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Blog: WHS On Banknotes

While preparing for my upcoming trip to Namibia, I found out that South African Rands are as commonly used there as Namibian dollars. That meant that it would be worth sifting through my unorganized plastic box of leftover banknotes and coins in search for South African Rands from a previous trip.

Leftover banknotes and coins

As I had some time on my hands, I organized all banknotes into 28 envelopes: one envelope per country. I handled the dirty Indian rupees, wondered about the Ukrainian hryvnia and enjoyed the feeling of the polymer notes of Singapore, Malaysia and Canada. I counted the notes as well, hoping to find a small fortune but most of it is nearly worthless. Only the 7,700 Japanese Yen (about 59 EUR) can be a nice starter for a future trip to Japan. Maybe I should just save these random banknotes, they can become more sought after later.

The favourite in my personal banknote "collection" is the 250 Iraqi dinar note showing the Samarra spiralling minaret, that I brought home from my 2014 Iraqi Kurdistan trip. Currency showing WHS are extra special of course, although I do not have a lot of it.

Especially for this sentiment we’ve had the WHS On Banknotes connection for long. It has no less than 122 connected sites, so at least 8% of the WHS has been featured on a banknote. When I finished working on the actual banknotes, I went on to clean up the connection by adding or changing links to images of banknotes. It wasn’t difficult to find even more connected sites: lots of countries find inspiration among WHS, India for example has a number of them in its current series. The Scottish Clydesdale Bank even issued a full World Heritage series in 2009, showing St Kilda, Edinburgh Old and New Towns, New Lanark, the Antonine Wall and Neolithic Orkney.

Samarra mosque at 250 Iraqi dinar note

The 2016 issue of the new 5 pound (polymer!) note of the Bank of England even includes both Blenheim Palace (its maze as a hologram) and Westminster Palace. They have to share their space with the faces of the Queen and Winston Churchill however. So my vote for the best WHS banknote goes somewhere else: to my beloved Nepal, which features two of my favourite WHS on its 1000 rupee bank note. It shows Sagarmatha National Park (Mount Everest) and Kathmandu Valley (Swayambhunath Temple). Mount Everest by the way can be seen at every current Nepali rupee note.

Other notable WHS on banknotes include those depicting the Old City of Jerusalem: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel all show parts of it on their banknotes. The three Islamic countries choose the Dome of the Rock and/or the Al Aqsa Mosque. Israel went for a stylized Jerusalem skyline on the older 50 shekel bill, and an almost invisible Temple Mount at the current 50 shekel note. Other examples of countries displaying WHS located in other countries I have not been able to find.

Two WHS on 1000 Nepali rupee note

Oh and what about those South African banknotes? I did not find any, only a few coins. There will be no 'WHS On Banknotes' souvenirs from this trip: South Africa has Nelson Mandela (5x) and the Big Five (the wild mammals, one each) displayed on its banknotes. Namibia has chosen similar themes for its dollar notes, though it selected not one single national hero but two (Sam Nujoma and Hendrik Witbooi) and five species of antelope!

Published 16 December 2017

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Blog: Lechner's pre-modern architecture

On my way back home from Pécs I had a few hours to spare in Budapest. As I had been to the Budapest WHS already, I had a look at Hungary’s Tentative List for something else worthwhile to visit. And yes: there’s another site in Budapest waiting to be included in the WH List. Ödön Lechner's independent pre-modern architecture comprises 5 buildings, of which 4 are in the Hungarian capital. Given my limited time and the freezing weather, I focused on the 2 easiest of this batch: the Postal Savings Bank and the Museum of Applied Arts.

Entrance to the Postal Savings Bank

Ödön Lechner was a Hungarian architect of the late 19th and early 20th century. Coming from a family that owned a brick factory (which engrained a love for ceramic materials), his artistic education occurred in Paris and London. He lived in both cities for a few years, and there became acquainted with Art Nouveau and the Arts & Crafts Movement. Returning to Hungary and inspired by these modern developments, he developed his own particular style – hence the “independent” in the TWHS name I guess. It also relied heavily on the Hungarian nationalist notion at the time that their roots lie in Asia (Persia, India) and not in Europe.

