A 17-Year Journey

The year was 1997. The sky was the limit in the IT Industry, and I (someone with a History degree who never understood anything about mathematics) was hired to become a Test Engineer. I did not know what being a Test Engineer involved, but the company offered me a permanent contract, a company car and a reasonable pay. I was happy. AND they gave me something else that was to fundamentally change the way I spent my spare time: a space to develop my own website!

The Baby Steps

The Internet then wasn't as widespread as it is now. People just created their own "homepage", a little spot for themselves and their hobbies. The Under Construction sign was a common sight. I knew right away what the theme of my website should become: all those faraway places that I longed to travel to. Already as a child, growing up in the Dutch countryside, I dreamt of sites such as Easter Island and Nan Madol. After finishing elementary school and being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I firmly answered 'Explorer'. Maybe I had just read too many books by Thor Heyerdahl.

Back to 1997: for my birthday my parents gave me the Erfgoed der Mensheid book about World Heritage Sites. It had a story and a large picture of each of the 478 WHS to that date. On my own website I slowly started creating pages for WHS that I had recently visited, following the format used in that book. I wasn't a "WHS collector" at the time. I just loved travelling in general.

The very first version of this website was made in plain HTML and written in Dutch, my native language. I learned fast how to develop and maintain a website, mainly by looking at the source code of other websites that I enjoyed. This was one of the better early versions:

Connecting with others

One can travel only so much in one year, and new content was lacking. So after a few years, I decided to invite website visitors to write up their "reviews" of WHS. And I switched the language of the site to English, to attract a larger audience. This was around the year 2000, when I also officially registered the domain name 'worldheritagesite.org'. I thought the 'org'-suffix would give the site a trustworthy look.

Those reviews that I needed, started to come in steadily. The first one covered Dorset and East Devon Coast. The power a community of like-minded people can have was shown already early on, when we together uncovered the secrets of visiting the Flint Mines in Spiennes. Every visitor got a step closer to unravelling this quirky site's opening hours. Today, some 12 years later, 6684 reviews have been submitted. This huge contribution spans 95% off all 1007 WHS.

From 2004 until 2008, I sent out a regular Newsletter. This was mostly to draw attention to news items and updates to the website. Some more editorial attempts were made later on, such as the infamous "17 Mexican World Heritage Sites in 17 days?!" by Paul Tanner. My first email exchange with Paul was in 2003. He has been very supportive during all stages, and so are many others among you that have been present since the early beginnings.

During this period I had a little brush with UNESCO too. There was the surprise phone call ("This is UNESCO from Paris"). A ramshackle sign with a handpainted UNESCO logo pointing to the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, that I used as website logo, wasn't to their liking. I had to remove it, added a Disclaimer to my website and never heard from them again. This was the sign:

Further growth to 6,000 visitors a day

In 2008 I made some elaborate changes to the website. I added pages for every Tentative Site for example, a major operation. Also since then it was possible to track your Count of visited WHS. The "Connections" first appeared in 2008 too. You cannot imagine how much feedback I get on these. You are all true listophiles.

With it came a more elaborate technical setting: I started using PHP and MySQL to create dynamic pages. Again, I learned a lot from examples made by others. I was involved with the Dutch travel website Reisomdewereld at the time too, and learned a lot of technical stuff over there.

A New Phase

This journey has lasted for 17 years now. I still work for the same IT company, although I have left the Testing profession (which proved to be very boring) behind me and moved somewhat up the corporate ladder. The job supplies some 40 regular days off each year, and an income high enough to travel to all corners of the world. This website, the travels and my day job have become a mutually strengthening chain that I do not want to break.

With this first post, I will lead the WHS website into a New Phase. With a new design that offers more space for further development. I will be building on the same content and the incredible efforts of the WHS Community of course. But I believe so much more stories can be told related to WHS.

So say goodbye to the old design...

What do you remember of the first stages of this WHS website?

Published 12 October 2014 Leave a Comment

Responses to A 17-Year Journey:

Alessandro Votta (17 October 2014):
Good job, and it was good to see you in Banff last month!!!! Keep up the good work!

WHS & World War I

2014 marks 100 years since the start of the First World War. We have identified eight WHS that have been Damaged in WWI. I wondered what exactly happened to them between 1914 and 1918.

Belgium and France

In Dendermonde (one of the Flemish Béguinages), the entrance gate, several houses and the Beguine church were burned down by the Germans in 1914. All beguines had already left when the war broke out 1.

Ieper: BelfortSeveral of the Belfries of Belgium and France were located right in the middle of the battle front between the Allies and the Germans:

- The clockwork of the Sint-Romboutstoren in Mechelen was damaged by a German canon in 1914.

- The Belfry of Ypres was burned down early in 1914, the Cloth Hall was reduced to rubble during the 4 year siege of the town by the Germans.

- The Belfry of Arras was destroyed in October 1915.

- The Belfry of Amiens lasted until the Battle of Amiens in August 1918.

The nearby Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin had been cut in two by the Front, and the Germans flooded the eastern section. "The final blow arrived in 1918, when the Germans, facing defeat, decided to destroy the coalfield because it was economic tool vital to France, and all the pits of the Escarpelle, Aniche and Anzin companies were in turn methodically demolished in a few days."2.

The city of Reims was conquered and severely damaged by the Germans already in 1914. The ruined Reims Cathedral became one of the central images of anti-German propaganda produced in France during the war, which presented it, along with the ruins of the Cloth Hall at Ypres and the University Library in Louvain, as evidence that German aggression targeted cultural landmarks of European civilization 3.

United Kingdom

Scottish St. Kilda saw some skirmishes at the island of Hirta, where the British Navy had erected a signal station at the beginning of the war. On 15 May 1918, a German submarine started shelling the island. Seventy-two shells in all were fired and the wireless station was destroyed. The manse, church and jetty storehouse were also damaged but there was no loss of life 4.


Various Polish Wooden Tserkvas were located near the Eastern Front where Austria-Hungary met Russia. The Bell Tower of the Tserkva in Chotyniec was destroyed during the retreat of the Russian Army. In Uzhok the tower bells were requisitioned by the Austrians. War memorials can be found next to the tserkvas in Uzhik (a stone pyramid) and Owczaryon (a cemetery where 74 Austro-Hungarian soldiers and 8 Russian soldiers are buried).

The Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge in Visegrad (now Bosnia Herzegovina) is closely connected with the conflict that set fire to WWI: the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, after which Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. In 1914-1915, piers 3 and 4 of the bridge were blown up with dynamite by the withdrawing Austrian Army. In 1916, another pier was destroyed by the then retreating Serbian Army. Both incidents show the war-time strategic importance of the Bridge and the road across.


Probably the least likely victim on this list is Gonbad-e Qabus. This tower lies in the north-east of what is now Iran. Russian troops had occupied the region in the early 20th century, based on the security situation of Armenian and Assyrian Christians in Persia. Here they came to confront the Ottoman Empire in the Persian Campaign. Some 1500 bricks of the tower were broken or dislocated because of the bullets fired at the site. Also some of its inscriptions were damaged.

Published 19 October 2014 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS & World War I:

Luis R. Domingos (22 October 2014):
Excellent piece - thanks!

Paul Tanner (19 October 2014):
There is a further (9th) WHS which was "damaged" during WWI - the inscribed area of the Dolomites.
The area was the front line in the war between Italy and Austria-Hungary and contains many remains of that campaign
a. Vie Ferrate built to enable troops to traverse the area
b. Remains of Gun emplacements, hospitals and trenches
c. Tunnels built both for protection but also as methods of attack by placing large amounts of explosives under opposing troops.
In case it is said that none of this actually represents "Damaged in WWI" it could be argued that even trenches and gun emplacements represent "damage" in this previously pristine environment. However, even beyond these, there are genuine "scars of battle" which remain to this day e.g on Lagazuoi an enormous explosion left a crater which is still visible.
In the Nomination File some of the aspects are described in pages 93-5
"Due to its position between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy the Dolomite quadrant became the territory of an heroic but bloody battle indelibly scored, not only in the memory of the populations involved, but also on the summits and peaks which literally carry the scars of this terrible mountain war." -."The first battle lines, corresponding to the peaks and crests of the mountains, were fortified with complex systems of tunnels, trenches and underground passages for many kilometres, often excavated with the help of pneumatic drills or mines. Daunting cableways were built next to these, allowing access to the highest peaks. Many mule-tracks and military roads were built in the same way, still perfectly efficient today, giving access to the heart of the main mountain groups (e.g. Sesto, Marmolada, Tofane, etc.). Some of these military postings were later adapted into refuges (e.g. Lagazuoi refuge from a former Austrian posting and A. Bosi refuge from the Italian military command) as historic evidence." - "The events which cost the lives of thousands and literally devastated the mountain skyline (the Col di Lana and Lagazuoi peaks were blown up by mines), have become history and traces of this international tragedy can still be found in the places themselves (fortifications, trenches, mule-tracks and roads)"
Some links -

Book: Japan's World Heritage Sites

Kyoto-resident John Dougill travelled around Japan for over 4 months in 2012. On the way he visited all its 18 WHS, including their separate locations. Ancient Kyoto alone already comprises 17 of these serial spots, such as the magic hall dedicated to Buddha's mother at Kiyomizu-Dera:

"Those looking for closure might want to seek out the intriguing Zuiguido Hall ... where for Y100 you can enter pitch blackness and feel your way around a basement symbolising the womb".

His journey resulted in this good size publication: it is fairly comprehensive at 192 pages, though without the weight of a coffee table book. It has an attractive "clean" layout which does both the text and the many photos justice. The pages are further enhanced with custom maps showing the locations of the sites and site parts. Opening hours and directions are also covered.

Separate entries for serial locations

Dougill did well in grasping the often confusing concept of World Heritage sites, core zones and separate locations. This is a refreshing surprise, as we have seen so many WHS books over the years with lots of factual errors. All three zones of the Kii Mountain Range are covered with separate entries for example. This made the wonderful Kumano Old Roads come alive for me. The final pages cover Japan's Tentative Sites too.

Some of the included photos are a bit heavy on the use of photoshop/multicolor: I encountered several unnatural blue skies. This however seems to be a common taste among East Asian tourist agencies such as the JNTO. And of course the cherry blossoms are omnipresent too. I personally prefer Japan's natural colouring: dark wood, green moss, raindrops and a vermillion gate here or there.

Dougill's forte lies mainly in his understanding of Japanese belief: he feels at ease writing about mountain deities and the like. His expertise on this subject clearly shows on his own blog: Green Shinto. Those who always enjoy a good list should check out his Rank of WH Shinto Shrines!.

Homework for Temple Buffs

With "Japan's World Heritage Sites" he created a fine book to browse through for anyone with an interest in Japan or WHS. Its detailed descriptions and tempting photos of the temples and shrines in the Kyoto-Nara region make it an especially great start for temple buffs preparing to visit the area.

John Dougill, Japan's World Heritage Sites: Unique Culture, Unique Nature (Tuttle Publishing July 2014)

Published 26 October 2014 Leave a Comment

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WHS #552: The Two Faces of Corvey

It's always annoying when a new WHS just "pops up" in an area that you thought covered already long ago. Corvey lies quite close to the WHS of Hildesheim, Fagus Factory and Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe. Sites that I not need to return to. And the description of Corvey isn't that appealing either - I was surprised that it made the List earlier this year. However the warmest November day ever got me into action, and I drove out there for a day trip.

The site has a large (free) parking lot, where some 20 cars were already parked when I arrived. From there you enter the main gate of the baroque monastery complex. While reading the nomination dossier, I found the distinction between the (inscribed) medieval remains and the "modern" monastery puzzling at times. The difference is easy to see in their architectural style however, and I was attracted to the massive Westwerk immediately. It has a separate entrance: the church behind it is still in use as a parish church, and you pay only 0,80 EUR to get inside this way.

But I hadn't driven for hours just for a 10-minute visit: I wanted to join a guided tour to come to grips with what this WHS is all about. There are 3 tours a day (at 11, 12 and 15h), leaving from the museum shop at the monastery. The 12 o'clock tour is labelled as "World Heritage Tour", so I opted for that one. It focuses on the Westwork and the medieval Abbey, and skips the baroque monastery. Entrance now costs 6 EUR to the monastery, 1 EUR to take photos and 3 EUR for the tour.

As I had to kill an hour before the tour started, I looked around the interior of the monastery by myself. It's not an active monastery anymore (the region became Protestant long ago): it's privately owned by a Duke and serves as a palace museum. Its corridors and rooms are pretty barren. The museum exhibitions show a few original stones from the medieval Abbey, and further alight the role of St. Vitus as patron saint. Due to his relics being brought here, the Abbey became a major pilgrimage center in the Middle Ages. The display of relics was a way to popularize Christianity in this region inhabited by barbaric Saxons. The image of St. Vitus is a common sight at Corvey, whether he is being cooked in a pot or with lions licking his feet. There's also a large statue of him in front of the Westwerk.

Finally it was time for the guided tour. If you can understand German well, I would heartily recommend taking this one hour Themenführung Welterbe. The female guide has a detailed story to tell. I learned a lot more than what I had gathered from my web research beforehand. Definitive clarification of the meaning of "Civitas" in the site's name for example: it refers to the Medieval Town of Corvey, which remains are now hidden under the baroque monastery complex.

The tour focuses especially on the role of the Emperor in relation to the Church and his People. The Carolingian Emperors visited Corvey frequently, and the Westwork was added to the existing church to give them a separate entrance. They entered via a wall (so they could be seen by all), using one of the two mid-level doors in the Westwork that are now covered. Only they were allowed to stay in this area: from a balcony they looked down on the monks in the church. The second floor hall was covered with frescoes and classical statues, of which now only the shadows remain. In its heyday, it would have looked like this:

At the end of the tour, the guide tells about what becoming a WHS has meant to Corvey. It has been a long and expensive process. Now it's a mixed blessing: they've seen a 30% increase in visitors since the designation, but find it difficult to keep up with the Management Plan. Corvey being split between two owners (the Duke and the Catholic Parish) doesn't make it easy. The site closes between November and April, both for financial and conservation reasons. You might be able to enter the parish church during services in the winter months, and I also saw a Christmas fair advertised.

Published 2 November 2014 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #552: The Two Faces of Corvey:

WHC 2015: Hagi Castle Town

Hagi Castle Town is one of the 23 components that make up Japan's "Modern Industrial Heritage Sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi"-nomination for 2015. Together they aim to represent the first successful transfer of industrialization from the West to a non-Western nation.

The old town of Hagi is not exactly the most representative location among the 23: the others are industrial sites related to shipbuilding, iron and steel industries and coal mining. According to the Nomination Dossier, "the highly regulated structure of its feudal urban layout" supposedly is a sign "of the inherent capacity of the well-organized Japanese society to rapidly embrace and implement technological change".

Hagi housed the feudal lords of the Kyushu-Yamaguchi region, ending with Lord Takachika Mori (1819-71) who is associated with the proto-industrial trials around Hagi. The site includes the ruins of Hagi castle and many original buildings and streets in the well-preserved town, which has avoided the natural disasters that Japan is so prone to.

I visited Hagi on my first trip to Japan, in the year 2000. I did so on a day trip from Hiroshima. Hagi was (and probably still is) way off the beaten track. It is situated at the northern coast of Honshu Island, and it took me 2 hours on a bus and a train to get there. The ticket seller even had to ask twice if I really wanted to go there. "Hagi in Yamaguchi district you mean?"

The charm of old Hagi proved to be easy to find however. Most of its historical buildings lie in the old samurai neighbourhoods. Long, whitewashed walls that line the streets are characteristic for this area. Some of the old houses are still lived in, others are museums. I started at the spacious house of the Kikuya family of Merchants.

Not far from there lies the cute little temple Ensei-ji. It is a combination of a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple. Besides the usual colourful ticket and a brochure in English, they also provided me with a poster of Hagi. And there were more gifts to come: at the little restaurant where I ate my noodle lunch, the owner gave me a pumpkin to take with me that easily weighed 1.5kg.

With the extra weight in my backpack but amazed by Japanese hospitality, I further explored Hagi. I walked a few km along the coast to the Hagi Castle ruins. Only the moats and walls survive til today. It is located in the pleasant Shizuki Park, where the green spring colours attributed to my very bright outlook on this corner of Japan. The connection to a possible future industrial WHS however totally passed me by. This Japan Times article makes an attempt to clarify what Hagi means to the Japanese mind. Next year we will find out if that is enough to convince the international cultural community.

Published 9 November 2014 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHC 2015: Hagi Castle Town:

Kyle (9 November 2014):
I am enjoying your blog format for these posts. Very interesting corner of Japan. I look forward to reading the evaluation by ICOMOS of this unique nomination.

Great Spas of Europe: the original Spa

There's a rather grand transboundary nomination in the making called Great Spas of Europe. 16 Spa Towns scattered through Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, France, UK and Belgium are preparing a serial nomination on 19th century European spa culture. The final selection will hold less sites (maybe as little as 7 or 8). Bath, Spa, the West Bohemian Spa Triangle, Baden-Baden and Vichy seem to be the most likely ones to make the cut.1.

Last weekend I visited the Belgian town of Spa, a safe bet as it is considered the "original" spa after which the other 19th century resorts were named. The site was on Belgium's Tentative List on its own merits between 2008 and 2014, but now is caught up in what might become a cumbersome and messy pan-European nomination process. The failed attempts of the global Corbusier sites come to my mind when I think of the logistics. The nomination date for the Great Spas of Europe has already been postponed from 2015 to 2017.


I did not expect too much from my visit to Spa: the Dutch language Wikipedia-page on the town remarks that it "was" the most popular tourist site in the Ardennes until 1980. What happened then is unclear. I did enjoy my stay however: I spent a short weekend there, staying overnight in the much recommended Herbergue Chatoiment. The sunny autumn weather obviously attributed much to the beauty of the town. There were lots of tourists too, mainly Belgians making the best of a long weekend.

Among Spa's attractions are the oldest Casino in the world (1774) and one of the most fabulous Art Nouveau buildings in Wallonia: the Maison Charlier (1900). Not to be missed also is Peter the Great's Spring, the most efficacious of the springs of Spa named after Tsar Peter the Great who visited in 1717. Only a slow trickle from a modernist structure now remains, and tasting the mineral water is included in the 1 EUR entrance fee. A 1892 group painting in the same building (the Livre d'Or) shows 92 historical figures that visited Spa: lots of royalty and other VIP's ranging from Victor Hugo to Casanova.

Most of the city center's historical buildings seem to be in good repair. Only the original Bath House (a huge Classicist building on the main road) is without use nowadays and looks dilapidated.

Maison Charlier

The City Museum is worthwhile too. It has a collection of "Jolités", decorated wooden objects typical of Spa, which were often taken home as souvenirs by the many 19th century tourists. One of the most remarkable among those is a small ivory item, that was used to keep track of how many healthy glasses of Spa water one had drunk during the day!

21st century Spa still does have mineral baths. These have been relocated to the "Thermes" on top of the hill above town. You can get there using a self-service funicular. It's a very modern building (2004), and not much different from other wellness centers that have emerged recently all over Western Europe. It lies in a forest where the 19th century guests took healthy walks. I think more could be made of explaining the routes and promenades there. I wandered about for a while but did not really know where to go. Not to be missed in that area is the Spa cemetery, which is built terrace-wise on a steep hill.

Reflecting on my stay in Spa, I find it a pity that the bath culture is not so prominent anymore. The 19th century cityscape is the main attraction now. I guess Health Tourism nowadays is more alive in Eastern Europe, in Serbia for example where last year I visited Vrnjacka Banja. However: with a well-written nomination dossier (there are lots of stories to tell) and not too many discussions among the candidate cities, Spa and the other spas will be a shoo-in WHS in 2017.

Published 15 November 2014 Leave a Comment

Responses to Great Spas of Europe: the original Spa:

Els (18 November 2014):
Thank you too. Late 19th, early 20th century Spa culture and Art Nouveau fit together so well.

seishonagon3 (18 November 2014):
Thank you for the link to my website About Art Nouveau.
Did you notice I also wrote about another Spa City La Bourboule, in France?
I am very much concerned about Maison Rozier as it is seriously being neglected, even though it is a listed monument! I go there every year and I see no indication that anyone has been there...
I am also preparing a story about Le Mont-Dore which has some beautiful Art Nouveau architecture too.

