Travel

The island where 81 is considered young

E4y.net

With thin, white hair pinned to the side and thick glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, Ioanna Proiou slid her wrinkled, sun-spotted fingers over the strands of baby-blue wool stretched across her heavy wooden loom. She clanked a lever forward on the handmade machine again and again, a technique she has perfected over 90 years.

Do something in your life that stirs your passion

With that loom, Proiou creates the woven bags and clothing she sells from her little shop in Christos Raches, a village of 300 residents on the Greek island of Ikaria, a nine-hour ferry ride across the Aegean Sea from Athens. As her arms moved in rhythmic fashion, the loom shaking slightly, the 105-year-old told me how much she still loves her job.

“Do something in your life that stirs your passion,” she advised me. “When my husband died decades ago, I continued doing what I love. Later, someone else proposed to me, but I said ‘no’. I am married to my loom.”

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Not far from where Proiou sells her wares, Christos Raches’ main square is quiet and calm. Locals sip coffee in the shade of leafy plane trees and exchange pleasantries outside their terracotta roofed homes. Business owners open and close their doors on no set schedule. Many of the shops operate on an honour system: customers take what they please and leave money on the counter in return.

It’s a fairly common scene on the Greek islands, but Ikaria is different: here, one third of the island’s population lives to be more than 90 years old. Along with Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Okinawa in Japan and Loma Linda in California, Ikaria is a Blue Zone, one of five designated places where people live the longest.

Experts often cite a healthy diet and an active lifestyle as key to a longer life. The medical professionals and anthropologists associated with the Blue Zone project also note the importance of close family ties and involvement in faith-based communities. Ikarians make an effort to stay closely connected to their families and neighbours, and the elderly play significant roles in the community. Grandparents often help raise grandchildren or run businesses. But Proiou credits her longevity to her passion for weaving and her outlook on life. “Do not want more than what you really need. If you envy others, that can only give you stress,” she told me.

Retired doctor Christodoulos Xenakis has another theory about how Ikarians avoid unnecessary anxiety. We met briefly during my first hour on the island and we had agreed to meet again, though tracking him down wasn’t easy.

“No-one really sets appointments here,” he shrugged when I greeted the 81 year old – who is considered a young man by Ikaria standards – a few days later in the village. Time is an important part of life on Ikaria, Xenakis explained, but not the way most people think. “It’s more like ‘see you in the morning, afternoon or evening’. We don’t stress.”

Ikarians spend their days with purpose

That’s because, Xenakis said, Ikarians spend their days with purpose. He excitedly told me about his latest project organising the Ikaria Senior Regatta, a boat race for which the minimum qualifying age for captains is 70. Twenty participating crews sail a 14-nautical-mile route from neighbouring Samos island to Ikaria and back.

“It’s not really a race,” Xenakis said. “The regatta shows we can still do it and we are capable.”

“There’s always something to do with your time,” he added. “But when you do things that make you happy or others happy, how can you not feel healthy, feel better or feel good?”

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The volcano-watcher of Ecuador

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Every morning before the sun rises, 75-year-old Carlos Sánchez says a prayer in his one-room hut, grabs a pair of binoculars and slowly climbs up into a lonely treehouse that leans precariously over the edge of a mountain.

From his perch high above the misty folds of the Ecuadorian Andes, Sánchez peers across the emerald valley’s patchwork fields towards the towering 5,023m-tall crater of Tungurahua, a wildly active stratovolcano whose name means ‘throat of fire’ in the local Quechua language. He then scans the deep ravines and twisting chasms that shoot dangerously down Tungurahua’s slopes towards his family’s hometown of Baños, until they disappear into the clouds below.

“Right now she’s taking a rest,” Sánchez said, turning away from the crag and carefully bending his bad knee down the steps. “Better feed the chickens before the whole world arrives.”

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Known in Baños as ‘the volcano-watcher’, Sánchez is the oldest member of Ecuador’s national Geophysical Institute and the only person in the world who operates a seismic monitoring station from the branches of a tree. For the past 18 years he has lived all alone on this remote bluff, bound by a promise that he made long ago to serve as an unpaid volunteer just 2.5km from a crater that has been periodically spewing fire, smoke and molten lava since 1999.

But in the last few years, something strange has started happening: people from all over the planet are coming to what was once a quiet cow pasture to find Sánchez’s monitoring station – all because he decided to dangle a wooden swing from his treehouse in hopes that his grandchildren would come visit.

This media cannot be played on your device.

They did. Soon, a few strangers began showing up to ask if they could go for a ride, too. Then in 2014, two members of a visiting group of tourists were taking turns on Sánchez’s swing when Tungurahua suddenly erupted. The pair bolted down the mountain, but not before one snapped a photo of the other gazing up at a surging 8,000m-tall ash plume while appearing to swing over an abyss at the edge of the Earth.

Sometimes things explode unexpectedly

The image received international recognition in a National Geographic photo competition and quickly spread around the world. Now, hundreds of people every day are following the trail at the edge of Baños, hiking 2.5 hours up the sharp side of a mountain and pushing each other off a 30m ledge at what has become known as La Casa del Arbol (The Treehouse).

“The swing just started as a simple idea to help bring my family together on the weekends,” Sánchez said, looking out from his chicken coop as the day’s first throng of tourists arrived. “But sometimes things explode unexpectedly.”

That’s what happened in October 1999. After an 81-year nap, Tungurahua roared to life with a series of violent eruptions. As hot gas, ash and rocks rained down on nearby villages, the president of Ecuador ordered Sánchez’s family and the 16,000 other residents of Baños to evacuate, giving them just four hours to collect what they could and not telling them when or if they could return to their homes.

Against the government’s mandate, Sánchez drove back to Baños on 20 December to discover a ghost town. The buildings were abandoned, the streets were coated with ash, but his home and town were miraculously spared from any damage. Unsure if his animals had survived in the mountains, Sánchez slowly drove up the dizzying road towards his pasture.

When he arrived, he saw that his cows were grazing peacefully and his neighbours’ farms were unharmed. He knelt down, crossed himself and promised the Virgin Mary (the patron saint of Baños) that he would remain there to watch the volcano and help protect the people living in the valley until the eruptions ended.

“Eighteen years later, she’s still active,” Sánchez said. “So I’m still here.”

