The following trip report is one put together by my wife. In her spare time one of her passions is the study of places throughout the world that exhibit “paranormal” characteristics (i.e. unexplainable sounds, apparitions, etc). Sometimes we’ll base our travel to include some of these places so that she can visit them first hand to experience them for herself.
On a trip to Venice, Italy an occasion arose to visit what is considered one of the most “haunted” places on earth, Poveglia Island, and she took full advantage. I for one do not buy into idea of paranormal activity, but after visiting the Island, it did leave me with raised eyebrows and not many photos……So without further ado, here is her review of our visit to Poveglia Island.
Poveglia Island first drew my attention while conducting a college research project on bubonic plague. The fact that it is rumored to be one of the most haunted places on earth was secondary to the fact that it is home to one of the largest known mass graves on the planet.
The history of this unfortunate island is fairly well documented. Located in the Lagoon between Venice and Lido Italy, the island was home to the quarantined victims of plague. Additionally, it served as a mass grave where bodies of both living and dead were incinerated and their remains buried. Aside from the island being used as a gravesite, it was also home to a psychiatric hospital in the early 1900’s.
Prior to my visit to Venice, a popular Travel Channel program featured paranormal investigators conducting an investigation on Poveglia. They perpetuated the rumors surrounding the island:
• Specifically that no one is willing to take you there, for to set foot on the island is to be cursed.
• It had been stated fisherman won’t fish the waters surrounding Poveglia for fear of pulling up human remains in their nets.
• Anecdotes suggest that the bell tower tolls even though the bell has long been removed.
• Electronic equipment such as cameras and cell phones cease to work when near or on the island.
• The island’s land mass is comprised of 50% human ash.
The televised portion of the investigation was dramatic and interesting to watch. A member of their team apparently had the experience of being possessed by something evil while in the chapel of the crumbling hospital.
The internet is full of references to psychics who are allowed on the island leaving terrified and refusing never to return.
My expectation was finding a boat to take us to Poveglia would be the biggest challenge. Stories abound about boat taxi or other boaters who refuse to go there for fear of being cursed. Though feeling a bit nervous as I approached the first boat taxi I saw, I used my “best bad” Italian to ask if he would take us to Poveglia Island and wait while we explored. It takes no persuasion, no skill and no debate to get to Poveglia. It takes Euros. 200 of them….. If you are willing to pay, they will drive you.
As we first approached the island, the bell tower became the first landmark that we recognized. The tale of this bell tower suggests that a doctor who had performed unspeakable experiments on his patients that were hospitalized on the island (circa 1930’s) had gone mad and threw himself from the tower in an apparent attempt to take his own life.
The tale continues to suggest that as he lay at the foot of the bell tower, a spectral mist arose from the ground and swallowed him into the earth. Two nurses laid claim to have observed the event.
The bell tower and main building:
Hmmmmm. As a nurse myself I have my doubts about their recollections. What would I have done had I witnessed a situation where patients became the subject of gruesome experiments? There were no over sight committees in those days and the doctors word was law. Nurses had no recourse. They had to do as the doctors instructed.
Did the doctor desire to jump to his death or was he pushed in an attempt to murder him?
Did something indeed rise from the ground or was his body hidden among the multitude of places available on this island that had been transformed into a mass grave?
Legends tell of the bell tower still ringing though the bell had long been removed. Imagine my surprise when I heard the bell ringing and disturbing the peace on the island as we landed. We literally ran to the tower hoping to catch glimpse of a spectral being ringing the bell. However when we reached the bell tower it did not take long to realize that it was not in fact the source of the ringing. That honor belonged to a buoy sitting in the lagoon.
The weather on the day of my visit was brilliant. Sunny, warm and perfect. As my feet touched the ground I was struck with the utter peacefulness of the island as compared to the cacophony of the crowds in Saint Marks Square. Weeds are clearly winning the war for control of Poveglia. The crumbling buildings are beautiful in a way only ruins can be.