How to visit the (T)WHS of Sudan

Sudan recently has gained some popularity as a destination for the more adventurous traveller. I know of three Dutch tour companies running scheduled group tours there, with at least two of them having guaranteed departures in the coming months. I will be leaving for Khartoum myself on one of them later this week. Below I want to share what I learned so far about visiting Sudan's (T)WHS.

WHS of Meroë and Gebel Barkal

Reaching the WHS of Meroë and Gebel Barkal is pretty easy, at least if you're prepared to throw some money at it. There's the costly visum to Sudan (90 EUR for a letter of invitation + 100 US dollar for the visum itself), and an array of permissions and entry fees have to be arranged and paid for. Both WHS lie in the "safeish" Nile region north of the capital Khartoum: nothing bad has ever happened to tourists there, but given Sudan's recent history it would not be a total surprise if something did.

The following companies are among those that offer group tours to Sudan: Italtour Sudan, Lendi Travel, Undiscovered Destinations, Wild Frontiers, Explore, B.C. Archaelogy, Koning Aap, Rosetta. Most of the international tour organizations use Italtour Sudan as their ground operator so you may as well book directly with them. Their Facebook page shows regular updates on their tours and lodgings.

Individual travel seems doable too. According to the Bradt Travel Guide Sudan it's a breeze, with public transport running close to at least the main locations of both WHS. Reassuringly, on the issue of 'Safety' Bradt does include a chapter how to behave if you're kidnapped ("try to remain patient and optimistic").

Tentative Sites are a different story

Reaching the country's 6 TWHS really will give you an in-depth look at the country:

  1. Only Old Dongola (a deserted medieval village with Christian roots) seems to be on the beaten tourist track. This is probably because it lies in the same general area as Meroë en Gebel Barkal.

  2. Sanganeb National Park is the most promising among the TWHS. Its nomination was deemed "incomplete" in 2014, but at least that shows some activity. It's a marine park around a remote coral reef in the Red Sea. The area is popular with divers and is regularly visited.

  3. Dinder National Park unfortunately features in safety warnings by foreign advisories: "In 2012 Sudanese security forces raided a training camp of extremists in the Dinder National Park in south-east Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia."1 People do visit however, look at this review and this post at the LP Thorn Tree. Dinder is a game park where much of the wildlife has been eaten long ago, but still some species survive.

  4. Suakin is a Red Sea port dating from the Middle Ages and Ottoman Times. According to Bradt, "Authorities don't seem keen on allowing foreigners to stay in Suakin". You can overnight though in nearby Port Sudan, and enjoy Suakin's ruins of the old town on a day trip.

  5. I haven't been able to find out much about Wadi Howar National Park. Part of the Sahara, it is one of the largest parks in the world. This video from a trip in 1983 shows what it looks like. Also, the University of Cologne seems to be doing archaeological research there.

  6. Finally, Kerma is an old town with mud brick temples. It lies in the far north of the Nubian desert, and is covered by some of the longer group tours listed above. Fellow WHS traveller Naim Yunus went there earlier this year. Read his trip report or have a look at this fine slideshow created by him:

Published 22 November 2014 Leave a Comment

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Old Dongola

The ruins of Old Dongola are located on the East Bank of the Nile. As in Egypt, the Nile provides Sudan with a narrow strip of fertile ground. This area still has a number of colourful Nubian villages, where people live of the land (beans!). However, we arrived from the desert where we had been camping.

The first remarkable sight in Old Dongola is the group of some 20 beehive tombs. These are of later date than Christian Dongola, but probably will be included in a nomination. I was pretty stunned by them, in the right sunlight they are beautiful. They are much bigger than I had expected. On the inside they are empty nowadays, except for significant numbers of bats.


The Christian archaeological site lies uphill. It covers quite a large area, with palace grounds, churches and houses. From the fourth to the fourteenth century Old Dongola was the capital of the Makurian state and an important trade city. We (a Dutch tour group of 16 people) were the only visitors on site and I noticed no entrance regulations. After a while a caretaker showed up and followed us around on the 45 minute circuit along the remains of the buildings.

Compared to Paul Tanner's photos from his visit in 2005, I found the site to be less covered with sand 9 years later. The church buildings seem to be fully excavated, but not much more is left than columns and walls. This part of the former town lies closest to the river.


The Throne Hall is the most impressive construction still standing. Its interior is completely sealed off nowadays. "UNESCO is working on it", according to our guide. There's no sign of any work being done however. Supposedly there's an audience room with a painted floral band and a figures Christ and a Nubian bishop inside.

Of course I was very curious about the state of the frescoes found at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity. The Polish archaeologists are still working on the site, but not today and it did not look like they've been present a lot recently. Earlier this year the protective covering above the monastery had collapsed due to heavy rains. It hasn't been repaired since. Fortunately we were able to see the frescoes and photograph them. They are in a Byzantine style and having their original colouring, but they are very hard to see. Most of them are damaged too.


This was the first archaelogical site that I visited in Sudan, and I enjoyed it. It might not be spectacular enough to be in a Top 100 or even Top 500 of WHS, but while we are still adding sites from all over the world this one could surely make the cut. It is a testimony to a long and important phase in Nubian history. And I really loved those beehive tombs!

Published 1 December 2014 Leave a Comment

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WHS #553: Gebel Barkal

Gebel Barkal was Nubia's Holy Mountain. Its size and shape appealed so much to exploring Ancient Egyptians who came down the Nile, that they started building temples at its foot. It remained a sanctuary to the god Amun for centuries, from the Egyptian "colonization" to the time of the Black Pharaohs when the local Nubian rulers took control over South Egypt and moved their capital to Meroë.

Although the main Amun Temple looks to be well-excavated nowadays, I was amazed at the level of archaeological work still going on. Two teams were busy when I visited: an international group under guidance of the Sudanese Ministry of Antiquities, and an Italian-led group. The Italians were focusing on a building which is being excavated for the first time, although it lies right next to the Amun Temple and also directly at the foot of the mountain.

There were no other people around besides the archaelogists when we visited during the day, but some 50 locals and international tourists showed up later to watch the sunset from the top of the mountain. To me, the site's highlights include the still erect pillars topped with serpents symbolizing the goddess Hathor (see picture below), the hieroglyphs on the column fragments that have fallen down, the finely carved interior of the Temple of Mut and the small pyramid field at the far end of the archaeological zone.

Some 10 kms from Gebel Barkal, on the outskirts of a small village, lies El Kurru. This is the oldest among the 5 locations that constitute this WHS. The pyramids here are gone, but the underground tombs that lay beneath them have been preserved well. There are three of these tombs at the site (most travel guides name only two, that shows that important new discoveries are still made in Sudan). The excavation of the third and biggest one is sponsored by Qatar.

I was only able to visit the interior of the tomb of Tanwetamani ; that of his mother was undergoing maintenance. It lies deep underground, you go in via a steep stairway. Downstairs the tomb is surprisingly spacious. Ten people fit in easily into either of the two rooms. The walls and ceilings are completely covered in wall paintings of the Egyptian kind, using red, yellow and blue on a white background. The lower paintings (up until 1m from the floor) unfortunately have been damaged by a flooding. This is the best collection of original wall paintings that I saw during my time in Sudan, their colours have been beautifully preserved.

Nuri is the third location of this WHS that I visited, doing so at the end of a 2 hour Nile "cruise" that ended at the opposite side of the river from where we started. The other two included sites (Zuma and Sanam) are smaller and barely excavated. Nuri's pyramids are more "Egyptian" in style than the ones at the main Gebel Barkal site: bigger and less steep. They are among the oldest that remain in Sudan.

Nuri has visual links with the Gebel Barkal: the table mountain is always in sight when you're walking around Nuri's 19 remaining pyramids. The American archaeologist George Reisner has thrown in some of the usual solstice theories to explain this connection.

The charm of Gebel Barkal and associated sites lies with this sense of exploration and ongoing discoveries. They are less well researched and excavated than similar Egyptian sites, but are majestic in their appearance and worth their spot on the WH List.

Published 7 December 2014 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #553: Gebel Barkal:

Kyle (7 December 2014):
Fascinating sites, I just taught a unit on the Kingdom of Kush, my 6th grade students loved it. They were surprised by Meroe & Gebel Barkal, the similarities and differences from Egypt. Also the "forgotten" nature of this civilization intrigued them, they all had heard of the Pharaohs in Egypt, none had knew anything about Kush (Nubia).

WHS #554: Magnificent Meroë

After I had visited the excellent Gebel Barkal, I wondered if Meroë could surpass it. Well, it did. I do not hesitate to compare this collection of 4 archaeological sites in the heart of Sudan with Jordan's Petra. Meroë is testimony to the period when the Black Pharoahs of Nubia found their own style: less Egyptian and more African, with far-reaching trade connections.

The focal point of the nomination is the pyramid field of the Meroë Necropolis, where about 100 structures are clustered. It lies within sight of the busy tarmacked road between Khartoum and Atbara, with mainly trucks and buses plying the route to Port Sudan. The pyramids here have been uncovered since the early 20th century. The reconstruction of their characteristic pylon gateways or votive chapels often dates to as recent as the 1990s. Fresh sand covers the entrances to these chapels every day, making it still adventurous to tread and explore. Most are empty inside, but some have carvings or paintings so it's worth to just check them out one by one to see what you find.

A few kilometres away, on the other side of the modern road, lie the remains of the former city of Meroë. This is mostly just ruins now, but you can see the size of it all (it had 25,000 inhabitants in its heyday). A Roman-style bath house has been discovered here. Nature is slowly taking over the site again: due to restrictions on wood collecting, an acacia forest is starting to regrow. We saw some fine birds here, such as a hoopoe and a small owl.

Musawwarat es-Sufra covers the third location of this WHS. It lies in the desert 35km inland of the Nile and 40km south of Meroë. The site of Musawwarat (meaning "pictures") holds a monument that could be a WHS in its own right: the Lion Temple. This is a beautifully restored sandstone structure covered on all four sides with almost complete bas reliefs. They show local and Egyptian gods and goddesses, kings and queens with African hairstyles. The temple is dedicated to the typical Meroitic Lion God Apedemak. German archaeologists have "adopted" it since the 1950s, and have pieced it together again carefully. Really great WHS produce a Wow!-feeling when you see them with your own eyes, and the reliefs of Mussawarat did the trick for me.

Naqa is the fourth location that comprises this WHS. It lies not far from Mussawarat, in a similar desert setting. The serious photographers and video shooters in our tour group were immediately drawn to a pastoral scene near where we parked (some even never bothered to enter the archaelogical site itself). All people and animals living in the wider area seemed to gather at this spot, where water was being collected deep down from a well. Two donkeys did the hard work, pulling the long rope connected to the bucket downhill.

I prefer looking at old buildings above pestering locals, so I followed our Sudanese guide into the grounds. Naqa is the site where the Nubians of the Kushite empire show that they've been in contact with Roman / Hellenistic structures. Neighbouring Egypt was a Roman colony during the Meroitic Kingdom of Kush. Naqa's "Roman" kiosk, a small temple, shows familiar capitals and arched windows. There are also two larger temples on site, both again with large bas reliefs on the outside. One carving shows a bearded Greek, not far from where our 19th century friend Prince Pückler left his mark.

The sites in and around Meroë seem slightly more visited than those at Gebel Barkal, probably because of the relative proximity to the capital Khartoum. The Pyramid fields of Meroë even are fenced off (a rare sight in Sudan). There are souvenir sellers at the gate, and guys that offer camel rides. It's all still low-key of course, but Meroë is the center of Sudanese tourism and rightly so. The site saw 6000 visitors in 2010, I wonder how high the numbers are nowadays.

Published 13 december 2014 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #554: Magnificent Meroë:

ellakropkacom.blogspot.com (1 January 2015):
I have never been in this place - but thanks to your description, I m sure it will be my next place worth to visit.
Regards, El

Clyde (19 December 2014):
Extremely interesting review and incredible comments and photos showing the site before and after reconstruction! I've added this site to my personal Top 100 places I would like to visit :)

Paul Tanner (15 December 2014):
Regarding Els's comments about the reconstructions which have taken place at Meroe. It might be of interest to see the changes which have been brought about at Meroe in recent years by such (re)building work. I attach a couple of photos taken around 75 years apart but from a very similar viewpoint! The first is a B+W photo which I have scanned from Volume 6 of a book published c1930 +/- by Fleetway Press titled "Lands and Peoples". The second is a photo I took in Dec 2005. I did not of course realise at the time that an old book I owned would have a photo taken from almost the same viewpoint! My later photo shows the very large number of pylons which have been "constructed" in front of the pyramids - together with the 2 "new" pyramids mentioned by Els. ICOMOS commented that "Conservation works to the pyramids and temples have involved more reconstruction (in the Burra Charter sense of introducing new material), than in situ stabilisation or restoration (where new material is not introduced) or true anastylosis."

Els (15 December 2014):
What I wondered about is the level of reconstruction of the "pylons" (votive chapels) and the Pyramids. In my pictures (see first above) one can clearly see what is the original and what is the reconstructed part (looks lighter, more smooth, concrete?). Also, 2 small pyramids have been erected among the original ones just to show how the complete ones looked like. To my untrained eye, the restoration at Mussawarat is done much more carefully.

Paul Tanner (15 December 2014):
It is amazing to think that, if ICOMOS had got its way, this wonderful site of Meroe wouldn't have been inscribed in 2011 but would have been deferred - probably for some years! And not just because of protection issues and poor management etc. I have just looked again at the ICOMOS evaluation and it didn't consider that the case had been made out on ANY of the 4 criteria suggested by Sudan (2,3,4, and 5). It did concede that a case could be made out on 2 and 3 if certain things were done - better comparison analysis for instance - it had a bee in its bonnet about the lack of a Nile port as part of the nomination. Seems a classic example of ICOMOS not seeing the wood for the trees!
Although the 2011 WHC was not broadcast publicly I have access to some notes from the session. Sudan was perhaps lucky that the WHC included Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Iraq, UAE and Bahrain! Egypt stated that it was a "deed of honour" to inscribe the site. Ethiopia said that the importance of Meroe could not be doubted. Bahrain - The site is exceptional. BRZ, CHINA, EGY, ETI, JOR, IRQ, MAL, NIG, UAE all proposed acceptance. France agreed and Egypt proposed that it be inscribed on all 4 criteria. A few face saving (to ICOMOS)recommendations were put in and it was done! It will be interesting to see how many of the recommendations actually get done.

WHC 2015: Singapore Botanic Gardens

Singapore accepted the World Heritage Convention only as recently as 2012, being one of the last sovereign countries to do so. Heritage of the tangible kind never has been much of a priority in Singapore. After independence in 1965 the focus has been on economical development against all cost. The recent interest in conserving heritage seems to be stimulated by NGO's such as the Singapore Heritage Society that spoke up about the remaking of Chinatown in 1998 and the demolition of the National Library building at Stamford Road in 2001.

Heritage however does play an important role in the "invented" Singaporean national identity: "Heritage binds Singapore and sells it 1. The development of Singapore into Asia's premier "Garden City" for example was initiated in 1963 by Lee Kuan Yew himself. In pursuing its first WHS, Singapore puts less emphasis on the tourism functions of World Heritage: the expected political and sociocultural returns appear more important 2.

The selection process for a possible WHS started already before 2012. In 2010, a study was commissioned by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts to identify potential sites that could fulfill UNESCO's criteria as World Heritage Sites. Sites such as Haw Par Villa, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the former Ford Factory, were considered. Of the sites identified, the Singapore Botanic Gardens proved to be the strongest candidate. To date, it's the country's only TWHS and up for nomination in 2015 (the 50th anniversary of Singapore's independence).

The full nomination document accidentally came into our hands earlier this year. The site is proposed for inscription under criteria (ii) and (iv), and also as a cultural landscape. Its claim as best preserved British tropical colonial botanic garden landscape is the most convincing argument. It was a site for experiments on crops such as rubber and orchid hybrids, that shaped Singapore's economic development. And: "Between the early 1960s and late 1980s the Botanic Gardens revised its mission and focus from a largely research-oriented organisation to one that would spearhead and be the driving force behind Singapore's "Garden City" vision".

I visited Singapore on my RTW-trip in 2011. I was about 3 months on the road by then, and needed to replace some clothes and technical stuff. So I did mostly practical things during my 5 day stay, and I also went to a swimming pool in a (sufficiently green) residential area. I had expected to like Singapore a lot, as I generally do enjoy big Asian cities that are full of life. Singapore is very westernized and modern however, and rather is a convenient place to live in than an exotic tourist destination.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens were one of the few tourist attractions that I visited, and without a doubt the most impressive one. Over 4 million visitors come here annually, making it the most visited Botanic Garden in the world. I remember the National Orchid Garden as one of the prettiest parts of the gardens. It's really a big site, a combination of a landscape garden with special interest zones. It amazed me how "wild" it was, with a variety of birds. I even stumbled upon an intriguing snake.

Considering the WHC's current policy to let every country have its WHS, it should be easy to get the Botanical Gardens in for Singapore. There's no other "tropical colonial" Botanical Garden of this size, fame or importance in the world. And the immaculately presented nomination dossier, created by a consultancy firm, will surely help.

Published 20 December 2014 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHC 2015: Singapore Botanic Gardens:

WHS #555: Gomera's Garajonay

Spain's Garajonay National Park only has a small footprint on the web. In preparation of my visit, I had been looking for a few extra links to upgrade the site's page on this website. But not many people seem to go there or at least write about it. It's not popular among World Heritage lovers either: it's ranked 409th out of 481 European WHS in our listings. The park covers the central part of the Canary Island of La Gomera, which is the neighbouring island to Tenerife. Tenerife's prominent WHS Teide volcano can be seen well from the Garajonay.

Garajonay's claim to fame is its laurel forest. At its inscription as a WHS in 1986, this Spanish national park was seen as the best preserved stretch of laurisilva that once covered all Canary Islands and Madeira. 13 years later the similar Laurisilva of Madeira was admitted to the WH list. Its nomination document goes a long way to describe the differences: the Madeira laurel forest WHS is about 5 times larger than the one on Gomera, and the forest "is in general more luxuriant than the Canarian forest, being taller, wetter and cooler." They claim that the Madeiran forest was just lesser known and written about in the 1980s than the Canarian ones. So maybe Garajonay's value isn't that outstanding after all.

Interisland rivalry aside, something with an enormous impact happened to Garajonay in 2012: a forest fire burned 3,000 hectares (20%) of this national park. During my visit two years later, the effects were still very prominent. I started with an ascend to the top of Garajonay mountain, and noticed blackened trees all around the summit. An information panel at the top describes how succesful the conservation in this national park has been in the 1980s, by eradicating all foreign trees (such as eucalyptus). A final note has been added about the fires: optimistically they point out to see and look how quickly the forest recovers. My eyes however tell me that tree heath regrows much quicker than laurel forest.

To see as much as possible of Garajonay National Park in one day, I hiked for 10km along its "roof top", a circular walk from Laguna Grande to the top of Garajonay. The mountain top itself is a popular tourist stop, a 30-minute uphill walk from the main road. Here you can find the great views on the surrounding islands such as Tenerife and Gran Canaria.

The rest of the hike fortunately was much more quiet. I had prepared for a cool cloud forest, packing a sweater and a soft shell jacket. But due to the fires, the paths now lie out in the open. Even in late December the sun in this part of the world is strong. Also there seems to have been little rain recently. Only during the last 2 kilometers of my hike, near Laguna Grande, I saw some of the features that I had anticipated: lush vegetation, mosses and lichens. Still much less of those than I saw on (the wetter) Madeira and certainly on the ultimate wet forest Yakushima.

Although La Gomera sees its fair share of tourists, it still is somewhat of an adventure to get to Garajonay. There are only a handful of buses a day, and on "my" bus people were left at the bus station of San Sebastian de la Gomera because the bus was full. And when you finish your visit, you can only hope there will be a return bus. Otherwise you'll have to hitchhike. I missed my return bus too, and got picked up by a shark-like taxi driver who cruised past the bus stop just after the bus had left.