Sánchez’s humble hilltop monitoring station began with just a pair of binoculars and a two-way radio. Before constructing his hut, he often slept in a tent, shaking ash from his makeshift rooftop in the mornings and carefully monitoring Tungurahua’s north-east flank throughout the day.

A team of professional volcanologists at Tungurahua’s base trained Sánchez to radio in as soon as he heard rumblings, smelled sulphur or spotted pyroclastic flows that could rapidly plunge toward Baños. Soon, the retired electrician and former firefighter helped the volcanologists install seismic metres, tilt metres and a sulphur dioxide monitor on his land.

The only woman he was waiting on was Mama Tungurahua

It was at about this time that Sánchez’s wife, Lidia, started growing suspicious of what her husband was doing up in the cow pasture. During bouts of intense seismic activity, Sánchez needed to remain on call 24-7 and he sometimes couldn’t come back to Baños to see her for several weeks at a time. Convinced that he was living with someone else, Lidia packed up his clothing from their home, stuffed it in a bag and marched up the side of the mountain to meet this mysterious other woman.

“When I arrived, I saw that he was all alone, living just on bread and water but fulfilling the promise that he made to protect others,” Lidia said. “The only woman he was waiting on was Mama Tungurahua.”

Over the years, he hasn’t had to wait on her very long.

“Of the 1,500 volcanoes in the world that we monitor, Tungurahua is one of the 10 most active,” said Ben Andrews, director of the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program. “Since 1999, we’ve had more than 100 weekly reports of eruptions, explosions, ash columns and lava flows. It’s certainly a cause for concern.”

In fact, in 2006 Tungurahua sent a molten river down its flanks that buried three neighbouring villages and killed six people. Yet, even as the scorching torrent rolled down the slopes, Sánchez refused to leave. Choking on fumes, he hid inside a small slit in the trunk of a motilón tree while rocks pelted the other side. For two hours, Sánchez poked his head out from the tree’s base to provide live updates on his radio to the mayor of Baños that helped evacuate hundreds of families.

The motilón tree protected Sánchez and the town, and Sánchez decided that it would be sturdy enough to build an 8m-tall lookout post up in its branches.

The swing followed two years later in 2008, and pretty soon Sánchez’s wife, five children and 11 grandchildren were coming to have picnics, celebrate family birthdays and keep him company whenever the volcano was quiet. When Tungurahua rumbled at night, Sánchez would sit alone in the treehouse, softly playing his harmonica under the stars to try and lull it to sleep.

“We have a complicated relationship,” Sánchez said. “Sometimes she’s my friend, sometimes she’s my enemy.”

Today, Sánchez keeps the volcanic rocks that nearly killed him in the 2006 eruption in a small office below his hut, along with detailed maps, ash samples and a certificate from the president of Ecuador citing Sánchez’s ‘indescribable commitment and service to the country’. There are now 500 volcano monitoring stations in Ecuador, but Sánchez is still the only person who watches over Baños from Tungurahua’s north-east slope.

“Carlos can see things from up in his treehouse that no-one else can,” said Patricia Mothes, former head of Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute. “His early warnings have helped us save lives. He’s fundamental.”

Sometimes she’s my friend, sometimes she’s my enemy

Since March 2016, when Tungurahua thundered with more than 70 explosions and shot lava bombs down its western slope, the ‘throat of fire’ has quietened to a whisper. Yet, both Mothes and Sánchez maintain that it’s only a matter of time before she roars again. Whenever Sánchez observes any potential danger or receives a warning from the volcanologists, he urges visitors to flee down the mountain to safety.

“I don’t have enough hard hats for everyone,” Sánchez said, gazing down from the leaf tops on the line of thrill-seekers now snaking around his property.

In a way, La Casa del Arbol feels like two parallel universes. On any given day, throngs of camera-toting tourists wait up to 30 minutes in line to soar over a deep ravine, shrieking with a mixture of wide-eyed wonder and white-knuckled terror. Afterwards, they all take the same Instagram shot, clambering up the treehouse’s two flights of steps, completely oblivious to the man in the orange hard hat poking around with binoculars.

When the screeches and screams from the swing get too loud, Sánchez descends from the canopy to wipe off his seismic equipment, feed his rabbits or clear the trail leading up the mountain with a machete – usually with his loyal cat Negrito following a few steps behind.

For nine years, Sánchez happily let anyone who wandered onto his property climb up into his treehouse and swoop from his grandchildren’s swing free of charge. He only asked that people sign his guestbook. But after the National Geographic photo of his swing went viral two years ago, Baños’ ministry of tourism demanded that the volcano-watcher also start monitoring the growing number of visitors to his pasture – and charging them admission.

“I wanted all the families in Baños to still be able to enjoy this place as much as my family had,” Sánchez said. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll start charging an entrance, but it’s only $1, and kids are half-price’.”

Sánchez now has a stack of 14 200-page guestbooks filled with messages in languages he never knew existed. In the past two years, he’s used the modest entrance fees to send several of his grandchildren to college and hire a team of ‘business associates’: his family.

Now, Sánchez’s son Gabriel maintains a small zip line on the property and a newly added second swing that dangles from the other end of the treehouse. Sánchez’s granddaughters, Mayte and Mariza, take turns running a small ticket booth at the edge of the pasture. Another granddaughter, Julie, sells chicken soup and Ecuadorian fritada (fried pork) by the treehouse, and just wrote her college thesis on Tungurahua – with a little help from her grandfather, of course. And Lidia takes a bus each morning from Baños toward the crater of the volcano to spend time with the man she married 50 years ago at its base.

“At night when everyone leaves, and it’s just our family, I sometimes sneak back on to the swing and close my eyes,” said Mayte, now 17. “It reminds me of being a little girl.”

As another swarm of strangers descended on his property, Sánchez walked away from the crowds to the edge of the mountain, looked down over the valley and removed his hard hat.

“This is the spot where I knelt, swearing to help others leave in time even if it meant that there was no time for me,” Sánchez said, struggling to lower his knee 18 years later. “A promise between people is serious, but an oath with God is sacred.”

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If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

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The swing people trek hours to find

E4y.net

Every morning before the sun rises, 75-year-old Carlos Sánchez says a prayer in his one-room hut, grabs a pair of binoculars and slowly climbs up into a lonely treehouse that leans precariously over the edge of a mountain.

