Experience

I see dead places

As weird travel trends go, feeding your morbid fascination at one of the world’s many dark-tourism destinations is up there. Don’t worry, you’re not the only one

Sophie Beresiner | 08.10.2019

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CHERNOBYL NUCLEAR PLANT I GETTY IMAGES

I have a travel ‘quirk’ that I think deep down is a morbid fascination but I dress it up as a ‘quirk’: every time I travel to New York for work (twice a year for the past ten years for Fashion Week alone), I do a secret pilgrimage to Ground Zero. I don’t tell anyone. I even feel ashamed to ask the cab driver where to drop me off, in my dark-tourist-alert British accent - like, ‘I’m so sorry for being reductive about your beloved city’s trauma, but could you take me there so I can have a look, please?’ Now, I walk.

Dark tourism, or thanatourism (from ‘thanatos’, meaning ‘death’ in Greek) more specifically, is tourism that involves travel to places historically associated with death or tragedy. Yup, *cringes* that’s me. But hang on, do I qualify as a dark tourist? Is my pilgrimage voyeuristic or educational? Am I more emotionally invested in the historical significance, or the association with death?

Well. I stand there quietly and try to comprehend the moment that the world changed so completely for my generation. I contemplate the enormity of what happened, and try to fit it into those foundations that comprise the surprisingly small memorial squares; the space of those non-existent buildings that still manage to cast a shadow on me, someone with no connection to the tragedy except that I was both terrified and transfixed by it. I still to this day can’t believe it really happened.

To my mind, therefore, I err on the side of historical significance. I want to pay my respects. I want to come face to face with my fears. Saying that, I watched the whole of Chernobyl with abject horror, but no one is getting me anywhere near that place. Oh yes. It’s a dark tourism destination too and a hugely popular one at that. You’ll need to wear a radio-activity reader, but that’s great for the experience, right?

Only you know to what degree of dark tourist you are (though the number of pictures you post on Instagram might give some indication). Wherever you sit on the scale, here’s some inspiration for your dark travels. Please don’t send me a postcard.

1/7

Chernobyl, Russia

The 30km exclusion zone that has remained in place since the nuclear disaster that devasted the region in 1986 has seen a huge boost in tourism from the HBO mini-series of the same name. You won’t be able to visit any of the still highly contaminated sites (then again, why would you want to?), but because the whole area has higher than normal levels of radiation you’ll still have to take precautions, like not touching anything, sitting down, placing or resting your possessions onto anything and absolutely, definitively no taking ‘souvenirs’ home. There’s a single hotel you can stay in if you’re feeling brave. Not sure how you get in without touching the door knobs though.

2/7

Auschwitz, Poland

The largest of the Nazi concentration camps and site of the largest mass murder in history: some 1.5 million prisoners died at Auschwitz-Berkinau before 1945. It’s now estimated the number of visitors per year way exceeds that figure, and while it’s great that educational school trips make up a decent portion of that, kids – leave your selfie sticks at home. Posing for photos on the infamous railway tracks is not behaving with the solemnity and respect the museum officials (quite rightly) ask for.

3/7

Sleepy Hollow, USA

Washington Irving’s book (and, by extension, Tim Burton’s 1999 film), is based on ‘real’ events at the village of North Tarrytown in New York state. In fact, so popular has the legend become, the village officially adopted the nickname Sleepy Hollow in the late 1990’s. Irving himself is buried in Sleepy Hollow cemetery and this, alongside the story of the infamous headless horseman ghost, contributes to the village’s reputation as one of the most haunted places to visit in the world.

4/7

The Paris Catacombs, France

The history of underground network that houses the remains of some six million people stretches back to the late 18th century and a sanitation problem at the city’s cemeteries. Covered wagons ferried bodies to a mine shaft by night, from which they were sent to the tunnels. What was once known as ‘the gate of hell’ is now a popular tourist site where visitors wander the tunnels and appreciate the macabre ‘beauty’ of the skulls and skeletons embedded into the walls. Don’t go down there on your own – what if your torch dies and you find a possessed cult and then the room collapses and… Oh wait. That was the 2014 film, As Above So Below. Terrible. Don’t bother watching it; visit the tunnels next time you’re in Paris instead.

5/7

Robben Island, South Africa

A ferry takes you to the tiny island – a Unesco World Heritage Site – off the coast of Cape Town where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated as a political prisoner for 18 years. Before it was a prison, it was a leper colony, a mental hospital and more, so there is more than one dark tourism element aspect to this frankly fascinating place. Today, the tours are led by former prisoners, some of whom now live rent-free on Robben Island alongside the guards who imprisoned them, so there’s a sense of full-circle closure that leaves you feeling full up – in a good way.

6/7

Stasi museum, Berlin

The Stasi were the highly repressive intelligence and secret police of East Germany during the Cold War, with strong connections to the KGB. Needless to say, the goings on in this place were pretty horrific, including kidnapping and executing former officials who tried to flee the country. This museum is located in the former Stasi headquarters and gives you an authentic understanding of what it was like to live under the oppressive Stasi control. Shivers.

7/7

Anne Frank Museum, Amsterdam

The building at Prinsengracht 263, on what is today one of Amsterdam’s most popular tourist streets, is where the Frank family went into hiding from occupying Nazis in the second world war. We don’t need to tell you anymore, you probably (hopefully) studied the book at primary school. Maybe that’s part of the reason it’s such an important dark tourist spot: The Diary of Anne Frank is deeply rooted in the heart of so many of us from such a young age. Walking through the annex is a hugely emotional experience. If you don’t leave with tears in your eyes, you might just be dead inside.

ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY I GETTY IMAGES, ALAMY


WATCH THIS

Whether you’re already hooked or simply DT-curious, the Dark Tourist documentary series on Netfilx sees. presenter David Farrier visit unusual and often macabre tourist spots around the world.

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