There’s some places in the world that you may not immediately think of visiting. Among all the favourite churches, museums and galleries lurk some more disturbing locations with morbid histories, places that represent the darker side of humanity. They may not be top of your itineraries, but they’re equally – if not more – thought-provoking, and are well worth a detour. Here, from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, we present some key places to remember the past.
One thing that will stick in your mind is the hair. Mousy, dark clumps of it and even a child’s pigtail still wound like a piece of rope, all piled together like the relics from an ancient crypt. But there are no bones here. The hair in this room was deliberately, carefully, shaved from the heads of men, women and children, ready for transportation to factories where it would be turned into haircloth and socks. This is Auschwitz, the most notorious complex of extermination camps operated by the Nazis.
No one knows how many people died here: estimates range from 1.1 million to 1.6 million, mostly Jews. They starved to death, died of dysentery, were shot or beaten. And then from 1941, the Final Solution, death by cyanide gas (“Zyklon-B”): twenty thousand people could be gassed and cremated each day. Auschwitz is a terrible place, full of terrible, haunting memories. But everyone should go – so that no one will forget.
Auschwitz is named after the Polish town of Oświęcim, around 50km west of Kraków. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum & Memorial is free; see en.auschwitz.org.
Brest fortress, Belarus
For the Belarusians, World War II was a catastrophe. In all, during the brutal three-year Nazi occupation of the then Soviet republic, almost a quarter of the population died – a tragedy that has left a profound imprint on succeeding generations. Nowhere does the nation’s sense of grief retain a greater rawness than at the colossal war memorial, constructed with typical Soviet bombast, at Brest Fortress, close to the Polish border.
It’s a sombre half-hour trudge along a broad, empty boulevard out to the fortress complex on the edge of town, the eye drawn towards the monumental concrete slab carved with a giant Communist star that serves as the entrance. As you pass through, radio broadcasts, Soviet songs and the deafening thunder of artillery ring through the tunnel. Once inside, remains of the original fortress – much if it shelled to oblivion – are sparse. Instead it’s a massive icon of Socialist Realist art that dominates the tableau: carved into another gigantic concrete block is the head of a huge, grim-faced soldier, jutting muscular jaw set in defiance. It’s a staggeringly powerful piece of work, lent added poignancy by the eternal flame that burns beneath, and the neat tiers of memorials that lead up to it, many garlanded in beautiful wreaths.
Brest is 4hr by train from either Minsk or Warsaw (change in Terespol from the latter); the fortress is open daily 8am–midnight (free).
Cape Coast Castle, Ghana
In 1471, Portuguese merchant seamen arrived on the palm-lined shore of the Gold Coast and bought a fort at Elmina. Over the next four hundred years they were followed by British, Dutch, Swedes, Danes and adventurers from the Baltic. Gold was their first desire, but the slave trade soon became the dominant activity, and more than three dozen forts were established here, largely to run the exchange of human cargo for cloth, liquor and guns. Today, thirty forts still stand, several in dramatic locations and offering atmospheric tours and accommodation.
One of the biggest is the seventeenth-century Cape Coast Castle, which dominates the lively town of the same name. Just walking through its claustrophobic dungeons, where slaves were held before being shipped across the Atlantic, moves some visitors to tears – the scale of the cruelties that took place here is near-incomprehensible
Bus services (around 4hr) run along the main coastal highway from Accra.
The Kigali genocide museum, Rwanda
In 1994, while the world looked the other way, around one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu extremists. The attempted genocide left a scar on the Rwandan nation which will be felt for generations, but the immediate wounds of that terrible three-month period have healed faster than most outsiders could have imagined. While leading genocidaires have faced UN trials, those who murdered their own neighbours under orders have undergone a process of reconciliation with survivors in local gacaca courts. The country itself has been transformed by its pragmatic government and is rapidly modernizing.
Tourism is an important part of development and it engages remarkably with recent events in Rwanda’s genocide museum, the Kigali Memorial Centre, where you’re likely to spend at least two very worthwhile but emotionally draining hours. On this hillside site, north of the city centre, eleven huge crypts have been constructed, the resting place for nearly a quarter of a million of the country’s victims. The semi-subterranean exhibition itself implicitly lays the blame for what happened on decades of colonial oppression, divide-and-rule policies, under-development and ultimately deliberate planning, while placing the slaughter in the context of humanity’s history of genocide. The memorial to the children who died is unbearably moving, focusing not on the huge numbers, but on fourteen individual lives, on little things like their favourite meals, and on how they were killed.
The Kigali Memorial Centre is open daily 10am–6pm (donations accepted) and is a partner of the UK-based Aegis Trust (aegistrust.org), which works to prevent crimes against humanity.
The Camp of Special Significance, Russia
St Petersburg’s White Nights festival is an established tourist draw, but more adventurous travellers can head north towards the Arctic Circle and the remote Solovetsky Archipelago in the Karelia region. Situated on the White Sea, in the uppermost part of the world’s biggest country, these islands seem close to the tipping-point of the world.
From the Middle Ages till the Bolsheviks seized power, monks sought out this place for solitary contemplation; when communism fell, they returned, and today the exquisite monastery on the main island, pure white with silver onion domes, is again a site of active worship. But there were darker times in the interim. The Soviet authorities saw the potential of the islands’ remote location, and in 1923 created a Camp of Special Significance, where political opponents could be subjected to the near-constant winter darkness, isolation and bitter cold. Solovetsky became, as the great dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, “the mother of the gulag”.
Today, the camp is remembered in a museum inside the Kremlin on the main island. On top of Sekirnaya Gora (“Hatchet Mountain”) you can also see the Church of the Ascension, which was used for solitary confinement – an incongruously picturesque spot a pleasant 12km walk from the monastery. But perhaps most striking is the prison dating from the late 1930s, today abandoned and neglected, where visitors can wander at will. The two-tone walls, door numbers and scrawled graffiti heave history out of the untouchable past and into vivid Technicolor.
Take the overnight train from St Petersburg to Kem, then the boat to the main island, Solovki (2hr 30min). Regional information is at www.pomorland.info.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia
Everyone over 30 in Cambodia has lived through the genocidal Khmer Rouge era. The woman who runs your guesthouse in downtown Phnom Penh; the moto driver who tried to rip you off on the ride down from the Thai border; your Angkor temples tour guide; the waiter at the seaside café in Sihanoukville. At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum you’ll learn something of what that means.
A former school on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, code-named S-21, was used by the Khmer Rouge to interrogate perceived enemies of their demented Marxist-Leninist regime. During the Khmer Rouge rule, from 1975 to 1979, some fourteen thousand Cambodians were tortured and killed here, often for the crime of being educated: for being a teacher, a monk, or a member of the elite; for wearing glasses; for being a discredited cadre.
The interior of the prison has in part been left almost as it was found. Tiled floors, classrooms crudely partitioned into tiny cells, shackles, iron bedsteads and meshed balconies. Elsewhere, graphic paintings by another survivor, Vann Nath, depict the torture methods used to extract confessions; some of these confessions are also reproduced here. Once they’d been coerced into admitting guilt, prisoners were taken to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and murdered. Choeung Ek, 12km southwest, is now the site of another memorial. Both provide graphic evidence of these recent horrors.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (daily 7.30–11.30am & 2–5pm) is off Street 13 on the southern fringes of Phnom Penh.