Published 29 December 2014 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #555: Gomera's Garajonay:

WHS #556: Teide National Park

When I told my colleagues that I would be visiting Tenerife during the New Year's holiday, they thought that I finally had succumbed to a relaxing beach vacation. They were surprised to hear that it would put me within reach of 3 WHS. Those that had been to Tenerife themselves all offered "El Teide" as the island's most likely WH candidate.

The Teide WHS is a volcanic landscape that actually covers two peaks (Pico Viejo and Teide), of which the latter is the most iconic. I already enjoyed good views of it from the plane while approaching Tenerife Norte Airport, and from the top of the Garajonay on La Gomera.

Mount Teide bugloss (Echium wildpretii)

Teide NP is part of our infamous "One million visitors or more"- connection. Visitor numbers have actually been dwindling over the past 5 years (due to the economic crisis?). Still it can get very busy up there, and I used Hubert's excellent advice how early to start out. I left my hotel in Granadilla at 7.30 a.m. When I arrived at the park some 45 minutes later, it was almost freezing cold (+2.5 Celsius) but I had the place to myself. Just wonderful.

I stopped at a few Miradores, watching the sun rise. Comparisons to the moon have been made, but the landscape looked more like Southwestern USA to me. It's not that barren: tough plants cover large parts of the ground. The most prominent spot here at the southern side of the park is the Roques de Garcia. This is a series of strangely shaped rocks, the erosional remnants of an earlier version of the volcano. There's a 3.5 km long trail that loops around them. Although the temperature left me with very cold hands, I opted to do this medium level hike and see the rocks up and close.

The path starts out easy, but gets more tricky half-way. You actually walk along the back-side of the rocks. I even got lost a bit, I was starting to scramble up a hill when I saw 2 people approaching from the other side showing the right path. The real climb is left to the end, a switchback trail all the way up to the main viewpoint again. That trail is where I got the best views, including that of the photo right above.

After the hike I drove down the road that cross-sects the park. There are a couple more viewpoints, but none I found as spectacular as the Roques. I already had decided beforehand to forego on the cable car ride to the top. The visitor center "El Portillo" at the northern end of the park turned out to be closed on January 1st. It was free to enter the attached botanical gardens though, where I was immediately attracted to another view of the Teide.

Teide NP entered the WH List in 2007, at the same session as Korea's Jeju Island. This sparked a debate if there weren't enough volcanoes on the list already ("including several properties whose inscription was justified on the basis of arguments that are considered by a number of experts to be rather narrow"). The Committee requested IUCN to do a Thematic Study. The results were publicized in 2009: although most types of volcanic features were considered well-represented, some gaps were still identified.

Since 2009 several new volcanic sites have been added to the List (Pitons of Réunion, Ogasawara Islands, Mt. Etna and Mt. Fuji for example) - not the ones that would fill any lacunes. And although the IUCN study does criticize the "haphazard process of site selection and nomination of World Heritage properties by State Parties", it doesn't dare to say which of the already inscribed ones are superfluous. No doubt has ever been casted about El Teide: its height, age (over 3.5 million years) and gigantic caldera (a term that originated here) justify its inscription.

Published 3 January 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #556: Teide National Park:

WHS #557: San Cristobal de La Laguna

La Laguna (as the city is commonly known) lies right beside Tenerife Norte Airport, and forms a single urban center with the island's capital Santa Cruz. It's a sizeable city of 150,000 inhabitants, which became a WHS in 1999 mainly because of the model its urban layout provided for many Spanish colonial towns in the Americas. The Lower Town of La Laguna displays the checkerboard street plan that became the norm afterwards.

I stayed in La Laguna for 2 nights at the final stage of my trip around Tenerife and La Gomera, and walked the city's streets for some serious sightseeing on Saturday morning. Most historic buildings are private residences, usually with an elaborate front door or wooden balcony. The Historical and Antropological Museum of Tenerife is housed in one of them, the Casa de Larcaro. Entering the museum gives you the rare opportunity to actually look inside one of these buildings - most of the other ones are closed to outsiders. The museum tells the story of the Conquest, the sugar industry and the Larcaro family. La Laguna has some good 20th century architecture too, such as the Palace of Rodriguez de Azero (now the Casino) and the Leal Theatre.

The most striking parts of La Laguna are its many churches and other religious institutions. Religious orders such as the Dominicans, Jesuits and Augustinians came here to convert the local population, just as they would do in Latin America. The finest church is La Concepcion.

It's by night that the historic city center really comes alive. The pedestrian streets are filled with cafés and small restaurants, offering mainly tapas and pinxtos. No All-day-English breakfasts here: this is a place where the Tenerifeans and other Spaniards go. I had no problem to amuse myself here, enjoying for example the Canarian comfort food Ropa Vieja.

All things considered: this is not a WHS visit that will stay with me for long. The street plan wasn't that obvious to me, and unfortunately the tower that could provide a good overview was closed. The nomination file records no less than 16 reasons why it should be inscribed, something that even annoyed ICOMOS. Having travelled around La Gomera and Tenerife for a week, I can see that the Canary Islands are considered a stepping stone to the colonization of the Americas. La Laguna might be the best preserved example of that.

Published 10 January 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #557: San Cristobal de La Laguna:

WHS #558: Panamá

This Panamá City WHS covers two locations along the Pacific Coast: the site of the oldest European town on the American mainland and the first European settlement on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. It was inscribed in two stages, with reasons for inscription varying from inter-oceanic communications to Panamanian house-types, and from 16th/17th century town planning and architecture to Simon Bolivar's visionary attempt in 1826 to establish a multinational congress in the Americas. Whenever I see so many different arguments put forward, I always suspect real Outstanding Universal Value is lacking: such value surely would be much easier to pinpoint.

On my way to Nicaragua I included a 3 day stop-over in Panamá, and used it to explore this hard-to-grasp WHS and its Atlantic Ocean counterpart Portobelo.

Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo lies in a relatively quiet area north of the city center. The Metrobus dropped me at the entrance, where I was asked to pay the foreigners fee of 8 US dollar. This ticket includes both the museum and the archaeological site. The museum does only cover one floor, but presents the story of this site well. This was the first spot where the Spaniards settled on the Pacific Coast. It was clear from the start that the location wasn't great: a lack of drinking water and healthy environment sent them looking for an alternative from 1531 on.

The remains of this old settlement are spread out on a narrow stretch of land along the Pacific coast. I enjoyed walking here, I was mostly on my own until I got to the central square where the cathedral is. The best preserved buildings are the remains of churches of various religious orders. I had to laugh about a sign at the Casa Alarcon: this was built by the clergy in 1590 (thanks to alms) as a house for rent and generate income. However, the clergy including the Bishops started using it themselves without paying anything.

Plaza de la Independencia, Casco Viejo

The other half of this WHS lies not far away, some of the metrobuses between Albrook Station and Panama Viejo even stop near Casco Viejo too. This historic district seems to be visited once every few years by visitors of this website, and the main question always is: how is the state of conservation at the moment? Getting there definitely has gotten safer over the years, and there now is a metro station from where you can walk into Casco Viejo. Also, according to an inventory dated April 2013, some 75% of the buildings are presently in a good state of conservation. This figure was only 5% at inscription in 1997. So they definitely have come a long way.

The area now is tourist central: the historic buildings are home to lots of restaurants, cafés, boutiques, souvenir shops. Unfortunately there's quite a lot of traffic in the streets, mainly taxi's and minibuses dropping off tourists. I visited on a Sunday, and although the atmosphere certainly was lively most of the churches and museums were closed. So I just walked around a bit. I searched for the "Salon Bolivar", the enigmatic location that was highlighted in the site's first nomination as a WHS. Probably it was closed too. In all, I did not find Casco Viejo that special.

The infamous maritime viaduct

A huge controversy has been going on about this WHS during the past WHC meetings. A maritime viaduct has been constructed around Casco Viejo, blocking its access to the sea. This could lead to delisting of the site in 2015, although it was never placed "in danger". This study by Lynn Meskell attributes this leniency to the dominance of the BRICS countries in the WHC during the last decennium. They like to see economic progress, and support Panama for its efforts.

The maritime viaduct is finished now. There are 3 options left to prevent a crisis: the first is to limit the WHS to only Panama Viejo, the second option is to limit the size and focus of Casco Viejo, and the third is to fundamentally change it to a serial nomination including the Camino Real and Panama Canal (capitalizing on the "inter-oceanic communications").

As the deadline of Feb 1 2015 is near, I have been searching the web in Spanish to see where Panama is heading. Option 2 is the favourite, as it seems to be the most likely (and easiest!) route. A deletion of Casco Viejo as a whole is seen as it could have negative effects for the conservation of that area. Whatever the outcome, Panama Viejo at least is without controversy and deserves its spot on the List for its role in the European settlement of the Pacific Coast of the Americas.

Published 18 January 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #558: Panamá:

WHS #559: Portobelo

Portobelo and San Lorenzo were Spanish fortifications on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Portobelo even was the most important Spanish port of Central America in its time, the storehouse for the silver and gold that came from Peru by land or sea/river and had to be transported across the Atlantic. Both sites lie on either side of the modern city of Colón, some 80 km apart.

As most others, I only visited Portobelo. I would love to see a review of San Lorenzo on this website too, but it isn't as easily accessible. Without a rental car, your only chance is joining a day tour from Panama City. The pricing of these tours (of any guided tour from Panama City) is ridiculous: they all seem to start at 100 US dollar. That's the downside of Panama: due to the cruise public, a large number of western expats and the general Americanization of the country prices often bear no relation to real costs.

Fortunately Portobelo can be reached by public transport. It cost me 5 US dollar each way, with a change of buses at the town of Sabanitas. Taking this route, you avoid Colon which has the reputation of a hellhole (though that might be an exaggeration too). Sabanitas is easy and friendly, and Diablos Rojos race by frequently to take you to Portobelo. I wasn't the only tourist on this bus, nor in the town itself. On approach you immediately notice the formidable natural harbour, which even Columbus acknowledged. It reminded me a bit of the Bay of Kotor.

There are several fortresses and other military structures around the harbour of Portobelo. One of the most prominent lies in the center of town: the San Jeronimo Fort. It looks quite OK from a distance, maybe weathered but considering its age and Panama's climate that is no surprise. Upon entering, I noticed there are no access restrictions. Everybody can walk in as they like, and have a party inside (I saw many empty liquor bottles!). The niches are of excellent use for kissing couples. Later on I saw two caretakers picking up the trash, so there is some form of maintenance after all.

The effects of the flooding of 2011 are still there: about a third of this fort still is flooded. You can only reach the far end by crossing on two well-placed stepping stones. No health and safety standards here! Even the text on the information panel has faded away. But, in spite of all of this, this fort and its setting at the harbour has real charm. Everything shows the effects of time, but that's more convincing than so many other fortresses and castles on the List which have been overly restored.

On a prime location lies the former Customs Building. Birds have taken over the top floor for their own use, the ground floor houses the city museum which should not be missed. An introductionary video is shown about Portobelo's history. I found it difficult to get online information about the site beforehand, also the AB evaluation is very short and superficial. The site seems to be surrounded with myths. The video emphasizes the role slaves played in its construction. The focus is not so much on the story of the Spaniards and the English, but on that of the local population that is mostly from African descent.

The site has been on the List in Danger since in 2012 mainly due to neglect: environmental factors, lack of a maintenance programme and polluted water has lead to deteroriation of the site. There are even families living in the inner areas of the Santiago de Gloria Castle, though new houses are said to be currently under construction. The town seems to be too far away from Panama-City to attract the much-needed attention. It's still worth a detour to visit however.

Published 24 January 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #559: Portobelo:

Clyde (25 January 2015):
Thanks for the review and the photos. Unfortunately during my trip in Central America I missed this WHS and instead I decided to relax in the San Blas Archipelago with the Kuna Indians. If I ever visit Panama again I'd like to try visiting the Darien National Park although quite dangerous.

WHS #560: Ruins of León Viejo

León Viejo is said to be one of the earliest cities of Spanish America. Panama Viejo, that I visited last week, makes the same claim. I have been looking for a list in which order these Spanish overseas cities were founded, but could only find this one. It doesn't even include León Viejo; if I fit it in, with 1524 it would come on a shared 11th place among the Spanish colonial cities. The difference between this and many other cities on that list is that it has not developed since the 16th century, when it was abandoned.

Anyway, León Viejo is of great importance to Nicaragua as it was its first colonial capital. The Spanish settled on the shore of what then was called the Lake of Leon. In its heyday, some 200 Spanish families lived here. A serious town was constructed for them, although there weren't many inhabitants: everything seems to have been supersized. There were no less than three convents, and the town hall spanned a full block. In the surrounding area lived thousands of native Americans, who were dominated and put to work by the Spanish.

The entrance fee to what is now an archaelogical site comes with a guide. I was the first visitor of the day, and the only person on site during my visit. We started at the two exhibition rooms near the entrance. One is about the Spanish town, the other focuses on the indigenous culture. The point is made that early Nicaraguans already were in contact with the Ancient Peruvians, as Peruvian pottery was found at this site. Another reminder of the plight of the indigenous people is the statue of an Indian attacked by dogs that now adorns the center of the plaza.

Some 16 ruined buildings have been partially restored. Or maybe we should say "partially uncovered, and then put under protected cover again". Actually only the La Merced Convent has a recognizable shape. The road is also restored. I was actually more amazed by the trees, the fruits, the squirrels and the view of Momotombo Volcano than by the ruins. The site looks well-maintained, maybe surprisingly so for a poor country that Nicaragua is (the 2nd or 3rd poorest in the western hemisphere after Haïti and possibly Honduras). This is also a pleasant change after seeing the difficulties that Panama has with conservation.

I reached León Viejo by public transport from León. That's a fun thing to do if you have time. You can get there by local buses, with a change in the town of La Paz Centro. The bus driver will know where "Las Ruinas" are, you have to walk 200m from the final stop in the town of Puerto Momotombo. The site is also signposted all over town, it's impossible to miss. I had to wait almost an hour for the return bus, and spent that sitting in the main street watching rural Nicaraguan life go by. Horsecarts are still a common mode of transport here. I also noticed a few wandering salesmen, going from door to door selling plastic stuff or fruits.

León Viejo is not a spectacular sight, and I gave it only a 6.5 out of 10. But it is surely worth a detour when you're visiting northern Nicaragua. Although they may not see that many visitors, the archaelogical site and attached museum are kept in a good state.

Published 31 January 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #560: Ruins of León Viejo:

WHS #561: León Cathedral

When the León Cathedral entered the List in 2011, many will have wondered "Do we really need another cathedral?". After having now visited this Nicaraguan monument, my answer would be: "It's different". It's essentially a Centralamerican structure, not purely Spanish-colonial as so many others (although its construction was started during the late colonial years). Also, it's a Single Monument that carries the weight of being a WHS on its own - not "just" as part of an inscribed city center.

Weeping lion at the tomb of the omnipresent Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario

León is Nicaragua's second city in size. Its slogan is "Primera Capital de la Revolucion" : here's where the demise of the Somoza regime started. León has been a Sandinista stronghold since. Right next to the cathedral survives a long political mural from the 1980s, painted jointly by German and Nicaraguan artists. The cathedral has been used for militairy purposes also in the insurrection of 1979.

The cathedral is Leóns pride, and it stands impressively in the center of town. It's so huge and there a so many turrets and domes on its roof, that it is a great landmark to find your way again when you're lost somewhere in the city. They are in the process of repainting the whole structure. The facade is still a bit off-white, but the roof already has been rendered totally snow white.

Up on the roof

Visiting this Cathedral isn't as straightforward as with other cathedrals and churches. Of course the main body is open all the time, to give the local people space to pray and contemplate (and they do so in great numbers). Its interior isn't exuberant or otherwise very remarkable. Two of the more interesting aspects can only be visited with a separate ticket: the roof and the cloister. Such a ticket can only be bought during limited opening hours (think: late start, long lunch, early leave) from a small kiosk at the back of the church across from the market.

The roof is accessed via another hard-to-find entrance. After climbing a flight of stairs, you're requested to take off your shoes. They clearly want to keep the roof clean and white! The restored roof top and bell tower are impressive. All of it is covered with stucco plaster, making it look like one big birthday cake.

Entrance to the cloister known as Patio del Principe involves another hurdle: the ticket lady told me I would find a "joven" (young person) in the main church, who would guide me to the Patio. There were lots of jovens inside of course, so I just waved my ticket. A girl approached me, and said: "Go to the front of the church, there will be a girl sitting in a bench reading. She will be your guide." (I now felt that I was on a secret mission). She went to get the key, and together we entered the Patio. After all the trouble, I found it a bit disappointing. The "typical Nicaraguan" aspects were lost on me.

Patio del Principe

The Cathedral also is host to El Cristo Negro de Pedrarias, possibly the oldest catholic image in the Americas. I looked for it during my visit, remembering it as being a painting and unsuccesfully asking the guide in the cathedral about it. While re-checking the nomination file later, I noticed it's a wooden statue instead. It was brought from Spain by Pedro Arias de Ávila himself in 1514: first to Panama, and later to Leon Viejo until 1610. So it's one of those rare objects that moved from one WHS to another. The statue has received a hit by a pirate's sabre in 1685, who wanted to be sure that it wasn't made of precious metal.

Published 6 February 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #561: León Cathedral:

Volcan Masaya - Exciting or not?

Nicaragua is a land of volcanoes, and the Volcan Masaya is the most spectacular of them all. It's an active complex volcano with a total of five craters and numerous other volcanic features. Masaya continually emits large amounts of sulfur dioxide gas. The site has been on the Tentative List since 1995, but seems to have never been seriously considered.

Volcan Masaya lies within easy reach of a half-day trip from Managua or Granada. It's a very accessible site with a car/taxi or an organized tour. I visited it on a "Night Tour" from Granada - we were 17 tourists divided over 2 minibuses. After a short visit to the historic market in Masaya City, we arrived in this National Park at about 4.30 p.m.

Apparently this is the only volcano in the western hemisphere where you are able to drive to the rim. And that's what we did first: stand next to a steaming crater. There was so much smoke that it was not possible to look down to see what's boiling inside. Because of the gases, you're only allowed to stay in this area for 5 minutes. I found it remarkable that you're allowed so close, the only risk mitigation measures are signs with texts like: "In case of expulsions of rocks, protect yourself inside your car".

With dawn approaching, we started the second part of the tour in a different area of the park. This is the part where we had to put on a helmet, fit a gas mask and carry a torch. Trying out the gas mask provided some nervous giggles in the minibus - you look ridiculous, but you want to do it absolutely right for your own safety. We were to visit an underground tunnel which was formed by lava streams and observe (mildly) interesting rock formations. We never got that deep inside that we actually had to use the gas masks, so it was a bit of a hype.

Afterwards we walked in a row (donning our gas masks this time!) to a spot nearby to watch bats depart from their caves. Darkness had fallen in the mean time, so the creatures weren't easy to see. We weren't allowed to use the torchlights as those would scare away the bats. I just took some photos with flash, and hoped there was someting visible. And indeed - a few shots included a single bat venturing outside.

Though this is the closest I have ever been to the crater of an active volcano, I wasn't "blown away" by the experience. Unfortunately we did not see the glowing lava streams that are often visible here at night. I also doubt I will ever be rewarded with a WHS "tick" for Masaya. The number of volcanic sites on the WH List is already long, and according to a Thematic Study by IUCN has reached its limits. A few obscure gaps are still there, but Masaya doesn't fill any of them. Still it's a popular outing from Granada and a nice asset for the up-and-coming Nicaraguan tourist trade.

Published 14 February 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to Volcan Masaya - Exciting or not?:

Ian Cade (15 February 2015):
"In case of expulsions of rocks, protect yourself inside your car"

Well at least they have given it some thought. We were looking into a trip to Nicaragua before deciding on Brazil. It has looked rather interesting from your reviews, especially the roof of Leon cathedral.

@ Paul: "I don't know where he got the bit about my "love of ugly high rise buildings" from!"

Seemed like an odd comment to me as well. Perhaps it is related to your review of the Bauhaus, which was around the same sort of time?