From his perch high above the misty folds of the Ecuadorian Andes, Sánchez peers across the emerald valley’s patchwork fields towards the towering 5,023m-tall crater of Tungurahua, a wildly active stratovolcano whose name means ‘throat of fire’ in the local Quechua language. He then scans the deep ravines and twisting chasms that shoot dangerously down Tungurahua’s slopes towards his family’s hometown of Baños, until they disappear into the clouds below.

“Right now she’s taking a rest,” Sánchez said, turning away from the crag and carefully bending his bad knee down the steps. “Better feed the chickens before the whole world arrives.”

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Known in Baños as ‘the volcano-watcher’, Sánchez is the oldest member of Ecuador’s national Geophysical Institute and the only person in the world who operates a seismic monitoring station from the branches of a tree. For the past 18 years he has lived all alone on this remote bluff, bound by a promise that he made long ago to serve as an unpaid volunteer just 2.5km from a crater that has been periodically spewing fire, smoke and molten lava since 1999.

But in the last few years, something strange has started happening: people from all over the planet are coming to what was once a quiet cow pasture to find Sánchez’s monitoring station – all because he decided to dangle a wooden swing from his treehouse in hopes that his grandchildren would come visit.

This media cannot be played on your device.

They did. Soon, a few strangers began showing up to ask if they could go for a ride, too. Then in 2014, two members of a visiting group of tourists were taking turns on Sánchez’s swing when Tungurahua suddenly erupted. The pair bolted down the mountain, but not before one snapped a photo of the other gazing up at a surging 8,000m-tall ash plume while appearing to swing over an abyss at the edge of the Earth.

Sometimes things explode unexpectedly

The image received international recognition in a National Geographic photo competition and quickly spread around the world. Now, hundreds of people every day are following the trail at the edge of Baños, hiking 2.5 hours up the sharp side of a mountain and pushing each other off a 30m ledge at what has become known as La Casa del Arbol (The Treehouse).

“The swing just started as a simple idea to help bring my family together on the weekends,” Sánchez said, looking out from his chicken coop as the day’s first throng of tourists arrived. “But sometimes things explode unexpectedly.”

That’s what happened in October 1999. After an 81-year nap, Tungurahua roared to life with a series of violent eruptions. As hot gas, ash and rocks rained down on nearby villages, the president of Ecuador ordered Sánchez’s family and the 16,000 other residents of Baños to evacuate, giving them just four hours to collect what they could and not telling them when or if they could return to their homes.

Against the government’s mandate, Sánchez drove back to Baños on 20 December to discover a ghost town. The buildings were abandoned, the streets were coated with ash, but his home and town were miraculously spared from any damage. Unsure if his animals had survived in the mountains, Sánchez slowly drove up the dizzying road towards his pasture.

When he arrived, he saw that his cows were grazing peacefully and his neighbours’ farms were unharmed. He knelt down, crossed himself and promised the Virgin Mary (the patron saint of Baños) that he would remain there to watch the volcano and help protect the people living in the valley until the eruptions ended.

“Eighteen years later, she’s still active,” Sánchez said. “So I’m still here.”

Sánchez’s humble hilltop monitoring station began with just a pair of binoculars and a two-way radio. Before constructing his hut, he often slept in a tent, shaking ash from his makeshift rooftop in the mornings and carefully monitoring Tungurahua’s north-east flank throughout the day.

A team of professional volcanologists at Tungurahua’s base trained Sánchez to radio in as soon as he heard rumblings, smelled sulphur or spotted pyroclastic flows that could rapidly plunge toward Baños. Soon, the retired electrician and former firefighter helped the volcanologists install seismic metres, tilt metres and a sulphur dioxide monitor on his land.

The only woman he was waiting on was Mama Tungurahua

It was at about this time that Sánchez’s wife, Lidia, started growing suspicious of what her husband was doing up in the cow pasture. During bouts of intense seismic activity, Sánchez needed to remain on call 24-7 and he sometimes couldn’t come back to Baños to see her for several weeks at a time. Convinced that he was living with someone else, Lidia packed up his clothing from their home, stuffed it in a bag and marched up the side of the mountain to meet this mysterious other woman.

“When I arrived, I saw that he was all alone, living just on bread and water but fulfilling the promise that he made to protect others,” Lidia said. “The only woman he was waiting on was Mama Tungurahua.”

Over the years, he hasn’t had to wait on her very long.

“Of the 1,500 volcanoes in the world that we monitor, Tungurahua is one of the 10 most active,” said Ben Andrews, director of the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program. “Since 1999, we’ve had more than 100 weekly reports of eruptions, explosions, ash columns and lava flows. It’s certainly a cause for concern.”

In fact, in 2006 Tungurahua sent a molten river down its flanks that buried three neighbouring villages and killed six people. Yet, even as the scorching torrent rolled down the slopes, Sánchez refused to leave. Choking on fumes, he hid inside a small slit in the trunk of a motilón tree while rocks pelted the other side. For two hours, Sánchez poked his head out from the tree’s base to provide live updates on his radio to the mayor of Baños that helped evacuate hundreds of families.

The motilón tree protected Sánchez and the town, and Sánchez decided that it would be sturdy enough to build an 8m-tall lookout post up in its branches.

The swing followed two years later in 2008, and pretty soon Sánchez’s wife, five children and 11 grandchildren were coming to have picnics, celebrate family birthdays and keep him company whenever the volcano was quiet. When Tungurahua rumbled at night, Sánchez would sit alone in the treehouse, softly playing his harmonica under the stars to try and lull it to sleep.

“We have a complicated relationship,” Sánchez said. “Sometimes she’s my friend, sometimes she’s my enemy.”

Today, Sánchez keeps the volcanic rocks that nearly killed him in the 2006 eruption in a small office below his hut, along with detailed maps, ash samples and a certificate from the president of Ecuador citing Sánchez’s ‘indescribable commitment and service to the country’. There are now 500 volcano monitoring stations in Ecuador, but Sánchez is still the only person who watches over Baños from Tungurahua’s north-east slope.

“Carlos can see things from up in his treehouse that no-one else can,” said Patricia Mothes, former head of Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute. “His early warnings have helped us save lives. He’s fundamental.”

