While great centres of civilization such as Athens, Rome and Istanbul still endure, there’s nothing quite like the melancholy grandeur of an abandoned city to really fire the historical imagination. From Salona to Pompeii, here are ten of the most evocative:
The most symbolic of ancient cities because of the cataclysmic nature of its destruction, Pompeii was famously buried in volcanic ash following the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD. In consequence it is extraordinarily well preserved, and pacing its narrow streets is almost like entering a virtual-reality simulation of first-century life.
Surviving mosaics and wall paintings are stunning, and there’s something rather poignant about being on holiday in a place where the Romans themselves went on vacation – as can be deduced from the large number of recreational villas on the city’s outskirts.
Medieval Bulgaria was once one of the mightiest empires of the European mainland, and the windswept hilltop city of Cherven was one of its most awesome cities. Founded in the sixth century and not abandoned until the seventeenth, Cherven is nowadays an almost total ruin, its scenic grey ramparts hovering dramatically above a bend in the canyon-bound Cherni Lom river.
Formerly called the City of Bishops on account of its many churches, Cherven is an extensive site, and comes with sweeping views of the surrounding nature.
The Greeks liked travelling too, and the sacred city of Delphi on the slopes of Mount Parnassus was the one place that people from all over the Hellenic world wanted to see. They came here to pay their respects at the sanctuary of Apollo, seek advice from his priests, attend seasonal festivals, or take part in the quadrennial Pythian Games.
It’s difficult to tell from the surviving ruins where all these visitors stayed. However it’s hard to stroll round the stadium, the theatre and the sanctuaries of Athena and Apollo, without imagining how these places were once filled with awestruck visiting crowds.
A fortified lakeside settlement built by the Lusatians in around 550 BC, the iron-age village of Biskupin is one of the most evocative prehistoric sites in Europe. Located 60km northeast of Poznań, the village has been partially rebuilt by experimental archeologists with wooden palisades, watchtowers and log-built longhouses. The Lusatians had extensive trading contacts – as evidenced by Egyptian beads displayed in the site’s museum.
You might not immediately associate the green fields of lowland Austria with the glories of classical civilization. However the Romans were here for more than four centuries, and their provincial capital Carnuntum serves as a powerful reminder of their presence.
Excavations have been going on here for well over a century and the site has become a key resource in telling us how life in the Empire was actually lived. The Roman City Quarter contains a number of reconstructed baths and mansions, and a programme of annual festivals features gladiatorial combat and reenactments of ancient life.
There’s nothing more moody and mysterious than the man-made castle mounds of medieval Lithuania, and the village of Kernavė, 35km north of Vilnius, is one of the best places to soak up the atmosphere. The cluster of grey-green, flat-topped hills here once served as the centre of the Lithuanian state, a potent and expansionist power that remained pagan state right up until its acceptance of Christianity in the late fourteenth century.
The site’s combination of historical pedigree and natural beauty ensures its popularity with present-day neo-pagans, who congregate here for summer solstice bonfires on the night of June 23/24.
Built by Frankish empire-builder William II de Villehardouin in 1249, and subsequently capital of the Byzantine province of Morea, Mystras is a particularly outstanding example of the glittering medieval city that was totally abandoned in the centuries that followed.
Bristling with towers, palaces and churches, the hillside-hugging site was one of the last Byzantine cities to hold out against the Ottoman Turks (it fell in 1460). It represents the last great flourish of Europe’s longest-lasting empire.
It may not be the best-known clump of ruins in the Mediterranean, but Empúries certainly makes up for it in terms of location, set beside a sandy beach right next to the Catalonian heritage village of Sant Martí. The largest Greek colony on the Iberian peninsula, and subsequently a thriving Roman port, Empúries preserves a thrillingly complete grid of streets and some spectacular floor mosaics.
It’s also one of the most entertaining ancient sites to visit, with audio-visual content, costumed reenactments, and summer concerts in the former Roman Forum.
Sitting on a hilly peninsula jutting into a coastal lagoon, Butrint has pretty much got everything you expect from a lost city. It has a timeline that spans the Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras, a beautiful natural setting that now enjoys national park status, and the aura of being slightly off the radar because it’s in lesser-travelled Albania.
It’s a thrilling place for a ramble, with stepped streets, temple precincts, early Christian churches and beautiful mosaics conveying a heady sense of former splendor.
Stretching along a hillside 5km inland from the Adriatic port of Split, Salona is thought to have been the fourth-largest city in the Roman Empire in its heyday. It’s certainly an extensive site (less than 20 percent of which has been excavated so far), with walls, gates and early Christian basilicas poking out from among orchards, olive groves and vineyards.
The pièce de résistance is the amphitheatre, where Christians were put to death on the orders of third-century Emperor Diocletian. Diocletian’s unbelievably intact palace is just down the road in Split.
Top image: Pompeii, Italy © lara-sh/Shutterstock