The Postal Savings Bank is situated in the city center of Budapest, just a few minutes’ walk from the landmark Hungarian Parliament buildings. It’s an upmarket area with many large classicist buildings. This bank stands out in its street because of its Art Nouveau and vernacular accents, although not as much as for example Gaudi’s works in Barcelona (to whom he is often compared). The building has an almost textbook classic Art Nouveau entrance. The vernacular accents mostly consist of birds, bees and flowers. It is now part of the Hungarian National Bank and I am not sure whether it is open to the general public (I visited on a Sunday so it was closed anyway).

Vernacular themes

The second Lechner building that I visited was the Museum of Applied Arts. This lies close to Corvin Negyed metro station, also still quite in the city center of Budapest. It is immediately visible when you’ve exited the metro at ground level: this is a large stand-alone building, with a distinctive green and yellow roof. In a way it resembles the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus: in English texts that I read beforehand the British colonial link is pointed out (he apparently was influenced by the Indo-Saracenic style as well).

The museum is currently closed for renovation. Is it in preparation of a successful WH nomination perhaps? It’s a pity because it provides the easiest access to the interior of one of Lechner’s buildings. Fortunately they have left the iron fence open to the formidable main entrance of the museum: a colourful masterpiece of the use of tiles and ceramics.

Magnificent entrance to Museum of Applied Arts

The official description accompanying this Tentative List entry feels like it was written by a Hungarian nationalist. Lechner apparently “created outstanding cultural treasures that demand the attention of all humanity” and was “anticipating the great individuals of world architecture”. Lechner clearly is of great interest for Hungarian architecture, although he has been despised also for a long period in the 20th century. One wonders if his particular route is enough to warrant a WH listing: he has not inspired a global following and also hasn’t left much of his footprint outside of Hungary (the “Blue Church” in Bratislava is a notable exception).

Published 9 December 2017

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Blog: WHS #649: Pécs Necropolis

The Early Christian Necropolis of Pécs represents a mix of three categories of sites: it's a Burial site, an Archaeological site of Ancient Rome and a Christian religious structure. Its OUV is mostly derived from its wall paintings. Pécs is a midsized city in the south of Hungary, and I went there for a weekend trip reaching it via a 2 hour flight to Budapest and then a 2 hour 50 minute direct train ride. The town was very quiet, but it had a cosy Christmas fair in front of its landmark (former) Mosque of Pasha Qasim.

Mausoleum superstructure

The core zone of this WHS lies in front of Pécs Cathedral and mostly underneath cathedral square. On my first approach I walked across the glass ceilings from where you can look into the Roman site, but I could not find the way in! So I walked on to the mausoleum which fortunately has a clearly visible structure remaining above ground. It’s all out in the open, this is the only part that you can see without paying the entrance fee. That fee by the way is 1100 forint, about 3.5 EUR, and it covers both the mausoleum and the Cella Septichora visitor center.

The mausoleum burial chamber is just a few square meters large, but has all the nice features: a sarcophagus (pieced back together again), colourful murals with recognizable biblical themes and some abstract figures such as a red disk.

Inside the mausoleum burial chamber

Via the map on the entrance ticket I found out that the entrance to the visitor center is from the south. It is somewhat hidden as it is an underground structure as well. This entrance connects a number of burial monuments. It is named after the Cella Septichora, an unfinished chapel with 7 apses - fairly large, it can nowadays be rented for wedding ceremonies. Deeper into the complex I found the Wine pitcher burial chamber – well, I found the glass wine pitcher and an intact sarcophagus. But I believe that the chamber itself is closed at the moment (or I did not look well enough in the maze of corridors).

