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Ferris Wheel at the Pripyat theme park

8 mysterious ghost towns from around the world

Image: Pripyat was evacuated two days after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor went into meltdown in 1986 | Kato Blackmore / Unsplash

From the haunting remains of a French village that fell foul of the vengeful Nazis, to an entire city abandoned after the worst nuclear accident in history, we take a look at some of the most mysterious and enigmatic ghost villages, towns and cities in the world.

1. Imber

Imber is a village in Wiltshire that was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1068. As the Allies prepared to invade Europe in World War II, the Ministry of Defence needed somewhere where they could train large numbers of American troops. Imber was chosen as the ideal location. It was compulsorily purchased, and all 150 residents were evicted. Despite being told that they could return after the war, the MoD decided to keep the village and refused to let the residents return home.

Today, much of the original village has been destroyed by shell damage and training exercises. The parish church of St. Giles has been restored and holds an annual service, while the village’s pub, the Bell Inn, still stands as a reminder that this was once a thriving rural community.

2. Varosha

The city of Famagusta was overrun during Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and it has remained under Turkish control ever since. This was bad news for Famagusta’s practically brand-new district of Varosha - an area of high-rise hotels, bars, shops and restaurants built to take advantage of the boom in cheap package holidays during the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Turkish authorities fenced the resort off, and that’s how it stayed for nearly 50 years - a bizarre 1970s time capsule that nobody was allowed to visit.

In 2020, Varosha was finally opened up to limited numbers of visitors, who can now enjoy the experience of wandering around a part of the city that hasn’t changed since ABBA, Suzi Quatro and The Osmonds were riding high in the charts.

3. Kayaköy

The Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 ended in a victory for Turkey. The Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 officially ended the conflict and as part of the agreement, Greece and Turkey agreed to a population exchange that saw many Turkish towns and cities emptied of their Greek populations, and vice versa. One such town was Kayaköy in southeast Turkey. Before the war, the town had a thriving population of 6,500 inhabitants. Following the exchange, it was completely empty, and that is how it has stayed ever since.

A truly astonishing sight, the ghost town sits on a hillside, its hundreds of Greek-style houses and churches now roofless ruins. A few houses have been restored, but for the most part, Kayaköy lies empty except for a few intrepid tourists and a handful of roadside vendors, a stark reminder of the price ordinary people pay when their leaders go to war.

4. Craco

Italian towns and villages are often so heartbreakingly beautiful that it is hard to imagine anyone abandoning one. That, however, is exactly what happened to the town of Craco in southern Italy. Craco had been plagued by problems such as poor agricultural lands and landslides for many years, which caused people to start leaving as far back as the 1890s. However, what finally did for the place was the attempt to upgrade the town’s water and sewage system in the 1960s, followed by more devastating landslides and an earthquake. By 1980, the ancient town was completely abandoned and left to fall into ruin.

Since then, Craco has become a magnet for film producers. Films such as The Passion of the Christ and Quantum of Solace have featured scenes filmed in one of Europe’s most enigmatic and beautiful ghost towns.

5. Oradour-sur-Glane

On 10th June 1944, a company of Waffen SS soldiers marched into the sleepy French village of Oradour-sur-Glane and committed an atrocity that still has the power to shock 80 years later. In retribution for the capture and execution of one of their compatriots, the soldiers rounded up the village’s 643 residents, machine-gunned the men and burned the women and children alive in a locked church. They then partially razed the village to the ground. The massacre was immediately condemned by the Vichy government, as well as by several prominent Germans, including Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Most of the men who carried out the atrocity never faced justice, as they were later killed in action.

Today, the remains of Oradour-sur-Glane, which include its burned--out buildings, rusting 1940s vehicles and personal effects of the villagers including watches that stopped at the time the village fell, are preserved as a memorial to all those who died in the massacre, as well as to the many citizens who were killed across France during the Nazi occupation.

6. Hashima Island

Rising from the sea eight miles from the port town of Nagasaki in Japan lies Hashima Island. A jumble of abandoned high rise blocks of unequal height looks, from a distance, like a warship, which has earned the island the nickname ‘Gunkanjima’, which means ‘Battleship Island’. The island was home from 1887 to a huge undersea coal mine, and its abandoned buildings once housed mineworkers, including Korean slave labourers forced to work there during World War II.

The island was abandoned in 1974 when the mine was depleted, and its crumbling ruins eventually became a tourist attraction and occasional filming location, such as for the 2012 James Bond movie, Skyfall.

7. Bodie

At one stage, the California town of Bodie was a thriving community of 2,000 structures and 8,000 people. Now, just a handful of buildings remain and the people are long gone. So what happened? In 1876, a large deposit of gold was discovered near what was then just a tiny settlement. Within months, Bodie had been transformed into a bustling ‘Wild West’ boom town with a mile-long main street lined with a whopping 65 saloons, a red light district and a Chinatown. Brawls, bar fights, murders, robberies and shootouts were a regular occurrence. However, the boom didn’t last long.

The mine began to deplete by 1880, and many miners left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. By 1910, just 698 people remained and when the last mine closed in 1942, there were just 90 people left. Eight years later, the population was zero. Today, Bodie’s 170 remaining buildings are a designated National Historic Landmark and the town is a popular tourist attraction.

8. Pripyat

When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor went into meltdown in 1986, the nearby city of Pripyat found itself on the receiving end of the biggest dose of radiation since World War II. Founded in 1970 to house workers and scientists for the nearby power plant, the city was evacuated two days after the disaster and has remained abandoned and decaying ever since.

Over the years, Pripyat has become an unlikely tourist destination, with intrepid travellers heading to the city to see its rows of ghostly residential blocks, its ruined swimming pool and football stadium, and its famous dilapidated Ferris Wheel that dominates an abandoned theme park that was scheduled to open five days after the disaster.