Paul Tanner (15 February 2015):
"Apparently this is the only volcano in the western hemisphere where you are able to drive to the rim"

There is already inscribed on the WH List a place which claims to be even more than this! Namely "The World's only DRIVE-IN Volcano" - Sulphur Springs in St Lucia which is part of the Pitons Management Area.
When I indicated in my review of that site that I found this claim (and the site itself) to be somewhat excessively hyped I received a certain amount of abuse in replies such as this one from Randy "Mr. tanner it does not claim to be , it is the only drive in valcano. Frankly I am not suprised that you dont appreciate natural beauty, especially when your idea of beauty is ugly high rise buildings." (I don't know where he got the bit about my "love of ugly high rise buildings" from!).
I suspect that both places are a bit overhyped. Like Els, we visited Masaya (back in 1997). We didn't do the "bat cave" and I can't guarantee that we went to the same place for the gases as Els but we took quite a long walk from the car park around the rim and I do remember seeing the signs about protecting oneself from rocks! Here is a photo from the "rim" as we saw it showing the inner crater which was clearly visible through the fumes on the day we were there - I presume you also didn't go down to the inner crater Els? Unfortunately there was no sign of magma when we were there though this Web site shows that there can be (2nd photo) http://www.ucl.ac.uk/vco2/field-sites/Masaya

As for "comparison" with Sulphur Springs - well there is none really. Sulphur Springs may technically be a "volcano", being in a collapsed crater from 410000 years ago, but it totally lacks the "volcanic cone" of Masaya and is really just an area of steam fumaroles and mud pots with a hot springs bathing area. We visited as long ago as 1993 and I remember that there was a bit of a hassle as to whether a guide was obligatory or not for so called "safety reasons"(we avoided having one). The visit consisted of following a rather tame marked trail among the fumaroles and the stream which passes through. However it does appear that the site has its dangers as, a couple of years after our visit, one of the guides (!!) fell through the crust in one area and was killed! It appears that the route open to tourists has been significantly curtailed since those days to make it more suitable for Cruise Ship passengers and "Sandals" residents! On the same trip as our visit to Sulphur Springs we made it to little Montserrat and visited a location in the Soufriere Hills where there was a patch of yellow sulphur and a few puffs of "smoke" - no "crater" or anything resembling a classical "Volcano" in sight. All a bit disappointing really! Just 2 years later this unremarkable spot started spewing gases, ash and dust. Two thirds of the island's population had to be evacuated and its capital was abandoned (and still is). So those "puffs" can indeed suddenly turn nasty!

In reality, areas of hot springs are fairy common around the World (we have been to a few including ones in Geysir, Iceland, Yellowstone, US and Rotorua, NZ) and titling the one in St Lucia as a "walk-in volcano" doesn't really alter that fact! But what about other places where one can walk around the rim of a caldera and still see the fumes rising? Well there is Mt Bromo in Indonesia which I remember as worth seeing and was certainly "fuming", though the wider scenery was the main reason for going. Then there is Etna - unfortunately when we visited there was too much snow to get right to the crater itself. Vesuvius has a few puffs from some fumaroles but isn't really worth visiting just to see them -the general view of the Bay of Naples and its historical interest are the main reason! Kilauea on Hawaii was dormant when we were there in 1987 but had a fine overlook which, I understand provides superb views at times of activity. As it is also in the "Western Hemisphere" it certainly calls into question the claim made for Masaya which should really only claim on behalf of the American Continent. I have also driven to the edge of Turrialba Volcano in Costa Rica but it was on a pretty rough road and had no signs of volcanic activity either Has anyone had a good experience of any other genuine "crater rims"?

Granada and its natural environment

Granada and Leon have battled forever about which of the two is the most important city in Nicaragua. The Republic's Leadership even had to find a new capital in between the two rivals as a compromise: Managua. The City of Granada therefore must look with envy to Leon's 2 WHS, the only sites designated in Nicaragua so far. In the promotion of the TWHS City of Granada and its natural environment every argument possible seems to have been brought forward to turn this around.

The city was founded in 1542 and now has some 100,000 inhabitants. It's Nicaragua's "Tourism Capital": it has been a blossoming tourism and expat center since the early 21st century. It holds a particular attraction for Snowbirds from the USA. Clearly it does tick the right boxes for them: a warm climate, cute colonial town center, lots of foreigner-oriented restaurants (serving smoothies and green salads instead of the Nicaraguan staple rice and beans) and still cheap to live in.

I stayed for 3 nights in Granada, and one of the best things I did was take the self-guided Lonely Planet "Colonial Explorer" City Walk. The whole circuit takes 4 hours, and passes many structures of interest. It takes you from the harbour at Lake Nicaragua to the fortress La Polvora in the western outskirts of town. The outdoor market near the bus station is great for some couleur locale, and certainly not tourist-oriented. The view from the tower of La Merced Church definitely is the best in town: only from that point of view one notices the brick tiles that cover many of the city's roofs.

There's a whole lot of "natural environment" included in this mixed proposal too, both to the east and to the west of Granada. The isles of Lake Nicaragua (365 of them!). Zapatera Archipelago National Park. The Apoyo volcanic lagoon. And Volcan Mombacho Natural Reserve - another famous Nicaraguan volcano.

On one of my mornings in Granada I paid a visit to the Mombacho: a dormant volcano, covered by a cloud forest. The park entrance lies just 10km from Granada City. You can only reach the top of the volcano by the truck provided by the park service a few times a day. The whole excursion is a rather costly affair for foreigners: 15 dollar for the ride, 5 dollar for the park entrance, 4 dollar for maintenance and 12 dollar for a tame guided hike. Like Masaya, it leans towards a tourist trap and I feel sorry that Nicaragua takes this route. Such a contrast with the great experience that I had with Matagalpa Tours earlier in my trip, in a more off-the-beaten track location. A genuinely in nature interested guide (he was happy to tick off 2 birds he hadn't seen before) and a creative route designed for a group of one tourist did the trick.

Spanish-colonial town, "One of the most ancient cities in America", volcanoes, cloud forest, Lake Nicaragua: it is hard for Granada to find its own niche. It does resemble the Antigua Guatemala WHS, and is also not unlike Cuba's Trinidad. It surely was the prettiest town that I encountered in Nicaragua, but a future nomination will need a lot of focus.

Published 20 February 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to Granada and its natural environment:

Els Slots (21 February 2015):
Regarding the trans-isthmian "Nicaragua Canal": no I did not notice any activity pro or contra this adventure. It might be considered "Progress", certainly by the ruling Sandinist party but probably also by the general public. What I did notice were the many signs like the one below: we're building / revamping our country! (and oh, we're Christians too)

Solivagant (21 February 2015):
PS. I have just been revisiting my photos of Granada and came across those of the Precolombian Statues in the San Francsico Museum and taken from Zapatera. My photos of the descriptions of each exhibit (always worth having in these digital days!) describe how the site was discovered by Ephraim George Squier in 1849. Now as an "informal" WHS "Connection" - one of the palace complexes at Chan-Chan is named after this same guy! He is considered one of the pioneers of Pre-columbian archaeology and his book "Ancient monuments of the Mississippi Valley" was the first study of the North American Mound Builders and their sites. The general assessment of the sites on Zapatera Island however seems to be that most remains of significance are in musea (as in Granada) and what is still in situ is badly degraded so, although pre-columbian sites south of the Maya are not well represented on the list (Joya de Ceren and the Spheres of the Diquis) it wouldn't appear that this site would score highly on that aspect either

Solivagant (20 February 2015):
Els, whilst you were in Nicaragua did you manage to explore the reality of the proposed trans-isthmian canal? "Construction" was supposed to have started in Dec 2014 (for completion around 2020?)and the route chosen misses Granada, going, on the East, from approximately the middle of the Lake on a slightly SW route, south of Omotepe to a little town called Brito whence by canal to the Pacific.
But the effects on the ecology of the lake (which is already polluted - it has been nicknamed "The world's biggest toilet"!) could well be serious. Certainly one can't see ecologists etc being very pleased -and, through them UNESCO etc!
I understand that despite the recent start on construction there is still significant opposition to the canal in Nicaragua, mainly for economic reasons - can it really compete withe an enlarged Panama Canal given the wealth of Panama? But Ortega rules the roost for now and international politics also plays a part with China and Russia "fishing" in the waters. The supposed start on construction just a few days beofre the end of 2014 seems highly suspicious.
In so far as any possible Granada nomination includes natural aspects, I would have thought it was dead in the water with the canal being built! Furthermore, when we were in Granada, we were given a free tour of the "365 Islands" by the company we had booked our San Juan River area trip with. We found these islands to have have been heavily developed as holiday homes by wealthy Nicaraguans and their ownership mired in the vicissitudes of Nicaraguan politics over the last 30 years. Whilst there were a few monkeys on monkey island and some old fort structures the Archipelago didn't seem to have a lot to commend it other than as an afternoon trip for tourists ex Granada and as a chill out location for cabins etc.
Way down at the San Juan river (SE corner of the lake) there is another set of Islands - the Solentiname - but IMO the glory of the area is the San Juan river itself, the natural corridor of Indio Maiz which crosses it and the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception situated half way along it. But that too seems to have waxed and waned as a possible nomination and all the indications I have been able to discover are that the possibility is disappearing

Mongolia's Tentative List

In December 2014 Mongolia submitted a new Tentative List. It holds 13 sites, of which several such as the Gobi desert, the Desert fossil sites, Amarbayasgalant Monastery and a group of Sacred Mountains have appeared under different aliases on earlier lists. This renewal might be the start of intensified Mongolian WH activity during the coming years. Now awarded with only 3 WHS, this vast and unique country certainly has potential for more.

Cover of a booklet that I bought in Mongolia in 2002, before it had any WHS

I could not find a schedule of the proposed nominations, but what we do know is that Mongolia is up for 2 new WHS in 2015! First there's the natural site "Landscapes of Dauria", a transboundary nomination with Russia. This steppe is already a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and Ramsar Site. It's the breeding ground for the white-naped cranes, ranked as "vulnerable" by IUCN. Unless local authorities start to dig for oil, build a pipeline or a dam in this area I see no reason why it would be rejected.

The other one is "Great Burkhan Khaldun Mountain and its surrounding sacred landscape". Strangely this isn't on the T List anymore, it was incorporated in the much broader Sacred Mountains of Mongolia. The site suffered from incomplete documentation for 2014 (as did Dauria by the way). And already in 2010 an incomplete dossier on Mongolian Sacred Mountains had appeared in the records, so they're tossing around a bit with this. The nomination file that I have in my possession is titled "Great Burkhan Khaldun", but to make things even more complex it includes two other sacred sites that have their own T list entries: Sacred Binder mountain and Baldan Bereeven monastery, all "outstanding representatives of Mongolia's nomadic culture". However, there's no link to other sacred mountains in this nomination, and neither Binder and Baldan Bereeven are part of the Sacred Mountains TWHS. So which site is Mongolia nominating exactly?

Our vehicle in Bayanzag

Among the other 11, there's a dazzling array of "sacred mountains", "nomadic landscapes" and "steppes". The Gobi Desert (Desert Landscapes of the Mongolian Great Gobi, which covers an area larger than Switzerland) should be a shoo-in, but maybe is too large to propose right first time.

One of the more interesting sounding other ones is the "Cretaceous Dinosaur Fossil Sites in the Mongolian Gobi". This is a serial site with dinosaur fossils, tracks and footprints. In 1922 a dinosaur egg nest was discovered here, "the first solid evidence that dinosaurs laid eggs". While the "simple" dinosaur track site Cal Orck'o (Bolivia) will try to get inscribed again in 2016, these Gobi Fossil Sites look so much more promising. In 2002 I visited the "Flaming Cliffs" of Bayanzag, one of its 13 components. We saw the flat Mongolian landscape suddenly change into something resembling the Grand Canyon. There used to be a large lake here, and that's where many dinosaur remains have been found. We (4 tourists) spent some time looking for them too. There are lots of bones visible, but to the untrained eye the bones of a dead camel are difficult to distinguish from those of dino's. An area well worth visiting nevertheless.

Amarbayasgalant Monastery

Finally, Amarbayasgalant holds special meaning to me as it was the first sight outside Ulaan Bator that I visited on my trip to Mongolia in 2002. I can clearly remember the long drive out there, and especially an enormous bird we encountered by the side of the road (I have an irrational fear of birds!). Amarbayasgalant is a remote, 18th century monastery built to honour the first Buddhist leader of Mongolia. It holds a great collection of thangkas.

Published 28 February 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to Mongolia's Tentative List:


Carthage is one of those famous names on the WH List that we all know about. It got already inscribed in 1979, part of the second batch of sites that also included the Pyramids, Dubrovnik and the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately I never got around to visiting Tunisia so far, but I am surely interested in doing so in the near future. The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden currently holds a large exhibition on Carthage. Pieces from the Bardo Museum in Tunis, the Louvre and the British Museum are on show until May 10, 2015.

Punic god Baal-Hammon recognizable in his Roman alter ego Saturnus Africanus

The exhibition covers 2 floors of this canalside museum. The first floor is dedicated to Punic Carthage: the city was founded by Phoenicians from the area around Tyre (nowadays in Lebanon). They brought their gods and goddesses with them, and created a city-state with a far-reaching trade network and huge military power. Especially this period is a unique piece of North African history, which often is overshadowed by Roman Carthage. From the reviews on our website I gather that at the archeological site in Carthage itself not much of that era is left to be seen.

While reading the explanation texts, it became clear quite quickly to me that the exhibition's title "Carthage" has to be taken broadly. Many objects that are shown have actually been found in places such as Kerkuane and El Jem. "Carthaginian Empire" would have been a better name. The other sites are WHS too of course, so it did not really bother me.

Example of Carthaginian glass production (4rd/3rd century BC)

The exhibition on the second floor focuses on Roman Carthage. After the Romans sank the Punic city in 146 B.C., they rebuilt it in Roman style years later. And although the objects of this period clearly refer to Roman civilization (such as mosaics and sculptured heads), the oriental and multicultural disposition of the city is still noticeable. I liked the numerous stelae for example, often decorated with the head of Baal-Hammon or another Carthaginian god or goddess.

In the end I have to say that I had expected more of the exhibition: I was done in about 40 minutes. There's no clear story being told, it's "just" a bunch of (often very pretty) objects found in Tunisia and arranged by themes.

So there was time left for the permanent collection of the museum too. Leiden is the oldest University Town in the Netherlands (dating back to 1575), and this archeological museum was founded in 1818. It is quite typical of its kind, that can be found in university towns all over Europe: it has a sizeable collection of artifacts taken away by early explorers and collectors. Samples of all important near eastern civilizations can be found here. The Egyptian government even gave them a complete temple, as a reward for Dutch assistance in safeguarding cultural sites during the construction of the Aswan Dam.

I was especially looking for reminders of the Nineveh Valley in Iraq - exactly one year ago I was within a few km's of these grand archeological sites, and we all know now the fate they have suffered this week. And although I believe that objects should be best left in situ, I am happy that we still have some Assyrian "souvenirs" from Nimrud and Nineveh in Leiden.

Assyrian tablet from Nimrud

Published 8 March 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to Carthage:

Ian Cade (10 March 2015):
That was really interesting to read, thanks Els.

Carthage has a slightly special place for me, as it was the firs major classical archaeological site I visited. Yep the built aspects of the Punic era aren't especially prevalent, however the port structures were really noticable, though they don't make especially interesting photos but are very clear on satellite maps.

Did they cover much about the Tophet in Carthage, I have always wondered how much of it is true in relation to child sacrifice and how much was Roman 'propaganda' against its enemy. It is still a regular trope that your enemies kill babies, is this just the case but entrenched over 2,000 years?

Kerkuane was perhaps the biggest surprise of Tunisia, it was a really rewarding place to visit. Especially as it was at the end of a trip where we saw lots of Roman cities built over Punic remains, it was nice to finally get a sense of what they would have been like prior to Roman intervention.

Tunisia was a lovely place to visit, and there is a real dense cluster of pretty high calibre sites. I would be interested to go back and see them post revolution to see how or even if things have changed. It was the first time I really came up against a real sense of limits on freedom of expression when talking to people on the street. I wonder if that has changed, and if so how much these changes are for the better.

Five Dzongs of Bhutan

The Dzongs of Bhutan are on our Top 50 Missing List, and also on Bhutan's Tentative list under the cumbersome name "Dzongs: the centre of temporal and religious authorities (Punakha Dzong, Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, Paro Dzong, Trongsa Dzong and Dagana Dzong)". Maybe an Epic Subtitle like "The Birth of unified Bhutan" or the Mongolian-style "Great Sacred Dzongs of Bhutan" could help the Bhutanese on their way. The country has no WHS till date. This cluster of five dzongs is the most likely candidate for inscription.

Majestic Punakha Dzong

These 5 fortified religious and administrative complexes are lumped together as they played a significant role in the unification of the country "by the charismatic leader Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel". The dzongs were built between 1637 and 1651 to defend Bhutan against Tibetan raids. Their wooden architecture makes them vulnerable to fires, and earthquakes and flash floods too have lead to many reconstruction activities.

I visited the country in 1998, as part of a 3 week tour around Sikkim & Bhutan focusing on Tibetan Buddhism. The trip wasn't as great as I had thought it would be. Unfortunately we had rain almost every day. Also, Bhutan is no carefree paradise. Would you let your President / King / Queen prescribe what you wear everyday? Let him decide if you can have a TV or mobile phone? And let's not forget the human right violations against the ethnic Nepalese . I always get a bit annoyed when I read the common uncritical use of the so-called Bhutanese "Happiness" in stories about the country.

Young monks all over the place

The Dzongs are the most memorable constructions you will encounter travelling around Bhutan. Only fully organized group travel is possible (for 200-250 US dollar a day), both in 1998 and now. In the process of writing this blog post, I have been comparing my untitled photos of that trip to web images of the five dzongs. That way, and with a little help from my diary notes, I have been able to reconstruct which ones I have visited:

  • Punakha dzong has an especially fine location at the confluence of two rivers. The building was in good condition when I visited. There were renovations going on inside, which gave us good looks at the elaborate woodwork. You'll encounter a lot of traditional handicraft and painting when visiting dzongs and monasteries in Bhutan. Punakha Dzong used to be the seat of the Government of Bhutan until 1955. It still is the winter capital of the head of the clergy of Bhutan.

  • Paro dzong lies close to Bhutan's international airport, so probably every visitor to the country gets a glimpse of it. It has a particular great wooden cantilever bridge (see my photo below).

  • In Wangdue Phodrang we seem not to have visited the local dzong. Or I did not take any photos of it, I must have been too distracted by the paintings of huge penises on the local houses. In 2012, Wangdue Phodrang Dzong burned to the ground. The dzong's reconstruction is underway.

  • Trongsa dzong also doesn't feature in my pictures, but we surely must have passed it. It's the largest dzong of Bhutan. It contains a notable printing house, responsible for the printing of many religious texts in Bhutan.

  • Only Dagana Dzong is a bit off the beaten track, and I surely missed out on that one: it lies in the southern Dagana district, and still serves as the region's administrative center and seat of the clergy.

Covered bridge to Paro Dzong

"Every country its WHS" is the WHC mission nowadays, and Bhutan in the end surely will get one too. I have not found any reports on when they will submit a nomination. Maybe they will wait until 2018 when Wangdue Phodrang Dzong has been restored.

Published 14 March 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to Five Dzongs of Bhutan:

WHS #562: A Mining Landscape

The Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape is one of the more remote sites on the UK mainland. The closest international airport I could fly into was Bristol, still a 2 hour and 45 minute drive away from my first destination. The WHS is spread out over 10 locations, most even much further at the tip of Cornwall and totally out of reach for my weekend trip. Together they form a partly relict and partly evolving cultural landscape, the result of 18th and early 19th century copper and tin mining.

Hiking around St. Agnes

I had been advised to start at St. Agnes Mining District. St. Agnes is a coastal village with a mining history since prehistoric times. I had brought with me a print of a 9km circular walk along the coast, taking in some of the mining ruins. After parking the rental car in the town center, I started walking immediately. Signage isn't great, but somehow I found my way to the Trevaunance Cove. From here copper ore was shipped to Wales for smelting, and coal and other goods were unloaded for use at the mines. Already on this first stretch I saw a couple of the characteristic chimneys from the former mines. It's a very pretty landscape.