At the end of the circuit lies the Peter & Paul burial chamber, the one with the most elaborate murals. As with all other tombs, a glass wall has been placed in front of it for protection. Here it is done at the bottom end, so you look upwards. The glass of course causes a lot of reflection, and this is even made worse by a video screen that constantly sends out coloured flashes. I found the murals hard to see here, only Peter and Paul stand out.

Besides the monuments accessible via these two main entrances, there are another two on private property that are also included and supposedly open to the general public. They are the Painted twin grave and an Early Christian burial chapel on Apaca Street at number 8 and 14 respectively. Both are apartment blocks that have seen better times. At number 8 there is a bell marked “Early Christian Burial Chapel – press here”. Strangely the burial chapel according to the nomination dossier is at #14, not at #8, but maybe the person with both keys lives at #8! I rang, but nobody answered or opened the door. At number 14 there’s even no hint that something historical is behind its doors.

Sarcophagus that was found in one piece

This site’s most remarkable feature is its age. Dated at the second half of the fourth century, the Pécs necropolis just fails to make the cut for our Early Christianity connection, corresponding to the times that the new religion was still persecuted. Still it is remarkable that just a few decades after Christianity was officially allowed, a construction frenzy occurred in a Roman province town. Its murals also mostly are similar to very early Christian art. The monuments at Pécs however are no match for the much more extensive and better preserved sites in Italy, such as Aquileia (early 4th century) and the Catacombs in Rome (3rd century).

Published 3 December 2017

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Blog: Rietveld Bike Tour

This year it is 100 years since De Stijl was founded, the origin of the Dutch Modern Movement in Art (and Architecture). I cannot better describe this artistic movement than this quote from Wikipedia: “Proponents of De Stijl advocated pure abstraction and universality by a reduction to the essentials of form and colour; they simplified visual compositions to vertical and horizontal, using only black, white and primary colors.” The anniversary is celebrated in many Dutch cities with exhibitions, lectures and lots of merchandising. Utrecht is probably the frontrunner in this – home town of Gerrit Rietveld, one of the most iconic Stijl-members and designer of the WH listed Rietveld-Schröder Huis.

Two Rietveld villas from the rear

Yesterday I attended a symposium organized by the student society for Cultural Sciences at the Open University, titled 'De Stijl: a source of new art in the 20th century'. They had invited two inspiring speakers to introduce us to De Stijl in Utrecht painting and in Utrecht architecture. The work of Gerrit Rietveld was central to this of course, showing his development from painter to furniture maker to architect. The man of the simple and abstract compositions in primary colors started out his career with some very traditional painting, as shown in a quite skilfully executed depiction of Christ with a crown of thorns. This past is quite unknown and I have not even been able to find a photo of that painting on the internet.

For the afternoon program I had signed up for a bicycle tour 'along neighborhoods and buildings of Het Nieuwe Bouwen'. This took us to the suburbs in the south of Utrecht.

At the Breitnerlaan, two private villas designed by Rietveld can be found. At number 11, Huis Theissing, the residents were ready to receive us. Due to its use of primary colors red, yellow and blue against a white background, the house can already be recognized from a distance as a work by Rietveld. Its interior is a surprise: the residents have furnished it completely modern, but in the spirit of Rietveld. The sliding panels that are so characteristic of the Rietveld-Schröder House were also present here, but these have been removed by the previous owner. The space is kept nice and tight by almost invisible closets. The garden has also been redone in style.

Rietveld villa Huis Theissing

The house of the neighbours is also designed by Rietveld and seems to be in a more original state. We were not allowed in there, so we got back on the bike.

At the Robijnhof, Rietveld was finally able to dedicate himself to large-scale social housing (1958). At first sight, this appears to be a neighbourhood that can be seen in so many outlying areas of Dutch major cities, primarily intended to store as many people as possible. High and low-rise buildings alternate with lots of greenery and a common square in between. There are some details though at which you can recognize the hand of Rietveld: the lack of symmetry and the use of primary colors for example.

