The ghost town of Craco, Italy, is situated in a dramatic location perched on top of a hill. // © Creative Commons user martindelusenet
Feature image (above): Walking through Belchite, Spain, is especially eerie when the city is covered in fog. // © 2017 Kaitlin Cintorino
Many adventurers seek the stories of bygone eras and feel the lure of abandoned places, even sneaking into dangerous or illegal places to visit them. But many abandoned towns are actually open to the public — no illicit action required.
Scattered throughout Europe are a diverse collection of ghost towns located not too far from civilization. Tourists interested in satisfying their cravings for an eerie, abandoned experience while also learning significant European history should be sure to visit the three following towns.
Possibly the most provocative remnant of the Spanish Civil War is the ruined town of Belchite, Spain. Belchite was the site of many battles due to its proximity to the larger city of Zaragoza in northeastern Spain. Suffering irreparable damage over the course of the war, the old town was finally left uninhabited in 1939, and a new town was built beside it. The original Belchite was left standing as a monument, meant to serve as a somber reminder of the war.
Although the town is fenced off to the public due to potentially hazardous structures, you can take a $7 guided tour that departs from the new village’s visitor center at least twice a day. Tours are led in Spanish, but audio guides are available in a variety of languages for non-Spanish speakers. Guides are often local — my tour guide’s parents had grown up in the old town, and she pointed out their houses on the tour. You can read an excess of textbooks on the war, but nothing compares to the sobering experience of standing among the crumbling buildings alongside Spaniards who still feel the aftereffects of the war.
A short 40-minute drive from lively and bustling Zaragoza, Belchite is an essential day trip for anyone interested in Spanish history. Be sure to stop by the artisan shop between the old and new towns for delicious, local olive oil, and support the small community by buying extra to take home.
Craco, Italy, is a remote hilltop village in the southern Italian region of Basilicata and a three-hour drive from Naples.
A medieval town, Craco endured years of war and plagues, but it was the treacherous landslides, floods and earthquakes from 1959 to 1980 that finally pushed people to start abandoning the town in 1963. Now uninhabited, the Italian destination is popular among not only tourists but also filmmakers, serving as the set for notable films such as director Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and the 2008 James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.”
For safety’s sake, the town is fenced off to the general public. If you’re willing to wait, however, guided tours run from the visitor center for about $12 each, taking place whenever a large-enough group accumulates.
Although you can see much of the town from outside of the fence, the tour is highly recommended; it’s a surreal experience to walk through the abandoned streets while learning Italian history. The stone buildings are being reclaimed by grass and weeds, and the worst of the landslide’s damage is evident in the city’s center, where entire sides of buildings have fallen away.
In addition to the eerily beautiful destruction, the view of the surrounding hills is stunning due to the town’s strategically high location. The town is situated in a surreal landscape, ringed by rugged hillsides with few signs of people or even vegetation.
When you make the trip to this ghost town, be sure to stop by Matera, a nearby populated town, for an example of what Craco may have been like today had it not been abandoned.
Spinalonga, Greece, is an island fortress accessible by a seven- to 20-minute boat ride from the Cretan towns of Agios Nikolaos, Elounda and Plaka. An ancient fortress, Spinalonga has a varied history, serving as a military fort during the Cretan War; as a place of exile when claimed by the Turks; and as a commercial trade center when settled by Muslims.
Its darkest history began in 1903, when leprosy patients were relocated there from all over Greece. The island upgraded from a miserable setting of isolation and death for the lepers to a place of healing, thanks to the arrival of doctors and caretakers and the discovery of antibiotics. After all of the lepers were cured, the colony closed, and the island was completely abandoned by 1962.
Today, Spinalonga is a popular tourist site due to its unique beauty and historical importance. Full-day excursions are offered from Agios Nikolaos, with tour operators offering lunch and a swimming stop in addition to a tour of the island fortress.
On your trip to Crete, take a break from the sandy beaches and seaside towns to visit this unique remnant of Greece’s past. The combination of empty, ancient ruins and stunning ocean views is not to be missed.