Sometimes she’s my friend, sometimes she’s my enemy

Since March 2016, when Tungurahua thundered with more than 70 explosions and shot lava bombs down its western slope, the ‘throat of fire’ has quietened to a whisper. Yet, both Mothes and Sánchez maintain that it’s only a matter of time before she roars again. Whenever Sánchez observes any potential danger or receives a warning from the volcanologists, he urges visitors to flee down the mountain to safety.

“I don’t have enough hard hats for everyone,” Sánchez said, gazing down from the leaf tops on the line of thrill-seekers now snaking around his property.

In a way, La Casa del Arbol feels like two parallel universes. On any given day, throngs of camera-toting tourists wait up to 30 minutes in line to soar over a deep ravine, shrieking with a mixture of wide-eyed wonder and white-knuckled terror. Afterwards, they all take the same Instagram shot, clambering up the treehouse’s two flights of steps, completely oblivious to the man in the orange hard hat poking around with binoculars.

When the screeches and screams from the swing get too loud, Sánchez descends from the canopy to wipe off his seismic equipment, feed his rabbits or clear the trail leading up the mountain with a machete – usually with his loyal cat Negrito following a few steps behind.

For nine years, Sánchez happily let anyone who wandered onto his property climb up into his treehouse and swoop from his grandchildren’s swing free of charge. He only asked that people sign his guestbook. But after the National Geographic photo of his swing went viral two years ago, Baños’ ministry of tourism demanded that the volcano-watcher also start monitoring the growing number of visitors to his pasture – and charging them admission.

“I wanted all the families in Baños to still be able to enjoy this place as much as my family had,” Sánchez said. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll start charging an entrance, but it’s only $1, and kids are half-price’.”

Sánchez now has a stack of 14 200-page guestbooks filled with messages in languages he never knew existed. In the past two years, he’s used the modest entrance fees to send several of his grandchildren to college and hire a team of ‘business associates’: his family.

Now, Sánchez’s son Gabriel maintains a small zip line on the property and a newly added second swing that dangles from the other end of the treehouse. Sánchez’s granddaughters, Mayte and Mariza, take turns running a small ticket booth at the edge of the pasture. Another granddaughter, Julie, sells chicken soup and Ecuadorian fritada (fried pork) by the treehouse, and just wrote her college thesis on Tungurahua – with a little help from her grandfather, of course. And Lidia takes a bus each morning from Baños toward the crater of the volcano to spend time with the man she married 50 years ago at its base.

“At night when everyone leaves, and it’s just our family, I sometimes sneak back on to the swing and close my eyes,” said Mayte, now 17. “It reminds me of being a little girl.”

As another swarm of strangers descended on his property, Sánchez walked away from the crowds to the edge of the mountain, looked down over the valley and removed his hard hat.

“This is the spot where I knelt, swearing to help others leave in time even if it meant that there was no time for me,” Sánchez said, struggling to lower his knee 18 years later. “A promise between people is serious, but an oath with God is sacred.”

Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

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How Hiroshima rose from the ashes

E4y.net

On a torrid August day in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, lotus flowers were blooming in the pond surrounding the Peace Bell. A party of elementary school children in their bright yellow hats lined up to toll the bell; all visitors are welcome to do so, and its hopeful sound regularly booms out across the park. While they waited their turn, the children pointed excitedly at the powder-blue dragonflies darting among the blooms.

These flowers have great symbolic importance in Japan. At temples throughout the country you’ll see statues of Buddha seated in a lotus blossom. The way the exquisite flower grows out of the mud at the bottom of a pond symbolises how Buddha rose above suffering to find enlightenment.

The city rose from the ashes to forge its own renaissance

But the lotus flowers in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park have added significance, reflecting how the city rose from the ashes to forge its own renaissance. In August 1945, at the end of World War II, US forces dropped an atomic bomb over the city, killing tens of thousands of people. Hiroshima was a charred wasteland, and people widely believed, based on the words of Dr Harold Jacobsen, a scientist from the Manhattan Project, that nothing would grow, or live, in the city for 70 years.

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But then a remarkable series of events ensured that Hiroshima would also go down in history for far more inspirational reasons.

First, by autumn 1945, weeds began to sprout from the scorched earth, confounding the expert’s predictions. The following summer, oleanders bloomed. Camphor trees – many of them hundreds of years old – sprouted new branches. Their recovery touched the hearts of local people. The oleander and the camphor were later proclaimed Hiroshima’s official flower and tree, cherished symbols of the city’s resilience.

Meanwhile, help poured in from all over Japan and abroad, from street cars to get the town up and running to trees to replace the vanished greenery. A temple in Wakayama Prefecture even donated a complete 16th-Century pagoda, a gesture of spiritual solidarity. You can see the orange pagoda today, rising above the maple trees at Mitaki Temple, one of Hiroshima’s most serene spots.

But the key step in the city’s regeneration happened on 6 August 1949, with the enactment of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction Law. This law was the fruit of persistent efforts by local residents, particularly mayor Shinzo Hamai. At Hiroshima’s first Peace Festival in 1947, Hamai set the example for all future Hiroshima mayors when he proclaimed: “Let us join together to sweep from this Earth the horror of war, and to build a true peace.”

Accordingly, the 1949 Construction Law didn’t envisage simply rebuilding the city. It completely reimagined Hiroshima as a Peace Memorial City “to symbolize the … sincere pursuit of genuine and lasting peace”. For the first time in world history, an entire city underwent efforts to devote itself to the promotion of peace. It’s an ideal that Hiroshima’s residents still strive for.

As a symbol of this wish, Peace Memorial Park was created in downtown Hiroshima on the banks of the Motoyasu River. This area of more than 120,000 sq m, previously the city’s commercial and residential centre, is home to more than 60 peace-related monuments and facilities, most notably the Peace Memorial Museum.

On the opposite bank, the skeletal form of the Industrial Promotion Hall was preserved as an expression of hope for the eradication of nuclear weapons. Today, this building – the untouched ruins still as they were after the explosion – is the city’s spiritual heart. Officially named Hiroshima Peace Memorial, most locals simply call it genbaku domu, or A-bomb Dome.

“It’s a symbol of the importance of everlasting peace,” said student Ayaka Ogami. “There is nothing else like it in the world.”

