Mike Peak calls you all to gather round for some of the spookiest stories Europe has to offer
Our favourite ever ghost story involves a phantom cat from Tewkesbury called Steve, but as it too scary for these pages (children may be reading), we had to cast the net a little wider for this timely Halloween-tinged read, Luckily, the rest of Europe is every bit as terrifying as the UK when it comes to ghostly yarns, and that's because it is littered with castles, forests and mad old people whom you pray you never bump into when strolling through the woods, especially in Transylvania, which is where we begin.
The scariest castle in the scariest place in Europe
“The most famous story about ghosts and vampires is one that everybody knows,” says Mihaela Mihet, during a crackly phone call to the Romanian tourist board. “Dracula is based on myth, but also on a real figure from the Romanian past.” The tourists flock to Bran Castle, which is widely regarded as Dracula’s Castle because it is thought to have provided Bram Stoker with the inspiration for his famously spooky novel. But the spookiest place in Transylvania is Hunedoara Castle, where Vlad the Impaler was imprisoned for seven years from 1462, whose “agitated spirit” is still haunting the place to this day. In 2001, US TV show The Scariest Places on Earth sent a California family there for the night. All are now dead. Just kidding…
The Grim Reaper of Brittany
The French prefer a nice cycle ride to a ghost story, but so many sightings of Ankou – a terrifying figure who gathers up the souls of the dead and takes them to the next world in his rickety cart – have made him part of French folklore. One story goes that three drunken friends were staggering home one night when they saw an old man with a cart. They threw stones at him before running off – then one of them returned to help, using a stick and his shoelaces to fix his broken vehicle. The next morning, his two friends were dead in their beds, while the fellow who returned was very much alive – but his hair had turned bright white.
The haunted canals of Venice
In around 1501, a young Turkish man was visiting his mother in Venice when he killed her in a fit of rage and ripped out her heart. Still holding it, he dashed from her home, but tripped in front of the Scuola di San Marco. The heart fell from his grip to the ground, and cried: “My son, did you hurt yourself ?” Racked with guilt, the man flung himself into the canal and drowned – evidently, you can still hear his moaning at the water’s edge. The whole scene was witnessed by a poor stone mason called Cesco Pizzigani, who scratched what he saw into the marble of the Scuola. You can still see it to this day.
The ghost station of Kymlinge
There is a subway station in Stockholm that was completed but never put into use. You can see it today from the skies via Google Earth, its tracks and platform disappearing into the gloom under a hill. A handful of silver trains were built around the 1970s intended to serve the new station, and local talk soon started to circulate that these were ghost trains taking on passengers who were never seen again – and who later got off at Kymlinge. “Bara de döda stiger av i Kymlinge,” murmur the locals. “Only the dead get off at Kymlinge.”
The headless ghosts of Malta
This Mediterranean island’s best yarn centres around the fortified city of Valletta, where on one hot night in 1565 began its bloodiest ever siege. The battle incorporated a spectacular early bout of psychological warfare, whereby invading Turks sent dozens of wooden crosses drifting across the bay from a fort they had taken. Crucified on each one was the headless body of a captured soldier. But the Maltese promised no mercy, and made sure that every Turk captured in the subsequent invasion was taken to the cells of Fort St Angelo and slowly beheaded. Later, their heads were fired back at the enemy from cannons – and to this day their ghosts return to shriek and howl every night.
The Frozen Ghost of Prague
Legend has it that some time in the 14th century, St John of Nepomuk had taken confession from the wife of King Wenceslas IV. The nosy king wanted to know what his missus had said but St John kept stumm, so he was ordered to be thrown from the Charles Bridge into the freezing river below. For 300 years, the saint is said to have haunted the bridge, which connects Prague’s old town with the Little Quarter. When a statue of him was erected on the bridge in the 17th century, his spirit is thought to have taken over the carving and turned it into a frozen ghost. Today, it is said that if you have a secret, touching the statues guarantees no one will ever hear it.
Secrets within the walls
At the tourist offices in Berlin, Susan Steudtemann reckons that ghosts are thin on the ground in the city because it is “the capital of changes” and phantoms may not like that. However, she does mention Grunewald Hunting Lodge, built in the 16th century for Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg (inset), an enthusiastic hunter. Legend has it that Joachim had a liaison with a beautiful woman called Anna Sydow and they would often meet at the lodge, even though he was married to Hedwig, daughter of Polish king Sigismund I. After Joachim’s death, Anna was banished to the Spandau citadel (left), where she reportedly died in 1575. However, many say she was actually bricked into the west wing of the lodge and has haunted it at midnight ever since.
Europe's most haunted
Five places you’re never alone
> EDINBURGH CASTLE
Home to a headless drummer and a spectral piper playing on the battlements. There’s a ghost dog, too.
> COLOSSEUM, ROME > RAYNHAM HALL, UK > PARIS CATACOMBS > LEAP CASTLE, IRELAND
Ghostly visions, tour guides being thumped by unseen forces – this old theatre of pain is dripping with gory history.
Scary as hell – this country house in Norfolk is where one of the most famous ghost pictures ever was taken.
A rabbit warren of human remains beneath the City of Light, and as spooky as anywhere on Earth.
Simply the country’s most haunted castle, with over 20 ghosts said to be resident.
> COLOSSEUM, ROME
> RAYNHAM HALL, UK
> PARIS CATACOMBS
> LEAP CASTLE, IRELAND