After my lunch at the Driftwood Spars (a former warehouse), I started hiking the full loop along the coast. There were numerous people about, often walking their dogs or just enjoying the sunny weather like I did. The leaflet I brought pointed out several points of interest on the way, but I found it difficult to trace them down. Most of the time my eyes were drawn to the carcasses of the mines - with some imagination they resemble Crusader castle ruins. In the distance you can also see the remains of waste and spoil heaps, but the landscape in general feels quite natural. I spent some 3 hours in this area, and the scenery certainly lived up to my expectations.

Gwenapp Pit

The next morning I set out for Gwenapp Pit, a former hollow created by mining turned into an amphitheatre. It is situated way out in the countryside, only reachable by a series of typical English narrow roads and even narrower bridges. Although I found the visitor center closed, the gate to the Pit itself was open and I had a look around. It's a funny construction, used in the late 18th century for the Methodist preachings of John Wesley. Its stepped form with turf seats dates from later remodelling.

My last stop was Tavistock, a town in West Devon clearly on the well-worn tourist path. The Tavistock Canal that crosssects it is a good example of the transport network that resulted from the mining in the region. The local museum only opens from Easter, like others that I encountered over the weekend. Maybe for the better, as it prevented me from making more derogatory remarks about regional British museums! So I just roamed around in town a bit. The former Iron Works now have been turned into housing. I tracked all sites of historic interest down, from the Sir Francis Drake statue to the Wharf. I ate a cheese and bacon pasty and drove on after 1.5 hours or so.

Traditional houses in Tavistock

I found it hard to really get a good grip on the value of this WHS, having to put the pieces of the puzzle together myself as the elements are so scattered. The nomination file is an interesting read, though it focuses mostly on the mining heydays of this region and less so on the resulting landscape. There's no doubt about the importance and global impact of these pioneering industries. The effect of mining I found much less visible than at the Nord Pais de Calais Mining Basin WHS for example, which peaked some 100 years later. The St. Agnes Mining District definitely was the most rewarding location of the 3 that I visited.

Published 25 March 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #562: A Mining Landscape:

Ian Cade (26 March 2015):
Whilst it isn't as authentic as a proper Cornish pasty I am rather fond of the cheese and bacon ones. Though I think you would have to spend all day mining to burn off the calories.

Paul Tanner (26 March 2015):
You Dutch can't stay away from the cheese - the traditional meat and potato would have had fewer calories!

Els Slots (26 March 2015):
I did try the "Pasty" because Ian had mentioned it in his review! I am afraid it has loads of calories.

Paul Tanner (26 March 2015):
Note you tried a "Pasty" if not with the "traditional" ingredients. The "Cornish pasty" has been given PGI ("Protected Geographical Indication") status in Europe (much to the annoyance of many in UK from beyond Cornwall who do not appreciate the EU's propensity for controlling the minutiae of life!) and is linked closely with the mining industry as food which the miners would have taken down the mine with them and would have been made by their wives with whatever was "on hand". See Wiki for a fuller introduction to the "Cornish Pasty" - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasty#Variations

Two TWHS in Antwerp

Antwerp already has 2 WHS within its borders (the Plantin-Moretus Museum plus the Belfries of the City Hall & Cathedral), but is aiming for 2 more. Maison Guiette is part of the transboundary Corbusier nomination for 2016, and has managed to stay on the list of proposed locations even after the necessary deletion of sites. The Historic core within the walls of 1250 covers the remainder of the historical city. Antwerp is the largest city in Belgium, and in continuous rivalry with Brussels which already has 3 sites on the WH List and 2 more on the Tentative List.

The day after Easter is a holiday in The Netherlands, and I used it this year to revisit Antwerp which is only a 75 minute drive from my home. I had been there a couple of times before.

City Center with Cathedral

First I drove to the south of the city, to the residential neighbourhood where the Maison Guiette lies. I had a look beforehand on Google Streetview, to check out the area and to know what to look for. As other reviewers have noticed, it's not easy to park in the surroundings. I don't think you have to worry too much about parking tickets however: it would be an achievement to spend more than 5 minutes at this house.

I have not been lucky with my Le Corbusier visits so far: the Argentian Casa Curutchet was closed for Columbus Day when I went there, the excellent Swiss Villa Jeanneret-Perret has been dropped from the final nomination list and the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo was shut too when I passed it on a rainy day. And this Maison Guiette even is worse: it's never open to the public! There's nothing remarkable to see from the outside either, not even a hint of the colouring that it is renowned for. There's a flimsy yellow information panel (in Dutch) planted right next to it, the only clue that you're watching something out of the ordinary. The Maison Guiette is an early and relatively unknown work of Le Corbusier.

Maison Guiette

Some 10 minutes drive to the north I entered the other TWHS. The historic city center of Antwerp has obvious similarities with Bruges and Amsterdam (such as the gabled houses). But it lacks their picturesque canal setting. It's much more a working port city, with 19th and 20th century constructions obscuring the medieval buildings. The Grand Place seems to have been turned into a tourist trap for Asian visitors or Dutch daytrippers.

Antwerp has played a pivotal role in the history of the Low Countries, mostly up to 1585 when the weight shifted northwards to Amsterdam. The oldest remaining structure of Antwerp is Het Steen, a stone fortress on the banks of the Scheldt built between 1200 and 1225. Closeby lies the early 16th century Hall of Meat. This fine gothic brick work was built for the guild of the butchers. Both buildings are now in use as small museums.

Hall of Meat (Vleeshuis)

It would surprise me if Belgium would claim separate WH status for Antwerp. With the Town Hall and Cathedral already being listed as part of the Belfries WHS, I believe its main monuments have been covered already.

Published 6 April 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to Two TWHS in Antwerp:

Ian Cade (7 April 2015):
I really like Antwerp, but like you I'm not really sure it will ever become a WHS proper.
I like the fact it is a working modern city rather than an open museum like Brugge. The Centraal station is magnificent and has had a great makeover, sitting up the with London's St Pancras in terms of awesome modern stations.

There is also another WHS associated site in Antwerp (if you stretch the definition a little). Just along from the Rubenshuis is Cafe Horta (www.grandcafehorta.be), it is a modern building, but the hall at the back is made from the remnant parts of Horta's iconic Maison du Peuple, which was pulled down in Brussels. If it was still standing it almost certainly would be inscribed as part of the Horta WHS. It is a lovely cafe and a nice treat if you ever find yourself back in Antwerp.

WHS #563: Medici Villas and Gardens

The Medici Villas and Gardens comprise a serial nomination of 12 villas and 2 gardens in Tuscany. These are the legacy of the extensive arts patronage of the wealthy and powerful De’ Medici family. The constructions date from the 15th to 17th centuries, and reflect the contemporary trend among the Florentine wealthy to live in the countryside in harmony with nature.

While I was staying in Florence for a week on a busy schedule, I used a few free hours to get a feel for this WHS. I wanted to visit a spot accessible by public transport, not too far from the center of Florence and with positive recommendations. The Villa de Castello seemed to fit the bill perfectly. It lies on the outskirts of Florence (near the airport), and can be reached by a 10 minute train ride followed by a stroll of the same length.

The Villa di Castello was the country residence of Cosimo I de' Medici. He had lived there as a child, and decided to turn the villa into an ambitious project when he came to power as Grand Duke of Tuscany. The villa was to be adorned with masterpieces of Renaissance art, while the gardens were redesigned by adding statues, fountains and a system of aqueducts for the necessary water supply.

The country house itself is not open to the general public anymore – it is used by an Italian language institute. The gardens are free to enter though. There were only 2 other tourists around when I visited on a late Tuesday afternoon. The gardens are well-cared for, and still orange and lemon trees are grown on site just as in the original design.

The "formal" garden lies directly at the back of the villa, and is built against a natural hill. It has the common attributes that we know so well from other court gardens, nothing unmissable but certainly done with taste. The highlight for me was the Grotto of the Animals. It's a man-made cave embedded with stones, mosaic and seashells. Three niches hold groups of animals, ranging from wild boar to a giraffe. The display of all kinds of terrestrial, aerial and marine creatures is probably motivated by "a purely intellectual curiosity and spirit of inquiry". Cosimo als had his own zoo with exotic animals at his villa in Poggio a Caiano.

The creation of artificial grottoes such as this one was the result of the introduction of the Mannerist style in garden design. The Villa de Castello might be the first site where this was done, the better known grotto in the Boboli Gardens in Florence was modelled after it. The grotto used to hold a "water joke" to entertain the Duke and his visitors: by turning a key, the gate would lock guests inside the grotto and they would be soaked with water from hidden pipes. Unfortunately this is not on display anymore, you have to stay behind a fence and cannot enter the cave.

Outside the enclosed garden and even more uphill, a "forest" was created. In the WH nomination the Italians tried to market this as a precursor to the English landscape garden, but did not fool ICOMOS which dismissed the Medici as minor nobility with pretty small gardens. There's not much to see here among the trees, except for the intriguing Fountain of Appenino (see last photo).

In total I spent about 1.5 hours in the gardens. It's a pretty place to explore on a sunny day in Spring and an oasis compared to the Florence city center. Especially this garden of the Villa de Castello has been a large influence on Italian and French garden design, so it definitely was an educating visit too.

Published 21 April 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #563: Medici Villas and Gardens:

Paul Tanner (22 April 2015):
Interesting about the "Joke fountain"!
Anyone wanting to know more see here - The History of Gardens

Florence in-depth

In 2011 I started taking courses towards a Bachelor degree in General Cultural Sciences at the Open University. This involves a mixture of Literature, Philosophy, Cultural History and Art History. It’s now almost four years later and I have nearly reached my goal: only my bachelor thesis is left to do. Part of the programme was that I “had to” attend an in-depth, 8 day study trip to Florence. A great excuse for a proper revisit of this rich WHS!

We were 20 mature students, and each of us had to deliver a 30 minute lecture about (and in front of) a Renaissance art or architecture object in Florence. We had been preparing this through literature study beforehand.

Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini (Santa Croce Church)

Florence seemed to be in good shape when we visited in April 2015, nothing like the decay you hear about regarding Rome or elsewhere in Italy. A few sights are being restored at the moment, such as the Baptisterium. But there’s plenty left: even a packed 8-day schedule will not cover all worthwhile sights. We did spend much time at individual works of art: we stood staring for 45 minutes at Massacio’s Holy Trinity in the Santa Maria Novella for example, a fresco that might only get a glimpse of the more casual visitor.

The highlights for me were:

- The former San Marco Convent, with its range of Fra Angelico frescoes

- The Last Supper in the former Convent of Santa Apollonia

- The Sassetti Chapel

- The Tombs in in the Santa Croce

- The Uffizi at the end of the day

Monk's Cell at San Marco Convent

“My” subject involved the Spanish Chapel inside the Santa Maria Novella monastery. You have to know where to find it, the monastery is adjacent to the church with the famous marble Alberti facade. One of the doors in the cloister leads to this fresco scheme, consisting of 8 paintings. They were done in 2 years time (1365-1367) by Andrea de Bonaiuto. They especially celebrate the role of the Dominican Order. It has great detail and is in good condition.

We had an almost surreal experience while visiting the Palazzo Vecchio. The main feature of this Town Hall, the enormous Salone dei Cinquecento, was taken over by the “Condé Naste Luxury Conference”. Humble tourists or students like us weren’t allowed in (a UK princess was of course) – we could only look down on it from the balcony and were scrutinized all the time by two bodyguard-types. While they were talking on a podium about "hard luxury", we tried to imagine how the hall would look like without them.

Fragment of the "Militant and Triumphant Church", Spanish Chapel

I had visited Florence before in 2002, and was appalled at the time by its crowdedness. I wasn’t annoyed so much by it this time. Of course it’s busy in the streets, and surely getting into the Dome or the Uffizi can be a pain. But it is much less so in the other “paying” attractions or the churches. And those churches and chapels are the treasuries of most of the art anyway. I’ve added a number of links in the “Florence Links” section for ideas about where to go and when to visit. Artwise there's nothing in the world like Florence, where you can see so much great art in situ in such a compact area. Still worth going in my opinion!

Published 27 April 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to Florence in-depth:

Remembering the Kathmandu Valley

People often ask me what my favourite WHS is. Of course it is hard to choose – depending on my mood of the day I might say Angkor or Machu Picchu, or a lesser known natural site such as Manu National Park where I "learned" to love nature. But generally I opt for the Kathmandu Valley. Maybe not an obvious choice, but it’s a place that I keep coming back to and where there’s always something left to explore. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of April 25, I think it is right to put the spotlight on the Kathmandu Valley.

Boudhanath Stupa

I have visited the Valley four times: in 1993, 2001, 2007 and 2011. The WHS covers 7 locations, spread out over 4 different towns. I’ve been to all separate sites, most of them more than once. During these trips, I have never skipped the short commute to the outskirts of Kathmandu for Boudhanath Stupa. This is the religious symbol of the Tibetan diaspora in Nepal and probably the greatest Tibetan Buddhist site in the world. It is surrounded nowadays by over 50 Tibetan monasteries. Can it substitute a visit to Tibet proper? Yes, I believe so. When I look at our list of Tibetan Buddhist WHS, this surely is the most active maybe only rivalled by Lhasa's Jokhang Temple.

Then there’s Pashupatinath, one of the most impressive Hindu sites on the WH List. It's an active "burning" ghat, where bodies are cremated in public. You may be familiar with it from Varanasi (India), but there's no WHS similar to this.

Patan Durbar Square

Most of the typical Nepali / Newari charm lies within the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Patan has an excellent Newari art museum, rated one of the best in South Asia. It is housed in one of the old royal palaces at the square. As it is difficult to maintain a museum of this standard for a developing country, it has been supported by Austria from the start.

Wherever and whenever you go, there’s always something going on. Daily life of the Nepalese incorporates visits to the small or big shrines at these squares, just a quick prayer on their way to work or school. Often a festival is in preparation, or a procession of some kind occupies the narrow streets. What I like most about the Kathmandu Valley is its liveliness. By that it resembles a living cultural landscape, and gives it an edge beyond a historic or archaeological site.

Ready for yet another procession

There’s so much to see and to experience, and the quality of the sights is high enough to warrant repeat visits. Also there are other, non-WHS sights in the Kathmandu Valley that are worthwhile to visit. Think of the unique horizontal Vishnu statue at Budhanilkantha, which is ritually washed every day by a Brahmin priest. Or the traditional Newari town of Kirtipur.

After the 1934 earthquake, the Kathmandu Valley has been fully rebuilt without affecting the function of the sites. I hope they can repeat it this time.

Published 3 May 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to Remembering the Kathmandu Valley:

Bill Duckworth, Montrose, CO (8 May 2015):
I think Bodhnath will always be my favorite. I went to Nepal at least 7 times and feel a newness in the old country every time I go

Paul Tanner (4 May 2015):
“Remembering Kathmandu”.
I have just worked out that my 4 visits to Kathmandu were in 1972, 1976, 1994 and 2001 (The first 2 before WH inscription). In 1972 the population of Nepal was c12m – it reached 28.3m in 2014. Kathmandu City was 342k in 1971 and the larger “Valley” conurbation was 600k. In 2011 these were above 1m and 2.5m respectively! So in just over 40 years the population of the country has a bit more than doubled whilst that of Kathmandu and the Valley has increased around 4 fold!

This growth was already visible by 1994 and very much so by 2001 when the valley population was still only 1.6m. In 1972 Swayambhunath was way out in the countryside. I remember cycling out from Kathmandu through rice fields to get to it and cycling everywhere in Kathmandu was a pleasure with little motorised traffic. By the time of my second visit in 1976 Bhaktapur was reached by a new, Chinese supplied, trolley bus system! But this too chugged its way out through rice fields. The Web shows that the trolley system was shut down in 2001 and restarted in 2003 but only inside Kathmandu itself before closing completely in 2008.

Certainly in 1972 and ‘76 there were no entry fees anywhere. I can’t be sure about 1994 but by 2001 tourists had to pay to enter the historic zones. In ‘72 of course the “Hippy trail” was in full swing, having built up during the 60’s. Kathmandu was on the road of inevitable change and the growing impact of low budget travel through the 60’s was already having an effect. “Freak Street” was the hippy centre and contained the well known “Aunt Jane’s” - across the subcontinent and beyond, travellers arranged to meet there to exchange stories and partake of a piece of Chocolate cake in this café started by the wife of a US Peace Corps director! And, after your cake and coffee, “Hash” was readily available for those who wanted it. The Yak and Yeti was still run by the original Boris Lissanovitch, the “legendary” White Russian émigré who was instrumental in getting Nepalese royalty to open the country up to tourism. In those days, although being a bit “upmarket” for Kathmandu eateries, it was still a long way from its current 5***** manifestation with the first hotel “upgrade” not being constructed until 1977 (followed by further extensions). I can still remember in 1976 having a bit of a “blow out” celebration for reaching Everest Base camp with Borscht in the original Chimney restaurant!

But, back to my first visit in 1972. I note that it was only 38 years after the 1934 earthquake but that a further 43 years has passed since then!! Well, the 38 year old “reconstructed” buildings all looked pretty authentic back in 1972 despite their relatively “recent” reconstruction!! I think we can presume that the current destruction will similarly be “erased”. The human deaths on the other hand are irrevocable and are the real tragedy. But that “old Kathmandu” of 1972/76 had already gone for ever long before the earthquake destroyed the buildings!

WHC 2015: Palermo, Cefalù & Monreale

According to recent news flashes, “Arab-Norman Palermo and the cathedral churches of Cefalù’ and Monreale” will become a WHS this July after receiving a positive ICOMOS evaluation. This Italian site is a serial nomination with 9 components, spread out over 3 towns/cities on the island of Sicily. The monuments date from the period of Norman domination (1061-1194), when a multi-ethnic culture developed integrating Latin, Byzantine and Islamic elements.

Cefalù and its Cathedral

On my trip to Sicily in 2006, I visited two of the subsites: the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù. When I look at the photos of Palermo in the nomination dossier, I regret that I opted out of going there. At the time I thought it would be too much hassle to drive my car into that city. Palermo actually is the main carrier of this nomination. It holds 7 component parts including the Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel, which is rated “worth a journey” by the Michelin Green Guide Sicily.

I have to rely on my trip notes from my visit to this corner of Sicily, as I don’t recall very much. I stayed overnight in the town of Cefalù, located at the northern coast not far from Palermo. Cefalù is dominated by a gigantic rock, against which the houses seem to be plastered. The streets are narrow and the cathedral is huge.

Monreale Cathedral - interior

Monreale is just a short drive away. This cathedral with Arab, Byzantine and Norman influences attracts numerous visitors from afar – it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions of the island. Nevertheless, the golden mosaics and icons in the interior are a sight to behold. The Cathedral’s more than 6,000 squared metres of mosaic decoration is the largest production in the Mediterranean performed by Byzantine workers. The decorations were crafted in the late 12th and early 13th century, and cover scenes from both the Old and New Testament.

Next to the cathedral lie the cloisters, which are inspired by Islamic architecture. They hold no less than 228 columns, all covered with polychrome mosaics and distinctive romanesque capitals. Every column is different. Here the Arab style of decoration clearly shows.

Two of the columns in Monreale's cloister

As we have seen happening quite frequently before, the nomination has undergone some small changes before finalization. In the description of the TWHS 10 locations are mentioned, while the nomination dossier has only 9. Palermo’s Cuba Palace has been left out, two other sites have been merged into one and the Admiral’s Bridge was added. A longer list of sites from the Norman period is also part of the nomination file, maybe we should be grateful that they've left it at 9 locations in the end.

To me, Sicily is one of the most worthwhile travel destinations in Europe. It already has 6 WHS (Agrigento, Val di Noto, Villa Romana del Casale, Syracuse, Isole Eolie, Mt. Etna), but this one covers a whole different side of Sicilian history and makes a great addition.

