Curiosity for the Macabre

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

If summer is for days on the beach and long weekends at sun-soaked festivals, then autumn is for those cold evenings spent sipping pumpkin-spiced lattes, kicking through amber leaves en route to ruined abbeys, and visiting old churches filled with ghosts, tombs and vampires. Whether you’re looking for history and mythos stomped into the streets of Florence, or a scenic ruin-topped town that inspired one of the masters of gothic literature, these are just a small selection of some of Europe’s most unusual places to indulge your curiosity for the macabre this Halloween season.

Literary Horrors at Whitby Abbey, UK

The craggy bones of Whitby Abbey endure even as the windswept north sea breaks and moulds the cliffs below. Look from almost anywhere in the town, and it can be seen cutting a haunting silhouette that’s as beautiful as any of the UK’s major churches. But this near thousand-year-old carcass comes with an additional bounty of gothic literary legacy, as it, along with the town of Whitby was the imposing inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Journey up the 199 steps to the abbey on a dark Halloween night marked by a low fog softening the abbey’s rugged edges, a bright moon lengthening its millennia-long shadows, and the noise of the sea washing into the rocks below, and you’ll find an abbey that wears its eerie lineage to perfection. 

And for 2022, English Heritage is adding a 125-year celebration to the annual Halloween event, promising to bathe the abbey in a distinctive light show while bringing the story of Dracula to life within its crumbling walls.

Join the Dead In The Parisian Catacombs, France

This labyrinthine collection of tombs, corridors, and the bones of more than 6 million people is as famous today as the Louvre’s glassy pyramid hat. But much of this subterranean world, an almost perfect blueprint of 18th century Paris, remains off-limits for “safety” reasons. Climb the 131 steps down to the catacombs at the official entrance at place Denfert-Rochereau to explore the 1.5-kilometre of tunnels filled with millions of surprisingly ornate skulls and bones, each exhumed from overcrowded Parisian cemeteries. Or if one’s unphased by the law (and a possible fine), join the Cataphiles who access the wider catacombs via secret, often forgotten entrances deep below the streets of Paris.

A Pilgrimage to the Hill of Crosses, Lithuania

The Hill of Crosses is a large hill in rural Lithuania weighted by more than 100,000 crosses. Some are little more than planks of wood hammered into a haphazard cross shape, towering high wearing rosaries accentuated by yet more crosses, while others are painstakingly moulded into stone crucifixes and reverent religious icons. But while the scene is undoubtedly ominous, the hill is a pilgrimage site in the countryside just north of Šiauliai (two hours north of Vilnius) and as such there’s little here but crosses and an atmosphere that’s as good for quiet contemplation as it is for stimulating the amygdala into a fear response.

Embark on the short journey from Šiauliai on an inky autumn evening and the hill with its subdued lighting and the soft oscillations of metal rosary beads clinking against countless cruciform silhouettes creates a scene as hauntingly cinematic as is it beautiful. 

Take a pew with the ghosts of Lukova, Czechia

Journey 200km east of Prague to the hamlet of Lukova, and you’ll find the 14th-century St. George's church, seemingly abandoned with few neighbours to speak of, aside from the 700 residents of the village. It’s so quiet here that the faintest rustle of fallen leaves punctuates every step causing one to tiptoe delicately towards the church. But venture inside, and Lukova’s bucolic charms drip away, unveiling a theatre of ghostly parishioners who appear as white silhouettes, anchored to the pews as though attending some spiritual service led by an unseen rector. The sight, though chilling, is an art installation by local artist Jakub Hadrava, who created the vision to bring life back to the abandoned church.

Stroll Through Hell in Florence, Italy

Florence’s renaissance beauty is a far cry from a ruined abbey or a hill of crosses, and yet these ornate streets are filled with references to a past as dark as dusk. To experience it, walk the beautiful bridges and streets on a shadowy autumn’s eve and trace the history permeating deep below the cobbles. From the northern side of Ponte Vecchio take a stroll west along Borgo Santi Apostoli to the ornate Piazza Del Limbo and you’ll find a quiet square and a 10th-century church ideal to meditate on the history of the piazza, which takes its name from a graveyard for unbaptised children.

Next, stroll along the gritty back alley that is via del Purgatorio and spare a smirk for the “no exit” signs before walking the restaurants of via dell’Inferno, named after a medieval tavern: the Osteria dell’Inferno (Hell Tavern). Indeed, many of Florence’s imaginative street names were taken from ancient restaurants (not Dante as one might expect) who, in the Middle Ages would tempt eaters in with the promise of indulgent foods and decadent wines, and so conjured the underworld with all its promise of sin and debauchery. 

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