In one of the duplex houses, a model home, we were welcomed by a guide from the Centraal Museum. The museum has furnished this house with furniture from the fifties, made in the famous Utrecht Pastoe factory. My fellow visitors awe about the original granite countertop in its kitchen, the whole decoration really reminds me of my own apartment that dates from the early sixties. Only the Rietveld coat rack remains from the original interior design of the model home.

Appartments in the Robijnhof, designed by Rietveld

Visiting Rietveld’s legacy in Utrecht by bike is very convenient as the buildings lie somewhat spread out across the city. You can also do it under you own steam using this itinerary, and combine it with a tour of the Rietveld-Schröder Huis and the Central Museum in Utrecht which holds quite a bit of the furniture that he designed.

Published 26 November 2017

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Responses to Rietveld Bike Tour
Jay T. (26 November 2017)

That sounds fascinating, and Utrecht is a beautiful town to visit!

Blog: WHC 2018: Chaîne des Puys

After two Referrals in 2014 and 2016 respectively, France will try once again to get the Tectono-volcanic ensemble of the Chaîne des Puys and Limagne Fault enlisted – probably already next year. It’s a natural site that covers a string of 80 dormant volcanoes and a parallel geological structure to the west that shows inverted relief.

Cloud cover over the Puy de Dôme

When I prepared for this trip, I opted to visit the Gour de Tazenat – an almost perfectly round crater lake or “mare”. But when my rental car plans fell through, I had to find a way into the core zone of the Chaîne des Puys by public transport. Fortunately its main landmark, the Puy de Dôme, lies just 15km west of the city of Clermont-Ferrand and I was able to catch a shuttle bus between Clermont-Ferrand and the Dôme Railway Station on the last day of the season.

The Puy de Dôme itself nowadays can only be accessed via the Panoramique des Dômes, a panoramic rack railway that covers the final km’s to the top. A return trip costs 12.30 EUR (in low season), though you can save a bit by riding up and walking down which supposedly takes some 50 minutes. At 10 a.m. I unfortunately found the Puy covered in the clouds. A temperature of -1 degrees Celsius was displayed at the departure station. Apparently it’s best to sit to the left in the train (for the better views), but it didn’t matter much this day as nothing was visible anyway.

Ruins of Mercury temple at the top

So what did I encounter at the top of the Puy de Dome? It was freezing cold indeed, the grass covered with hoarfrost. A strong wind was blowing as well, making any form of hiking a struggle. The clouds were so low that I could not see where to go from the upper train station. I just went uphill a bit more until I arrived at the ruins of the Temple of Mercury. This Roman temple was discovered when the scientific station at the top was constructed. They’re now trying to rebuild it – it is fairly large and it’s interesting to know that the Romans came to the top of this hill as well. The best thing on this day however was the adjoining exhibition room: clean, dry and warm.

Beforehand I wondered whether 1 hour and 10 minutes at the top would be enough (as that was all I had to be back in time at Clermond-Ferrand Airport). Well, I even had time for a 30 minute break at the convenient cafeteria next to the upper station. Around it there are many panorama viewpoints, but on a cloudy day there’s just nothing to enjoy.

A few more dormant volcanoes

So will it be third time lucky for the Chaine de Puys? Rarely have I read such negative reviews of a site by IUCN as these, and I guess they will continue to try preventing inscription. The Advisory Body’s opposition is based on two pillars: the high degree of human intervention and the comparatively low interest of the volcanic features on a global scale. The human intervention takes many forms, such as the antenna on top of the Puy de Dôme: “this entirely unnatural feature dominates the landscape and significantly and permanently detracts from its natural aesthetics”. Also active quarrying within the area must be stopped.

Regarding its volcanic features, “IUCN considers that the Convention should aim to list the sites that have the most significant scale and extent of natural values. Identification of the most significant sites in absolute terms, and not their "scale models", is the appropriate basis for defining Outstanding Universal Value.”

