Monster hunting in Europe

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Bloodsucking foes, ghoulish encounters, we all secretly want to unleash our inner Buffy. Would-be slayers, you're in luck: Europe isn’t short of supernatural beasts, as long as you know where to look, and there's much more out there than vampires. Here's a list of five mythical monsters and where in Europe to chase them down - if you dare...

Werewolf

This half-man half-beast has anger management issues and intimidating body hair. The werewolf - a mild-mannered, if sweaty, human by day and a throat-ripping beast by the light of the full moon - is usually confined to horror movies. But many residents of Lozère in France claim to this day that the lupine Beast of Gévaudan terrorised the Massif Central region during the 1760s. King Louis XV even dispatched a hunter to slay the ravenous creature and return it to Versailles, but the mission failed. Even the best marksmen sometimes forget their silver bullets.

Where to find them: Massif Central in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France is a major stomping ground for the descendants of the original Beast of Gévaudan, if myths are to be believed. But for a canine of the non-supernatural kind, try a walk in the Alps, where wolves are making a population comeback.

Witch

We’re all familiar with these warty, hook-nosed queens of the night but the Lithuanian witch is a particularly nasty breed. Renowned for stealing babies, deadly curses and in recent years even debt collection, there’s apparently no evil low to which these demonic dames won’t stoop.

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Where to find them: There's more than a touch of magic in the air at Witches’ Hill (Raganų Kalnas), near Juodkrante, Lithuania. This secluded forest is a wonderland of pagan wood carvings, many depicting cackling hags and their demonic familiars. Should you encounter the real deal, it’s probably best to compliment her aquiline profile, steer clear of any potions and be on your way.

Elf

The hidden folk (huldufólk) of Iceland take a variety of guises, from mischievous trolls to mountain spirits. There are five varieties of imp, if the Icelandic Elf School (Álfaskólinn) is to be believed, and where better to refine your gnome-tracking skills? After a briefing at this eccentric school, you’ll never move a pebble again for fear of offending them.

Where to find them:
Under any rock, Iceland. Crouching under boulders, sheltering in trees and of course inhabiting miniature houses created for them by Icelanders, the hidden folk are everywhere. Get a head start by joining an elf tour. And while they’re considered to be a higher form of life than mere humans, don’t rely on their loftier nature and find yourself tempted to take one on. Elves are easily angered, causing accidents and bad luck that can only be soothed with a song; they even meddle in planning permission.

Vampire

It wouldn’t be a monster hunt if you weren’t sharpening your stake for the bloodthirsty undead. But rather than trekking to Vlad’s castle in Romania, vampire hunting could take you to sunnier climes. Some of the oldest vampire lore originates in ancient Greece, with seductive blood-guzzling spirits called lamiae and empousai and the more classic model of vrykolakas: the returned dead. And this unholy horde won’t melt in the sunlight, they positively thrive in it.

Where to find them: Santorini, Greece. Honeymooners might flock to this idyllic, blue-domed spot but it harbours a dark secret. According to folklore, Santorini is a burial ground for bloodsuckers. Ask around town for one of the monthly vampire walks if you're afraid to face them alone.

Dragon

Ok, at mere centimetres long, this cavern-dwelling critter is hardly the Loch Ness monster. But the olm is one of few creatures steeped in myth that you can see in the (slimy) flesh. The olm’s place in mythology starts with Venetian stone carvings depicting snakes with wings, strongly resembling the long bodies and feather-like gills of this slippery amphibian. Before long, tales of subterranean dragons rippled through Europe’s oral history, as sightings of the pallid olm were reported in caves. It may be timid but its skin-covered eyes, albino colouring and blood-red frills are an astonishing sight. Its fleshy appearance has caused some to dub it the 'human fish'. Creepy.

Where to find them: Postojna Caves, Slovenia. Slovenia’s drive to protect these dainty dragons from extinction means these caves are the perfect place to see the olm. Meeting an endangered species is great, but telling your friends you were face to face with a live dragon? Priceless.

Anita Isalska is a writer and editor based in Lonely Planet's London office. Follow her on Twitter @lunarsynthesis.

This article was first published on 25 October 2011 and was republished in July 2012.