food / travel

'Urban Explorers' Quest To Discover Abandoned Haunts That Conjure Hidden Past

Fueled by Internet forums and photo-sharing, so-called “urban explorers” track down decaying houses and boarded-up factories to capture the way things were in an ever more remote past.

An abandoned school in Germany (Floksor).
An abandoned school in Germany (Floksor).
Caroline Steva

For them, it's like going fishing or catching a movie on a Sunday afternoon. This escape, though, takes them to explore the cities and the countryside in search of abandoned locations to enter: closed-down factories, abandoned hospitals, empty houses.

They snap pictures, which they often post online, and helps explain how the practice has multiplied over the past few years through forums and social networks. They've been dubbed "urban explorers," even though they often run through country fields in search of new boarded-up finds.

To discover new treasures out in the territory, these archeologists-photographers follow the news, search municipal archives, talk with the elderly or just look around closely. Then they exchange tips. They mainly find factories and workshops, but they can also come upon hotels, theaters, zoos, prisons, asylums, museums under construction, sewerage systems -- and sometimes entire towns.

"The most moving part is the discovery of a new place," says Sylvain Margaine, project manager for Brussels public transportation services. "I'd dreamed of visiting the former veterinary school of Brussels for a very long time, but it was impenetrable. Until the day renovation work started."

Margaine recalls: "I jumped into the building through a basement window and I ended up in a pitch-dark small room. When I turned on my flashlight, I saw the shelves full of animals in formalin jars. I was certainly the first person to come back there since the building had been closed, it was fascinating."

Gregory Michel, a 30-year-old from Alsace employed in Basel, notes that the weekend explorers are, in fact, rarely the first ones to come. "Almost every time, someone already came before us, copper thieves or squatters."

Adventure, discovery, history, cultural heritage -- the motives of these explorers are numerous. "I like the idea of going where no one goes. Each building has its own soul, it bears marks that can tell you stories. I observe and I let my imagination work," explains Henk van Rensbergen, a 43-year-old Flemish airline pilot.

Van Rensbergen is considered a pioneer of the discipline, having taken advantage of each of his work stopovers to look for new places, often recommended by other enthusiasts he met on the Internet. "The best places are obviously the rich countries, where they have enough space to leave an old building fallen in ruins, and build other ones next to it."

The United States, Canada, France, Italy, Germany make up his Top Five. And each region has its peculiarities, memories of bygone days. Mines and steel factories in northeastern Europe, huge lunatic asylums in North America that show the number of inmates and the mistreatment they suffered. In Switzerland, explorations take place in the underground network of Basel, old hotels or Ticinese sanatoriums

Some do extensive research before they go to a new place, others do it afterwards, a few don't do any outside reading at all. "Thanks to the objects that are still there and the anecdotes we read or heard, we manage to imagine the building when it was inhabited, to perceive the activity that was going on inside at the time," says Gregory Michel.

Inheritance problems

"Sometimes the paintings are still on the walls and the crockery inside the cupboards, as if the people had left overnight. I think it's moving, I wonder what happened, and I start doing some research," says Sylvain Margaine. "It's often the same story: inheritance problems."

Julien Michaud, a computer analyst from the French city of Strasbourg, discovered one of these long abandoned houses. "Everything was still there, the piano, the letters, the darkroom where the grandfather, who was a photographer, developed his pictures…The granddaughter left with the inheritance. People say the family owns another house in the South. I've been looking for it in vain…"

As usual, Michaud published his photos of the house on the Web, though he did not give the address. But illegal visits started multiplying, objects disappeared, graffiti has covered the walls, and now the piano is being dismantled. "Now I got it, I keep some places for myself," he says with regret. "I shared a lot in the beginning to enter the circle, to prove my mettle. I don't do it anymore." Many urban explorers wait for the building to be destroyed to talk about it publicly.

There is in fact a certain ethical code amongst the veterans: never break in, never leave any trace of your visit, take nothing but pictures. "The places must be protected like fragile pieces of nature," specifies the website The doors are never broken open, the windows are never smashed – maybe there's a hole or a basement window, or you'll need a ladder or rope, but there is always a soft way in.

To enter discreetly and also to limit the risks, the equipment is an important element. Visitors - mainly men - need at least a good pair of shoes, gloves, two electric torches, food and water. Depending on the circumstances, they can also bring waders, a knife, a helmet or even a gas mask.

Taking precautions is even more important as urban exploration is victim of its own success. A documentary on the French Channel France 2 in early July led to a real saturation of the forums. The pleasure of the discovery then becomes more and more rare. "The challenge now resides in the pictures you take, I try to capture the atmosphere of the premises, to take better photos than the ones I saw on the Web," says Henk van Rensbergen. "I started taking pictures to prove to my friends that I had been there and to show them how it was. Now my approach is more aesthetical." A mix, it seems, of Indiana Jones and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Floksor

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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