Published 18 November 2017

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Blog: WHS #648: Saint-Savin sur Gartempe

Saint-Savin sur Gartempe is a quaint French village with just over 900 inhabitants. It has a couple of hotels and restaurants, and as I was pressed into slow travel because of limited public transport options I found the place pleasant enough to stay overnight. I had a fine 4-course gourmand dinner at Le Patisson, the quality of which in such a small town provides at least one reason why so many NW Europeans choose to move to rural France. But of course at the end of the day I came just for its enlisted Abbey Church and its medieval murals.

The Abbey at the Gartempe

The next morning I started with a walk along the Gartempe river and across both bridges for some photos of the Abbey. Its size is remarkable for such a small town and it was fully included in the core zone by a minor boundary modification in 2015. Most of it though is from a much later date than the medieval murals that provide the site’s OUV.

Entrance nowadays costs 8 EUR, which includes a good booklet with explanations (without it is 1 EUR less). There's a large souvenir shop, where they even sell lollipops displaying the logo of this WHS. After buying the ticket one is directed first to the main Abbey (which features an exhibition) and the gardens, but these are mildly interesting to say it nicely. To get to the murals, you have to take another entrance: the front door of the church.

Candystick columns

At the church I was the only visitor. Upon entering the candystick-coloured columns definitely stand out. I know I’ve seen similar ones before – probably at another WHS, but where?

There are some paintings already in the porch of the huge gothic tower, where you enter. These include the Lady and the Dragon, with an especially fierce dragon. The uninterrupted strip of main murals is located in the nave, painted at a height of 17 meters in a semi-circle. The most famous painting is Noah's Ark, a crowded wooden boat with 2 copies of a few animals in front of the windows and several human passengers at the top deck. Most interesting I found the Tower of Babel - not really on scale, but you see people in elegant robes supplying stones to the builders at the top. And there’s also God introducing Eve to Adam, both looking like primitive cave people.

Tower of Babel mural

Getting to Saint-Savin by public transport is not an easy task as the schedules are mostly geared to daily commuters. The slow bus 103 leaves Poitiers 5 times a (week)day for Chauvigny, a town 19km away from Saint-Savin. Twice daily this bus connects with a ‘bus on demand’ for the final km’s, a service that has to be booked a day beforehand by phone. Otherwise you have to hope someone else did that already and you can ride along (I was lucky on a Thursday evening). As a last resort there will be taxi’s. There also is a second bus company, TER, covering this stretch – only a couple of times a day as well but they take a faster route and do not have to be prebooked. This seems to be the best choice, but I only found out about them on my way back.

Published 11 November 2017

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Responses to WHS #648: Saint-Savin sur Gartempe
Clyde (15 November 2017)

Sure :)

Els Slots (11 November 2017)

Thanks for your research, Clyde. I see a new Connection!

Clyde (11 November 2017)

After some research, it seems that the colourful columns are painted replicas of marble ones in The Santa Apollinare Church in Ravenna or the San Paolo Fuori Le Mura church in Rome.

The tecnique is called faux marble or marbleizing and has been used in Albi Cathedral, Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg, the Chartres Cathedral, the Pavlovsk Palace in St Petersburg, the Venus Room in Versailles Palace and many more whs for sure.

Blog: WHS #647: Bourges Cathedral

Bourges Cathedral was meant to be my 650th visited WHS – but after my biggest WH travel mistake ever I had to rearrange my 5-day trip to south-central France. I had planned to visit my last 4 remaining WHS on the French mainland plus 1 TWHS within that time-frame. The route involved quite a bit of driving, but it would all still be doable. My chances turned instantly when I discovered at the car rental counter of Clermont-Ferrand airport that I had left my driver’s license at home. No license = no rental car = no remote WHS visits. The Vézère Valley and the Pont d’Arc Cave would have to wait, and even reaching Saint-Savin sur Gartempe now would involve a minor expedition.

