Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland. There can be only one.
Have you ever been travelling somewhere and suddenly thought: “This looks familiar!” That’s because it is, as Hollywood location scouts scan the world for places that look just as dramatic on film as they do for tourists on the ground. Here’s seven of the best:
I love those offbeat romantic English comedies, a guilty pleasure on long-haul flights. I also see if I can pick out the locations used, like the big wedding scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral, filmed at the St Bartholomew the Great Church in London. Snowdonia, a national park in northern Wales, has served as Camelot in First Knight (starring Richard Gere) and is also seen in James Bond’s From Russia With Love. The historic manor of Chatsworth can be seen in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, as well as The Duchess (starring Kiera Knightley) and the 2010 production of The Wolfman, with Anthony Hopkins. The Highlander, a classic fantasy film, had locations including Eilean Donan Castle and Glencoe, a beautiful part of the Scottish highlands. Back to Hugh Grant, Notting Hill is a popular area of London, and hosts the boisterous annual Notting Hill Carnival.
Whenever the scene calls for a thick jungle, you can bet there’s a producer on the plane to Hawaii’s oldest island, Kauai. Remember that scene in Jurassic Park as the helicopter approaches a dramatic coastline, and lands right by a waterfall? Helicopter tours over the Na Poli coastline are hugely popular, and Island Helicopters even land right by the waterfall, now known as Jurassic Falls, just like the movie. You can swing on the same rope as Indiana Jones (in Raiders of the Lost Ark) right into Huleia River., or swim in the Fountain of the Youth as featured in Pirates of the Caribbean. Tropic Thunder, Hook, Outbreak, Lord of the Flies - if you think Wailua Falls look right out of Fantasty Island, that’s because they are.
Although it was inspired by the Philippines, The Beach, a hit book and movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio, was set and filmed in Thailand. Tourists flock to Phi Phi Leh to see this celluloid paradise for themselves, including the iconic beach of Hat Maya. There are daily ferries from popular resort towns of Phuket and Krabi. While in Phuket, you might recognize scenes from Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, and you can also take a boat out to James Bond Island, also known as Phang Nga Bay, as featured in the Man with the Golden Gun. More recently, the Hangover II used Bangkok as an able substitute for Las Vegas.
Hobbit tours in New Zealand
The Lord of the Rings trilogy put the Kiwi film industry on the map. The South Island, around the tourist mecca of Queenstown, was a perfect choice for Middle Earth. There are daily tours from Queenstown to over 20 locations featured in the movie, such as the Lothlorien Woods (Paradise Glenorchy), Rivendell (Lake Manapouri) and the Ford of Bruinen (Arrow River) where Arwen summoned a flood to dispel of the RIngwraiths. Fantasy fans might also recognize locations in the Milford Sound, and Kingston Beach on Lake Wakatipu, as featured in the movie Wolverine. There is also the Cook Strait, which was used for the ocean scenes in the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. As for the film’s Skull Island, it was none other than Lyall Bay near the capital of Wellington.
Paris inspires lovers, and filmmakers too. The list of films set or filmed in Paris is a long one. Amongst my favourites are The Bourne Identity, mostly filmed in Paris and Prague. You will recognize the Gare Du Nord, one of the busiest train stations in Europe, the Hotel Regina opposite the Louvre, the Jardin des Tuileries, La Grande Arche de la Défense in the business district, and the Pont des Arts, where Bourne disappears into the credits. Before Sunrise, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, is a love letter to the city, as our two lovers discover the city and each other. They walk through the Sorbonne, along the Seine, on the Promenade Plantée, above the old Viaduc des Arts. As they tuck behind the Notre Dame at Quai de la Tournelle, it’s no wonder they didn’t bump into Jason Bourne, who was featured in the same spot in the Bourne Identity. Paris, je t'aime is a beautiful romantic comedy that will inspire travellers, but avoid From Paris with Love, a John Travolta disaster doing no favours for the tourism industry!
