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World Heritage Site

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Blog: WHS #643: Cuenca

They just call it ‘Cuenca’ in Ecuador, but with the Spanish Cuenca also inscribed we have two WHS with the same name! So for the website I’m sticking to its full name: Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca. Looking at the current state of our connections, links, reviews (1) and photos (1) for this WHS, not many previous visitors found anything to write home about or even had a critical look at its specific site page. So with Cuenca being the first stop on my Ecuador trip, it’s now time for a makeover.

Main door of the New Cathedral

Adding additional links proved to be hard. Actually none of the key attractions of the city has a functioning website. I found a number of blog posts from mainly Americans living in the city glorifying life there, but most were too shallow to warrant a link. I eventually settled for 5 Things You Can't Miss In Cuenca's Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. The best website about Cuenca still is the official one from the local tourist department. It does have comprehensive listings of churches, museums etc with their opening hours. I used it in planning my itinerary for the day, as it has so much more detail compared to what I had been able to find elsewhere.

I easily found 11 additional connections to characterize Cuenca. The New Cathedral, the city’s main landmark, in itself is a rich source. It was designed by a German friar, has 3 blue glazed domes, Carrara marble on the floors and is considered unfinished (there should have been 2 more domes). I visited on a Sunday during one of the almost continuous masses. The huge church can hold 10,000 people and this number surely was present. There are video screens attached to the pillars so even from far the people can see what the priest is doing exactly. A connection ‘kitsch’ would be needed to further describe the interior of this New Cathedral. There’s a 3m high statue of Pope John Paul II for example that looks like a gigantic plastic doll.

Remigio Crespo Toral Museum

The World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the US Ambassadors Fund have been active in Cuenca. The WMF supported the renovation of the Remigio Crespo Toral Museum. It only finished in 2014 and so is missing from many guidebooks and websites about Cuenca. It’s worth visiting though and is free to enter. This former house of a poet shows you how the elite lived in the late 19th, early 20th century. I can disclose that they were fond of Paris. Both WMF and Ambassadors Fund spent their money at the Todos Santos Complex. It covers a historic church (with roots going back to 1540), garden and bakery. Unfortunately it was closed on the day that I visited Cuenca.

Another notable location is Pumapongo. Pumapongo is the archaeological site that covers remains of the Inca city of Tomebamba. The story is that Tomebamba was already in ruins when the Spanish arrived, and that they choose to build their own city 2km away. I think we have to let go the connection Built over the ruins of an Incan city, as this was not technically the case in Cuenca (in contrast to Quito and Cuzco). Both are now enclosed within the modern city, which with 400,00 inhabitants seems to fully cover the valley. I found the ruins more impressive than I had anticipated. The site has a very straight canal running through it, with an “Inca" bath” at the center. Next to it they have re-created gardens, and there are manmade terraces that go all the way up to where the ceremonial center was.

Site of Pumapongo

In all I had expected a little more from Cuenca. For me it did not live up to charming colonial centres such as Guanajuato (Mexico), Antigua (Guatemala) and Granada (Nicaragua). Maybe this is because of its fairly large size, or I was distracted too much by the rainy weather. The city had its heydays in the late 19th and early 20th century, and this period reflects more in its buildings than the colonial era. It has always been a bit of an outpost and did not see the riches of towns that experienced mining booms.

Published 19 September 2017

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Blog: WHS #642: Antequera Dolmens

The Antequera Dolmens were the fourth prehistoric European WHS that I visited in the past 4 weeks. After the Ice Age Art Caves, Neolithic Orkney and Gorham’s Cave I was not terribly keen on checking out another one. But well, this was an orphan site that I had left ‘to tick off’ not far from Malaga Airport from where I would be flying home after the WH Travellers Meeting. So on a Sunday morning I drove out there from La Linea, in a little less than two hours. The WHS consists of 5 different features, all located in or around the mid-size Andalusian city of Antequera.