The west façade with its five portals

So I eventually ended up on a train from Clermont-Ferrand to Bourges. This area of France is not well-covered by public transport, and I had to wait a few hours to take the first train north. I arrived in the mid-sized city of Bourges in the early evening. The streets in the town centre were deserted, and the inhabitants seemed to be in some kind of voluntary lock-down: no lights visible from the streets, gates and shutters closed. After dropping off my luggage at the hotel, I went directly to the cathedral for a first look. It was beautifully lit.

The next morning I did a proper cathedral visit. I started with its exterior. You cannot fully circle it, but at the north and east wing there are two chapels that are worth a look for their sculpted decorations. The best decorations however are at the front (the western entrance). Its 5 portals are framed with all kinds of biblical and regional-historical scenes. These 5 entrances are in itself one of the special things of this cathedral: a 'normal' gothic cathedral of that period has only 3. I especially liked the heaven versus hell scene above the main door. Hell is portrayed particularly nasty, with little devils pushing unfortunate human beings into a flame-spewing mouth.

Into hell

The cathedral’s interior already is open from 9 a.m., and entrance is free. Only the tower and crypt have more limited opening hours (French office hours with a long lunch break) and require a fee. I wasn’t keen on climbing the tower, and the crypt was closed for the morning due to a private function. So I just ‘did’ the main cathedral.

Right near the entrance stands an historical astronomical clock. It still ticks and chimes nicely.

The stained-glass windows however are the main attraction. The cathedral has 3 rows of windows above each other, and all those windows are painted. At the back, in the choir, the oldest windows can be found. These are the 13th century originals. They let through little light and are mostly done in red and blue. The ‘newer’ (still as early as the 15th century) stained glass windows are lighter in colour and more translucent. Despite all these windows I found the cathedral still quite dark inside.

15th century stained glass

The original 1992 site description mentions that the designated area also includes “… a 13th century tithe barn, those elements of the 17th century Bishop’s Palace which survive as the Hotel de Ville, and the cathedral gardens in classical French style.” However this is not reflected in the official map, where the core zone only consists of the cathedral. As these additional elements are situated next to the cathedral I had a look at them anyway. The gardens are a good spot to take photos of the cathedral building as a whole – very hard to do otherwise. And the tithe barn is an interesting timber-framed storage or granary. In the Middle Ages it was used to store the church tributary (one-tenth of a farmers produce).

Published 4 November 2017

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Responses to WHS #647: Bourges Cathedral
Jay T (5 November 2017)

That's terrible, but at least it sounds like you were able to take lemons and make lemonade so that your trip to France wasn't a total loss. I hope it won't be too long until you can finish your last sites in France.

Blog: Favourite entrance tickets to WHS

During my recent trip to Ecuador I was pleasantly surprised by the entrance tickets that I received at locations within the Quito WHS. No photography is allowed within these buildings (they are mostly churches with lots of art), and a hefty foreigners entrance fee is charged. But in return I got tickets displaying the church interior’s main features; these are good souvenirs. It made me think about entrance tickets of other WHS - which ones were remarkable enough for me to save over the years?

Some of the glitzy Quito tickets

Especially in Western Europe nowadays one often gets nothing more than the cash register receipt. Or even no receipt at all – sometimes they just take your money and that’s it. At the Hohle Fels Cave of the German Caves and Ice Age Art I just had to drop 3 EUR in a plastic box. Another annoyance is when the ticket inspector keeps the (best part of the) ticket that you just bought!

I am not really someone that saves all kinds of memorabilia from my trips, but I have held onto some 15 entrance tickets from my Big China Trip of 2007. At the time, these tickets were glossy postcards displaying the WHS at their best. I went through them again last night, admiring those showing off the sculptured heads at the Mogao Caves and Leshan Giant Buddha. I believe the one from Huanglong – showing the site’s remarkable blue-greenish colours - stands out most among them.

Huanglong postcard-type ticket

South Korea surely is the most generous country in handing out free brochures at WHS, though the entrance tickets aren’t that special. When I visited India for the last time in 2011, they had special entrance tickets showing a couple of WHS together. The ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) became the issuing authority for a common entry ticket for all World Heritage sites in India - and they went for standardization.

Regarding the High Entrance Fee-sites, you’d expect a substantial and/or glossy ticket too. But for the 100+20 USD fee to the Galapagos you get nothing in return but a kind of immigration card. The 50 USD Rock Islands of Palau left me with a cute credit card sized ticket, with a turtle, the UNESCO logo and my name on it. Looking back further into my ‘travelling history’, the 3-day ticket for Angkor was no less than a personalized pass. And for visiting the gorilla’s in Bwindi you even receive a diploma.

A 3-day Angkor pass from 2007

I am wondering, what are the best WHS entrance tickets in your possession? Were the tickets 'better' in the past? Really, shouldn’t we get a ‘certificate’ every time we visit a WHS?

Published 28 October 2017

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Responses to Favourite entrance tickets to WHS
Durian (28 October 2017)

I love tickets of Kyoto’s Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji temples, these entrance tickets are not only just a ticket but a talisman for good luck blessing by temple priests. Simple but full with culture and meanings.

Clyde (28 October 2017)

I keep all the tickets and brochures from my visits even if they are simple receipts. I agree that China's postcard tickets are among the best. However, the standardised ticketing system in India only applies to the WHS close to Rajasthan as presumably they attract most tourists. I was expecting the same glossy tickets when I cisited central and southern India but only got handwritten ot printed receipts. The combined ticket of palaces and the Jongmyo shrine was among my favourite in a booklet format with the date of visit, pictures and summary info on each site.

Blog: Hoge Kempen Transition Landscape

Belgium is currently preparing the 2019 nomination for Hoge Kempen Rural - Industrial Transition Landscape. This is going to be proposed as a mixed site ánd evolutionary cultural landscape. It covers the Hoge Kempen National Park plus .. more. To me it’s unclear which locations will comprise the core zone, but additionally to the park the garden cities of Winterslag, Waterschei, Zwartberg and Eisden seem to be included.

Hoge Kempen and its industrial left-overs in the distance

The core zone will be centred around Maasmechelen, a municipality of 37,000 inhabitants known for its coalmining history. Maasmechelen nowadays also is well-known even across the border in the Netherlands for its Outlet Shopping Center (attracting over 2 million people a year): ‘Maasmechelen Village’ was constructed on the grounds of the former mine of Eisden.

I did not come to shop obviously, but to get a grasp of this potential WHS. For its natural values I prepared a visit to Hoge Kempen National Park. The park only exists since 2006, and commercial exploitation seems to be a big issue here too. There are 6 designated access points to the park, but most have been spiced up to include attractions such as dog parks, miniature golf courts or a planetarium. I eventually choose the ‘Mechelse Heide’. This is mostly heathland, where a few easy hiking trails have been laid out. I walked the 5.5km long blue route, which has distant views on a former sand and gravel quarry.

Sand and gravel quarry

The site’s natural value is geological: here you can find river sediments of the last Ice Ages – sand, gravel, pebbles. This is said to be the best-kept example of glacial formation effects from that period in Europe. I cannot really say that my hike brought me closer to seeing, let alone understanding, this. There’s no interpretation along the trail, and most of it goes through a rather nondescript forest. I was even less successful at another access point, Station As. Here I followed a short trail that should reach the wall of a former gravel quarry where you can see the different deposits since the Ice Age. No “wall” was found by me however!

It’s a long story getting from the natural circumstances to the cultural landscape, which is the other pillar of this proposed WHS. Due to the sand and gravel, the agricultural value of this area was poor and it was mostly used for keeping cows and sheep. However, coal was discovered in the ground and the area was quickly turned around into an industrial economic system. This system came with changes in the landscape (slag heaps etc), migration from other parts of Europe and specific facilities such as housing for the miners. It even became the subject of 19th-century, Western European landscape painting (a favourite spot for plein air painting). This broad scope is reflected in the proposed criteria for inscription, and I can already see IUCN and ICOMOS lamenting about the lack of focus.

