The Times West Virginian

December 20, 2012

5 best places to watch the world end

By Frank Jacobs
Foreign Policy

LONDON — In London, the end of the world is only a bus ride away: Just hop on the 328 going south from Golders Green, and take it all the way to World's End. Now a highly desirable district of Chelsea, the area around the western terminus of King's Road once marked the edge of the city — or, as Cockneys of yore cockily maintained, the edge of the known universe. Hence the name of a popular pub formerly on that location, which perpetuated the terminus of civilization, even as London grew exponentially.

Like the edge of the British capital, the real end of the world is a moving target, prophesied countless times, but never actually materializing. Not yet, anyway. There are those who believe this time will be different, that the rapidly approaching end of the 13th and final baktun, or cycle, of the Mayan Long Count calendar on Dec. 21 will really end it all.

We'll have to wait until the 22nd for the next doomsday date to start gathering steam, but meanwhile, an interesting phenomenon has taken shape: The end of the world is intersecting with the map of the world. The impending advent of the Mayan apocalypse has added a few places to the already crowded field of apocalyptic topography.

1. This time around, location scouts for the end of the world have decided to snub Chelsea. Instead, they've scared the bejeezus out of the good citizens of Bugarach. That southern French village counts only 200 permanent residents, but that number may swell to thousands on Dec. 20, the presumptive eve of destruction.

The town, on a hillside 50 miles north of the France-Spain border, is dominated by the eponymous Pic de Bugarach, a solitary peak known as the "upside-down mountain," as its top layer is older than the lower ones. That freak of geology has piqued the interest of hippies ever since the 1960s, recently crystallizing in the belief, held by several, if not dozens of, people, that the mountain houses an alien spaceship that will save them when the end comes. It must be said: The Pic does sort of resemble Devils Tower in Wyoming, the central location in 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" — the daddy of all friendly alien abduction movies.

Whether the 4,000-foot mountain projects "energy," as certain New Age adherents claim, is less measurable than the recent rise in local property prices, the increase in visitor numbers, and the flood of reports of strange goings-on in the woods surrounding the village, including processions of half-naked ramblers climbing up the mountain ringing bells. In fact, the French authorities are so spooked by the occult attraction exerted by the lonely mountain that it has decided to cordon it off in the days surrounding Dec. 21.

Perhaps they're right to be spooked. The upside-down mountain has attracted religious dissenters since, well, heretical Cathars founded Bugarach in the 13th century. Less than 10 miles to the northwest lies Rennes-le-Château, another focal point of esotericism. Perhaps best known as a central location in the novel "The Da Vinci Code," treasure supposedly found in Rennes provides clues to the real nature of the Holy Grail — the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, intertwining with that of early France's Merovingian kings.

The French government agency monitoring religious cults, Miviludes, is keeping a close eye on events in and around Bugarach, anxious to prevent mass suicides à la Heaven's Gate, the sect that chose death in order to migrate to the spaceship hidden behind the 1997 Hale-Bopp comet. Prevention may be the best cure, but it's unclear why a cult would go through all the trouble to try to save itself from the end of the world only to then commit suicide. Unless, of course, the world's stubborn refusal to end proves too much of a disappointment.

2. Bugarach is but one of several options for those looking for an exit on Dec. 21. You could still make your way to Sirince, a small Turkish village not far from the Ionian coast. Its 600 souls live near the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus. Sirince also reputedly emanates "positive energy," which some link to a nearby site associated with that other Mary in Jesus's life.

The visions of a 19th-century German nun provided the road map for the discovery, on the summit of a local mountain called the Bulbul Dagi (Mount Nightingale), of the House of the Virgin Mary. This, the supposed site of Mary's Assumption into heaven, has become a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims alike. Although it never received the Vatican's official stamp of approval, three popes have been to the House of the Virgin: Current Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2006, and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, also visited the nearby Panaya Kapulu (Doorway to the Virgin) and beatified the nun who "found" the house in the early 19th century. Her name, Anne Catherine Emmerich, will sound familiar to fans of the apocalypse: Her namesake, the director Roland Emmerich, is best known for disaster movies such as "Independence Day," "Godzilla," "The Day After Tomorrow" — and "2012."

Hotel bookings in Sirince are up, as some speculate that proximity to the location of Mary's assumption will protect them from destruction, or at least enable them to follow her path all the way up to capital-H Heaven. With the business flair typical of Turkish entrepreneurs, local wine producers have produced a special "vintage of the Apocalypse." (Take a few bottles as you descend into your bomb/wine cellar.)

3. Another mountain drawing in survivalists with its alleged magic is Mount Rtanj, about 130 miles southwest of Belgrade, in the Serbian part of the Carpathians. The Serbian peak is curiously pyramid-shaped, which — inevitably — has invited claims of alien involvement, not least by science-fiction guru Arthur C. Clarke, who once claimed the mountain's powerful energy field made it the "navel of the world."

Should the world not have ended on Dec. 22 and you're stranded on the flanks of Mount Rtanj with lots of unexpected time on your hands, you're in luck: Two local traditions might help you wile the days away. Legend has it that Rtanj once housed a castle that contained a golden treasure. A St. George's Chapel on the mountain was blown up a few decades ago by treasure hunters, but no gold has yet been found. Another legend tells of the aphrodisiacal qualities of a local herb, used to brew "invigorating" tea.

4. Yet another sanctuary from the end of the world feels like it's there already. The hotels in the northern Chilean oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, on the edge of one of the world's largest salt deposits, have been reporting full bookings for the 21st. This town will be the last, safest place on Earth — rumors substantiated only, it seems, by the place's otherworldly beauty, near the so-called Valley of the Moon. Other factors include its air purity, which favors astronomical observation, and the presence of the lophophora, a cactus with hallucinogenic qualities, which favors observation of a less scientific kind. The local police are on high alert, and the town's mayor has ordered tents to be at the ready to deal with the influx of apocalypse-spotters.

5. End-of-day-watching on a budget can be done near Megiddo, a town in northern Israel where hotel rooms are still cheap and plenty. Like Chelsea, it is grossly overlooked by the present batch of doomsday-trippers. Yet the town, founded in 1949 by Holocaust survivors and currently on the edge of the West Bank, is located near the biblical site known as Armageddon (which may derive from Har, or Mount, Megiddo). Not only was this valley the site of several biblical battles and one British-Ottoman engagement at the end of World War I, but it will also be, according to certain end-times prophecies, the location of the final battle between Good and Evil at the end of the world. There's lots of disagreement on the nature of this battle, but it almost never involves aliens — or Mayans.

When the time will come, nobody knows. But when it does, you can reach Megiddo from Tel Aviv on the 823 bus. As you no doubt have noticed, 823 is the reverse of 328 — the number of the London bus to the World's End. Coincidence? We think not! Do bring your own refreshments, though; there's no pub at the end of this ride.

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Jacobs is a London-based author, journalist, and blogger. He writes about strange maps, intriguing borders, and other cartographic curiosities.