If your taste in adventure runs toward the dark side, few places will satisfy your macabre impulses more than a visit to an old catacomb, tomb, or ossuary. Some go back to ancient times, while others were in operation as recently as the 1970s. Because these are often underground tours through miles of human remains, they’re not recommended for the claustrophobic, the squeamish, or for anyone—kids or adults—who may have nightmares as a result. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Les Catacombes de Paris, France: After many generations, the graveyards of Paris were filled to overflowing—literally. By the late 1700s, bodies spilling out of many graveyards had become a public health menace, so city officials decided to move the remains into the city’s vast underground network of tunneled quarries. For decades, the city’s graveyards were emptied and the bones were interred in these tunnels, which have been open to the public since 1810. The entrance to the Catacombs is near the Denfert-Rochereau Metro stop in the Montparnasse area. After walking through a simple museum, you’re free to wander through stacks and stacks of dried bones and artfully arranged skulls. www.catacombes-de-paris.fr.
The Catacombs of the Capuchins, Palermo, Italy: A mysterious preservative found here acts as a natural mummifier, maintaining human remains in a startlingly lifelike way. The Sicilians found here are well-attired and smartly coiffed, as if expecting visitors. Rosalia Lombaro, who was buried when she was just 2 years old, is one resident visitors never forget. She still has all her hair tied back in a faded ribbon and is so well preserved that she appears to be napping, giving her the nickname “Sleeping Beauty.” Azienda Autonoma Turismo ( 39/91-6058111).
The Skull Tower, Nis, Serbia: In 1809, Serbian rebels fighting the Turkish Ottomans advanced toward Nis, only to be thwarted on Cegar Hill by the much stronger Turkish forces. Rather than surrender, Serbian troop leader Stevan Sindelic fired at his own gunpowder supplies; the resulting fireball killed Sindelic, his troops, and the Turks. As a warning to other Serb rebels, the Turkish commander had the rebels’ bodies decapitated and their skulls built into the walls of a tower, with Sindelic’s skull at the top. In 1892, after the tower deteriorated from exposure to the elements, a chapel was constructed to enclose the tower. It remains a moving monument to the sacrifices of war. www.ni.rs.
The Catacombs, Rome, Italy: There are dozens of catacombs in and around Rome, but most are closed to the public. Those that allow tours are usually operated by religious orders and have limited operating hours. The Catacombs of St. Domitilla stand out; after entering through a sunken 4th-century church, you’ll see the actual bones of the deceased and an impressive 2nd-century fresco of the Last Supper. In the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, highlights include early Christian mosaics and graffiti. The biggest, most popular, and most crowded site, the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, has a vast network of galleries that house the crypts of 16 popes, as well as early Christian statues and paintings. www.catacombsociety.org.
Veliki Tabor, Zagorje, Croatia: Sometimes there’s a terrible price to be paid for beauty. Just ask Veronika of Desinic, a lovely 15th-century maiden who captured the heart of Frederich, son of Count Herman II of Celje, who resided in the castle known as Veliki Tabor. The star-crossed lovers eloped and were married against the wishes of the evil Count. He had Veronika tried as a witch; the judges, however, took pity on the beautiful woman and set her free. Not one to be easily dismissed, the furious Count had her drowned and her body bricked up inside Veliki Tabor’s pentagonal tower. During a 1982 renovation of the castle, a woman’s skull was supposedly discovered; it now resides in a place of honor in the castle’s chapel. Some say the ghost of Veronika can still be heard. www.visitcroatia.net.
Choeung Ek, Cambodia: Choeung Ek is one of the sites known as the Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge regime slaughtered some 17,000 people between 1975 and 1979. Over 8,800 bodies have been discovered at Choeung Ek; many of the dead were inmates in the nearby Tuol Sleng prison, where tours are also available. Open pits where mass graves were found are scattered around the site; the bones of those killed here still litter the area. A tall monument, now a Buddhist stupa (or reliquary), contains skulls carefully arranged by age and gender—it’s 17 stories high, to remind visitors of the April 17, 1975, date the Khmer Rouge seized power.
The Catacombs of St. John, Syracuse, Italy: The catacombs of St. John, accessed through the ruins of the Chiesa di San Giovanni, were originally developed by the ancient Greeks as an underground aqueduct. Early Christians used it to bury their dead because they were forbidden by the Romans from using city graveyards. The site now contains roughly 20,000 tombs, housed in long tunnels that are honeycombed with coffins; they’re now empty, having been looted by grave robbers long ago of any artifacts or remains. Turismo, Via San Sebastiano 43 ( 39/931-481232).
Kostnice “Bone Church,” Kutna Hora, Czech Republic: For sheer creativity, it’s hard to match the interior design of this Gothic church. A widely used graveyard since the Black Plague, the church cemetery had plenty of skeletal remains at hand, and what better material to decorate the inside of the church? Apparently Frantisek Rint, the fellow hired in 1870 to put the countless heaps of bones in order, thought they were the perfect decorative touch to liven up his plain little church. Rint used human bones and skulls to create, among other charms, a chandelier of bones, necklace-like strands of skulls draped from the ceiling, a coat-of-arms—even the artist’s signature was written in bone. www.kostnice.cz.
St. Michan’s Church, Dublin, Ireland: The limestone walls of this church’s burial vault act as a preservative, so the bodies buried here are remarkably well mummified. Visitors can see the remains inside four of the vault’s opened coffins; sharp-eyed viewers will note that two of the bodies were cut into pieces before they were put in their caskets. Rumor has it that Bram Stoker visited the site as a child, inspiring him to write Dracula some years later. www.visitdublin.com.