Caution must be taken as one makes their way over the bundled fishing nets upon stepping onto the island. The well preserved dock and the nets stand in testament that Povelgia is not as forbidding as suggested by those that would have you think otherwise.
The abundant fishing nets are even visible on the television show when the host loudly repeats the legend that no one will fish there for fear of pulling up human bones. Clearly any concern over pulling up bones is secondary to the desire to catch fish. Other than its tragic history the island does not radiate any feeling of doom or evil. It is blissful in it’s decaying perfection.
Recently used fishing nets dispelled some of the myths:
The buildings are decayed nearly to the point of collapse and extreme caution must be taken when roaming the island especially for a klutz like me. As I explored, there are clear signs that this place was used as a psych hospital. The bars on the windows that are designed to prevent escape made that fairly obvious.
My mind raced as I made way to the chapel. Once inside I phoned home just to prove that phones work on the island. The phone worked but our cameras stopped working properly once inside the building. They resumed normal function once we were back on the boat. I am unable to explain that occurrence.
A bridge connects the two parts of the island. It is reported that the side opposite the area with the buildings is home to the plague pits. Victims of two outbreaks of bubonic plague and several wars were burned in the plague pits. Reports of the number of persons burned and buried here vary greatly but seem to agree it was in the hundreds of thousands. No one knows for certain exactly where the plague pits are located but it is believed that this entire half of the island is built upon the ashes of the deceased.
This part of the legend reminds me of the movie “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” and of the hilarious scene where they are gathering the dead from a village by calling out “Bring out your dead.” A man and a plague victim begin to argue about the man’s impending death:
Victim: “but I’m not dead yet”
Man: “you will be soon”
Victim: “I think I’m feeling better”
Man: “No you’re not….”
Unfortunately I will no longer be able to see the humor in that scene knowing what had happened to the real victims of plague and their ultimate demise on Povelgia. According to history, victims of the plague were brought to Povelgia only to be thrown into “Plague Pits” with other victims both living and dead, to be burned to death.
I retrieved soil samples from 2 areas to test the rumor that the island is made from human ash. We then returned to Venice for the remainder of daylight.
After a dinner of squid ink risotto as suggested by Anthony Bourdain, we returned to the island at dusk for further investigation. We wanted to determine if the Island took on a different feeling at night.
In fact, the island indeed took on a different feeling in that it felt creepy. It was dark and loud with sounds of insects and other island inhabitants.
As I entered the chapel I caught myself wishing that my friendMichelle Belanger was here with me. I don’t know why exactly. Perhaps I thought she would act as a distant early warning if something scary was planning to rear its ugly head. I was also reminded that I am not a fan of stumbling around in the dark and promptly I stumbled and fell. Tripped by an evil entity you ask? Nope, tripped by my own feet. I had the sensation of being watched and occasionally our flashlights did uncover beady little eyes and their focus on us. Thankfully they recessed into the dark night and left us alone.
I did not attempt to provoke any activity as I explored. I observed, I sensed and that was it. It is easy to understand why people are so spooked by this place. After an hour of tripping on rocks, weeds, and my feet it was time to return to the glory of The Grand Canal. After all there were Bellini’s to be had.
I’ve been asked several times why I visit these obscure places and why I don’t conduct a full and thorough investigation. My answer is simple: To see the place, to feel the place and to absorb the place. I use these experiences to reach my own conclusions and to compare them against the experiences of others. I find often that the truth behind rumors sit in plain sight, you only need to observe.
Things To Know Should You Decide To Visit:
Poveglia Island is officially off limits to visitors. You must obtain permission to visit. It took 10 months for a response to my request so plan early, however once you arrive there is no one to check whether you have obtained permission or not.
The buildings are in complete disrepair. The noises you will hear are most likely not ghosts but bits and pieces of continuously crumbling brick and mortar.
Check your wine bottles for origin. Poveglia currently houses a vineyard whose grapes reportedly grow on top of the plague fields and are used in some variety of Italian wines.
Be careful when walking in the buildings, with their current state of disrepair, any step can potentially be regrettable…….