This North African country has not hosted many Hollywood movies, but the few that it has have been illustrious. Tunis doubled as Cairo in the Oscar-winning English Patient, along with Sfax on the coast. More famously, Tunisia doubled for Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine in the first Star Wars movie. There actually is a place in Tunisia called Tatooine, but the scenes were actually filmed in Matmata, where people have been living in sandstone caves for centuries. A huge salt flat called Chott el Jerid allowed Skywalker to gaze longingly at two suns, while visitors flock to nearby Sidi Bouhel, now known as Star Wars Canyon, where R2D2 was captured. The series returned to Tunisia for its Tatooine scenes in The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Scenes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian were filmed in the Ribat monastery at Monastir. Indiana Jones pops up again, with the “Egyptian” desert scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark actually filmed around the Tunisian UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kairouan.
Vancouver gets a familiar sci-fi makeover
Vancouver has the third largest film and television industry in North America, and the city often doubles for other locations. Simon Fraser University has been seen in Underworld 4 Spy Game, the X Files and Battlestar Gallactica. The Lions Gate Bridge makes a cameo in Tron: Legacy. The Fantastic Four flew into North Vancouver’s Pier 97, while X-Men: The Last Stand invaded Lynn Canyon Park and its popular local hiking trails. Chinatown doubled for San Francisco in Romeo Must Die, and the apocalyptic future in iRobot. Even the airport gets some screen time. YVR has been featured in Final Destination, Fantastic Four, The Killing, and Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. More recently, the smash hit Deadpool did something unusual for Hollywood. They filmed in Vancouver, and didn't pretend it was something else.
Fantasy, science fiction and spy movies gravitate to the Czech Republic, so don’t be surprised if some of the scenery looks familiar. Alien vs Predator, The Brothers Grimm, Hellboy, Von Helsing, Mission Impossible, XXX and From Hell were all filmed in locations around Prague.. Casino Royale was filmed at Barrandov Studios as well as in Karlovy Vary. The Bourne Identity pops up again, as Prague doubles for Zurich. Still on Matt Damon, the creepy Bone Church of Kutna Hora made an appearance in the Brothers Grimm, as did Kačina Castle and Kost Castle. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the winter park scene was filmed amongst the odd sandstone formations at Adrspach National Park on the Czech Republic-Poland border.
Fresh and rotten in time for Halloween, here’s a gallery of the places that blasted chills down my spine. Haunted, sinister, evil or just plain weird, for those that dream about travelling the world, welcome to your nightmare.
The Bone Church of Kutna Hora
Some time in the 13th century, a monk brought sand from Jerusalem to this small ossuary in central Europe. Suddenly everyone wanted to be buried there, but soon enough, space ran out. The monks collected and stored the bones. Several hundred years later, a local woodcarver decided he’d get creative with the surplus skeletons. Using the bones of some 40,000 people, he created wall art, columns, even a chandelier made with every bone in the human body. Today you can visit this small bizarre church, marvel at its morbid creativity, and literally stare death in the face.
San Franciscan Monastery
Sticking with the bone theme (“the hip bone’s connected to the…thigh bone”), the 17th century San Franciscan Monastery in the Peruvian capital of Lima is high on most visitors list. It looks amazing from the outside, but head inside and below to the narrow, creepy catacombs. You’ll find carefully geometrically arranged skeletons of some 25,000 has-beens. Built using bricks of guano, the air is dense, lit with a distinct atmosphere of spookiness, as opposed to the intended religious devotion. One catacomb is piled head-high in skulls. With the low ceilings, you might want to watch your head too.
The Killing Fields
There is creepy and there is spooky, and then there is just plain evil. Nothing makes your hair stand up, your throat parch, your nerves collapse and your faith in humanity shatter like the physical site of genocide. And yet, sickening places like the killing fields of Cambodia, the Nazi death camps in Europe, and the Kigali Genocide Museum in Rwanda are vital to understand the horrors of the past, and make sure they never happen again. It is beyond comprehension to picture mass graves, murdered skulls piled 30ft high, or pools of human ashes. It is also beyond the tone of a column of this nature. And yet I’ll continue to draw attention to historical acts of genocide, the importance that travellers acknowledge them, and the fact that even today, the horror of mass murder continues to exist.