Published 9 May 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHC 2015: Palermo, Cefalù & Monreale:

paul (10 May 2015):
John Julius Norwich's "Kingdom in the Sun (Normans in Sicily)" and the theme from the Godfather are indispensable in Sicily - one of the best destinations in Europe!

Kyle (winterkjm) (9 May 2015):
Looks fascinating, ICOMOS really does like these "fusion" nominations.

Clyde (9 May 2015):
I'll be visiting Sicily next week and I'm looking forward to visit this soon-to-be WHS. I'll be based in Palermo and will dedicate day trips to Cefalu and Monreale. After Agrigento, this new WHS is the site I'm most eager to visit. Will definitely leave a review and a photo of Palermo to cover all parts of this site.

WHC 2015: Champagne

Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars is another candidate for inclusion this year. And it's another serial nomination: it comprises 14 locations in the Champagne-Ardenne region in the North East of France. On my way to the WHS of Vézélay and the Abbey of Fontenay, I spent Ascension Thursday in Reims to check out a couple of these Champagne sites.

I rarely drink alcohol, so all these wine-related (T)WHS are a particular chore for me to tick off. Fortunately this nomination focuses more on the industrial and commercial process of champagne production than on endless hillside vineyards. With this cleverly chosen angle of argumentation, I believe the Champagne sites also distinguish themselves enough to warrant WH status. The sites are presented as a continuing evolved cultural landscape too, which for sure must please some of the jurors. And to top it off, these sites (or at least their products) are globally known: "The outstanding nature of Champagne also lies in its symbolic aspect, shared across the world".

Among the special features of this WHS are the Cellars: underground chalk chambers that hold the bottles of champagne until the contents are ready to be consumed. You can visit the cellars on a tour of one of the Champagne Houses. They all seem to do tours, as a form of publicity or way to earn something extra. I choose to visit Taittinger in the champagne quarter of Reims. This is the only one of the major houses that offers tours without prebooking. I arrived around 11 a.m., and was able to directly join a tour in English. There were about 25 other participants from all over the globe, so these tours seem to be quite popular. Cost was 16.5 EUR including one glass of champagne.

Underground storage of Taittinger

The Taittinger cellars are located on the site of the basement of the old Saint-Nicaise abbey and in former chalk quarries. The tour both shows the remains of the abbey and the champagne production process. Endless rows of champagne bottles line the 4km long hallways: they stay there for up to 8 years until the delicate process is finished. There are two fermentation stages, and the characteristic cork is only added at the end. The temperature in the chalk chambers is a constant 12 degrees Celsius.

Another subsite in Reims that is part of the nomination is Saint-Nicaise Hill. This is an area with large public spaces and parks, dotted with industrial buildings that belong to the champagne production process. There even is a 'Champagne Park' - a vast public park where locals go for a picknick or a run. It was created as an area for employees of the Pommery Champagne House to practice sport. The buildings, according to the nomination dossier, "also play a representative role, helping to win over clients". Also, "a number of patrician residences occupied by the heads of the Champagne Houses" can be found here. The most striking of the former is the seat of Vranken Pommery, a complex that oozes luxury and quirkiness. You can walk the grounds freely, and amaze yourself at for example the flashy blue pine trees in the front garden.

Impressive entrance to Vranken Pommery

The popularity of the drink owes a lot to the marketing strategy of the Champagne Houses, which since the late 19th century promoted the wine's image as something worthy for royals and as such to be aspired by the middle classes. It seems that the marketing has worked magic again on the ICOMOS and UNESCO committee members.

Published 14 May 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHC 2015: Champagne:

WHS #564: Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay

The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay is a 12th century former monastery in Burgundy. The Cistercian godfather Saint Bernard of Clairvaux found a sufficient remote location to create a new community of monks, one of many at that time. The Cistercians broke away from the mainstream Benedictines because they felt that the Benedictine monks had become too worldly and devoted too little time to manual labor. The Cistercians made up for that in self-sufficient communities like this.

The Abbey owes its place on the List to its excellent state of preservation. I visited it by car from Reims on a combined day trip with the WHS of Vézelay. In the year 2015 this still is an off-the-beaten track location, though the Abbey receives over 100,000 visitors a year. I drove on minor roads for over an hour, passing this region’s typical ramshackle villages that look deserted. Only at the site’s car park I was back among living creatures again. I arrived around 10.30, at the same time as two buses with German tourists. Also I counted some 40 cars with individual visitors.

Access to the site is run professionally. As the Abbey is now in private hands, they rely on the income from tourists to cover the costs of conservation. There’s a 10 EUR entrance fee if you go in by yourself, or 12.5 EUR if you join a guided tour. They hand out brochures in several languages, I received one in Dutch which was informative enough to get to know the monastery complex. I was keen to take a tour though. Before that started, I walked around by myself to take photos. The grounds are kept immaculate. There’s a large garden at the back, and water features both there and to the side.

Inside the Abbey Church

The 11 a.m. tour attracted some 35 people. Explanations are given only in French, so when that's not your first language you have to listen in very closely. Honestly I missed about half of the stories that were told. They do come in great detail. The tour covers no other areas than you can visit individually, but it is worth joining for some extra detail. One of the nicest spots is inside the Abbey Church, where a floor covered with enamelled tiles, the old altarpiece and sarcophagi of a Burgundian knight and his wife fight for attention.

The interior of the buildings is very austere. The Chapterhouse for example is nothing like the fully painted one of the Dominicans in Florence that I visited a few weeks ago. The absence of paintings and colours was done on purpose, to comply with the order's simplicity and not distract the monks during their contemplative prayer.

In the Forge

This might not be one of the most famous French WHS, but it is really worth a detour. I especially liked the variety in buildings, such as the dovecote, the dog kennel, the monks' sleeping quarters, the bakery. The tour ends at the forge, where the monks produced tools. They extracted iron ore from a hill that overlooks the monastery. By diverting the river of Fontenay, water wheels were able to power the hydraulic hammers that would beat the iron. The forge was created around 1220 and became the first metallurgical factory in Europe.

Published 17 May 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #564: Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay:

WHS #565: Vézelay

Vézelay, Church and Hill was the last destination of my short trip to the Champagne and Burgundy regions of France. Vézelay lies about an hour and ten minutes drive west from the Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay; both WHS can easily be combined into one day trip from Dijon or even Reims. The hill with the church on top is a landmark visible from afar.

Sculpted portal of Vézelay Church

The site has been an important place of pilgrimage since relics of St. Mary Magdalene were brought here in the 10th century. So it comes as no surprise that the same location is also part of the French Route to Santiago de Compostela WHS. It is actually the starting point of one of the four main pilgrimage routes to Santiago. The steady flow of pilgrims brought considerable wealth to the town in the Middle Ages. On my drive up there I saw a couple of long distance hikers too (the pilgrims of the modern age).

The Abbaye Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay is the main feature of this WHS. The Abbey church is undergoing major restorations at the moment, especially near the choir which is closed to visitors. Probably the most interesting part is the variety of sculpted capitals on top of the columns in the interior. The decoration scheme with the polychrome ribs and these capitals is an architecture buff's dream: "it gives a delicacy and refinement to the interior"1. I guess this is also why Vézelay Church is considered as "one of the outstanding masterpieces of Burgundian Romanesque art and architecture." Entrance to the church is free, and there are nice views on the surrounding countryside from its grounds.

Inside Vézelay Church

To be honest about this site's values: I found Vézelay a bit of a tourist trap. The small town sees over one million visitors a year, and is totally geared to it. There’s a main street that leads up to the church, lined with souvenir shops and restaurants. The side streets are more quiet, but nothing special. I had seen it all in an hour.

I followed a sign to the ‘Porte Neuve’, hoping to stumble upon something historic, but enjoying this former city gate is hindered by reconstruction too. When I look now at photos of it on the internet, it seems that 'the other side' (which I could not get to) is much more interesting. The city walls were erected in the 14th century to keep out the “armed gangs” that were attracted to the flourishing pilgrims trade.

Porte Neuve, wrong side

Although I wasn't satisfied by the site itself, I take two good memories with me from my visit: I ate a great lunch at Restaurant du Cheval Blanc. Tasty lamb and a chocolate dessert to die for (it seemed that all female customers choose that one from the menu). And I met up for a short chat with fellow WHS traveller Adrian, who was visiting from Luxemburg. He was doing the Fontenay – Vézelay double WHS day the other way around than I did.

Published 20 May 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #565: Vézelay:

WHS #566: Corfu Old Town

The Old Town of Corfu with its Venetian/British architectural mix is the odd one out among Greek WHS. It entered the list in 2007, 8 years after they were done adding the Classical Greek sites. Despite Corfu’s prominent package holiday profile (worth a million visitors a year), the WHS isn’t covered well at this website. No photos at all have been posted for example. So I was eager to explore Corfu Town as a prologue to my 'Balkan Tour 2015', which will take me to Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo.

Venetian winged lion, at the walls of the New Fortress

The Venetians were here for the longest period: from 1386-1797. They mainly used the site as a militairy stronghold, to keep tabs on the entrance to the Adriatic Sea via the Straits of Corfu. They constructed the Old and the New Fortress, which protect the town of Corfu on both sides. These fortresses still are the major landmarks and tourist attractions in town.

The Old Fortress lies on an artificial peninsula. It was something like a self-contained village, where the Venetian rulers were safe from the hands of the Ottomans while the onshore general population suffered. The British used it in the same manner during the 19th century. Most buildings date from that period, including barracks and the great neoclassical Anglican Church of St. George.

British St. George Church in Old Fortress

The New Fortress was placed on a hill, overlooking the town. It seems less visited than the Old one, maybe the steep uphill walk deters tourists. There are some nice surprises waiting at the top though, so it shouldn't be missed. First: the entrance fee of 4 EUR is equal to that of the Old Fortress. But this one is collected by a bar with an alternative streak. So included in the price is one drink of your choice. It’s best to leave that to the end, as first you will have to climb an iron flight of stairs which has seen better times. The views that await you are worth it though: especially in the late afternoon it shows Corfu, the Old Fortress and the surrounding waters in a great light. While I’m not sure about the originality or uniqueness of Corfu to be a WHS, it definitely is a pretty town seen from here.

In the town proper there are a couple of buildings left from the British period that are worth a closer look. The Palace of St. Michael & St. George (now a museum) for example, and the pink Ionian Academy (not far from the cricket field!). Also there’s the remarkable Venetian theatre, turned into Town Hall.

City view from New Fortress

The fortresses of Corfu Town also feature in the TWHS Late Medieval Bastioned Fortifications in Greece. We have it as part of our connection 'Extensions on Tentative List.'. However, the description of the TWHS seems to hint at a complete new nomination covering the defensive works of several Greek islands! Probably the Greeks thought that when a number of Mexican colonial towns or French religious sites could become double WHS, why can't Corfu and Rhodes?

Published 24 May 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #566: Corfu Old Town:

WHS #567: Butrint

Butrint lies just across the Straits of Corfu from my previous destination, the Old Town of Corfu. It’s an easy trip out there from the Ionian Island: daily hydrofoils and ferries ply the route to the Albanian resort of Sarande, from where an hourly local bus heads out to Butrint 30km south. The WHS covers an archeological site that spans a long period, with mainly Greek, Roman and Byzantine remains. It also seems to have been renominated in 1999 as a cultural landscape, although UNESCO does not list it as such.

Remains of a column in the Theatre

During the high season the site can be crowded with daytrippers from Corfu, but fortunately I arrived early in the season. After paying the 700 lek entrance fee (5 EUR), I headed out on the forest path that connects the ruins. This shady environment was the first surprise of my visit: it’s a pleasure just to walk here, and I heard birds singing all the time. The natural area of Butrint also is awarded Ramsar wetland status.

The wetness of the area clearly shows at the first major archeological group: the former Greek sanctuary and theatre can only be entered via a boardwalk, and I noticed frogs in the Roman baths. Here’s where the origins of the site are, Butrint was founded as a sanctuary to Asklepios the Greek god of medicine. Visitors even freed some of their slaves to persuade the gods to help them – and they testified to that by carving inscriptions into the theatre’s walls. These can still be seen in situ. In hindsight this area probably was the most interesting part of the circuit.

Greek inscriptions about freed slaves

I had the site mostly to myself. I passed a series of Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine constructions, much like those at other classical sites that I have visited around the Mediterranean. A lot of mosaics have been discovered here too, but the Albanian authorities have covered them from the elements by plastic sheets and sand or pebbles. This is a pity as the mosaics would add something extra to this site, but the wet surroundings just seem to prevent this.

The path eventually turns uphill, towards what once was the Acropolis. You enter that area via the ‘Lion’s Gate’, a stone structure with a bas relief of a lion devouring the head of a bull. The lion relief was not part of the original wall or gate, but was found elsewhere in Butrint and may date to the 6th century BC. The circuit ends at a building from the Venetian period, which now houses the slightly disappointing site museum.

View on Lake Butrint

The WHS of Butrint was extended in 1999 to include the natural surroundings such as a range of hills to the north, the Butrint plain, Lake Bufit, and part of Lake Butrint. At the same time it was turned from 'just' a site into a cultural landscape. I think including its natural features was a good decision, as they are such a prominent part of a visit here. There are fine views on the surrounding lakes (Butrint lies on a peninsula) from the path across the site, and there are benches to sit on and enjoy the landscape. I found it a very peaceful site, I saw no traces of the turbulent times in the late 1990s when Butrint suffered from looting due to the civil disturbances in Albania.

Published 27 May 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #567: Butrint:

WHS #568: Berat and Gjirokaster

Berat and Gjirokastra are two towns in Central Albania, located some 150 kms apart. Their strength lies in vernacular urban housing and monuments from the Classical Ottoman period. Both are also towns that developed in and around a citadel. Gjirokastra is locally called Gjirokaster, the -kastra comes from the Northern Albanian dialect. It first became a WHS on its own in 2005, while Berat was added as an extension 3 years later.

Zekate tower house, Gjirokaster

I started my visit to this WHS in Gjirokaster, en route from Butrint to Tirana. I arrived by bus in the Lower Town, and decided to walk up to the historical area. It does look like a steep climb, but it takes only 20 minutes and it awards one with great views of the rows of tower houses Gjirokaster is known for. The historic center has a real authentic feel and I had a great time staying there overnight. This was further enhanced by local son Ismail Kadare's Chronicle in Stone, which I was reading. He describes life as a child in Gjirokaster during World War II. At that time it was a city with so many mosques "you could walk down the street, stretch your arm, and hang your hat on a minaret".

A few among Gjirokaster’s 200 tower houses are open to visitors. The Etnographic Museum has interesting displays on how people lived, though the building itself is a modern reconstruction (on the site of the birth house of the other famous native, Enver Hoxha). Across the street lies the Skenduli house, which was returned to the Skenduli family after the fall of communism. They take visitors on a guided tour around their house, which is huge. The talks were informative, but the visit a bit rushed. The best of the tower houses is Zekate house. This lies at the top end of the village, a house that had attracted my view already from various viewpoints around town. Here one can wander alone from room to room, and for example admire the painted fireplace.

Room at Zekate house

In the late afternoon I climbed once more, this time to the Castle of Gjirokaster. It houses a military museum (which is not exactly to my taste), but it holds some other points of interest such as a tekke from the Bektashism sect and the remains of an US airplane captured during the Cold War. The on site museum tells Gjirokaster’s history well, and is very critical about Hoxha who they claim only visited his home town a couple of times after he came to power, and only did so during staged mass rallies.

After Gjirokaster I travelled on by bus to Berat. Including a change in Fier this takes about 3 hours. Berat is a totally different city, much more ‘tainted’ by communist era structures. The views on the old Ottoman quarters Mangalem and Gorica from both sides of the Osum river are worth it though. What it does have preserved better than Gjirokaster are its religious buildings. I especially enjoyed the small area with the King's Mosque, the Helveti Tekke and the Han (Inn) of the Derwishes.

Bachelors' Mosque, Berat

A definite letdown for me was the Berat Citadel. It’s not in a good state (think: rubble, lots of trash, overgrown areas), and the structures need great imagination to fit to names such as 'Red Mosque'. Not to be missed inside the citadel however is the Onufri Museum – a museum holding icons made by the artist Onufri. It is located in the Saint Mary Church, which has its original wood-carved iconostasis from 1806.

Visiting Berat and Gjirokaster takes the best part of two days, and to me these were the most rewarding and most 'Albanian' sights of my week long stay in the country.

Published 30 May 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #568: Berat and Gjirokaster:

Amphitheatre of Durres

In preparation of my ‘Balkan Tour 2015’ I had looked into Albania’s TWHS for ones that would be interesting enough to add to my itinerary. The country currently has a T List of 4, but none of these sites look very promising except the easy extension of the Ohrid WHS into the Albanian side of the lake. The Ancienty City of Apollonia is the most recent addition to the T List, but it is yet another Greek-Roman site. So I had decided to skip them all. But unexpectedly I had half a day to spare on my last day in Albania, due to a late departure of my bus from Tirana to Struga in Macedonia. I used it to get to Durrës and visit the T listed Amphitheatre there.

Amphitheatre of Durrës. The people there were cutting the grass.

Durrës is a port and Albania’s second city, only a 40 minute bus ride away from Tirana. Its amphitheatre lies in the city center, but isn’t as easy to find as many others of its kind. There are one or two signs, but mostly you’re up to yourself discovering the fairly sizeable structure between the houses. Coming from the bus station, there’s a flight of stairs that looks brand new which will take you to a view point above the amphitheatre. From there you can walk around it and get to the entrance. The site is fenced off nowadays, and there’s a small entrance fee of 300 Lek (2 EUR).

In Roman times this city was called Dyrrachium. It was an important place in Late Antiquity for its location on a road linking Rome to Constantinople. This amphitheatre, dating from the 2nd century AD, was only rediscovered in 1966 after centuries of oblivion. It still has been excavated only partly – the floor is covered by grass and there are houses on what must be the missing half of the ring. In February 2015, the municipality of Durrës seems to have decided to go forward in evicting the home owners from the site and demolish those houses.

Construction method to withstand earthquakes

Performances in the amphitheatre such as gladiator fights stopped in the 5th century. The location was then taken over by Christians who used it for religious events. They built two or three chapels into the innermost galleries, which first were decorated with mural paintings and later mosaics. The Byzantine style mosaics of the Main Chapel I found the most interesting part of a visit here. The one on the rear wall has suffered a lot from decay, but the two other panels (depicting Mary with angels, and the local martyr St. Stephen) are pretty intact. They are protected by a fence, probably rightly so because of the numbers of schoolchildren passing through this site.

Wall mosaic in the Main Chapel

Some 230 Roman amphitheatres have been found across the area of the Roman Empire. On the WH list we already have counted 19 of them. The Durrës Amphitheatre itself was rejected for WH status in 1991, for having importance in the cultural heritage of Albania but not meeting the criteria for inscription. Still the Albanians cling on to it, and it has featured on its T List since 1996. I can see why they do so: Durrës is an important city in Albania’s history. It was its first capital after independence, and still is the most important port and second city of the country. Maybe with a different angle, focusing more on the mosaics and the trade route aspects it will have a better chance than as an amphitheatre as such.

Published 3 June 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to Amphitheatre of Durres:

WHS #569: Ohrid Region

The “Natural and cultural heritage of the Ohrid Region” spans a large area in and around the Macedonian side of Lake Ohrid. The Republic of Macedonia owns about two-thirds of the lake, the remaining third is on Albania’s Tentative List as a transboundary extension. The site includes the lake, towns at the lake shore (such as Struga, Pestani, Trpejca and of course Ohrid itself), and also single monasteries like Sveti Stefan and Sveti Naum. And it encompasses a part of Galičica National Park - a protected natural area that covers the mountains surrounding the lake on the Macedonian side.

Saint Panteleimon monastery

I spent 3 nights in the town of Ohrid, and had 2 full days to explore. On my first day I ‘did’ the cultural circuit in Ohrid itself. First the short hike to the lovely Church of St. John at Kaneo. And then uphill to the archaeological site of Plaošnik. This was a big surprise: about half of the area is subject to archaeological survey or under construction for who knows what. The church of Saint Panteleimon itself is an ‘instoration’ – it was almost completely rebuilt (using the old materials) over the last years under the watchful eyes of ICOMOS. The result is too brand new to my taste, but it still is the most sacred place of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. The mosaics of the old basilica on the same grounds are worth a visit though.

