Books

Thomas H Cook on the 'dark travel' which shines a different light

Visiting the sites of some of the world's greatest horrors and tragedies, Thomas H Cook finds unexpected hope and endurance

When I was a boy, my father would suddenly emerge from our house, call out “Tommy, wanna see something”, then wave me toward his dusty old flatbed truck. Off we’d go, always toward places where something weird had occurred. A truck lifted by wind, then set down on top of a house. A bed hanging precariously in a tree. Water flowing anywhere it shouldn’t. For my father, these were works of surreal art, nature’s way of painting Dali’s melted clocks.

Such was, I think, the origin of my attraction to dark places, and it was one I later extended beyond the acts of nature to include the terrible works of man. Following this urge, I went to Auschwitz, to Hiroshima, to the killing fields of Cambodia and the fearsome slave dungeons of west Africa. Over time, this circle of darkness embraced the leper colony on Kalaupapa, a home for homeless children outside Kumasi, and the heartbreaking procession at Lourdes.

it seems strange to me that many places of dark renown have chosen to conceal their darkness

Over the years, and very much to my surprise, I discovered the light that comes from darkness. At Verdun, I learned to be more tolerant of the young. At Verona, I faced the obstacles to enduring love. At Machecoul, where Gilles de Rais, the world’s first recorded serial killer, murdered perhaps as many as 300 children, I came to appreciate the waves of religious and social reform that would now render impossible so extended and monstrous a criminal career.

And so when I came to write Tragic Shores, my memoir of dark travel, only one opening line seemed truly to express this experience, for I had genuinely “come to thank dark places for the light they bring to life”.

Thomas-Cook_credit-Richard-Perry

The central truth of dark travel is that there is much to be gained where much has been lost, and we deny ourselves that bounty at the peril of our souls. For this reason, it seems strange to me that many places of dark renown have chosen to conceal their darkness. This is particularly true of such sites as the Tower of London, where the grim life of those who were imprisoned or executed there is buried beneath a frenzy of touristy commercialism. Lord Macaulay once said of the Royal Chapel inside the Tower that “there is no sadder spot on Earth”. But those who visit it now will feel nothing of the doomed figures who said their final prayers there.

A similar trivialisation of tragedy occurs at Tiffauges, another of Gilles de Rais’ murderous chateaux, and at Williamsburg, where a site of vast hardship has been turned into little more than a theme park that gives no sense of the back-breaking labour, death-dealing illness and ever-encroaching starvation that was incontestably the experience of its first residents.

It was at the Wieliczka Salt Mine outside Krakow, in southern Poland, that I first experienced this purposeful turning away from the darker truths of a dark place. The mine was established in Roman times, and was in continuous operation for hundreds of years. Indeed, when I visited it in the mid-1990s it was still a functioning salt mine. The uniqueness of Wieliczka resides in the hundreds of carvings, all done in black, unprocessed salt, that are scattered throughout the mine. They are the work of generations of salt miners, and for the most part they are either whimsical represent-ations of figures from Polish folklore or biblical scenes that reflect the devout Catholicism of the miners.

it was surely this room, I thought, not the cathedral, that was the darkest place at Wieliczka.

At one point, the few people who’d chosen to visit the mine were taken to a vast underground cathedral, complete with enormous chandeliers, all made entirely of salt. As we stood, gawking at this amazing creation, the lights were turned off, and our guide announced: “You are now standing in the darkest place of Earth.”

Physically, this was unarguably true. But a few minutes later, as we were leaving the mine, I noticed a chamber with vertical racks of what appeared to be beds. I asked the guide what this was, and he said, almost hurriedly, as if he had been told not to dwell on this place: “This is where they kept the Jews.” He meant the Jews who’d worked as slave-labourers for the Nazi occup-ation, most of whom never saw sunlight again. It was surely this room, I thought, not the cathedral, that was the darkest place at Wieliczka. And yet it was passed over without comment, as if it were only salt-carved gnomes and fairies that had ever mattered here.

What I have learned, however, is that light flows from dark places. Sharing them with your family allows for a far deeper experience, and inspires far more interesting discussions. Take it from me, there is more to the family vacation than Disneyland.

Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Travel to the Darkest Places on Earth by Thomas H Cook is out now in hardback (Quercus, £20)

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