The Museum of Medieval Torture
My head is on the chopping block. This actual piece of wood above was used in dozens of decapitations, which believe it or not, is one of the kinder punishments you’ll find in this gruesome collection of authentic medieval torture instruments. This bizarre museum, located off the main square of Tallinn’s old town, has wooden, iron and spiked contraptions that date back to the inquisition. Accused of being a witch? They’d lower you on a giant wooden spike and split you in two. Spanish Tickle Torture was a device used to strip flesh from bones. You can see the genuine rack, used to split a body in in two, thumbscrews, and iron contraptions designed to expire the victim in unbelievable agony. I’m not sure what’s sicker: The wicked contraptions, that someone has actually collected them, or that I paid good money to visit the museum in the first place.
Transylvania is the birthplace of modern horror. At least in books and movies. Fictional Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler, a ruthless leader who enjoyed the sight of his Turkish enemies being skewered. “Dracula’s Castle” is in Romania, but it’s a renowned hokey tourist joint. Hang on, aren’t the hills of Transylvania perfect roaming grounds for werewolves. Nobody has seen one of them in ages, in fact, nobody has ever seen one outside of a movie theatre. What you will see in Transylvania are small villages alive with traditional music and cuisine. You’ll visit the capital of Cluj Napoca (above), full of cool bars, frequented by hip students listening to dance music or reggae. There’s nothing particularly creepy about Transylvania at all, other than the fact that, hey, it’s Transylvania. I’m not walking alone in those woods, pal.
Lamanai Mayan Ruins
Most ancient ruins up the creep factor, which is why they frequently feature in horror movies. Some Mayan ruins have the added bonus of having been the setting for human sacrifice, where decapitated heads echoed off the jungle as they bounced down the steps of temple pyramids. Found throughout Central America, the fate of Mayan civilization remains steeped in mystery. Why and how did one of the most powerful empires in history suddenly disappear? It is uncertain if human sacrifices took place here in Lamanai as it did in other later Mayan temples, although blood-letting sacrifices almost certainly did. I walk up the blackened stairs, soak up the mystery, with silence so spooky it could break my fall.
Chernobyl and Prypiat
Site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, it didn’t feel that weird standing outside reactor number 4. That’s because radiation is a silent killer, and sure enough the Geiger counter was reading levels dozens of times higher than in the nearest major city of Kiev. The true creep only sets when you visit the nearby deserted city of Prypiat. Residents had just hours to leave, abandoning everything, including their pets. A quarter century later, the city is a post-apocalyptic nuclear nightmare. Dead silence, school books flapping in the wind, buildings cracking with time. Since everything inside the 30km Zone of Alienation is considered nuclear waste, there they will remain. Including this haunting doll, one of many to be found in an eerily silent school.
The Kataragama Festival
Hang on, there’s nothing creepy about the Katharagama Festival! It’s an incredible, peaceful and unforgettable celebration of faith, as three major religions congregate in worship and respect. Still, when I stumbled on this unique Muslim ceremony, I witnessed a spectacle soaked in blood and wide-eyed fear. Holy men had gathered in a circle, and to demonstrate the intensity and extent of their faith, proceeded to stab themselves with knives and spears. To the chant of voices and the beat of drums, the holy man pictured jammed two knives deep in his skull, slashed his tongue and chest, but seemed to recover perfectly with a dab of ash on the wounds. Filming an episode of Word Travels, the reaction of our sound guy Paul (look right) speaks volumes.
Bonus: Introducing The Creepiest Guy I Ever Met. In Ethiopia's Southern Omo Valley. Oh, he was holding an AK-47. I believe I complimented him on his hair style, maintained eye contact, and backed away, very, very slowly....
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.