View from Menga Dolmen

Antequera comes with a few pleasant surprises. The first is that it rightly is part of our Free Entrance connection: none of the locations charge an entry fee. The sites are far from unkept though. The locations of Menga/Viera dolmen, El Torcal and El Romeral are all at least manned by security and in the case of the first two they also have a small visitor center with staff, parking lots and toilets.

Another positive is that one can only admire the state of conservation (or reconstruction) and the size of these megalithic structures. According to ICOMOS, the “number, size, weight and volume of stone blocks transported and assembled in the basin of Antequera, …, makes the Antequera Dolmens one of the most important engineering and architectural works of European Prehistory”. It did impress me a lot more than Neolithic Orkney for example.

Interior of Tholos de El Romeral

The Tholos of El Romeral I found the most interesting among the inscribed locations. It is the largest and most complex of the three (burial) mounds. In modern times it has ended up in an industrial estate, but Antequera's archaeological service has tried to give it some atmosphere by planting a series of cypress trees next to it and adding benches. However it attracts fewer visitors than Menga and Viera, and I had the site to myself.

El Romeral is different from the others as it was a dry stone construction. It looks like a number of bricks have been put neatly on top of each other, resulting in a dome shaped chamber. The nomination file calls this “the architecture of false cupola ceilings”, or corbel domes - it results in a similar effect to an arch, the construction of which was yet unknown in prehistoric times.

El Torcal

I know that I'm a slower traveler than most who are active on this website, but I even surprised myself how long I stayed in Antequera: it took me 3.5 hours to visit all 5 inscribed locations! That included lunch at the local McDonalds and an hour’s walk through the rocky landscape of the El Torcal nature reserve half an hour's drive away. One can even spend more time at El Torcal and do one of the longer hikes, but it's a bit of a tourist trap with lots of visiting Spanish families (whose members are not the quiet nature lover-type).

Published 16 September 2017

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Responses to WHS #642: Antequera Dolmens
Ian Cade (18 September 2017)

Perhaps we did get through it a little quick, but we didn't include time up at el Torcal, as we stayed up near there the previous night and weren't sure that lugging a buggy around would add much to what we had seen of the landscape already.

I guess we spent about 30/35 minutes at Menga and Viera and about 10/15 at El Romeral (which I agree was the most impressive interior).

So probably an hour once you factor in the time to get between them, and an half hour working out how to get the attention of some one to let you pay at the McDonalds :)


Sharon (17 September 2017)

Wonderful natural site i wanted to go there sometime


Blog: WHS #641: Tetouan

The Medina of Tetouan was the second goal of our 2017 WH Travellers Meetup. This Moroccan city can easily be reached on a day trip from the Spanish south coast. We did so by taking an early morning ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta, and then moved on by a pre-arranged minibus to Tetouan for the final 40km. Crossing the border proved to be easy for pedestrians, although the Iranian visa in the passports of some of our group raised a few eyebrows.

Gate to the Sufi shrine Zaouia al Harrakia (1845)

Tetouan always has been culturally close to Spain. The city derives its character from the arrival of Spanish-Arab refugees at the end of the 15th century, when the last Jews and Muslims were expelled from Andalusia. Later on it even was the capital of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco (1913-1956). A reminder of that is the early 20th century church at the Moulay el Mehdi square in the modern part of town, where we were dropped off by our driver. A guide took us from there through a lively shopping street, until we arrived at the Hassan II square. This is fully fenced off, as to not get too close to the Royal Palace that is the prominent feature of this square.

The old city starts right behind the palace, and that’s probably were we entered the core zone of the WHS. It isn’t 100% clear which parts of Tetouan are actually included, thanks to probably the worst map ever available on the UNESCO website. But by comparing it to for example this city map, it looks like it's limited to the area within the old city walls. The medina is full of market stalls, with honorary mentions for the displays of fresh fish surrounded by cats and the ample supply of live chickens. Berber people in traditional dress are also frequent sellers and buyers here.

The Sakia Fouqia fountain (1608)

A special part of the old city is also the mellah, the former Jewish quarter. Tetouan had a large Jewish population until the foundation of Israel and immigration to other Western countries. They lived in a separate part of the medina. The synagogue is still there, but with the reportedly only 8 remaining Jews in Tetouan it will no longer be in use. This quarter furthermore stands out due to the enthusiastic use of colour. The white walls dominating the entire city of Tetouan are partly painted in green, yellow, blue and pink.

The final part of the old city that we visited was the kasbah, a fortress within the old city walls having its own gateway. Now it is mostly in use as an additional souk. We experienced little hassle from sellers or touts during our tour of the medina - maybe because we were in the company of an official guide. Or because the tourist police are quite active here: some of the members of our group claimed that we were constantly being followed by an "inconspicuous" plainclothes police officer.

Our tour ended at the Blanco Riad, where we had a lovely lunch and were welcomed warmly (they also had arranged the driver and the guide for the day).

In the former Jewish quarter

The Medina of Tetouan resembles the ones in Marrakesh and Fez, and one sometimes wonders why Morocco has included so many medinas in its proposals. When you visit a couple of them in a row the attraction wears out. But for an isolated day trip Tetouan proved to be worth it. The really big sights and former wealth (which are present in Marrakesh and Fez) are lacking here, but the atmosphere feels more authentic than at its southern counterparts. It’s quite tourist friendly as well: the more important historic buildings do have tiles with a UNESCO sign plus information in Arabic, French and English attached to them. Unfortunately we were not able to get into any of the historic buildings, such as the renovated Medersa Loukach.

Published 13 September 2017

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Blog: WHS #640: Gorham's Cave

Gorham’s Cave Complex is Gibraltar’s only WHS to date, and it was the main venue of this year’s World Heritage Travellers meeting. This Complex comprises four caves where tangible remains of the Neanderthaler way of life have been found. No skulls or other bones have been discovered in these particular caves (yet), but the archaeologists have been lucky earlier this year to find a Neanderthaler milk tooth!

Overview of the core zone

The Cave Complex is located at the southeastern tip of Gibraltar and its Rock. After casually strolling across the Spanish-British border and crossing the empty air strip, we took bus number 2 from the town center to Europa Point. Europa Point is a collection of monuments and memorials such as a 19th century lighthouse. The main landmark nowadays is the Saudi sponsored Mosque of The Custodian of the The Holy Mosques.

We all gathered a bit further up the road at the Europa Advance Viewing Platform. I had unsuccessfully tried to find it on a map beforehand: this is a piece of tourist infrastructure still in the making. Essentially the 1st and 2nd Europa Advance Battery are being turned into viewing platforms and small scale interpretation centres. The Gibraltar Museum still has to clean up the 2nd Battery which has been used for firing practice by the army until recently. The 1st Battery is almost ready now: there are toilets and the structures to hold information panels have been placed. The information itself is still missing though, and entrance to the Battery is closed to unannounced visitors unlike ourselves.

Military reminders everywhere

The site of the future viewing platform has been chosen well. From there the entrances to the caves can be seen clearly. The inscribed area also covers their natural surroundings, which essentially cover the southeastern flank of the Rock of Gibraltar. Our WH Travellers group was treated to an introduction talk about the area by Sue Davies of the Gibraltar Museum and two staff. It actually is quite hard to imagine what the landscape would have looked like, as the sea level was much lower when the Neanderthaler lived here and the cave dwellers looked out over a coastal plain.

After the talk our group was split into two: 10 lucky ones were to go into the military zone, down the stairs and all up to the entrance of Gorham’s Cave. For conservation reasons the cave itself is closed to visitors. I’ll leave it to one of them to write a review of that experience. The others returned to the town center of Gibraltar, for a more in-depth presentation of the site at the Gibraltar Museum. Sue gave an interesting behind-the-scenes look at how the inscription came about and what the future plans are. I found out why the name of the WHS was changed from “Gibraltar Neanderthal Caves and Environments” to “Gorham’s Cave Complex” at the final stages of its inscription – apparently the Spanish objected to the use of the Spanish translation of the word “Environments”.

The Cave Complex

The Gibraltar Museum does offer all tidbits of local history that can be expected from a regional museum of this size. Findings from the caves mainly include animal bones and stone tools. A difficult task lies ahead of the Gibraltar Museum team to find a way to further promote Gorham’s Cave despite its inaccessibility and conservation issues. Our WH Travellers group (rebranded during the meeting into the "World Heritage Appreciation Society") received a very warm welcome and good introduction to the site by them.

Published 10 September 2017

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Responses to WHS #640: Gorham's Cave
Nan (18 January 2038)

@Clyde: I would keep the boat ride unless it really messes up your itinerary. The views you will get should be nice. The other option is to hike the Mediterranean Steps which should be on the border of the core zone.


Clyde (11 September 2017)

Thanks Els. I sent an email to the Gibraltar Museum for confirmation. I'm going to keep my booking just in case. If they confirm it will be accessible I'll let everybody know. Looking forward to you review on Antequera (hopefully before next Friday, at least in Dutch!)


Els Slots (11 September 2017)

@Clyde: Yes, the photos are taken from the viewing platform. However, I doubt that it will be open next week. They haven't really finished it and did not name an opening date. I heard they closed the gate again after we left (maybe one of the other participants can affirm or deny this?)


Clyde (10 September 2017)

Thanks for the review, Els. I'll be there next Sunday and at themoment I'm booked on a Dolphin Adventure Boat Trip.

Are the cave photos in your review taken from the europa viewing platform? If yes, is it freely accessible for all or you had the privilege because they knew about you beforehand?

I think I'd skip the boat trip if I'm guaranteed to see the actual caves (from a viewing platform on land).


Colvin (10 September 2017)

I'm sorry that only a limited group could go see the caves up close, and that there was no access into a cave, but it still sounds like you had a great trip to Gorham's Cave. I'll be curious to find out if they have completed the viewing platform by the time I can venture out to Gibraltar. Hope everyone who made it to the World Heritage Appeciations Society meet-up this year had fun!


Blog: WHS #639: Neolithic Orkney

Ever since I encountered a group of “druids” dressing up at the parking lot of Stonehenge, I have a hard time taking these megalithic sites seriously. Especially the UK ones, as they seem to be surrounded by a mix of semi-religious revival and commercial exploitation more than others. However, Neolithic Orkney was still on my to do-list. This site comprises 4 locations: two stone circles (Ring of Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stennes), a burial mound (Maes Howe) and the remains of a village (Skara Brae). All are located not far from each other on the Orkney island of Mainland.

Ring of Brodgar

I was tempting the logistical odds by visiting Mainland including this WHS on a weekend trip from my home. I flew to Inverness on Friday evening and returned Sunday evening. It’s a loooong commute and of course it would be better to take more time. But I managed to tick off the WHS and see some particular features of the Scottish highlands and Orkney as well.

I started out from Inverness at 7.15 am on Saturday morning. There’s a bus that connects with the ferry to Orkney from John O’Groats. The bus ride in itself is a tour already, as it comes with a guide. On the Orkney side a bus is waiting to take you up to Kirkwall and even to do a full tour of the island. I had only booked to Kirkwall, rather wanting to see things on my own speed. The tourbus was quite cramped and came with a “funny” guide, which can get on your nerves after some time.

A look across the isthmus

From Kirkwall where I was staying overnight I had planned to take the 2pm T11 bus, that connects Kirkwall with Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. This is the most efficient way for an individual traveller to see the main sites. However, at a quarter to 2 there were already so many people waiting at the bus stand that we would never fit into one bus. I decided to go and find a taxi, which also turned into a bit of a quest because a huge German cruise ship had taken over the town and the capacity of its taxi companies. Fortunately I found a female driver near the church, and she took me to the Ring of Brodgar in about half an hour. From there I would continue by public transport.

The Ring of Brodgar is a large stone circle, located on an narrow isthmus between two “lochs”. With over 100m in diameter and a ditch around it, it is an imposing sight even from a distance. There’s no entrance fee taken or any other visitor information given, which is questionable given the importance of the site and the number of visitors. A foot path leads you along the circle, and you can get up and close with the stones (people do touch and hug them). From the Ring another path through the fields leads you to the Stones of Stenness, another and even older stone circle some 15 minutes away. It has the remains of a hearth at the center - which is about the only point of interest that I can name about it.

After that I had planned to go to Skara Brae, probably the most interesting part of this WHS. But there were no taxi’s available, and the hourly bus had just gone. I couldn’t get any data om my phone so I couldn’t check for alternative options (or the opening hours of Skara Brae). Reluctantly I had to give up and return to Kirkwall. From the bus I had a glance at Maes Howe (the 3rd component of the WHS). This is only visitable by a guided tour, which inconveniently starts at the Stenness visitor center another mile away and has to be booked in advance.

Sheep, looking comfortable at one of the Stones of Stenness

In hindsight I could have done better logistically. If you get stuck in Kirkwall like me, I think it would best to take a one way taxi to Skara Brae. After visiting that site, continue on foot to the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. It’s 5.5 miles on a straight road, so it seems walkable. The Stones of Stenness lie at the main road between Kirkwall and Stromness - from there it is relatively easy to catch one of the hourly buses between the towns that run into the evening. There’s also an evening tour of Skara Brae which looks interesting, but that would be even more of a logistical nightmare by public transport.

Published 27 August 2017

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Responses to WHS #639: Neolithic Orkney
Michael Novins (28 August 2017)

I visited in August 2009 and rented a car from Orkney Car & Van Hire and was able to visit all four components in one day, at a very leisurely pace. I had three of the sites to myself, and only joined others at Maes Howe (since it can only be visited with a group tour). At least for Orkney, public transport doesn't seem the best option.


Blog: Mathildenhöhe

Germany is working towards a 2020 nomination for the Artists' Colony Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt. This is a Gesamtkunstwerk of buildings, gardens and works of art, created during the years 1901-1914 over the course of four exhibitions. The art-loving Hessian Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig was the patron for the notable Jugendstil artists that were part of this community.

Entrance to the museum, former artists' atelier

I had never been to Darmstadt before, and I visited it for a night and a morning on my return from the Ice Age Art Caves. My first impression was that of a rather dull city. It is large enough though to have its cosmopolitan edges – I ate at a Peruvian restaurant on Saturday and a Persian one on Sunday right after visiting Mathildenhöhe (the recommended Shiraz which is within walking distance). To find a site like the Artists’ Colony in a city like this still is a real surprise.

Mathildenhöhe is signposted all over Darmstadt. It’s a small quarter just northeast of the city center. The core consists of a block with the Wedding Tower and the Exhibition Building, with the emblematic Russian Orthodox Chapel and the Platanenhain (sycamore grove) in front of it. Around this cluster lie a number of houses created for and by the artists. It has the general atmosphere of a public park, and many locals were also out for a Sunday stroll. People also were entering the Russian Chapel to pray. The chapel has no direct link to the Artists' Colony but it greatly adds to the ensemble. I wonder how they will handle it in the nomination.

Russian Chapel in Darmstadt

The Wedding Tower is the main landmark of the area. For Darmstadt residents it is still possible to marry at this location. I went up to the top floor but it is not really worth it.

I was just whiling my time away (also did a double loop around the sycamore grove), as the Museum “Künstlerkolonie” only opens at 11 am. This museum is the best introduction to the works of interior decoration of this group of artists. The museum is located in the former Ernst Ludwig House, which was built as a common atelier. The house has a wonderfully opulent entrance (see first photo above), although one now enters the museum from the back. Unfortunately none of the artists’ houses are open to visitors, so this is your best bet to see their furnishings. The number of exhibits at the museum isn't huge. I know my Art History friends would love what's on display, but I found the whole setting a bit cold and stiff.

Jugendstil pottery

The main Exhibition building is under construction at the moment. Banners at the surrounding fences display the text “Welterbe werden!” - their undeniable goal is the upcoming World Heritage nomination. When the renovations are ready and a glossy yet thorough nomination file has been written, this will be a shoo-in for World Heritage status. There’s a coherent story to tell, and most of the original buildings are still there although there was heavy damage in World War II. And for us World Heritage Travellers it is a much more worthwhile site to visit than the similar Stoclet Palace, which seems to remain off-limits indefinitely.

Published 19 August 2017

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Responses to Mathildenhöhe
Clyde (24 August 2017)

I agree with Els. I had visited by chance as a stopover while heading to Messel, Lorsch and Speyer WHS. The museum and private houses together with the whole ensemble are worth visiting if in the area. I think the onion-domed cathedral enhances and complements the overall beauty and it does not detract the site's OUV.


Nan (18 January 2038)

Heading there this weekend. Good to know you feel this is a clear inscribe :)


Blog: WHS #638: Ice Age Art Caves

The Caves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura was a welcome addition to the WH List this year for those ticking off Western European WHS on weekend trips. Recent reviews of it by Hubert and Clyde have already paved the way regarding all practical details necessary for a worthwhile trip. The site lies some 620km from my home, and I visited it by car with a stop-over in Darmstadt. I decided to not visit all locations, but instead do some cherry picking among the inscribed caves and associated museums with a special focus on seeing the figurines.

Signs everywhere

My day of exploration started at the Archäopark Vogelherd. At the park entrance there is a small exhibition room, and that’s where I found my two first figurines: a mammoth and a cave lion. Both are tiny objects. They are on show in a display case each, and there’s nothing else in the room. The mammoth is easy to recognize as such and is in perfect shape. It has to be admired from the “front” though, as the other side is much more rough. This seems to suggest that it was a brooch or similar ornament worn on clothing or the body.

The other figure is said to represent a cave lion. With some imagination a tiger or a puma as we now know them can be seen in the object. “Cave lions” were widespread in the age of the early homo sapiens and could grow bigger than modern lions. They probably had no manes, hence the similarity with other big cats rather than male lions. They did not really live in caves (phew!) but did sometimes enter them to surprise a hibernating bear.

In this Lone River Valley area I also visited the Vogelherd and Hohlenstein Stadel caves. Both are fairly large, enough to provide a shelter to families during the harsh winter time.

A flute made out of bone of a griffon vulture

In the early afternoon I arrived near the other cluster of sites, in the Ach Valley. I started at the Urgeschichtliches Museum in Blaubeuren. This undoubtedly is THE museum to go and see when you want to learn more about the Ice Age Art of this region. It displays various attributes such as the raw materials (mammoth bones) and the tools that were used. Most objects that are shown were found at the nearby Hohle Fels Cave. In this museum I saw my first examples of the “earliest musical instruments”, one of the claims to fame of this WHS. The flowery description in the nomination file might suggest early pianos or harps, but these “instruments” are all flutes.

The museum also has a number of figurines. There is a diving bird (looks like a duck), a tiny lion man and the prize piece of the collection: the Venus of Hohle Fels, "the oldest undisputed example of a depiction of a human being yet discovered". This one even has a whole exhibition room to itself! The female figurine was only discovered as recent as 2008.

I ended my day at the Hohle Fels cave. This was a pleasant surprise as well. It really is a huge cave. A music group was performing inside, using “ancient” instruments.

Sediments from the Aurignacian and the Neandertaler periods

I always thought that when I really had money I would start collecting Netsuke – Japanese miniature sculptures. These small Ice Age figurines, mostly made out of mammoth bone, reminded me of them. There are so few left (about 50). But even in this day and age they can be admired as art objects.

Published 13 August 2017

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Blog: WHS #637: Røros

Røros wasn’t really what I expected it to be. While preparing for my short visit to this former copper mining town, I discovered that it sees one million visitors yearly. And indeed: upon arrival it resembled one large parking lot. I also had imagined a mountainous setting, showing the “harsh climatic conditions” the inhabitants had to deal with that form part of its OUV. At an altitude of 628m it’s not that extreme. Although it does get pretty cold in the winter time at this latitude of course.

Near the smelting house

I reached Røros by train from Trondheim: there is only one practical departure that allows you to visit it on a day trip (leaving at 9.45, returning at 16.30). Try to sit on the right side of the train, as it has the best views of rivers and lakes which are part of the so-called Circumference (the allotted area of privilege to the Røros Copper Works). From the train station I walked straight to the outskirts of the city, where the Røros Museum is located at the site of the old smelting house. Daily at 1 p.m. an English-language walking tour of the town starts from here. The museum area is the most industrial part that you’ll see in the city by the way: the actual mines are miles away and not reachable by public transport.

The tour led me and about 10 other tourists first to where the poorest people lived - near the smelting house and the slag heaps. Some huts were purchased by the museum to show their living conditions. Closer to the city center, the original timber houses are still inhabited. A couple of American tourists in our group viewed these as summer homes, but at selling prices of 3-4 million Norwegian kroner (300,000-400,000 EUR) the houses are serious investments. With their bright colors they look more modern than the wooden houses in the poor part of town. But some of these houses are even older than the bare ones. The current owners are obliged to keep their homes painted in the original colors.

Checking for the original paint colour

We also visited a house with a courtyard that was used as a “farm”. Part of the Røros story is that its people were both farmers and miners. Mining was much more important however, and the courtyard that we visited couldn’t hold more than one horse or a few chickens. But there were summer grazing pastures outside of town as well. This particular farm house had an odd history, as it had once been transplanted to an open air museum in Oslo. Only after the tourism potential of Røros itself became clear, the house was moved back to its original location.

The tour ended at the huge baroque stone church, the number one landmark of Røros – unfortunately it was closed to us because of a wedding. I went on to visit the museum at the ‘old’ smelting house. The smeltery isn’t original – only the foundations are, the rest has burned down so many times that nothing is left. At the exhibition the copper production process is explained via a series of wooden scale models. Worth a quick look – but at a steep price of 100 Norwegian kroner.

Houses of the poor

You’d be hard-pressed to spend more than 2 hours in Røros, although when you have the use of a car you could of course visit some of the outlying mines. When comparing the actual tangible remains with the written history in the nomination file, the Røros story seems to have been spiced up to make it similar to copper mining sites such as Falun or Rammelsberg & Goslar. And it isn’t even close to the global importance or dramatic impact as Potosí for example. I’d rate it as a site of regional interest only (the copper was shipped to Germany and Holland mostly), though Norway (not particularly full of interesting cultural sites anyway) got it placed on the World Heritage List as early as 1980.

Published 30 July 2017

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Blog: WHS #635: Pico Island

Out of the 9 main islands of the Azores, Pico Island may be the prettiest one. Its lush green flora strongly contrasts with the abundant black lava stone that is present along its coasts. Its iconic stratovolcano peak is a landmark in the Azores part of the Atlantic Ocean. And there’s a WHS as well: the Vineyard Landscape of Pico Island comprises two narrow strips of land along the coast, where grapes are grown on a bottom of solid lava. Within stone fences, grapes were traditionally grown between the rocks of the lava stone - without soil. This part of Pico was unsuitable for ordinary farming.

One of the vineyard plots

The northern part of this WHS lies right next to the airport of Pico, so it’s a really nice welcome when you fly in. The plots neatly divided by walls of basaltic blocks are a memorable sight. I stayed for 3 nights near the other stretch of vineyards though, at Madalena. There’s a great walk through the WHS landscape that you can do in that area. It starts in Porto Calhau. I did not rent a car on Pico (also not on Terceira), and got around easily by hiking, one-way taxi rides and the occasional public bus. To get to Porto Calhau I took a taxi. The driver was very much aware about the starting point of the hike, it’s very popular and well-signposted.

The walk starts on the paved road along the coast. It's a minor road, I encountered little traffic except for some day trippers who were not deterred by the sharp rocks to swim in the sea or lay down on the rocks sunbathing. The hiking route is 6.9 kilometres long and takes 2 hours. It is fairly flat (an uncommon pleasure at the Azores), only after a kilometre or so you have to do a half-loop around a hill where the road goes up and down. In this zone there is a lot of Azorean heather, and I noticed the first plants in lots separated by walls of loose stones. That way they suffer less from the influence of sea and wind.

