Radioactivity warning signals in the limits of the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve, Belarus. The Reserve was created after the Chernobyl accident in 1986 and it is highly contaminated with radioactivity. (Photo by Celestino Arce/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The Polesie State Radioecological Reserve in Belarus was created after the Chernobyl accident in 1986. The area is highly contaminated with radioactivity © NurPhoto/Getty Images

I went to Lisbon last week, a city that finds itself at the centre of a fashionable renaissance. Madonna enjoys a daily hack in nearby Comporta. Tech start-ups have brought an influx of international millennials. The actor Michael Fassbender can be spied surfing the city’s local shorelines. Meanwhile a crush of artisanal coffee houses and restaurants serving sharing platters are crowding out the older establishments.

True Lisboans are being squeezed out of the city’s centre: the “golden visas” and “royalty” incentive — a special tax regime for non-habitual residents — mean the capital’s homes are being seized upon by 60-year-old pop stars and Chinese squillionaires. Sprauncy new Airbnb properties have mushroomed overnight: “We’ve become a fashion town,” shrugged our host as she walked me through a rental apartment furnished in accents of mid-century modern chic (and a library of books that would delight the snobbiest of Europhiles).

An actor friend is less enchanted by the changes: “I remember when we were teenagers going up to the castle,” he said over caipirinhas in the Baixa district. “We’d sit and watch the sunset, smoking cigarettes, and there’d be no one there at all.” A recent visit to the city’s landmark had required a timed-entry ticket or proof of residency that demanded he lived within a rigid boundary line.

Lisbon hasn’t lost any of its charm in becoming a frothingly popular tourist destination. But standing in the Manteigaria custard pie factory, watching the chefs slap out fresh batches of their famous pastéis de nata from behind a glass partition, I sensed a city so insouciant of its unique deliciousness it’s in danger of being devoured. But that’s the problem now. No pie factory, nor beach, monument or church can be protected from a tourist with a trigger geotag. There are no secrets any more. No special places. Just ask the people of Iceland who, having been “discovered” in 2015 by the Canadian pop star Justin Bieber, who shot the music video to his single “I’ll Show You” at its Fjadrárgljúfur canyon, have subsequently found their natural wonders, hidden thermal springs and indigenous fauna crawling with Beliebers.

ICELAND - NOVEMBER 02: Justin Bieber strips down to take a dip in an icy lake for 'I'll Show You' video on November 02, 2015 in Iceland. PHOTOGRAPH BY Bragi Kort / Barcroft Media UK Office, London. T +44 845 370 2233 W USA Office, New York City. T +1 212 796 2458 W Indian Office, Delhi. T +91 11 4053 2429 W (Photo credit should read Bragi Kort / Barcroft Media / Barcroft Media via GC Images)
Justin Bieber takes a dip in an icy lake in Iceland in 2015 for his 'I'll Show You' video © Bragi Kort/Barcroft Media/GC Images

The singer claims 105m followers on Instagram, a number that dwarfs that country’s population of 338,000, and last month the canyon was closed to the public owing to the overwhelming number of visitors. Tourism to Iceland has quadrupled in the past eight years and while environment minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson has said it’s “a bit too simplistic to blame the entire situation on Justin Bieber”, he did add that “rash behaviour by one famous person can dramatically impact an entire area if the mass follows”. In other words: he blames him.

Although we should exalt in our proximity to everything, and the fact we can canter to each corner of the Earth, the death of discovery is surely something awful. Just like that depressing picture of people packed into a queue to Mt Everest or that poor sod Victor Vescovo, who found sweet wrappers and a plastic bag on the seafloor of the Mariana Trench while breaking the world record for the deepest ever dive.

Humans are everywhere and they’re ruining everything. Nowhere is new. Nowhere is empty. No place is unspoilt.

Unless you fancy a journey to The Zone, the 30km exclusion area surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The story of the Ukrainian reactor’s disastrous failure in 1986 has just been serialised on HBO, an extraordinary piece of documentary drama written by Craig Mazin (best known otherwise for his hand in creating The Hangover: Part II and III) and directed by Johan Renck, a Swedish director and former musician who once went by the moniker of Stakka Bo.

Everything about the show, from the casting, to the cinematography, to the metronomic crackle of the Geiger counter that underscores the narrative, is compulsive viewing. But the drama’s real beauty is in how it throws into relief the strange duality of those lives lived in the shadow of the atom, then the most sophisticated and mysterious of sciences, in a place where farmers still tilled fields with horse-drawn ploughs and milked their cows by hand. It’s also an indictment of a catastrophic political system in which the innocent paid for the clear-up with their lives.

Watching the drama some 30 years after the evacuation, one imagines the exclusion zone as a bleak and barren landscape: a place without birdsong, where all life is extinct. Instead, in the absence of human interference, the region is arguably thriving. The Polesie State Radioecological Reserve, found in the Belarusian section of the zone, has become the centre of an experimental process of rewilding: rare species such as white-tailed eagles, lynx and wolves now count among those species that inhabit the ghost villages abandoned years ago. The secret ecosystem is emerging. There is yet to be a consensus on the safety of the zone, but while natural mutations have been recorded in some mammals, others argue the effects of radiation are less devastating than first thought.

It’s perhaps the perfect irony that having had the humans truly wreck it, Chernobyl could end up the most exciting area of discovery of them all — although don’t hold out for a rash of Airbnbs just yet.

Follow Jo on Twitter @jellison or email her at

Correction: an earlier version of this piece misstated the name of Justin Bieber’s hit song, “I’ll Show You”

Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Subscribe to FT Life on YouTube for the latest FT Weekend videos

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article