Spooktacular: Europe abounds with places to get a chill for Halloween
October 26, 2010
Halloween in Europe can be quite different from the States. There may not be as many fake cobwebs adorning store shelves or front yards decorated with witches and goblins, but the ancient architecture and eerie environment of European cities and countryside offer a naturally spooky setting perfect for some Halloween fun.
Two of the most popular destinations around this time focus on two horror heavyweights: Dracula and Frankenstein.
In the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania in Romania is a spot where hundreds of thousands go every year to visit Bran Castle, popularly dubbed "Dracula's Castle."
Although it has never been proved that Vlad "The Impaler" Tepes, also known as Vlad Dracula, ever ruled from this Romanian castle, it is believed he was imprisoned there by the king of Hungary in 1462. Vlad ruled during the 15th century and legend has it that he had an affinity for torture, was known to impale his enemies on stakes and sometimes drank their blood to celebrate his success.
It has also never been proved that Vlad Tepes is the character on which Bram Stoker based his 1897 fictional character. In fact, according to its official websiste, www.brancastlemuseum.ro, Stoker said that neither Transylvania nor Dracula has any historical tie to Romania as he had used the place and name because of their popularity at the time.
However, the town of Bran has embraced the legend, as loose as it may be, offering Dracula souvenirs and hosting a festival every year around Halloween to attract more visitors. And it works.
Tourists can also visit the "real" place where Vlad lived far west on the Arges River Valley close to the Fagaras Mountains. Poenari Citadel isn't as majestic as Bran Castle, but for die-hard Draculites it is a must visit. Find out more at: http://www.romaniatourism.com/dracula-legend.html
Fans of Frankenstein can head to Mühltal, Germany, south of Darmstadt, to Burg Frankenstein, which besides a spooky environment offers a popular open-air haunted house during the Halloween season.
Burg Frankenstein's link to Mary Shelley's 1818 novel is probably as weak as Bran's tie to Stoker's, but that has not stopped legends from growing up around it. They started in 1604 when an alchemist dug up bodies and performed medical experiments on them at the castle, according to Walter Scheele, a German historian who has written multiple books on the castle. A cleric then warned his parish about the experiments and claimed that the alchemist had built a monster that was brought to life by a bolt of lightning.
The tale was related to Shelley's stepmother by the German fairy-tale writers, the Grimm brothers, and some say it worked its way into Shelley's memory, until she pulled it out as the basis of her novel.
A private organization conducts a haunted house in Burg Frankenstein's courtyard. The haunted nights are pretty intense, but there are separate events available for children on certain days. Find more information on Burg Frankenstein and the Halloween events at the German-language website www.frankenstein-restaurant.de by clicking on "Halloween." USO offices in Mannheim, Heidelberg, Stuttgart and Kaiserslautern also offer tickets and packages.
If monsters aren't the thing to get you in the Halloween spirit, there are plenty of other places in Europe to chill you to the bone.
The town of Kutná Hora, about 45 minutes east of Prague in the Czech Republic, is home to the Sedlec Ossuary, a chapel built in connection with a Cistercian monastery in 1142. The Sedlec Ossuary is decorated with more than 40,000 human skeletons, thus it is also known as the Church of Bones or as the Bone Church.
A woodcarver was hired in the 1870s to decorate the inside of the chapel with the bones of the dead who had traveled from across Europe for centuries to be buried on the sacred grounds. The result was some eerie creations, including pyramids, a coat of arms, decorative furnishings and a larte chandelier. Find more information at www.sedlecossuary.com.
The Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Italy, feature about 8,000 mummies stacked ceiling-high and lining the walls like paintings. Many of the mummies are still dressed in clothes and the halls are divided into categories such as men, women, virgins, children and priests. Some bodies are even set in permanent poses, such as two mummified children sitting in a rocking chair.
The last corpse to be buried here was that of 2-year-old Rosalia Lombaro, who died in 1920. She is so well-preserved, she has been nicknamed "Sleeping Beauty."