It’s also a Unesco World Heritage Site, visited by more than 1 million tourists a year.

The word ‘peace’ is everywhere in Hiroshima. There’s Peace Boulevard, a 4km-long avenue lined with trees and stone lanterns. On this same street, opposite Peace Memorial Park, stand the Gates of Peace, a series of 9m-high glass arches with the word ‘peace’ inscribed in 49 languages. The motorised rental bicycles are called ‘peacecles’. Elsewhere, from many points in the city, you’ll see the Peace Pagoda glinting atop Mt Futaba, the silver stupa containing ashes of the Buddha, donated by Mongolian Buddhists.

“Out of respect for the people who worked so hard on Hiroshima’s reconstruction, we ought to make this city a beautiful and great place to live,” said Maiko Awane of Hiroshima Prefectural Government’s Tourism Promotion Office. That’s why, apart from the many monuments to peace, you’ll also find Hiroshima to be far greener than the average metropolis, with abundant parks, gardens and riverside walks.

But Hiroshima hasn’t just created a peaceful environment in its own city. It also promotes peace worldwide via countless initiatives, from travelling exhibitions about Hiroshima’s past to Kids’ Peace Camps where elementary and junior high school children can learn about peace. Hiroshima’s Museum of Contemporary Art awards an annual prize to works that help spread the message of harmony. Peace Arch Hiroshima, a collaboration between Hiroshima Prefectural Government and other local entities, stages “Message of Peace” concerts in the city that aim to connect people around the world.

“We are striving to send a message of peace from Hiroshima to the world and create a system that continuously supports peace-promotion activities,” said Hidehiko Yuzaki, Hiroshima Prefecture governor and Peace Arch chairman.

At the heart of all these efforts is the Mayors for Peace project. Founded in the 1980s, it was the brainchild of then-Hiroshima mayor Takeshi Araki, who dreamed of transcending national borders and encouraging cities to work together for peace and a nuke-free world. Tackling poverty, hunger and other global issues is also on the mayors’ agenda. So far, 7,469 cities in 162 countries and regions have signed up; 16 new cities joined in October 2017.

It is the duty of all the people in Hiroshima Prefecture to ensure that what happened on that fateful day is not forgotten and never repeated

Peace education starts early in Hiroshima; elementary schools hold an annual Peace Week, where students are educated about Hiroshima’s past and the importance of peace. During their summer vacation, many students volunteer to guide foreigners around Peace Memorial Park.

“I hope to be able to pass on Hiroshima’s story to many people in the world,” said high school student Saki Nakayama. Moe Kanazawa, a graduate of Hiroshima University’s Peace and Coexistence Course, which studies ways to prevent conflict and find resolution through international and local cooperation, goes further: “I think it is the duty of all the people alive today in Hiroshima Prefecture to ensure that what happened in Hiroshima on that fateful day is not forgotten and never repeated.”

Having lived and worked in Hiroshima for nearly 20 years, I still get asked by folks if it’s a grim place to live. Far from it, I always answer – because, as local yoga instructor Izumi Sato told me: “The image of Hiroshima’s reconstruction is much more powerful than that of its destruction.”

The image of Hiroshima’s reconstruction is much more powerful than that of its destruction

Today’s Hiroshima is a bright, welcoming place, blessed with an enviable location on the shores of the Inland Sea, with its maze of misty islands. On the other three sides are mountains. Six rivers run through it, earning Hiroshima the nickname the ‘City of Water’.

Visitors invariably leave here with an overwhelming feeling of admiration and respect for the tremendous character of Hiroshima’s residents, who resolved to pick themselves up and start all over again, turning their tragic experience into a force for good in the world. Many visitors also say they experience a notable spike in their levels of empathy, compassion and altruism. It’s what you might call ‘the Hiroshima Effect’.

As Awane said, “I hope many people visit Hiroshima… and think about the importance of peace.”

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The world’s most visited city?

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BBC’s Travel Show brings you the latest insider travel news, a wealth of destinations, amazing experiences and features and practical hints, tips and advice for your holidays.

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How Paris is trying to trump London

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The Israeli city with a hoard of gold

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On an overcast morning in February 2015, Zvika Fayer was scuba diving off the ancient Israeli port town of Caesarea when he saw a glimmer on the sand.

He’d gone diving in the area dozens of times before, and loved it for the teeming fish and scattered remains of shipwreck cargo and pottery that he sometimes glimpsed on the ocean floor. Many of Israel’s underwater archaeological zones are open to divers, and Caesarea was one of Fayer’s favourite spots.

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A violent storm the previous night had battered Israel’s west coast, stirring up the ocean floor and changing the underwater topography. As Fayer dove deeper to investigate the shimmering object he’d seen, he was aware of another storm on the way. As an experienced diver, he’d felt confident going out that morning. But now the winter sky was beginning to darken, the breeze changing.

As he got closer, Fayer reasoned that the gleam must have been a discarded sweet wrapper, perhaps the chocolate coins that look like pirate doubloons. But as he swept the sand away and picked the item up, he saw that he was wrong. This wasn’t a piece of foil; it was a real gold coin with Arabic script on both sides.

“I was astonished when I saw that both sides of the metal were gold,” he said.

Fayer swept more sand aside, and saw another coin, and another, and another — the bounty of a shipwreck that had been lost to time.

Less scrupulous explorers might have decided to take the treasure home with them, but Fayer and his diving companions got back in their boat and contacted Caesarea officials, who called Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) and told them to come quickly.

If we didn’t take the coins out of the ocean right then, we might never find them again

When they arrived, the IAA investigators were sceptical. Caesarea is an underwater archaeological site that’s littered with ancient artefacts, and they were concerned about looting.

“We got a bit of a (proverbial) cold shower,” Fayer said. “They were yelling at us, asking why we had taken the coins out of the sea. We explained about the conditions… there was another storm coming, with waves expected to be 10m high. We told them that if we didn’t take the coins out of the ocean right then, we might never find them again.”

Working with the IAA, Fayer and his friends went back underwater and helped recover more coins. Days later, they went back and retrieved hundreds more. As of now, more than 2,000 coins have been found at the site. Because the coins are 24-karat gold with a purity of upwards of 95 percent and were well preserved in the temperate Mediterranean water for about 1,000 years, they’re giving historians exciting information about a forgotten chapter in history.

