Fantastic routes and creepy traditions in Europe
Last updated on Thursday, 28/10/2021
Ready to dig into some of the creepiest European traditions?
For a child of the 90s, watching Tim Burton’s "Nightmare Before Christmas" could have been a traumatic experience. It is also true that nowadays a movie like "Coco", which celebrates the Mexican "Dia de los Muertos" triggers, pretty much, warm-hearted feelings and moving moments (talking to you, grown-ups out there).
However, if you are looking for truly mysterious and kind of creepy stories, all you have to do is ask. There is always room for a little shiver down the spine, especially around Europe this time of the year. So, get comfy, grab a cup of tea (or a piece of pumpkin pie) and plan your next spooky European getaway!
Going back to its Celtic roots
Did you know that the much-celebrated Halloween, diminutive of the English "All Hallows' Eve" has its roots in the Celtic ritual named Samhain, which means “end of summer”? Back then, the New Year started on the 1st of November. On the night before, the population consisting mostly of farmers, celebrated the link between seasonal cycles and life cycles, with elements of magic and mystery included.
The belief was, on that night, the veil separating the two worlds: dead and living, became thinner and thinner, making it easier for the spirits to pop up for a short visit. People would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts.
In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1st as a time to honour all saints.
It soon incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain.
Adding an Irish touch to it…
Have you heard of the legend of Stingy Jack? An Irish drunk crook, who, after having tricked the devil a few times, eventually died because of his drinking. Poor Jack got rejected at the gates of both Heaven and Hell. He ended up condemned to a life between the two worlds, wandering around with an ember put inside of a hollowed turnip.
This probably started the current Jack-o-Lantern tradition of a carved pumpkin with a light placed inside which lights the way of the children going from door to door, wearing costumes and impersonating the spirits.
A European Halloween gastronomic heritage!
Ever wondered where the trick-or-treat tradition came from?
Souling was a tradition recorded in parts of Britain, Flanders, southern Germany, and Austria in Medieval times. It referred to an activity where the poor would visit the homes of the rich to ask for soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for their dead relatives. The practice was later taken up by children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts.
You may wonder why we passed from soul cakes to candies? As it turns out, candy was simply much more popular after the war!
In some corners of Europe, you can still get a chance to try soul cakes. Yes, there is also a European Halloween gastronomic heritage! All around Spain, you can buy Huesos de Santo, delicious marzipan cookies said to resemble the bones of Saints. In Italy you can try the Fave dei Morti, a little sweet biscuits formed to look like broad beans, as well as Ossi da Morto, bones of the dead!
For many Siciliani, a tablecloth is laid out on the family tomb, complete with chrysanthemums, the flowers of the dead, and the family gathers for a picnic. Spooky? Not if you believe that your relatives will come back to the living world to be with you on that day.
Getting in the mood: where to go?
If you prefer picturing the souls, a bunch of moving and animated bones in the shape of a skeleton could suit you. Three different spots in three European countries will satisfy your curiosity, let’s go East to West.
Not far from Prague, the picturesque capital of the Czech Republic, lies the town of Kutná Hora with a little bit more than 20.000 residents, a Sedlec Ossuary, a 13th Roman Catholic Chapel located below the Cemetery Church of All Saints. Have you ever seen a chandelier made of bones? And not random ones! While staring at it you are challenged to spot each one of the over 200 different kinds of bones of the human body. The Ossuary itself contains between 40.000 and 70.000 skeletons, over three times the current population of the closest town.
A short flight or long train ride to Italy and you can assist to a similar scenario but this time, in the centre of the economic capital of the country, Milan. Quick stop at the metro San Babila, and just behind the majestic Duomo, you can run into a small and very peculiar sanctuary: San Bernardino alle Ossa. Bones and skulls instead of wallpaper, over the ceiling, bones and skulls everywhere. Apparently, at the beginning of the last Millennium, there was not enough room for bones coming from the nearby hospital so they had to become a little bit creative.
Going further West you can find, in the Portuguese city of Evora, an ossuary based on the Italian one, a Chapel of Bones coming straight from the 16th century which welcomes the visitors with a pretty appealing inscription: “Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos,” or: “We bones, are here, waiting for yours.” Feeling the shiver yet?
Fancy meeting ghosts and monsters?
If you are into cultural sites and ghosts… you cannot miss those places. The Akershus Fortress in Oslo, Norway is said to be haunted by a faceless woman named Mantelgeisten that emerges from the darkness dressed in a full-length robe.
More places are reported to be haunted by their former owners such as 12th century Dragsholm Slot Castle at Horvee in Denmark or 15th century Chateau de Marcay in France.
Icing on the cake and quite a classic: the Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle) in Transylvania. Don’t leave out one of the spots linked to the legendary vampire and finish the job with a chilling picnic in the Romanian Hoia Baciu Forest made of intriguing crooked trees which will make you feel nostalgic of the Forbidden Forest of Hogwarts.
If you are more into hiking, come to Belgium and follow the “Sentier de l’Etrange”, a 5.8 kilometer loop trail located in Ellezelles. If you like witches, werewolves and other monsters, you’re on the right track. You should really come on a foggy day…
You now have stories, you have food and you have places to visit. Pick a costume and get charmed by these European old traditions and no worries, an old sheet with two holes in it is still popular.