The catacombs are at Piazza Cappuccini 1. Find out more at http://www.lifeinitaly.com/tourism/sicily/catacomb.asp.
If you want to take in the dark side of the City of Light, go see the Catacombs of Paris, which houses the remainders of approximately 6 million Parisians, transferred between the end of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th century. The remainders were moved here after the city's cemeteries were deemed unhealthy. More information is available at www.catacombes-de-paris.fr/english.htm.
Cemeteries are also a good backdrop for Halloween, and there is no shortage of spooky graveyards in Europe.
The Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is one of the world's most visited cemeteries, many coming to see the final resting places of Frederic Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison.
Morrison's grave attracts the most attention, especially around Halloween. Many say the grave of The Doors lead singer, who died in 1971 in Paris, is haunted. Rock historian Brett Meisner took a photo next to Morrison's grave in 1997 that shows a cloudy shadow, which believers claim is the deceased singer. Researchers have been unable to disprove that it was a ghost in the photo.
A virtual tour of the cemetery is available online at :www.pere-lachaise.com/perelachaise.php?lang=en.
The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is a crammed with an estimated 12,000 tombstones. It is the oldest existing Jewish graveyard in Europe, which was used from 1439 to 1787. The numbers of buried in the cemetery's many layers is hard to determine, but some say there may be as many as 100,000. The cemetery is in the heart of what is said to be Prague's most haunted area.
In Russia's Red Square, Lenin's Mausoleum, more commonly called Lenin's Tomb, is open to the public and visitors can glimpse the embalmed body of the communist dictator.
Some say that his body appears more like a wax-cast replica, which has led to rumors that pieces of him have been substituted or it is a stand-in corpse. Visitors are kept moving, so you only get to spend a few minutes inside the mausoleum before you're hurried out by the guards. For a virtual tour, see http://lenin.ru/index_e.htm.
For those looking to be scared in an organized way, there are many cities in Europe that offer haunted group excursions.
In Edinburgh, Scotland, you can take a variety of Auld Reekie tours (see www.auldreekietours.com for details). On the tours, you will walk around the streets of the old town hearing tales of persecuted witches, body snatching and local superstition. Then you will be walked into the vaults, a torture museum and what is reputed to be the most haunted pub in Scotland. The tours operate year-round, but include a special Halloween package.
The website if full of testimonials from patrons who have left the tours with bruises, cuts and scratches on their bodies. The tour operators say the South Bridge Poltergeist has been known to attack tour groups and that you enter at your own risk.
Perhaps no murderer is more famous than London's Jack the Ripper and there are many walks and tours designed to immerse participants in the serial killer's world. One, offered on www.jacktheripperwalk.com, promises to take visitors on a tour where autumn 1888 never ended as it delves into evidence and allows you to retrace the scenes of the killer's crimes and other places of interest.
If exploring the dark secrets of Paris intrigues you, GhostToursParis.com offers English-speaking packages showcasing ghosts and haunted houses, satanic conspiracies of the 19th century, medieval serial killers and the real Sweeny Todd. The tours are offered each Friday and Saturday and cost 20 euros per person. Make reservations online or by calling (+33) (0)9-77-21-82-10.
If you are looking for someplace to get in the Halloween spirit and want to take the children along, several amusement parks have Halloween-themed events.
Germany's Holiday Park hosts Shocktober through Oct. 31, transforming the park for the season featuring pumpkin sculptures, skeletons, light effects and a "Castle Frankenstein." Make-up artists are available to get the young ones ready for the season. Find details, including opening hours and costs, at http://holidaypark.de/en/park-attractions/shocktober.
Legoland Deustchland in Günzburg, Germany, has a Halloween exhibit with a new "Trick or Treat House" made of Legos. Kids also can help build the world's largest Lego pumpkin with more than 180,000 Lego bricks. Find hours and prices at www.legoland.de/en/Plan/Events-Shows/Halloween.
Disneyland Paris features street artists, monstrously friendly characters, dance performances and other Halloween surprises, according to its website. See www.disneylandparis.com for details; it includes an English-language version.