Surreal towns, shaped by nature

From manmade, moveable islands to an entire town built in a meteorite crater, these are some of the strangest ways in which people have adapted their settlements to Mother Nature.

Many travellers tend to seek attractions of the manmade variety: art and architecture, food and music, history and culture. But sometimes the most intriguing towns and cities are those where the topographies have been shaped by nature, often with striking, surreal results. To find the most dramatic natural locations where people actually live, we turned to question and answer site Quora, asking: “What are the world’s most geographically and topographically interesting cities and towns?”

From cave dwellings carved out of volcanic rock to an entire town built in a meteorite crater, these destinations are like nothing most travellers have ever laid eyes on.

Kandovan, Iran
Starting in the 13th Century, if not before, residents of this town carved their cone-like homes from the area’s soft, volcanic rock – an inheritance from previous eruptions of the now-dormant Mt Sahand volcano. Located a 55km drive south of Tabriz, the town looks like a giant termite colony of pockmarked, earthen cones.

In addition to being surreal-looking, the troglodyte dwellings provide natural heating and cooling, said Quora respondent Kaushik Parashar of Guwahati, India. “The hardened material provides an efficient insulation for the harsh winters and summers,” he said. Travellers can enjoy the benefits of these unusual abodes too by staying in hotels such as the Kandovan Laleh Rocky Hotel, which has 10 rock-hewn suites complete with Jacuzzis and heated floors.

Lake Titicaca, Peru
What led Lake Titicaca’s Uros people to build entire islands for their villages? In a word: Incas. Around the 13th Century, frequent attacks from their aggressive Inca neighbours led the Uros to build some 42 islands from bundles of floating reeds, called totora, whose dense root systems act as natural support. Each island could be moved – like an overlarge raft – if attacks were imminent.

A few hundred Uros still live on the islands; many work in tourism, which provides financial opportunities – but also strains the delicate reed islands. Because the reeds at the bottom of the islands rot quickly, fresh reeds are added every few months, Parashar said.

Stockholm, Sweden
While many travellers have heard of Stockholm’s attractions, fewer may know that Sweden’s capital city, founded in 1252, is actually an archipelago comprising some 25,000 islands dotting the Baltic Sea. In fact, Quora respondent Andy Warwick said “one of the best ways to enjoy the city is from a boat as it navigates the endless miles of rivers, creeks and harbours. Add to that the fact the city remains relatively low-rise, and you have one of Europe's most beautiful cities.”

The islands – which range from large and inhabited to rocky outposts and knolls – were carved by glaciers moving across the landscape thousands of years ago, leaving enormous pieces of granite behind. Locals call the Stockholm archipelago "Skärgården,” literally “garden of skerries”, a reference to the rocks protruding from the sea.

Guadix, Spain
Travellers who stray from the beaten path will be rewarded in the Spanish town of Gaudix, located 50km west of Granada. “Many of the people live in underground 'cave houses' in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains,” said Quora user Chang Liu, a travel consultant in London.

The main labyrinth of more than 2,000 cave homes is thought to have been built around the 16th Century, when Moors fearing persecution from Christian invaders fled to the hills and carved their homes from the soft sandstone. Today, the homes are often well appointed, with running water, electricity, and even marble floors and Internet. Amid the dry desert landscape, meanwhile, the whitewashed chimneys and doors of the caves provide welcome respite from the heat. While local temperatures can reach 40C in summer, the caves maintain a year-round temperature of about 20C.

Nordlingen, Germany
A town like no other, Nordlingen “is located inside a huge meteorite crater”, Parashar said. The entire settlement, with a population of some 20,000, is situated within a 25km-wide meteorite crater called Nordlinger Ries. Dating back to 898, the quaint town with its red-roofed homes and Gothic churches is completely round; even its romantic alleyways radiate outwards in a circular fashion.

In the 1960s, scientists discovered shocked quartz in the crater – a type of rock formed only by the pressure associated with a meteorite impact. Only then did residents learn that the crater was caused by a meteorite, not a volcanic eruption, as was previously believed. The crater is thought to have formed some 14.5 million years ago when a 1.5km-wide meteor slammed into Earth.