These seemingly-quiet church spires rise up through the lush gardens of the tiny Snagov Island, in the centre of a small lake of the same name. It is purported that this silent little place is actually the final resting place of Vlad Ţepeş, more commonly known by his legendary nickname, Vlad the Impaler, or even more infamous, Dracula. A personage made famous by Irish writer Bram Stoker, a scholar and writer who never stepped foot on Transylvanian soil, the vampire Dracula is based on the story of the brutal and bloodthirsty Wallachian prince, Vlad Ţepeş, who spent most of his life doing two things – one, fighting against the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire, and two, impaling people. A lot of people – hence the nickname. There has been a church on Snagov Island since the 11th century, with the monastery founded in the 14th century during the reign of King Dan I ( which was from 1383–86), and finally the construction of a stone edifice in 1453, which was later improved into the present-day structure. Supposedly the monks at Snagov were particularly partial to Vlad Dracul – in keeping with “Christian” values, Vlad helped fund the monastery in return for absolving his sins, or so the old story goes. When Dracula finally died, beheaded in 1476 while fighting his long-time enemy the Ottoman Turks, Vlad Ţepeş was interred here (well, most of him was, excepting his head which was carried on a spike back to Istanbul). Though no one knows if this is actually true or that the body here is indeed Vlad, it is true that there’s a monument to Vlad Ţepeş here at Snagov, and people come from miles around to visit the final resting place of the most famous almost-vampire in Europe.
Pro tip: Snagov is on the way from Transylvania to Bucharest. Follow the signs to the monastery through a neighbourhood where there is a car park (expect a small fee), then cross to the island via the footbridge. There are also boats across the lake if you prefer the traditional method, costing you perhaps 100 lei. At certain times of year, there are roadside vendors selling fresh produce such as strawberries – much more delicious than anything you’ll find in the supermarket!
Brunico – or Bruneck in German – is a lovely little town in a strange region. Like all of Sud Tyrol, the region was once part of the Astro-Hungarian Empire until World War I happened, and Italy, who sided with the winners, was granted the mountainous little region of Sud Tyrol from Austria, who sided with the wrong side. Even today the Germanic/Austrian culture is visible, from the bilingual populace (and menus and road signs) to the cuisine to the architecture. Rising above cheerful Brunico is the beautiful medieval Brunico Castle dating back to about the 13th century. But hidden away in the lush green wooded hills on the other side of a narrow footbridge is something unexpected – a simple World War I era cemetery filled with the graves of soldiers from all sides, backgrounds and religions. In fact, soldiers from each religion – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – are each buried according to their religious rites. Though war is always terrible for those involved in it, the war would have been especially difficult for those soldiers fighting WWI in the high, inhospitable Dolomites Mountains, a region prone to high winds, deep snows, cold temperatures, steep slopes and rough terrain. Brunico’s wooded WWI cemetery was built by Russian POWs from local pine trees, each one carefully inscribed with the dead soldier’s names and dates of death. Tucked under a quiet canopy of emerald leaves, these simple markers serve as a stark reminder of the shortness of life and the madness of war – as well as humankind’s harmony with nature.
Pro tip: Brunico’s War Cemetery is located a stone’s throw away from Brunico Castle (in reality just across the footbridge). Visiting in summer? There are some pretty lowland walks in the area. If you want to climb something a bit higher, head over to nearby stunning landscapes Mt Kronplatz or the lushness of Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park. Visiting in winter? This region also has some good skiing.
Vienne is most famous for its Roman ruins – the Temple of Auguste and Livie, amphitheatre and obelisk – though there is far more to this ancient place than that. A bit eerie and yet hauntingly beautiful, Vienne’s Pipet Cemetery is a fascinating place to visit. Vast alleyways and avenues are lined with massive tombs and headstones making a sort of French city of the dead. Climb to the top of the hill for a view of the fantastic ruins of the medieval castle, Chateau de la Batie, which still cling to the rugged hilltop, crowning Vienne’s dramatic skyline. The view of Chateau de la Batie seems straight out of Victorian-era painting, of a folly perhaps—dramatic cliffs, dark forests, a ruined castle, a grey cemetery, a hanging sky—and yet, the view is entirely authentic. Perched at the top of Mont Salomon, the castle Chateau de la Batie was built on the foundations of Roman ruins in 1225 by the archbishop of Vienne in order to protect the city from would-be medieval attackers. While the castle is not open to the public, it turns a rather ordinary landscape into something dramatic, romantic and even extraordinary to behold, and both the cemetery and Vienne’s hilltop are well worth the visit.