Today, Caesarea, located between Tel Aviv and Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea, is best known for its towering Roman ruins. The historical centre has been restored and turned into a tourist destination with a modern restaurant and museum. There’s a golf course and residential park nearby. But when you stand in front of the crescent-shaped harbour or near the arches of the remaining aqueduct and look out over the azure water toward Cyprus, Turkey and Greece, it’s easy to imagine this place as it was centuries ago.

The first buildings in Caesarea were erected in the 4th Century BC to establish a Phoenician and Greek trading post. Then, sometime after 96BC, the city came under the rule of Egyptian queen Cleopatra. But the region was conquered by the Romans, and Caesarea – then called Stratonos Pyrgos (Straton’s Tower) – was soon handed over to Herod the Great, a regional king appointed by the Romans. He re-named the town after the infamous Roman emperor.

Under Herod, Caesarea blossomed. The king ordered the construction of break walls to form a massive deep-sea harbour, along with an aqueduct, hippodrome and 20,000-person amphitheatre for watching the rush and carnage of chariot races.

By 6AD, Caesarea was the capital of Roman Palestine. As such, it was also the home of the many Roman governors stationed there, including Pontius Pilate, who ruled during the time of the historical Jesus. And, when the native people revolted against Roman rule between 66 and 70AD and Jerusalem was razed, Caesarea became the political and economic hub of the region. If the town looks like a backwater now, it was anything but that 2,000 years ago.

The city remained important with its history well recorded until 640AD, when it was the last city in the region to fall to Muslim invaders. After that, records are spotty. The consensus is that Caesarea faded from glory and its role on the socio-political scene, its ruins sacked and re-settled by small communities before eventually becoming home to a small fishing village in the late 1800s.

But the discovery of the coins has changed that story, according to Jakob (Koby) Sharvit, director of the IAA’s Marine Archaeology Unit. In fact, it suggests that Caesarea remained a hub of trade and commerce during the time it was under the rule of the Muslim caliphates; that it did not simply revert to a remote, rural backwater.

“Before finding the coins, we had no idea that the community in Caesarea at that time was so large or so rich,” Sharvit said. “So it changed what we believed about that time.”

For items so small, the coins, called dinars, offer many clues about what the world was like at the time they were made. The dates minted on them show that they were manufactured during the reigns of Caliphs al-Hakim (996–1021AD) and his son al-Zahir (1021–1036AD) when Caesarea was part of the Islamic Fatimid Dynasty, which at that time extended around the Eastern Mediterranean.

The coins were minted in the far-flung cities of Cairo, Egypt, and the Sicilian capital of Palermo, showing that currency was circulating through a united empire. Other clues are more personal, like teeth marks that belie how ancient people would test the coins to make sure they were real gold.

And judging by their value, it’s likely that Caesarea was still a prosperous, busy city at the turn of the 2nd Century.

“Those coins were a lot of money for the people who lived there,” Sharvit said.

Each coin would have been about one month’s salary for a military soldier, which means the treasure was enough to hire an army of 2,000 for a month. And, of course, the hoard was probably only lost because of an accident on one ship. There were likely many ships going in and out of the harbour that didn’t drop their money into the sea.

According to Sharvit, archaeologists aren’t sure how the coins got lost in the first place. It’s possible that a case of them slid off the deck of a ship in a storm, or that raiding pirates caused it to tip off and sink.

When you see something that old, you can feel that it’s telling you a story of what used to be there before

It’s also possible that the money was being sent back to Cairo, the Fatimid capital, either as taxes or for safekeeping. The First Crusades were launched in 1095, and people in Caesarea may have been bracing for raids.

Historians will likely never know the whole story, but even a glimpse of what life was like so long ago is exhilarating, Fayer said.

“When you see something that old, you can feel that it’s telling you a story of what used to be there before. That’s especially true when you find it under the sea. Most of the time, no-one had touched those things since they were lost 1,000, 1,500 or 2,000 years ago – from when they were dropped into the sea until you found them… that’s the part that’s exciting to me.”

Since finding the coins, Fayer and his diver friends have been working with the IAA to help recover other treasures both around Caesarea and elsewhere along the Mediterranean coast. They also plan to start exploring new areas, like the waters off the coastal Israeli city of Netanya where Phoenician and Roman ships left a legacy of maritime treasures in the water. He’d like to help uncover more lost pieces of history beneath the sea.

“For me, that discovery was never about the money behind it,” Fayer said. “It was about the history and what the coins said about the area and what it was like so long ago.”

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Why Poland will never have hygge

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Words like ‘hygge‘ (Danish), ‘gezelligheid’ (Dutch) and ‘lagom‘ (Swedish) have become very popular in recent years. But fans of these fuzzy-sounding concepts often miss the point that Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden are well-off, politically stable countries with excellent social support, education and healthcare systems. Their philosophies can be difficult to apply to other, less-fortunate nations. Learning about happiness from the Scandinavians can feel a little like learning about money from a millionaire when you struggle financially.

Instead, why not learn from a country that has been through hell and back – multiple times – and is still standing?

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Located between Germany and Russia, Poland has always been a focal point of conflict. In 1772, 1793 and 1795, as Poland went through what is known as the three partitions, its size progressively reduced. With the last partition, the country all but disappeared from the map for 123 years and only gained back independence in 1918. World War II left Poland destroyed and its population decimated. As if that wasn’t enough, the country then came under Soviet control. In 1981, in response to the rising Solidarity movement, the government introduced martial law, severely restricting normal life and freedom of the Polish population. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Poland joined the ranks of other Western democratic countries, but not without a long and difficult period of transformation. And yet, despite the traumatic history, Polish people remain optimistic.

It’s reaching for the impossible – it’s taking risks, and not being afraid

Growing up in Poland, I often heard people say ‘Jakoś to będzie’ (pronounced ‘Ya-kosh toe ben-jay’). My parents said it to me whenever I was worried about something, and I always thought it was very encouraging. Literally, the phrase means ‘things will work out in the end’ – but it’s so much more than that. Rather than sitting around and hoping things will work out by themselves, ‘Jakoś to będzie’ is acting without worrying about the consequences. It’s reaching for the impossible. It’s taking risks, and not being afraid.