I did see many more churches, icons and related objects, but overall I found Ohrid a very sanitized and touristy town, I had expected something with more spirituality given the number of its churches. However it would be the perfect destination if you like to spend your holiday with Dutch pensioners: it’s very cheap, a week in a hotel including flights from Amsterdam and transfers can already be had for 250 EUR in the low season. You’ll also often encounter signs such as “Hier spreekt men Nederlands” (Dutch is spoken here) in restaurants and shops.

Hermann's tortoise in Galicica National Park

On my second day I checked out the natural side to this WHS. I arranged for a taxi to bring me to the village of Elsani, about half way up the mountains above Lake Ohrid. From there, several hiking paths are possible through Galičica National Park. I choose the one descending to the coastal town of Pestani. It was a very enjoyable and relatively easy walk of 5.2 km. Only at the end I encountered two other hikers. The only slight problem is the signage, but fortunately I had read up before and learned that if you don’t see red-and-white stripes anymore for 50 metres, you’re on the wrong path. So I kept very focused on the stones and treetrunks mostly low to the ground. That way I was able to find a wild tortoise which I otherwise would have missed.

After the hike I walked on along the coast for a km or 2 to see the ‘Museum on Water - Bay of the Bones’. Because, you’d never guess, Lake Ohrid had its prehistoric pile dwellers too! The reconstructed houses on a platform are based on the underwater site found nearby. This site is mentioned in the comparative analysis of the Alpine Pile Dwellings WHS, it says that they only recently have been evaluated by modern methods in underwater excavations and that they cannot yet be fully assessed.

Bay of the Bones

Ohrid is Macedonia’s only WHS to date, and probably its only full-blown tourist attraction. In total I spent 6 days in this small country, visiting also the statue frenzy of Skopje and the TWHS of Kokino. Somehow I did not warm up to it, I was missing the positive vibe of neighbouring Albania.

Published 6 June 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #569: Ohrid Region:

WHS #570: Medieval Monuments in Kosovo

Basing myself in Kosovo’s capital Pristina, I visited 2 out of the 4 locations that comprise the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo: Gracanica Monastery and Prizren's Our Lady of Ljeviš church. They are considered ‘In Danger’ since 2006 as they need “urgent conservation work” and safeguarding, due to the post-conflict situation which saw this Serbian WHS end up on the territory of the partially recognised state of Kosovo.

In the months prior to this trip I had scoured the Internet for information on how to reach the monastery of Gracanica. It lies just 10 kilometers from Pristina, but in a Serb enclave whose surroundings pretend it does not exist. I was almost deterred by the transport issues described in the Lonely Planet chapter on Kosovo (“Rumours abound that bus drivers won’t let you on or off if you tell them where you’re going”) and the stories that run on Tripadvisor about encountering “unwelcoming nuns” at the monastery itself.

Church of Gračanica monastery

In reality it took me a lot of effort and time (2 hours) to get there. But that had more to do with Pristina’s complex public transport system than with the sensitivity of my destination. The networks of city buses and regional buses are not connected, you have to walk several hundred meters between them and it was a mystery to me which bus would stop where. Eventually I ended up on a road behind the Albi Mall on the outskirts of the city, where buses to Gjilan come through that also pass Gracanica. And fortunately they stop there again without questioning: there is a bus stop in the main street, close to the monastery.

The monastery no longer has obvious guards. At the entrance of the village I did pass a warning sign though that CCTV is enabled in its main street. The general feel in town remembered me of the Republika Srpska which I visited 2 years ago: many Serbian flags in the streets – to the Kosovars of Serbian origin, this is their religious and political center. The long walls that surround the monastery had one open door, through which I could step inside. Behind it I saw a neatly kept lawn with a perfect little church in the middle (see first photo). I could look around at ease, fortunately there were no suspicious nuns after me and there’s also no entrance fee.

Inside the church a nun was busy polishing the woodwork. She did not acknowledge me entering. This is an active monastery, according to its official website ”there are 24 sisters in the monastery who are active in icon painting, agriculture, sewing and other monastic obediences”. The murals are wonderful, and even fully cover the largest of the five domes. At first looking upwards I only noticed the painting of a hand with stigmata, but a huge Christ is attached to it! From the outside the church does not seem that big, but it is very tall. I found it very impressive and its conditon seems excellent. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, so I just show below one of the murals in Gracanica that I found on the internet.

One of the murals at Gračanica

The visit to the second church was a lot easier. Actually, I had it planned as a back-up scenario if my trip to Gracanica didn’t pan out. Our Lady of Ljeviš church is located in the center of Prizren, Kosovo's second city and the cultural capital of the country. By bus from Pristina, a trip to Prizren takes almost 2 hours although it's only 80 kilometers. Prizren is an "ordinary" Kosovar Albanian town, where you can find a lot of mosques and churches of various denominations. If the de facto independent state of Kosovo will ever enter UNESCO and aim for its own WHS, I guess Prizren will be high on their agenda.

No hush-hush here about a Serbian-Orthodox symbol: the Ljeviš church is indicated on the tourist information panels around the city just as any other sight. That does not mean the Serbian heritage here is approved of by everybody: the church was set on fire and looted in 2004, and the roof was partially torn down because of its valuable lead. It has since closed. I had read that sometimes a policeman stands guard at the entrance, who could be willing to let you in if you do not look like a Kosovar or Albanian terrorist. But during my visit I saw no one around: the gates were firmly locked and there was barbed wire stretched over all its walls. Peeking through the double gate at the entrance, I could just see some murals under the covered porch. They did not look as good as those in Gracanica, and the interior reportedly has only about 30% of its paintings left.

Barbed wire at Our Lady of Ljeviš, Prizren

The Medieval Monuments in Kosovo have been under scrutiny each year over the past 9 years to see if the endangered status could be lifted. Although 3 out of the 4 subsites now are under control of the Kosovo police instead of the UN peace mission KFOR, the situation at Decani Monastery is still of concern. The 2015 report sees no possibility for ending the endangered status in the near future, and reinforced monitoring will continue.

Published 10 June 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #570: Medieval Monuments in Kosovo:

The Mystery of Kokino

The Archaeo-astronomical Site Kokino is a Bronze age site in the north-east of the Republic of Macedonia, not far from the border with Serbia. It was rediscovered as recently as 2001 by local archeologist Jovica Stankovski. There’s a lot of overenthusiastic misinformation about the site on the web, consisting of often repeated statements such that it is already a WHS or that it gained a 4th place among astronomical sites by NASA research. For now it is on Macedonia’s Tentative List, being put forward as an ancient observatory and holy mountain. Though it may come across as an obscure site, it is fairly well-known within the country's tourist industry.

Arrival at Kokino

I visited Kokino on the penultimate day of my short Balkan Tour of 2015. There’s no public transport going to the site, so I hired a car with driver from travel-macedonia who did the 3 hour round-trip including an hour's wait for a reasonable 40 EUR. The road to Kokino is fully signposted from the turnoff at the Alexander the Macedonian motorway (the country's other main motorway by the way is named after the 2nd best known Macedonian: Mother Teresa!).

The archeological site of Kokino is located at 1013 meters altitude, so when we got closer I searched diligently among the hills in the area in the hope of spotting the site from afar. Without success. After an hour’s drive we suddenly arrived at the "parking" of Kokino. Could this be it? I then noticed a rock protruding above the trees, which I recognized right away from pictures. These peculiar rocks stem from petrified volcanic lava, which has the natural tendency to split and crack.

It takes a steep climb of about 20 minutes to get up there, most through the open field. Thanks to one of the previous reviewers I knew I had to take the left path, which looks less inviting than the smooth track to the right that might be going to a nearby farm.

The Four Thrones

From internet research beforehand I learned that there are 4 stone seats (‘thrones’), 2 ritual platforms and 9 markers to 'see'. To my surprise the Macedonians even have placed 5 or so information panels at the top, to mark the various locations. Bronze Age remains were found here, proving that rituals were held. Later the theory was added that the very early Macedonians used this location for astronomy. At the top there are two flat plateaus that seem to be made by human hands. There is a kind of stone bench, with the 4 'thrones' used by dignitaries during rituals.

From these seats, but also from two more holy places a little further up, they would have been exactly at the right spot to see important days in the calendar like the Solstice and Equinox. At these days, the sun or moon shines exactly between a specific marker in the rocks on the ridge. I could not make any sense out of it, but it was a fun trip anyway. The odd shaped rocks, views and abundance of wild flowers make up for it.

The ridge with the markers

This is Macedonia’s most active TWHS – the country has tried unsuccesfully for Kokino to become a WHS in 2011 and 2012. After an incomplete dossier in 2011, it got a ‘rejection’ advice from ICOMOS a year later which made Macedonia withdraw the nomination before the WHC meeting. ICOMOS indeed is very harsh in its observations about Kokino. They do not deny it was a Bronze age sanctuary (though only one of national or regional significance), but see no scientific evidence that it was used for astronomical purposes. There is no evidence that the 'thrones' or the 'markers' are made by human hands. They are likely products of nature. Kokino is also strikingly missing from the UNESCO list on astronomical heritage. So maybe there is a Macedonian Erich von Däniken at work here?

Published 14 June 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to The Mystery of Kokino:

WHC 2015: Christiansfeld

In southern Denmark lies a small town where in 1773 the Protestant Herrnhutter started a new church community. Their town plan and characteristic light brick houses have been preserved until today. It is a quiet place where linden trees line the streets on both sides, and where the huge wooden Moravian Church is still the focal point. Christiansfeld a Moravian Settlement is one of no less than three Danish nominations for 2015.

The Moravian hotel

The Herrnhutter or Moravian Brethren are a Protestant denomination originating from Bohemia, whose members settled in Saxony (now Germany) after being persecuted in the Catholic Habsburg lands. There they established a new village called Herrnhut, and from that place they started the first large-scale Protestant missionary movement. They sent their missionaries to all parts of the world. Denmark (or more accurately: the Dano-Norwegian Empire of that period) was one of the first places they went to.

Christiansfeld is an easy site to visit on the way between the Jelling WHS and the Hamburg Speicherstadt TWHS, and well worth a short stop. I was there in April 2013 and I walked Christianfeld’s picturesque main streets in about half an hour. It’s a small town that has preserved its planned layout and original architecture well. The straight roads still are lined with rows of linden. The sturdy houses are made of light coloured bricks. The building style is very sober, in accordance with the Moravian principles. The undoubted highlight of the town is the huge wooden Moravian Church, located at a fine small square that would not be out of place in Holland. No wonder, as the Dutch town of Zeist is said to have been used as an example for Christiansfeld’s construction.

Moravian Church of Christiansfeld

After my visit in 2013, I believed that this nomination would need a brilliantly written nomination file to convince ICOMOS and the WHC. Two years later we know that it has received a positive recommendation for inclusion by ICOMOS, so you may guess that the Danes have succeeded in doing so. The dossier however is not without its flaws, and we might see a transformation of this single ‘group of buildings’ into a transnational serial site over the coming years.

We have discussed the Moravian Heritage Network on our Forum before: it is (or was?) a network of Moravian settlements in Northern Ireland, the USA, South Africa, Germany and The Netherlands. They have worked together for some years on a joint nomination, but Christiansfeld has chosen to go ahead on its own as the others are not ready yet and “because Christiansfeld is the best remaining example anyway”.

Church square with typical trees and houses

In its evaluation, ICOMOS does not fully agree with this conclusion: it may be the best preserved in Europe, but the serial nature of these church colonies around the world must be stressed. While the OUV of Christiansfeld is enough to earn a place on the WH List, the AB urges other countries (outside of Europe) to add serial sites in the coming years. Towns in the US may qualify (such as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania), but maybe also places in South Africa, Tanzania, Nicaragua or the Danish West Indies. So it will be interesting whether we will see any 'Moravian heritage' activity on future Tentative Lists.

Published 20 June 2015 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHC 2015: Christiansfeld:

Kyle (winterkjm) (22 June 2015):
I suppose we'll know more on the potential of a transnational WHS if Bethlehem is included on the US tentative list update in 2016.

Book: The Heritage Universe

Although I did not need the credits anymore towards my Bachelor Degree in Cultural Sciences, I was tempted by a new course from the Dutch Open University about ‘Cultural Heritage’. It comes with a book called The Heritage Universe: 11 chapters on topics such as canonization, conservation and 'tainted' heritage.

The Scientific Approach

It would not be a proper scientific book without a theoretic model of course. In this case that of Austrian art historian Alois Riegl, who publicized his ideas around 1903-1905. He focussed on the experience of the individual, on the relationship we have with monuments and objects from the past. This in contrast to those scientists aiming for an ideal, universal standard. He distinguished 6 values that are attributed to objects/sites, such as age value, historical value, esthetic value and utility. So when we value ruins from Antiquity for example, we value them in a state that we can notice they are truly old (incomplete, overgrown, ruined). For him the 20th century was all about this 'age' criterion.

The authors conclude that in the 21st century, conflict and nostalgia will be the main criteria for selecting heritage properties. 'Conflict' as in: not only the good or pretty things have to be saved (for example parts of the Berlin Wall). And nostalgia as 'longing for an idealized past'. The example used is the reconstructed Historic Centre of Warsaw, which was reverted to a 18th century Polish city instead of the much more German looking 1930s version it was just before destruction during WWII.

Chapter on World Heritage

One full chapter is allocated to UNESCO World Heritage. I couldn’t wait to read the authors’ opinion and see how much I already knew - in fact I started reading at this Chapter no. 6!

There's so much to explain of course, and only 25 pages to do so and cover the basics. I did come across a few errors, some of which are pretty essential:

  • “Repeated” deferral/referral of Sydney Opera House because it was “too new”. It was never officially deferred/referred (let alone repeatedly), the nomination was withdrawn by Australia after a negative ICOMOS evaluation. Also it was not “too new” per se: the critics found a "lack of exemplary character or ... role as model".

  • Only 1 nomination per country is allowed each year, even including extensions or boundary changes. Not true of course: Denmark has no less than 3 hopefuls for 2015 for example! The official rule is: a maximum of 2, of which 1 must be a natural site or a cultural landscape. See Article 61 in the current Operational Guidelines.

  • The combination of 4 natural and 6 cultural criteria into 10 general criteria in 2003 is attributed to the advance of “mixed heritage sites or cultural landscapes”. No distinction is made in the text between mixed WHS and cultural landscapes, while in fact they’re two very different groups. Cultural landscapes are man-made sites, mixed WHS also have a purely natural component with its own OUV.

  • And the most funny glitch: the delisted Arab Oryx Sanctuary is described as a bird conservation area where a bird species has died out. It’s obvious the authors and their editors are not comfortable with the subject of natural heritage: the oryx is an antelope.

    Arab oryxes: No, they definitely are not birds

    Only secondary sources have been used by the authors in compiling this chapter, so they unfortunately missed out on the finer details of the WH Universe.


    In general the book is an easy read, maybe even a bit too superficial for a university level course. The various chapters provide an introduction into what we categorize now as ‘heritage’ or have done so in the past. It explains the transformation from a western oriented, material heritage approach to the more immaterial focus of the east. The more recent emancipation of the Islamic World and the BRICS countries, which we have seen at the WHC in the past years, is still overlooked.

    Marlite Halbertsma & Marieke Kuipers, Het Erfgoeduniversum (Uitgeverij Coutinho 2014)

    Published 27 June 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Book: The Heritage Universe:

    Paul Tanner (28 June 2015):
    Regarding the real impetus for the merging of the 4 Natural and 6 Cultural Criteria into a single list (compared with that given in the book).
    Out of interest I have tried to discover any "chapter and verse" as to why it was done. I can find nothing from the time (2003) - in fact the "merging" took place at a time of other significant changes to the OGs and seems to have passed without comment among them.
    However, this quote from the later Kazan Expert Meeting of 2005 seems to be the best statement I can find as to why it was done - though how much "post hoc" reasoning it contains I don't know!
    "The experts agreed that the combined set of criteria:
    a) should be a major advance as it would foster closer working arrangements between the natural and cultural fields by giving equal prominence to both as envisaged by the Convention;
    b) could add discipline to the evaluation of cultural properties as integrity is now applied to all nominations and could lead to exploration of the application of authenticity to natural properties;
    c) will require proper management arrangements and legal
    or other adequate protection prior to inscription;
    d) may encourage nominations of mixed properties;
    e) and asked the World Heritage Committee to continue to
    explore the future effects of the merging of the criteria on the operation of the World Heritage Convention."
    So the encouragement of "Mixed Properties" IS mentioned but only as 1 of 4 reasons

    This ICOMOS Document "What is OUV" (which we have referred to earlier under the "OUV - What does it mean?" Topic) contains discussions about "Historical Value", "Commemorative Value" and Aesthetic Value" etc (without referring to their progenitor, Riegl by name - though he seems to have developed the ideas of John Ruskin - see historicpreservationist.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/today-age-isnt-everything-ruskin-riegl-and-randall-mason/ It may be of interest to revisit it!

    Book: Chasing 193

    American Lee Abbamonte has a travel blog which I used to follow a few years ago, when he was still a young guy discovering the world. He came back on my radar recently when he teamed up with journalist Ryan Trapp to write ‘Chasing 193: The Quest to Visit Every Country in the World’. The book is not about him: it features circa 30 people from all walks of life and corners of the world who are trying to visit the current 193 UN countries.

    Pros and cons of the book

    Not all interviewees have visited 193 nations yet, or are close to that goal (for some it’s not even a goal). The 30 include mostly white North American/European males, people that are ranked high on the MTP list or active TCC members. The interviews are all done in the same Q&A format, which a more imaginative journalist could have done better as it gets tedious after a while. I also suspect that most of them were obtained via exchanging e-mails.

    Despite these shortcomings, I finished the 434 pages quickly. Some of the included travel life stories appeal more to me than others, but there will be something in it for every kind of serious traveller. The most enlightening I found Tan Weecheng, who describes what it means being perceived as Chinese, especially in Africa. And how travelling is frowned upon by the elder Singaporeans. He’s also the most philosophical and humble among these world travellers of which many claim to have no fear:

    “Every new trip lifted my treshold for discomfort, uncertainty, and even danger.”

    Michael Novins, who has attributed several photos of obscure WHS to this website, spells out one of the advantages of being a WH traveller: you keep on revisiting countries, as new sites are yearly added. And Don Parrish plugs this website; thanks Don!

    How do they do it?

    Most had a clear interest in the globe, maps, stamps and venturing out of the backyard from a young age. From a certain point on, it became clear to them that with persistence it would be possible to visit all countries in the world.

    Almost noone was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, often even quite the contrary. Jobs in Finance, Law & IT help – they provide the money to do a lot of short but expensive trips, and (after climbing up the corporate ladder) the position to negotiate about unpaid leave, extended business trips and so on. This is helpful because “at a given moment you run out of cheap destinations”. Living frugally (or at least below your means) in the other half of your life is also a big contributor. It can even be done on a librarian’s salary.

    Other circumstances or qualities that help reach this kind of extreme travel goals:

    • being an only child (for independence & indulgence)

    • being single or divorced

    • being able to design “neat” travel itineraries to optimize destinations

    • having the discipline to follow through

    • being a generalist who enjoys a wide range of things

    Chasing 1031 instead of 193

    Visiting the world’s official countries is easier than visiting all WHS, and many of the interviewed travellers name completing the WH List as their next goal (but noone really believes in reaching it). But looking on it from the bright side: as World Heritage Travellers at least we don’t have to go to Equatorial Guinea (yet)!

    Published 8 July 2015 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #580: Auschwitz Birkenau

    Hardly two weeks after the WHC meeting of 2015 that gave me no less than 9 'new' sites, I hit the road again for my 580th WHS. The start of daily KLM flights to Cracow drew me to a revisit of Southern Poland. I had been to Cracow in 2005, visiting the Old Town, the Wieliczka Salt Mine and Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. At that time I decided to skip Auschwitz, as I wasn’t really in the mood for what I knew would be a very moving visit.

