Mark Pickering, The Guardian, October 29, 2013
Sedlec Ossuary: Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
The Sedlec Ossuary, or Bone Church, in the town of Kutna Hora, less than an hour east of Prague, will strike you as a rather measly affair from the outside, but venture inside this gothic chapel and you will be greeted by an astonishing sight – the skeletons of around 40,000 plague victims plastered from top to bottom. Some are weaved artistically into the interior, others are crafted into a series of bizarre decorations: a giant coat of arms – made of tibias and fibias – is strung up menacingly on the far wall, and a chandelier, constructed from every bone in the human skeleton, dangles in the middle. Until 1870, these bones lay stagnant in the ossuary when a local woodcarver, Frantisek Rindt, was given the task of arranging them. No one quite expected the result – a kind of spooky skeletal art gallery.
City of the Dead: North Ossetia, Russia
This deserted Russian valley is dotted with tiny houses-cum-crypts, sunk into the hillside. Located in far-flung Dargavs in North Ossetia, the trip itself is demanding – a three-hour drive from Georgia's Tbilisi airport through winding, hilly roads. But it's definitely worth it; the sight of these Walnut Whip-shaped huts is spellbinding. Each represents a tomb belonging to an Ossetian family, the oldest ones dating back to the 16th century. Family members were buried along with their clothes and possessions, and if you brave a peek inside, you will see parts of skulls and skeletons as chilling proof. Local legend says those who visit this sacred necropolis never return. Provided you have enough petrol in your car, you should be OK.
Capuchin Catacombs: Palermo, Sicily
The Catacombs of Paris may be the best-known in Europe, but they are not the only ones. Lurking in the town of Palermo lies a far freakier burial ground. Conceived in the 16th century as a kind of overspill to the adjoining cemetery, these catacombs now house the remains of almost 80,000 people. It all started after a decision to mummify a Capuchin monk, Silvestro of Gubbio, in 1599. This quickly became the norm, and as its notoriety grew, rich celebrities were added to their number. Divided into gender and social categories, the chamber is now heaving with terrifying, gnarled figures in various states of decay.
Hill of Crosses: Šiauliai, Lithuania
With over 100,000 higgledy-piggledy crosses across a hill, this is an imposing and sinister sight. Situated eight miles from the town of Šiauliai (a three-hour train ride from Vilnius; two hours from Riga in Latvia) the easiest option is to take a taxi there and have a quick look around while the driver waits for you. Although it looks like a chaotic graveyard, there have been no burials here and the origin of this crucifix drop-off centre is ambiguous. The most common belief is that it started after the November Uprising against the Russian empire in 1831, when relatives of the deceased had no actual bodies to bury so came here to plant a symbolic cross. Since then, it has become a symbol of resistance, and despite two KGB bulldozings, the site has continued to thrive.
The Crypt of Santa Maria: Rome, Italy
This ossuary is said to have been an inspiration for the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic, and it's not hard to see why. Divided into five candle-lit chapels, the crypt housed under the Church of Our Lady of the Conception is a dark and perverse affair made up of 4,000 dead friars. Under instructions from the Capuchin Cardinal in 1631, their bones were arranged on the walls as a memento mori, to which the brethren prayed each night. "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be," reads the accompanying plaque. Some of the skeletons are complete, others have been twined together in weirder ways, none more so than the "crypt of pelvises".
Hoia-Baciu forest: Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Most horror tourists to Romania flock to Bran Castle but the Dracula-themed cash-in is, in fact, more kitsch than chilling. For a genuine thrill, head instead to the Hoia-Baciu Forest in Romania's second most populous city, Cluj-Napoca (Wizzair flies there direct from Luton). In a country packed with creepy forests, this foreboding glade is home to many a haunted tale, with ghosts and UFO sightings firmly part of its folklore, giving it a Blair Witch-like atmosphere.
Capuchin Crypt: Brno, Czech Republic
As well as the bone-stacked ossuary at Kutna Hora, the Czech Republic also accommodates this intriguing crypt, in its second-biggest city. Located in the basement of a 17th-century pink chapel are the bodies of several dignitaries and an unfortunate woman who was buried alive. The main 'attraction', however, is the room of mummified friars – 24 of them laid out on the floor. With a pile of bricks for a pillow, the friars were placed here after receiving their funerary rights and the air currents and damp soil combined to accidentally mummify their remains. To get to Brno, a charming weekend alternative to Prague, fly direct from Luton (Wizzair) or Stansted (Ryanair).
Chapel of Skulls: Kudowa-Zdrój, Poland
This skull chapel boasts some incredible, artistic bone tessellations. The designs, made from victims of the Thirty Years and the Silesian wars, were a collaboration between Czech priest Vaclav Tomasek and local gravedigger, J Langer. This "sanctuary of silence", as Tomasek termed it, contains 3,000 skeletons and took 18 years to build. The crypt below it contains a further 21,000 bodies, presumably ones they didn't get round to arranging before both artists themselves died– although their bones were dutifully added to the exhibit. To get to Czermna, take a train from Wroclaw Główny to Klodzko Główne (1 hour and 40 minutes), then take a taxi to Kudowa-Zdrój.
The Halstatt Bonehouse: Hallstatt, Austria
Set in a forested mountain overlooking a lake, the presence of this 12th-century bone house is rather incongruous. Tucked away in the cemetery of St Martin's chapel, the modest-sized room is packed to the rafters with skulls, 610 of which are hand painted. The reason is thus: from 1700, due to limited space in the cemetery, old corpses where exhumed to make room for new ones. Only the skulls were kept, and were bleached and inscribed with the names and birth details of its owner. It acts as a kind of posthumous cataloguing system, but using the deceased's actual heads. The easiest way to get to Halstatt is from Salzburg – 50 minutes by train to Attnang-Puchheim, then 25 minutes on a local train to Halstatt.
Vodnjan mummies: Vodnjan, Croatia
In the sleepy Istrian village of Vodnjan – 20 minutes from Pula airport (Ryanair flies from Stansted) – lies the parish church of St Blaise, a sight of much scientific wonderment and the resting place of six mummified saints (Corpi Santi), one dating back to the 12th century. The big mystery is that there is no evidence of any embalming treatments; the saints seem to have been preserved naturally. This nature-defying oddity makes for a peculiar and grotesque sight. The desiccated, almost wooden-looking bodies lie in gold-rimmed coffins and one of them – St Nicolosa – is considered to be the best preserved mummy in Europe.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk