BONE CHURCH, CZECH REPUBLIC
With a sprinkle of sand from the Holy Land, a 13th-century abbot created one of the most sought-after burial lots in Central Europe – Sedlec Ossuary, in the city of Kutná Hora – eventually resulting in a cemetery and church housing the remains of up to 70,000 people. The Thirty Years War, fought in the 1600s, contributed heavily to the overcrowding, and by 1870, the boneyard was in dire need of attention: A local wood carver was asked to liven up the small church using the bones; today, visitors can appreciate his gruesome efforts. Skulls and bones are geometrically arranged on walls and ceilings as art, coats of arms and morbid candleholders, while a giant chandelier made of every bone in the human body hangs overhead. A display of skulls reveals the effectiveness of medieval weapons. The church is one of the most popular attractions in the Czech Republic, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing.
MUSEUM OF MEDIEVAL TORTURE, ESTONIA
Old Town in the Estonian capital of Tallinn seems innocuous enough. Cobblestone alleys, art galleries, onion-domed churches and cozy pubs greet tourists looking for the cheaper, less trafficked charm of Europe. Those seeking horror have come to the right place too. In the stomach-churning Museum of Medieval Torture, a local collector has amassed more than 60 weapons and devices once used to deliver the most heinous forms of suffering. There’s the faithful stretching rack, lead-poisoning chastity belts, branks masks, garrotes and a well-used chopping block, where you can still see the grooves of the executioner’s axe. You can practically feel the anguish of the heretics, thieves and innocents who were victims of these tools.
THE CROOKED TREES OF ALTICANE, CANADA
Not far from the town of Hafford in north-central Saskatchewan is a grove of aspen trees so twisted and gnarled that many locals attribute them to ghosts, UFOs and aliens. Surrounded by perfectly normal trees facing skyward, these crooked trees are knotted and bent, curled like the legs of dead, overturned spiders. Nobody has been able to completely explain the abnormality, but theories range from contaminated soil and a genetic mutation of the aspen tree to the impact of meteorites. A local farmer claimed to see aliens urinate in the area before the trees began sprouting in the 1940s. In an area known for UFO sightings, could this mystery be the result of an alien pit-stop? And could that explain why some visitors to the grove feel a presence, a supernatural force that causes dizziness as they stroll along the wooden boardwalk?
BURIAL CAVE, COOK ISLANDS
“Mind the head,” our guide warned. I wasn’t sure if he was talking about my noggin, or the half-dozen skulls stacked at my feet. While most tourists to the Cook Islands enjoy the coconut tree beaches on Rarotonga, or fly to the stunning lagoons on the island of Aitutaki, a small fraction island hop over to Atiu, population 400, drawn to its remoteness and unusual adventures. It’s here they’ll find the burial caves of Rimarua. Though they’ve never been formally studied, locals believe that centuries ago, during a period of inter-island warfare, dozens of bodies were dumped into a small opening in the ground. This is the same hole I had just lowered myself into, holding onto slippery roots and sharp rocks as I descended into a limestone cave system. The first chamber is no bigger than a walk-in closet. Immediately I noticed the bones, and lots of them; as I edged my way forward on my hands and knees in the dirt, it was almost impossible to avoid them. I squeezed into the next chamber and saw the skulls. Rain has washed them up against the walls, and deeper still. I slid to the bottom of the next shaft and, just for fun, turned off my headlamp. A chill bubbled up my spine. These warriors died a violent death, and they’re resting in pieces, not in peace. If I got lost down here, chances were I would join them. That thought was enough to quickly get me out of the dark, and onto the beach where I belonged.
Would Transylvania live up to its bloodthirsty reputation? I found “children of the night” in this fabled Romanian region, but no vampires. In the city of Cluj-Napoca, nightclubs and bars were slammed with sharp-cheekboned university students, drinking and dancing until dawn. When the sun rose, they vanished to their dorms or apartments, which was slightly suspicious. In the surrounding countryside, I spent a couple of nights in the tiny village of Ture, expecting a spooked and suspicious community. The host of my village stay was an old woman, dressed in black, hobbling on a crutch in her 250-year-old stone house. So far so good, but instead of werewolves and villagers chasing monsters with pitchforks, I found farmers smiling from their horse and buggies, and locals dancing to the sound of violins in an old church. In this part of the world, Vlad the Impaler is a medieval hero who defeated invading Turks, not the vampire that inspired Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. One of Vlad’s temporary residences still stands in the Carpathian mountains, operating as a busy but hokey tourist trap called Dracula’s Castle. It seems the only monsters in Transylvania are those in your imagination, and the ones that suck tourists’ wallets dry.
Special to The Globe and Mail