Pro tips: In the summer months of June and July, the city comes alive with the annual festival, Jazz a Vienne. Just across the Rhone Riveris Saint-Romain-en-Gal (only a separate town because it crosses county lines), find the ruins of a Roman city and an excellent museum of Roman archeology. Sometimes the site even hosts living history festivals. Vienne is an easy day trip from Lyon.
Twisted Tombs in Highgate Cemetery, London, England
One of the creepiest places in London, Highgate Cemetery is old and dark, overflowing with cracked, crooked tombstones grinning like jagged teeth and fanned with thick overgrown grass. Scattered amongst the stones are statues and stone caskets marking out the wealthier dead – even in death, social classes are made apparent. West Highgate is older, full of cracked tombstones hidden under heavy trees and dark bushes, while East Highgate (across the road) is newer, orderly, and home to the famous Karl Marx tomb (an enormous stone bust). In the overgrown Victorian West Cemetery, vicious vines grasp forgotten tombs, determined to pull their sepulchres underground, their owners’ names sanded away by centuries’ worth of wind. Highgate Cemetery was born in 1839 alongside seven other cemeteries, built to release the pressure of overcrowded intercity (and sometimes illegal) cemeteries. The dark Victorian path twists through overgrown rows of grey stones and wailing angels, leading to the obelisks of Egyptian Avenue (Victorian interest in Egypt had been piqued by Napoleon). Following that is the Circle of Lebanon, crowned with a massive ancient cedar tree older than the cemetery itself, circled by tombs seemingly revering it. Finally, the brave visitor will pass through dark, vaulted catacombs where warmth and light seem devoid. It is said that this creepy endroit inspired Bram Stoker while writing Dracula (particularly the scene at the graveyard with the undead new vampire Lucy Westenra). While this is not proven (experts suggest the mythical graveyard might’ve been St Mary’s Churchyard), there is certainly no denying the eeriness of this fiercely Victorian Gothic graveyard in north London. Get ready for goosebumps while wandering this dark and wild place where the din of London and the 21st century seem leagues away.
Pro tip: The more modern east section can be visited by all, but the most overgrown and Victorian west side is by guided tour only. It’s well worth it!
Muckross Abbey in Killarney National Park, Ireland
The silent headstones reach out of the earth like fingernails. A soft layer of grass covers the ground; ivy climbs the walls. Wildflowers, left to their own devices, plant their roots in their chosen bits of earth. Muckross Abbey, a squat, ancient building within the beautiful Killarney National Park in western Ireland, rings of silence. As one approaches the roofless, hollow structure, the quantity of graves thickens, as in Catholicism, being buried on Holy Ground was a believer’s final life objective. Graves are everywhere, even inside the building. The ground by the abbey seems to be higher than the ground further away, but that’s no trick of the light or any natural phenomenon – no, that’s a result of as many people being buried on Holy Ground by the church as possible. The silence inside is deafening. Your footsteps echo in the cloisters as you circle the inner courtyard. Climbing to the second floor, you come face-to-face with the ancient, scared yew tree planted by the monks of yesteryears, a symbol of their eternal faith. Finally at the top of the tower, you get a sweeping view of the rest of the churchyard, and beyond it, the lush greens of Killarney National Park, a good bit of which was once the property of the Muckross Estate before becoming Ireland’s first national park in 1932. The spell is finally broken when a group of boisterous tourists lumber through the abbey’s gates, and you take your cue, quietly slipping out onto one of the many forested paths winding in and around Killarney’s famous park.
Layers. Layers upon layers. I read somewhere that even though very old countryside churches often look like they have sunk, it’s really that the ground has risen up around them from all of the parishioners who’ve been buried there, as everyone wanted to be as close to the church as possible. While not exactly the case here, this cemetery clearly works upon the foundation of using layers. French cemeteries are not like their US cousins, or at least, not like that ones I’m used to. Headstones are tall, upraised, aligned in rows, and organised into layers with narrow paths snaking in between. Walking down the wide alley at the beginning of the cemetery, it reminds one of walking through a small town. A town of the dead. A ghost town, if you will. Both creepy and fascinating, it is worth it to visit a cemetery such as this–especially when lit by the sunlight’s far-reaching beams.