It’s tempting to associate ghost towns and abandoned cities with America’s Old West or the wild expanses of former Soviet Russia. But ghost towns exist on every continent and Europe boasts a diverse range of modern ruins, some coming about due to war and conflict. Ironically, in many cases abandonment has put these towns on the map and made them more popular with visitors than they were while inhabited. Others, of course, are deserted for very different reasons…
Äuli in Switzerland isn’t strictly an abandoned city, but it’s definitely a ghost town. The difference? Äuli was never inhabited in the first place, but rather built by the Swiss government as a military training town, teaching close quarters combat and counterinsurgency tactics. It’s not somewhere you’d want to visit, and Äuli is fitted with cameras and patrolled regularly to keep any unwanted visitors away. (On the same subject, check out these ghost villages/rural battlegrounds that urban explorers should avoid.)
Wilmarsdonk was once a bustling community north of Antwerp. But its proximity to the burgeoning city proved to be its downfall. First recorded in 1155 and merged into Antwerp in 1927, Wilmarsdonk was abandoned and ultimately demolished to make way for the expanding Port of Antwerp, one of Europe’s largest sea ports and second only to Rotterdam in terms of freight shipped. Wilmarsdonk was levelled in 1965 and only the church tower survives, rising silently above the port, all but forgotten judging by the weeds sprouting from its roof.
Imber, Wiltshire, UK
Chances are you’ve never passed through Imber on Salisbury Plain. If you have, you’re lucky to still be here! Ever since 1943, when its residents were evicted, Imber became a ghost town and has since been used for military training, coaching troops in close quarters combat techniques that they’ll carry with them into modern war zones like Afghanistan.
Believe it or not, St Giles’s church in Imber is still used for one service each year – the only time the British government will grant access to church authorities, let alone the congregation. By 2001, the church council called for St Giles’s to be classed as redundant, since it couldn’t gain access to carry out urgent repairs. Damage was exaccerbated when the church was struck by lightning in 2003. But despite bullets whizzing around in all directions, the church was restored by 2009 and, incredibly, annual services carry on as normal.
Here’s why you don’t want to get too close to Imber, even if these troops are just cadets playing around with blanks. Can you imagine living here, then being given 47 days to leave before your beloved country cottage is riddled with machine gun fire for the rest of its standing days?
On June 10, 1944 an atrocity took place at Oradour-sur-Glane so terrible that the entire village has since been martyred. On that fateful day, a company of German Waffen-SS massacred 642 residents, including women and children. The slaughter was reportedly a revenge attack against the French Resistance, and war criminal Heinz Barth admitted at his trial that there was no military objective.
Barth ordered that men be herded into a barn and shot at close range with machine guns. German troops aimed for their legs to ensure a more painful death. Women and children were herded into the church before also meeting German bullets. While a new village of Oradour-sur-Glane was built nearby, the original was never repaired, and today stands as a gruesome reminder of Nazi cruelty.
Pyramiden, Svalbard, Norway
The ghost town of Pyramiden – meaning the pyramid – on the archipalego of Svalbard, Norway, was a coal mining community founded by Sweden in 1910 and sold to the Soviet Union in 1927. The chilly settlement once housed over 1,000 people, but was abandoned when its state-owned Russian contoller, Arctikugol Trust, pulled out in 1998. Visitors have been free to explore Pyramiden but are prohibited from entering the abandoned buildings due to health and safety concerns. Russia is currently redeveloping Pyramiden for tourists, but it’s not expected to be the warmest summer holiday destination.
War has been a frequent visitor to the village of Belchite in Spain over the last two centuries. On June 15, 1809 French of Spanish forces fighting in the Peninsular War fought the Battle of Maria near Belchite, located 40 km southeast of Zaragoza. The village was also heavily damaged between August 24 and September 7, 1937 when the Spanish Civil War came to town, and Republican and Nationalist forces clashed in the Battle of Belchite. A new village was built on adjacent land. The original remains as a war memorial, and was used in the filming of Pan’s Labyrinth.