Sarah Sekula, Special for USA TODAY
Surrounded by a motley crew of felines was Lieutenant Wobbles, scruffy and three-legged, but downright adorable.
It was a breezy April morning in the heart of Rome when my sister pointed him out. You see, hundreds of the four-legged creatures congregate in Largo di Torre Argentina, an ancient site in Rome that has morphed into an open-air cat sanctuary. Tucked away and quiet, it’s dotted with stately, dilapidated columns. And, rumor has it that these remains mark the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated.
Most days, on the way to the Tiber River to walk my sister’s beagle, we’d stop by and see how many cats we could spot.
“There’s Lord Watchtower,” she pointed at the one perched high above the others. “And Professor Midnight,” she said, pointing at the silky black one.
It’s a pastime loved by many. So much so, there is an adoption program so you can take your furball back home. And it’s not just in Rome. There are sites around the world that serve as meccas for cats and tourists alike. Here are a few more:
Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum
Key West, Fla.
The Hemingway Home in Key West is famous for more than one reason. First of all, it’s where Hemingway penned 70% of his life’s work in what was the most prolific time for him. But because the famed writer was a huge fan of cats, it’s also a cozy home to a handful of furry felines of the six-toed variety. It all began with Snowball, a white polydactyl cat given to Hemingway by a ship’s captain. Today, there more than 40 cats roaming the lush, one-acre property. You’ll see them playing, eating or lapping up water from the cat fountain. And it’s not uncommon to see one curled up on Hemingway’s bed.
You can also call them by name. Hemingway affectionately named all of his cats after famous people, so the site’s caretakers keep that same tradition alive today. Hence, you will meet Martha Gellhorn, Etta James and Hairy Truman. Note: The cats may be petted, but visitors are not allowed to pick them up.
In the Japanese fishing village of Tashirojima cats outnumber humans. Granted, there are only 100 humans, but still, that’s a lot of cats. In fact, it’s been nicknamed Neko Island, which means Cat Island in Japanese, and it’s easy to see why. Happy feline residents lounge on sailboats, prowl along the shoreline and perch on the rooftops. It’s a pretty good cat life because the locals love and nurture them, as they believe it brings good luck and prosperity.
Rumor has it that long ago when residents were raising silkworms, there was a problem with mice. So felines were brought in to help chase away the rodents. Plus, in the 1800s, fisherman felt certain that cats could predict weather patterns and even the catch of the day. And so, the love of the many cat inhabitants began.
In other words, the cats there pretty much rule. You can tell by the amount of cat signage, artwork and the cat shrine. And get this: Dogs aren’t allowed; they’ve been banned from the island. If you visit, keep this in mind: Since the cats are well taken care of, it is frowned upon for tourists to bring them food. And if you are a cat-lover, you might enjoy staying the night in a cat-shaped lodge (available April through October).
The defunct mining town of Houtong is getting a lot of attention these days. Mainly because more than 100 playful cats live in this ecological park. Tabbies, calicos, you name it. Until the 1970s, it was a booming coal-mining town. But after the rise of electric trains, the town began to go downhill.
But one cat lover and a slew of volunteers has changed all of that by setting up cat photography classes. They posted the cats’ pictures on the Internet, and voila!visitors from all over showed up to photograph them. And now Houtong is on the map.
There are indeed photos ops around every corner. Here, you can peruse gift shops hawking cat-shaped pineapple pastries and cat-themed artwork. And who can resist snapping a photo in front of the footbridge? It’s festooned with ears at one end and a tail at the other and includes an elevated catwalk so the cats can easily come down from the village to greet visitors arriving by train.
Kalkan, an old fishing town on the Turkish Mediterranean Coast, is known for its traditional white-washed homes and its brightly colored bougainvillea. So, it comes as no surprise that tourists from around the world return here year after year to soak in the beauty. Nestled in a curved bay on the Lycian coast, it is charming in every way.
However, it’s equally well known for its mass of stray cats and the kitty-loving tourists that dote on them. You can find them in every direction: at the old mosque, on the beach and in the souvenir shops. Surprisingly, most of them look very healthy and happy, thanks to the Kalkan Association for the Protection of Street Animals.