“It’s the unwavering certainty that we can do anything, no matter what obstacles we face along the way,” said Beata Chomątowska, co-author of Jakoś to będzie. Szczęście po polsku (Jakoś to będzie, the Polish way of life).

And that makes it the perfect philosophy for tough times.

In fact, Chomątowska and co-author Daniel Lis see the Jakoś to będzie philosophy as the antithesis to hygge.

“For us, [hygge] seems to include isolating yourself from the outside world and its problems; it’s staying home with your loved ones and enjoying time with them. But happiness Polish-style is getting out of that comfort zone. It’s doing something that doesn’t seem to make sense simply for the sake of going against the tide. It’s striving for change,” Lis said.

Grit, inventiveness and creativity are all part of the Polish mentality

Grit, inventiveness and creativity are all part of the Polish mentality, which can mean moving abroad in search of a better life. Polonia (the Polish diaspora) counts around 20 million people – which amounts to half of the country’s population. Poles make the largest foreign group in the UK, and are a noticeable presence in US cities such as New York and Chicago. As Polish singer Wojciech Młynarski said, “Everywhere is wonderful when we’re not there. But we’re everywhere.” While he meant it sarcastically, there is some truth to the ability of Polish people to start over and make a new life.

My personal favourite example of the Jakoś to będzie philosophy is the artificial palm tree that stands in the centre of Warsaw. Called ‘Pozdrowienia z Alej Jerozolimskich’ (Greetings from Jeruzalem Avenue), it’s a surprising sight in the often cold and grey city. When visual artist Joanna Rajkowska first had the idea in 2002, it caused a massive stir. The citizens of Warsaw complained the palm was a foreign element that didn’t fit into the city, and the authorities were worried about its maintenance. But following the Jakoś to będzie philosophy, the artist went through with her plan, and, over time, the palm tree has become a symbol of the city as memorable as the Palace of Culture and Science.

“It’s either euphoria or despair. We are not a balanced nation and I think it has to do with our geographical location.” Lis said.

Wally Olins, an expert on country brands, agrees, writing in a 2006 article for Oxford’s Said Business School that Poland draws its personality, power and perpetual motion from a wealth of apparently opposing characteristics. “Poland is part of the West and also understands the East; Polish people are passionate and idealistic and also practical and resourceful; the Polish character is ambitious and also down-to-Earth.”

These opposing characteristics produce something Olins calls ‘creative tension’ – a restlessness that’s unsatisfied with the status quo and a boisterousness that is always stimulating and often astonishing. “It’s why Poland is constantly changing and evolving, sometimes tumultuously,” he writes.

This is highly visible in the capital city. “Warsaw is a city that’s abuzz with something. It is constantly changing. It’s made from different parts, and that is not always pretty but it’s always interesting,” Chomątowska said.

These contrasts were obvious to me when I was living there. The city looks as if it’s sewn together from pieces that don’t really fit together. In the centre, pre-war houses stand next to modern skyscrapers, and the beautiful buildings in Warsaw’s Old Town appear in stark contrast to the apartment blocks. Tourists might describe the city as grey and ugly, but it’s always pulsing with energy.

This energy plays out in the highly passionate discussions that Poles are known for, especially about difficult topics such as politics. While arguing isn’t socially accepted in some cultures, in Poland, it is encouraged. It often even translates into concrete, political action, such as the July demonstrations against the government’s plan to impose tighter control over the judicial system. Protests, including the one that started the Solidarność movement in August 1980, are a crucial part of the Polish mentality – and the Jakoś to będzie philosophy – because they require passion, the ability to take action in crisis situations, and a conviction that things will work out, no matter what.

“It’s very important to know that people, not the government but the people, can take matters into their hands and get organised. We are resourceful in situations where systems fail. We can make something out of a piece of string,” Chomątowska said.

It’s always a bit of adventure

‘Jakoś to będzie’ doesn’t require traumatic experiences, though. In our daily lives, it can simply mean doing something out of the ordinary. Taking the unusual route. Going to another city without knowing where to spend the night.

“It’s always a bit of adventure,” Lis said.

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‘The world’s most beautiful road’

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“How are you getting back to the city?” asked Cole, our local connection in Cape Town, as we were finishing lunch at The Red Herring in the city’s southern outpost of Noordhoek. My fiancé and I shared a blank look.

“Google Maps…?” I offered.

We were about to embark on the most scenic drive of our lives

As the conversation turned to traffic and the best route back to our hotel, I zoned out, rescuing the last slice of pizza and watching the afternoon sun turn everything silvery. A cold gust blew off the South Atlantic and I shivered. Winter afternoons in the Western Cape had a metallic quality: cold but bright, like polished steel.

“Chapman’s Peak Drive is a nice way back into Cape Town,” I heard Cole say in passing.

That sounded fine, so we paid up, said our goodbyes and told Google to take us that way – unaware that we were about to embark on the most scenic drive of our lives.

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Over the tree tops I could see a line of buttresses marching away to the south; the Cape Peninsula. The cone-shaped formation of Chapman’s Peak stood to our north, with its namesake road snaking 9km along coastal ramparts and cliffs to the suburb of Hout Bay. We left the restaurant, and our little rental car rumbled along a country road between paddocks ringed by log fences and populated with fat horses.

The road took a few gentle twists as it rose on Chapman’s Peak’s western flank, and Noordhoek Bay spread out behind us. It wasn’t until we took a swooping right-hand bend that we realised we were in for something truly awesome.

This media cannot be played on your device.

Carved out of the west-facing cliffs, Chappies, as it’s known by locals, was constructed between 1915 and 1922 using convict labour. Although named after John Chapman, the skipper of an English ship who visited the area in 1607, the real hero of Chapman’s Peak Drive is Sir Nicolas Frederick de Waal, the first administrator of the Cape Province, who tenaciously pursued the idea of a road even when engineers said it couldn’t be done.

These cliffs are plagued by rockslides, so the engineers eventually chose to situate the road partway up the mountain, where a layer of hard granite would provide a solid foundation and a softer stratum of sandstone above would be easier to excavate. But these sandstone cliffs shed a regular barrage of rock fall onto the road during its first 80 years in service.