Easy hiking route

After tackling the hill, one arrives at an enormous open plain. It is full of gray stonewalled fields (currais) in which the vines lie. There is no shelter here, at least not for hikers. Although there was a nice breeze, I felt the sun gradually starting to burn my face, arms and calves. I wonder how tough it will be when it is your job to pick the grapes here. Huts made of loose stone are available now and then to protect the farmers and the pickers. Unfortunately for the hikers, I found the entrance gates to them closed.

Turning off from the paved road, the trail continues on a gravel road first and later on a narrow stone path through the 'fields'. I did not meet any other hikers, nor farmers - I wonder what the right season is, but I did not find any grapes on the plants that I saw. At the end of the walk you will approach a bright red windmill, a fairly new construction built after a traditional model. After that it's only a short walk to the village of Madalena. Conveniently the trail ends at a seafood restaurant.

Wine producer's compound

At only 20 ‘ticks’ from our community members, this is still a quite obscure WHS at the same level of difficulty as Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi , Caral Supe or the Pyu Ancient Cities. I enjoyed my 3 days on Pico, although like the rest of the Azores it is a bit sedate and old-fashioned. Good if you’re looking for some quiet days, less so if you’re an avid traveller that wants to see and do something different every day.

Published 15 July 2017

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Blog: Mid-Atlantic Ridge

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) has been part of the Tentative list of Portugal since this year. At this geographical location three tectonic plates have been moving away from each other and the void has been filled by magma from the inner earth. The MAR actually extends from the Antarctic to the Arctic, but this possible future nomination only comprises the Portuguese Azores section. It replaces the earlier single tentative sites Algar do Carvão and Furna do Enxofre, and now seems to incorporate all inhabited and uninhabited islands plus the terrestrial waters of the Plateau of the Azores.

Pico Volcano

It is not difficult to see or experience geological features of the MAR during a visit to the Azores. My stay at the three islands of Terceira, Pico and Faial provided numerous up-and-close views of results of volcanic events that took place here. One of the main tourist attractions of the island of Terceira for example is Algar do Carvão, a “volcanic chimney”. While I found tourism very low-key in general on the Azores and local costs only a fraction of those of the mainland, entrance to Algar do Carvão costs 10 EUR. For that sum you’ll have to descend a long flight of stairs, until the bottom of the volcano where there is a lake created by rainwater and stalactites/stalagmites on the walls. I did not find it very spectacular.

On the island of Faial the site of Capelinhos can be visited. The landscape here is the result of a submarine volcanic eruption that took place in 1957. It resulted in a bit of additional land for Faial island, and the coverage of part of the lighthouse and dwellings of local whalers under lava. The eruption was actually of a similar kind to the one that created Surtsey in Iceland 6 years later, but – the TWHS description concludes surly – volcanologists coined the term “surtseyan” instead of “capeliniana”. No trace of that legend is mentioned in the Surtsey AB evaluation by the way.

Underground lake at Algar do Carvão

Another feature typical of the Azores is connected to the MAR as well: the occurrence of high numbers of “migratory pelagic megafauna” (i.e.: whales). They seem to be attracted to the feeding opportunities at the chains of seamounts. Every respectable town on the islands has its whale & dolphin watching outfitter, taking tourists out to open sea in small boats for a couple of hours. I did such a trip from Madalena on Pico island.

Almost 10 years ago I had been on a similar trip from Peninsula Valdes in Argentina. The conclusion of both trips turned out the the same: it’s very hard to get good views of the whales, as they are submerged under water for most of the time. During this trip from Madalena the captain of the boat was quite good at predicting which side of the boat the beasts would pop up to breathe. But I still did not succeed in taking any good pictures. The dolphins proved to be more cooperative.

Capelinhos, Faial

As the MAR is a truly global phenomenon, we even already have a Connection about it featuring 4 WHS. It is weird that Portugal goes it alone in pursuing a nomination, although talks have been going on since 2007 about an international serial nomination. Iceland seems to be the obvious choice for a MAR nomination, this was even suggested at the evaluation of Surtsey.

Published 6 July 2017

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