Weird Europe concocts a grand tour of the bizarre

Been there, done Europe?

Fat chance, say the authors of "Weird Europe," a compendium of historical sites, buildings, artwork and museums so far off the beaten path that even some residents don't know they're there.

Visitors that use Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson's new book as a guide can walk through catacombs in France, the rendezvous spot for underground resistance fighters during the Vichy regime and World War II. And they can gaze upon "Christ in a Loincloth," a bronze sculpture whose foot was kissed so many times Roman church officials demanded it be outfitted with shoes.

The book is subtitled "A Guide to Bizarre, Macabre, and Just Plain Weird Sights." Rufus and Lawson, who are wife and husband, made a whirlwind tour of some of the most offbeat sites in Europe last summer, leaving them not winded but exhilarated.

But offbeat doesn't always mean funny, said Rufus, a Berkeley resident and former contributing editor at the Jewish Bulletin.

"My husband and I, knowing the title would be 'Weird Europe,' talked this over at length" before choosing to include the sites of Jewish persecution and extermination, she said.

"How can you say Auschwitz was weird, the Holocaust weird? What a put-down!" she said. "But the word 'weird' does not automatically mean 'hilarious and goofy.' Things can be weird and horrible, not just things to do for laughs. It's definitely a weird feeling to walk through a concentration camp. What else can it be but weird when a nut tried to cremate an entire people?"

As a result, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau are among the listings.

"As the scene of the worst crime in history, this is a vivid testament to the evil of which humans are capable…At the crematoria and ash-filled pond near the back of the camp, the smell of death remains," the Auschwitz segment reads in part.

Readers will find no Jewish museums or synagogues. "There's nothing weird about religion" in and of itself, she said.

There are numerous highly specialized museums and galleries, however. Many are in Germany, which is "big on little museums."

"I would find myself looking at these places and thinking, 'Aren't Germans so good at organizing things? They keep everything so neat and clean. And they're so thorough.' Then, as a Jewish person, I would start thinking about that. It brings up that whole 'where were you in '42?' thing."

The book's sites — one is loathe to say "attractions" — extend far beyond the Holocaust.

There is the Inquisition, for instance.

"It was kind of sneaky and subversive of us," she said. "But we actually got a lot of history in there, mostly about the horribleness of persecuting others, which probably comes from being Jewish. And so does the humor. We're a funny people."

Growing up in secular Jewish households in California , Rufus said she and her husband had a certain advantage in reviewing sites born of passionate Catholicism.

"It's always interesting to look at other people's religions as an outsider," she said. "You can be very frank."

Another book by Rufus, "Magnificent Corpses," came out within a few months of "Weird Europe." In it, she indeed looked frankly at "saints' relics that are intensely venerated" by European Catholics.

She was fascinated largely because "taking a body part and praying over it is so far removed from anything in Judaism," she said.

The sites in both books also serve as flashpoints for readers who have abandoned their religious roots.

"I haven't spoken to many practicing Catholics, but I've heard from a lot of lapsed Catholics, and they're like, 'Yeah, that's exactly how it is.' And non-Catholics will look at those sites and say, 'How funny! What a quaint religion,' which is not exactly what I had in mind."

"Weird Europe" readers with an interest in Jewish culture can seek out the Golders Green Crematorium outside London, where the ashes of many famous non-Orthodox Jews are interred. London's Highgate cemetery has the remains of Karl Marx, but Golders Green has the ashes of Michael Bolan, the former singer of rock band T-Rex who was killed in a car crash in the late 1970s.

"More people make pilgrimages to see him than anyone else," she said. Peter Sellers is at Golders Green, too, memorialized by a rose bush that was planted over his ashes.

The book is divided first by country, then into sections like "Outrageous Architecture," "Remnants of Oppression" and "Quirky Gardens."

"It may have taken God only six days to make the world, but Søren Poulsen is running a close second: It took him only 25 years to make a pretty good copy," she writes of the World Map Garden in Denmark's Jutland.

Some of the items stunned even the well-traveled Rufus, such as stone carvings on Irish churches of women with their genitalia exposed ("I said, 'What's with that?'"), or sculpted hermaphrodite cherubs in the Vatican that sport "the whole package."

Rufus and her husband have penned several European travel books in their two decades together.

"It helps that he's calm, he's very organized and he's very good at working out bus schedules," she said. The couple is now researching a book on California, although the theme is still a secret.

"Weird Europe" debunks the common but erroneous American belief that they've been there, done Europe and "now must go somewhere else entirely, like Nepal."

In Europe, "there's toilets, there's toilet paper and there's all this, too," she said. "It's not the Eiffel Tower. But these are real things, real places, and the feeling you get walking through them is real, too, whether it's the Lawnmower Museum in England or the Purgatory Museum in Rome."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.