Local authorities made moves to improve safety, including forcing closures during inclement weather or when rock fall danger was considered high. But in December 1999, a motorist was killed by a falling rock on a low-danger day, and even as the emergency meetings were convened to decide the fate of the route, wildfires above the road let loose a fresh hail of debris that ultimately closed Chappies to all traffic.

From 2000 to 2003, and again in 2009, the road was closed while engineers employed every new technology imaginable to tame the cliffs above. They computer-modelled the area, then with the aid of Swiss road builders, devised a series of solutions to the constant threat of rockslide.

As we swooped around another of Chappies’ purported 114 bends, I was slightly alarmed to come face-to-face with one of these engineering marvels, a 6m-high ‘catch fence’ – a huge steel net that leaned menacingly out over the road; 1.6km of catch fence protect the road from smaller slides at various locations along its 9km length.

The plunging coastline beckoned me to stop at every lookout, to linger and drink in the view

But Chappies had even bigger wonders in store.

We were briefly distracted from the hulking cliffs as the road took another leftward bend and we were again pointed at the South Atlantic and sparkling Hout Bay. Clouds were forming over the Sentinel, the same weird reverse-waterfalls of vapour that locals dubbed ‘the tablecloth’ when they appeared over Table Mountain. The verticality of the landscape never got old; despite the obvious risks of the route, the plunging coastline beckoned me to stop at every lookout, to linger and drink in the view.

The next inward turn brought us in sight of a 155m-long ‘half tunnel’ that surely defied gravity. Instead of trying to hold back the volley of rocks that came pelting down this bluff, the engineers just carved a gash into the side of the rock and put the road out of harm’s way.

As we neared Hout Bay, the rhythm of the drive established itself: a leftward bend would reveal a breathtaking view of the coast, followed by a rightward turn that showed another incredible feat of engineering. Just before we reached the toll gate, we passed a group of lycra-clad road cyclists – Chappies features in the world’s largest timed bike race.

I glanced over at my fiancé, who has been known to compete in the odd cycling race. A broad smile was spreading across his face. “Maybe for the honeymoon?” I suggested, only half joking.

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If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

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A road of 114 dynamite-blasted bends

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“How are you getting back to the city?” asked Cole, our local connection in Cape Town, as we were finishing lunch at The Red Herring in the city’s southern outpost of Noordhoek. My fiancé and I shared a blank look.

“Google Maps…?” I offered.

We were about to embark on the most scenic drive of our lives

As the conversation turned to traffic and the best route back to our hotel, I zoned out, rescuing the last slice of pizza and watching the afternoon sun turn everything silvery. A cold gust blew off the South Atlantic and I shivered. Winter afternoons in the Western Cape had a metallic quality: cold but bright, like polished steel.

“Chapman’s Peak Drive is a nice way back into Cape Town,” I heard Cole say in passing.

That sounded fine, so we paid up, said our goodbyes and told Google to take us that way – unaware that we were about to embark on the most scenic drive of our lives.

You may also be interested in:

China’s impossible engineering feat

Three New York views locals love

The people who want to buy a railroad

Over the tree tops I could see a line of buttresses marching away to the south; the Cape Peninsula. The cone-shaped formation of Chapman’s Peak stood to our north, with its namesake road snaking 9km along coastal ramparts and cliffs to the suburb of Hout Bay. We left the restaurant, and our little rental car rumbled along a country road between paddocks ringed by log fences and populated with fat horses.

The road took a few gentle twists as it rose on Chapman’s Peak’s western flank, and Noordhoek Bay spread out behind us. It wasn’t until we took a swooping right-hand bend that we realised we were in for something truly awesome.

This media cannot be played on your device.

Carved out of the west-facing cliffs, Chappies, as it’s known by locals, was constructed between 1915 and 1922 using convict labour. Although named after John Chapman, the skipper of an English ship who visited the area in 1607, the real hero of Chapman’s Peak Drive is Sir Nicolas Frederick de Waal, the first administrator of the Cape Province, who tenaciously pursued the idea of a road even when engineers said it couldn’t be done.

These cliffs are plagued by rockslides, so the engineers eventually chose to situate the road partway up the mountain, where a layer of hard granite would provide a solid foundation and a softer stratum of sandstone above would be easier to excavate. But these sandstone cliffs shed a regular barrage of rock fall onto the road during its first 80 years in service.

Local authorities made moves to improve safety, including forcing closures during inclement weather or when rock fall danger was considered high. But in December 1999, a motorist was killed by a falling rock on a low-danger day, and even as the emergency meetings were convened to decide the fate of the route, wildfires above the road let loose a fresh hail of debris that ultimately closed Chappies to all traffic.

From 2000 to 2003, and again in 2009, the road was closed while engineers employed every new technology imaginable to tame the cliffs above. They computer-modelled the area, then with the aid of Swiss road builders, devised a series of solutions to the constant threat of rockslide.

As we swooped around another of Chappies’ purported 114 bends, I was slightly alarmed to come face-to-face with one of these engineering marvels, a 6m-high ‘catch fence’ – a huge steel net that leaned menacingly out over the road; 1.6km of catch fence protect the road from smaller slides at various locations along its 9km length.

The plunging coastline beckoned me to stop at every lookout, to linger and drink in the view

But Chappies had even bigger wonders in store.

We were briefly distracted from the hulking cliffs as the road took another leftward bend and we were again pointed at the South Atlantic and sparkling Hout Bay. Clouds were forming over the Sentinel, the same weird reverse-waterfalls of vapour that locals dubbed ‘the tablecloth’ when they appeared over Table Mountain. The verticality of the landscape never got old; despite the obvious risks of the route, the plunging coastline beckoned me to stop at every lookout, to linger and drink in the view.

The next inward turn brought us in sight of a 155m-long ‘half tunnel’ that surely defied gravity. Instead of trying to hold back the volley of rocks that came pelting down this bluff, the engineers just carved a gash into the side of the rock and put the road out of harm’s way.

As we neared Hout Bay, the rhythm of the drive established itself: a leftward bend would reveal a breathtaking view of the coast, followed by a rightward turn that showed another incredible feat of engineering. Just before we reached the toll gate, we passed a group of lycra-clad road cyclists – Chappies features in the world’s largest timed bike race.

I glanced over at my fiancé, who has been known to compete in the odd cycling race. A broad smile was spreading across his face. “Maybe for the honeymoon?” I suggested, only half joking.

Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

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