to it that it works. It has picked the right place too – Salem is an entire town devoted to schlocky witchcraft and horror attractions. So corny old Hammer horror props, fake gore and cackling laughter manage to defy all expectations and become a knowingly naff but much-loved whole.
To say the Pont Saint-Bénézet has not had a happy life would be a massive understatement. A crossing of the Rhone river has stood in the same spot since the 12th century, but unfortunately it has been repeatedly knocked down by war and floods. By the 17th century, it was simpler to give up trying, and the 22 arch bridge gradually eroded away into a four arch husk of its former self.
But the remnant bridge, sticking timidly out into the river, happens to look rather photogenic. It has become the subject of a popular folk song, and now has UNESCO World Heritage protection. Not a bad effort for something that blatantly wasn’t built properly.
Why bother investing in rollercoasters when you can simply take some of your spare diggers and earth moving equipment, then turn them into rudimentary rides. That’s basically the concept of Diggerland, which lets people get behind the controls of big yellow machines and churn up mud, before sitting inside the claw of one and being spun round.
What seemed like a lazy, cheap idea somehow became an enormous success – largely spurred by dads who wanted to have a go on the diggers while feigning the motivation of keeping children occupied. There are now four of them throughout Britain.
There’s also the suspiciously similar Dig This in Las Vegas which, despite no other city in the world having such an array of activities on offer, somehow comes second in Tripadvisor’s list of things to do in Vegas.
Haw Par Villa
The king of all rubbish theme parks, however, is this deeply weird Singaporean monstrosity. Formerly known as Tiger Balm Gardens and set up by the founders of the Tiger Balm Dynasty, Haw Par Villa has precisely zero thrill rides. It does, however, have lots of statues, a few pagodas, quite pretty gardens and a massively heavy-handed dose of traditional Chinese morality lectures.
This is laid on thickest in the Ten Courts Of Hell section, which shows in full, gory detail what happens to people who break the rules. Dioramas show people being pounded with a mallet for not paying their rent and having their intestines pulled out for cheating during exams.
This grizzly bizarreness, of course, is what makes Haw Par Villa worth going out of the way to see. Sadly for the founders, most visitors are coming to point and laugh rather than reconfirm their commitment to a good Confucian way of life.