Former Parish House in the garden city of Eisden

On my way back home I drove via the garden quarter of Eisden, considered to be the most beautiful example of the Garden City concept on the European continent. This is not exactly a neighbourhood with homes for poor miners’ families. Spacious villas and public buildings were constructed in a leafy suburb. They’re now often converted into restaurants (and even a casino), or are in private use so that it felt a bit awkward to stop the car and take photos. There are a number of pretty buildings though, such as the huge ‘mining cathedral’, the parish house, the school and the house of a mining engineer.

Published 21 October 2017

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Blog: Tips for travelling to Ecuador

In September I spent 2 weeks in Ecuador, my first visit to this country. I covered all 5 WHS on a self-designed tour around the country by public transport. The small Andean nation has its pros and cons – it is quite compact for example, saving one the hellish bus rides known from Peru – but it will not make my list of favourite countries in the world that I’d love to return to.

Find below my Top Tips for Travelling to Ecuador as a World Heritage Traveller.

Galapagos Frigatebird displaying its inflatable red throat pouch

1. The Galapagos is expensive but not prohibitive

I spent 560 US dollars to get ‘into’ the Galapagos – and from that point the costs for lodging and food are similar to those in Quito. This expense was split between 440 dollar for the return ticket from Quito (getting there from Guayaquil is slightly cheaper), 20 dollar for a kind of visa fee (“transit control ticket”), to be paid at the departure airport, and 100 dollar for the conservation fee to be paid upon landing. So ‘ticking off’ the Galapagos is cheaper than seeing for example the gorillas in Bwindi. The islands still feature though on our connection High Entrance Fees, where I have updated the Galapagos entry from 100 to 120 USD (2017).

2. Take your time if you want to do the Galapagos on your own

I spent 5 days/4 nights on the Galapagos Islands, and that was actually a few days too little. You'd want a mix between exploring an island by yourself and joining a day tour for those islands that are only accessible with a guide. Besides a bit of personal freedom, this also lowers the cost as the day tours are not cheap at about 150 US dollar. A good additional thing to do would be to take the ferry to Isabela, and stay for 2 nights so you can take day tours from there too. A thing to consider is also the season: I visited in late September, and that was already the end of the summer season so not all day tours were available every day.

At the market of Guamote

3. Don’t miss the Andean towns for their active indigenous culture

Landscape-wise I found the area around Riobamba the prettiest: think Andes mountains plus mega-volcanoes. And that’s where you’ll find the largest share of indigenous population too. Probably only Bolivia rivals the percentage of people wearing traditional dress compared to this region. I recommend to visit the weekly Thursday market in Guamote, where you'll get a glimpse into the life of a small Andean farmer.

4. Don’t expect great pre-Columbian sites

One of the reasons that I didn’t like Ecuador as much as I would have wanted, is the near-absence of pre-Columbian archaeological sites. Where Mexico and Peru are literally covered in them, Ecuador only has the modest Ingapirca. A great place to visit however is the Casa del Alabado in Quito. It is a private art museum with an excellent collection of pre-Columbian remains from Ecuador. It has mostly ceramics, and these are in great condition. It highlights for example the Jama Coaque culture and the Chorrera culture.

Human figurine of the Ancient Jama-Coaque Culture

5. Ecuador’s Tentative List needs some further exploring

At the moment of writing, Ecuador has a Tentative List of 5. The country hasn't been very active nomination wise - actually I have not found any evidence of independent action since 1983. Only the Mining town of Zaruma has been in the news a few times, and if I had more time to spend in Ecuador I would for sure have checked it out. The other 4 sites are a petrified forest, an Andean railway track, an archaeological site with the world’s first traces of cocoa use and a coastal tropical forest. Noone has ever written a review about any of them on this website, so there's some unchartered territory to explore for the intrepid WH Traveller.

Published 14 October 2017

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