    This time around I started with Auschwitz Birkenau, staying overnight in Oswiecim. I had reserved entry for 8 a.m. on Saturday morning. Visitor numbers are limited to 100-200 an hour depending on the hour, so it’s best to pre-book a spot. Later in the day places fill up quickly, as after 10 a.m. these include guided tours in German, English, Russian, Spanish or Polish.

    Original wooden barracks in Birkenau

    When I arrived at about 7.50, already some 100 people were queuing to get in. The doors do not open until 8 a.m., and then you have to pass security first. You’re allowed to bring in hardly nothing, and I even was turned away on my first try because of my tiny backpack! So bring only a camera. Or an umbrella. Or nothing.

    Auschwitz I Camp lies in the urban area of the Polish town of Oswiecim, it really isn’t on the outskirts as it is sometimes described. Its very urban setting came as a surprise to me. And also its looks: it reminded me of those 19th century company towns, with neat rows of brick buildings. This was the administrative center of the Auschwitz Camp system , and it had offices and hospitals. Behind closed doors terrible things happened of course, and sometimes even in plain sight as with the public hanging of prisoners (which were mostly Polish and Russians incarcerated here). Most of the buildings now contain exhibition rooms, telling about different aspects of the camp and the fate of prisoners from various nations.

    Brick buildings of Auschwitz I

    Auschwitz II or Birkenau lies 3 km away, in a rural area. This was the largest extermination camp of the Nazi’s, which could house 100,000 prisoners at the time. Over one million people were killed here, in what was like an industrialized process. Its 175 hectare terrain held more than 300 brick and wooden buildings, of which 67 are still intact.

    It's a long walk to cross the terrain, but it does give you a sense of the scale of this camp. The barracks lie in long rows next to the main track and the railway. Most are not accessible and located behind barbed wire. At the very end there are the collapsed gas chambers, which were blown up at the end of the war by the SS to cover up their actions. In the woods behind it still stands the building where the prisoners were ‘introduced’ to the camp, and were stripped of their possessions and clothing. This ’dehumanization’ is again presented soberly (mostly bare spaces with an information sign), but I found it the most moving part of my visit.

    Besides the enormous size of it all, it struck me that Camp Birkenau lies in a wooded, almost idyllic environment. Any moment you expect a fox running across. I thought that the Polish had let nature return to this area, but also at photos dating from WWII itself you can see that there was a forest here then. There is a very painful picture on display of prisoners among the trees, waiting for their turn to go into the gas chambers.

    'Haarschneideraum' in Birkenau

    Dark Tourism may be a relatively new trend (the phrase was coined in 1996), but Auschwitz already entered the WH list in 1979 (after having even been proposed for the first list ever in 1978, but then neigbouring Cracow and Wieliczka Salt Mine were given preference). Visiting ‘dark heritage’ is sometimes described as an uneasy mix of disaster tourism and memorial. Auschwitz tends to lean to the latter, it is not as blood heavy as other dark sites that I have visited such as the former Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia or Saddam’s Red Prison in Iraqi Kurdistan. The displays here are sober, and the total has an understated subtlety. I also appreciate that entrance is free, and there is very little commercial activity around the site.

    Published 19 July 2015 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #581: Malopolska Churches

    Southeastern Poland holds two sets of WH-listed wooden churches, which lie in overlapping areas. It’s an important travel decision whether to mix them and take in as many as possible while driving the most efficient route, or to separate them which also means not being able to visit every single one. I opted for the latter, as I thought otherwise the two sets would blur into one in my memory. I had about 1.5 days to spare in the area, and devoted the first afternoon to two of The Wooden Churches of Southern Malopolska.

    Church of St. Leonard (Lipnica Murowana)

    The most difficult thing about visiting any of the wooden churches is just finding them. I immediately ran into trouble with the first one, the church in Lipnica Murowana. Lipnica is a pretty cute and sizeable town, where in the center I noticed a sign pointing to the "Church of St. Leonard” rightaway. However, when I entered the indicated street I ended up at a large modern church. I wondered how this could have the same name as the old wooden one!

    I checked my notes for more clues, and even burned some data on my smartphone to find location details or photos of the surroundings. One of the earlier reviewers wrote about “somewhere northeast of the center, with a large cemetery”. Driving around I found a small church within a big cemetery - but it did not look that old nor made out of wood. I was finally rescued by the waitress from the pizzeria at the central square: "Oh, it's right around the corner and then 200 meters further." It turned out that I had already been close to the right spot in the beginning, and only had to follow the path for a few hundred meters more.

    Interior of Church of St. Leonard

    Fortunately it was worth all the effort: the St. Leonard Church of Lipnica Murowana is idyllically located between the trees next to a river . A group of folk singers in traditional costume were just about to burst into a song when I arrived, they were being filmed with the church in the background. Some other visitors had already dialed the phone number pinned to the church door. The woman with the keys duely arrived, and let us in. This church is best known for its paintings on the wooden walls. On one side even a version of the Last Supper is depicted. The ceiling, pulpit and musicians’ choir are also covered in polychrome painting.

    The second church on my list was the one in Binarowa , about an hour away. This church is signposted practically all the way ánd lies along the main road in the village - so no more searching. But I encountered another hurdle: there was a wedding ceremony going on. The doors were open and I could peek inside, noticing a rather glitzy baroque interior. Unfortunately I could not see anything of the “stencilled painted decorative scheme” that is said to be a unique reminder of Late Medieval Europe. I did not want to spoil the wedding day of Adam and Yolanda - I overheard the priest calling their names via the loudspeakers that were in use for those congregants waiting outside.

    Church of the Archangel Michael (Binarowa)

    As often, the nomination file provides great reading material with more than you ever wanted to know about wooden church construction. The file features 9 churches, of which only 6 went on being inscribed. They were built thanks to influential and wealthy sponsors, who tried to emulate the gothic building styles of the city churches using the locally widely available natural resources of timber. If you’re in the area they certainly warrant a visit, but among the 5 groups of Eastern European wooden churches on the List I rate them the lowest (my favourite may be the Churches of Peace).

    Published 25 July 2015 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #582: Wooden Tserkvas

    The Wooden Tserkvas of the Carpathian Region are 16 wooden churches in the border region of Poland and Ukraine. There are 8 inscribed churches in each country. During my long weekend in southeastern Poland I focused on the Polish ones. Beforehand I plotted them all on a map, and as you can see in the figure below it will take a long drive to cover them all. Two tserkvas straddle the Ukranian border below Zamosc, and I was tempted to drive even further north to include that WHS also. But it still is a 1.5 hour drive from Radruz. Daytrips to L’viv in Ukraine are also advertised from the larger cities in this region, so this is a true hotspot.

    The 8 bigger white dots represent the Tserkvas in Poland

    In the end I only had time for the 6 in southern Poland, those that lie near the border with Slovakia. Most of the previous reviewers seem to have visited the cluster of 4 below Gorlice, although John Booth of course made it even to the most remote ones by public transport!

    ‘Tserkva’ means ‘church’ in the Ukrainian language. Most of these churches were built for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern Rite Catholic church (sharing traditions with the orthodox churches but acting in full communion with the Holy See). Since the Ukrainian population left the area after WWII almost all tserkvas in Poland have come into use as Roman Catholic churches. They have retained their traditionial (orthodox) iconostases, and the catholic service is performed in front of those. This mix of the Orthodox and Catholic branches of Christianity is one of the more interesting features of this set of wooden churches.

    Kwiatoń, Tserkva of Saint Paraskeva

    I drove around in this region on a Sunday, and met many churchgoers on foot. The designated churches certainly aren’t the only interesting wooden churches in this area: some more recent ones are still heavily used, with people even standing outside to attend the service. Only one of the 6 tserkvas on my list was in use for a service, but I encountered visitors at all of them – mostly Polish tourists. The region felt less remote and ‘backward’ than I had imagined . There are villages everywhere, and supermarkets and gas stations were open on Sundays.

    My favourites among the 6 churches were the ones in Kwiation and Turzansk. The last one is special because it nowadays is in use as an Orthodox church, not a Roman Catholic one. Unfortunately I couldn’t get in, but with its 5 metallic domes plus a separate bell tower it is picture perfect. It also looks much bigger than the other ones, maybe because it lies in an open field.

    Turzańsk, Tserkva of Saint Michael the Archangel

    The sixth and final church of my tour lies in the extreme southeastern tip of Poland, a few kilometers from the Ukrainian border. I added it to my route because it seemed so remote: the village of Smolnik to which it belongs has only 182 inhabitants. But on arrival it turned out to be the busiest of them all! There were already a few cars in the parking lot, and a couple arrived by bike. The church was open. Here no special murals or glossy iconostasis: the decor consists of deer antlers! They cover the walls and even the chandeliers are made out of them.

    Published 1 August 2015 Leave a Comment

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    Searching for the Wadden Sea

    The Wadden Sea WHS covers a huge area along the coasts of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, so it’s an easy site to tick off. Getting a real feel for it though is a whole different story. I believe one should at least try to cover several different areas, and take in both the marine and coastal aspects. Early August 2015 I made my third trip to the inscribed area, still searching for its soul.

    Wadden Sea seen from a distance

    My first visit was in 1982: I was 12 years old and went on a school trip to the Wadden island of Vlieland. It was the first time that I went away for a couple of days without my parents, not counting a disastrous girl scout camp that I left crying already after one night. Vlieland was more of a succes, it’s a really popular holiday island geared to an active vacation. I still have some very funny pictures of that time. Although the islands are outside of the core zone of the WHS, you’ll inevitably cross the Wadden Sea by ferry. So technically – I had been there.

    In 2011, on my way to the T-listed Eise Eisinga Planetarium in Franeker, I had driven the Afsluitdijk route. The Afsluitdijk is a major causeway damming off the former Zuiderzee and turning it into the fresh water lake of the IJsselmeer. It has been a candidate on its own for the Dutch Tentative List, but it was rejected because it isn’t a national monument and its universal value was seen as doubtful. Halfway there’s a parking lot with a footbridge, from where you can see the IJsselmeer on one side and the Wadden Sea on the other. It’s a windy spot, and on the north side you taste the sea salt on your lips.

    Wadden Sea at low tide, near Den Oever

    This weekend I decided to check out the coastal stretch between Den Oever and Den Helder, at the tip of the province of North Holland. First I drove to an area named “Balgzand”. This is the best place to see lots of birds: at low tide large numbers of them congregate at the sandbars to search for little creatures to eat. The zone itself is not accessible, you have to watch from one of the bird hides. A group of some 40 spoonbills were feeding and washing themselves when I arrived. You’ll need a strong lens to take good photos, as the hides are far away from where the action is.

    I then drove on to Den Oever. This is a small fishing village where not much seems to happen. I parked in the streets and then climbed the seawall that guards the town. Here a combined biking and hiking path gets you closer to the sea, though the tide was still low and there wasn’t much water in sight. I had a pleasant walk along the coast to the Wadden Harbour of Den Oever, a fishing harbour where sometimes seals are seen. I did not see anything but birds however, mostly cormorants drying their feathers in the sun.

    Cormorant in the harbour of Den Oever

    So that makes 3 visits in total, but I am still not satisfied with the “experience”. It’s really hard to say which part of the designated areas delivers a representative visit for the casual visitor. The official website is not much help as it is more about tourist promotion of the general area than about the WHS. Maybe a proper mud hiking tour (only possible with a guide) would do the trick to at least get a "feel".

    Published 8 August 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Searching for the Wadden Sea:

    Philipp Peterer (10 August 2015):
    I did not have the true Wadden Sea experience in the Netherlands, mostly due to lack of time. I also passed the dijk, with the stopover halfway. Further I visited Harlingen. I assume you could find a more authentic experience visiting the coast up in the north. I initially planned to drive to the coast close to Holwerd.

    I found the real deal in Germany. The sea off Sahlenburg near Cuxhaven is exactly the mud pit one expects thinking of the Wadden Sea. During low tide you can walk in the mud or take a horse carriage tour to nearby Neuwerk Island.

    WHS #583: Laponia

    The Laponian Area is a big WHS comprising 9 nature reserves that needs some time and research to cover. Not many general interest tourists put it on their itinerary: on the web I mostly found trip reports about multi-day hikes, for which you have to take everything with you on your back (25 kg seems to be a minimum). Paths are scarcely marked: those that are experienced enough to hike here get along fine with GPS and/or compass. From the comfort of my rental car I encountered several of these long distance hikers with their huge backpacks by the side of the road, waiting for a bus or just getting ready to start their walk.

    Reindeer: check!

    The designated area lies north of the Arctic Circle between the towns of Jokkmokk and Gällivare. I used the latter as my base for 2 nights. The town will never win any beauty contest, but if you’re not fussy I can recommend Gällivare B&B and the local Thai restaurant. I started my Laponian exploration with a day trip by car to Stora Sjöfallet National Park. From Gällivare it takes 2.5 hours (184 km) to Ritsem, which is as far as you can go into the park on a paved road.

    The forest landscape is beautiful against a clear sky, it often reminded me of the Jasper area in Canada. However the views here are tainted by omnipresent mega-electricity poles that run parallel to the road to Ritsem: the area has several huge hydro-electric plants. The 'Naturum' visitor center lies about half-way, and offers great (unspoiled) views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. The center itself is worth a quick visit too, though for more in-depth exhibitions on this region and its inhabitants I recommend the Ajtte museum in Jokkmokk.

    Original remains of the Saami lifestyle are harder to find. At the turnoff for Appojavrre, a 350m long path into the forest ends up at nine former hearths that were used to warm the Saami tents. This is what remains of a Saami settlement after they’ve moved on. Another exit, marked “G Kapellplats", leads you to Nabrreluokta Chapel. The chapel was built in 1646, but did not last long: it burned down a few years later as the Saami were more attached to their traditional beliefs and most were not christianized. Now there’s only a commemorative marker and a heap of stones that may or may not be from the original building.

    Remains of a Saami settlement: check!

    There’s a clear visible difference between the west side of the parks and the east side: the more west you go, the more mountaineous it gets. The east consists mostly of taiga or boreal forest. On my second day in the area I visited a park in the eastern zone: Muddus National Park. There’s access from Liggadammen (just south of Porjus), where a sign to the park sends you 11km on a bumpy road. It ends at a car park, where to my surprise I already found some 10 other cars.

    Two trails are marked from here: a 7km hike to the Muddu waterfall, or a 5 km hike to “Moskokorso” (whatever that may be). I choose the shorter walk. The trail turned out to be mostly flat. You walk on boardwalks for half of the time, as the ground in this forest is very squashy. I dubbed it the “taiga hike” - a wander in this kind of forest was a first for me. I enjoyed the colours of the forest, the fungi and the large male reindeer that I startled on the path. After some 45 minutes the track gets more rocky and wasn’t so nice to walk on anymore. I never made it to the end: I turned around after 1.5 hours. A rather fine walk on a bright sunny day, and fortunately the mosquitos were mostly absent.

    Boreal forest (aka Taiga): check!

    At the time of inscription IUCN proposed extension of this Laponian WHS across the border to Norway. The area still is on that country’s Tentative List but the Norwegians seem in no hurry to nominate it. From the beginning of the 20th century, the Saami in Norway, Sweden and Finland live under different conditions. They represent themselves in three different parliaments 1, and do not seem to have a strong pan-nationalist lobby. So the Laponian area may well stay a purely Swedish contribution to the WH List.

    Published 15 August 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #583: Laponia:

    Ian (17 August 2015):
    Glad you had wider eating option than us in Gällivare! And you managed to avoid the worst of the insects, seems you had more luck than us.

    WHS #584: Gammelstad

    The Church Town of Gammelstad is a village in the woods some 10 km outside of Lulea in North Sweden. It’s hard to imagine nowadays that people used to arrive here by boat. The sea level in the 15th and 16th century, when the town developed, was 10 metres higher than today. By 1649 though, the harbour had become too shallow. Movement of the tectonic plates had caused land elevation. On site you can still see the spot where the old harbour was located: it now is a parking lot for the neighbouring open air museum.

    Typical street in Gammelstad

    When I arrived in Gammelstad on a Sunday morning at 9 a.m. its streets were empty. Only a fat Garfield-like cat welcomed me, and accompanied me on my walk around town. The trademark Falun red wooden houses give the town center a coherent architectural feel, though there are more modern houses on the outskirts of town too. I found the town lay-out remarkable: it seems completely haphazard. The cottages were added gradually and as needed. Once all the streets were lined with houses, the land between the roads was filled by more buildings. They now all lie very close next to or behind each other.

    At first sight the wooden houses are tiny – of course people did not need much space for just a day in a week here. But not all houses were small: there’s also a more luxurious quarter in town. Here for example lies the mayor’s house. It is also made out of wood and red in colour, but it's a fairly sizeable farm house decorated to impress.

    Nederlulea Church

    The town got busier from 10 a.m. on. Mass in church on Sunday starts at 11 a.m., so the locals were slowly waking up and opening their doors. Also several other tourists showed up, Germans and Chinese among them. A big touring car from Germany even arrived when I left. The town gets 100,000 visitors a year, which isn’t bad for a village.

    The interior of the big Nederlulea church should not be missed. The church was consecrated in the auspicious year 1492. It has groups of frescoes around the altar, it reportedly is the "northernmost church with medieval frescoes". Other notable ornaments include the baroque pulpit and a 16th century altarpiece from Antwerp. During the Reformation, this area (and this church) turned from Catholic to Protestant around 1590.

    The houses are built almost on top of each other

    Despite Gammelstad's cuteness, it will be hard to spend more than 1.5 hours here. I walked the town twice, had a look inside the only house open for visitors, explored the visitor center and had coffee and homemade cake next door at Ullas Café. It’s very much a normal town, the cottages are not taken over by souvenir shops as they would be elsewhere in the world. My final verdict would be: nice enough for a detour, but it would not be part of my Top 200 WHS.

    Published 19 August 2015 Leave a Comment

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    WH Travellers meeting in Rotterdam

    The idea came earlier this year in or around Izmir, when after some private meetings among Top WH Travellers Nihal Ege thought it would be a great idea to organize an event related to the WHS website. Holland was chosen as the destination, as it lies fairly central in Europe and it would make things more easy for me as a host. An announcement was posted on this website, and many positive reactions followed.

    Original Van Nelle sign

    So on Sunday August 23, 20 World Heritage Travellers from 7 countries were present at the gates of the Van Nelle Factory for a tour and meet-up lunch afterwards. Most of the participants had added a few extra days in this corner of Europe to tackle such WHS as the Fagus Factory and the Par force Hunting Landscape (“There is forest. And there are deer, of which we took photos of.”). A Livingstone versus Stanley encounter even occurred at the infamous Flint Mines of Spiennes, where Iain Jackson and Paul Tanner stumbled upon each other.

    Our ‘official’ programme started with a tour of the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam. Narjara from Urban Guides did a great job explaining the former and current use of the Van Nelle Factory, as well as its architectural ins and outs. We saw both the exterior and interior, were even promised access to a ‘special part’ of the building which eventually did not pan out because of the use of the place by a private company. We learned that the Van Nelle Factory at the moment is looking for new investors (read more about its financial problems here). It is also struggling how to combine its private use with public tourist access. There’s talk of a visitor center, but how and where this will materialize is not clear yet. For now, access is limited to guided tours a few times a week.

    An attentive audience

    Our private group spent 1.5 hours at the factory. We climbed a lot of stairs and peered through a lot of windows. The mention of a ‘double helix’ stairway made us take a mental note for a new entry to this connection. You can see the factory at work in this film from 1930. When leaving the terrain, the cars with Swiss, Norwegian, British, Turkish or French number plates fooled Van Nelle’s parking system based on plate recognition. So they happily drove away without paying.

    Next stop was the Van der Valk restaurant, where a lunch buffet was waiting for us. As real globetrotters, all managed to find it without a problem. Fortunately the food went down well, and the conversations at the tables were flowing. Where do you find groups of people who can knowingly talk about Idrija at one moment, and the Rila Monastery at the next? The glossy postcards of Dutch WHS, that are given away for free at some Dutch heritage sites, also attracted much attention. We further discussed the development of the maps on this website, which can be great additional functionality.

    Time for food and talk

    Around 3 p.m. it was time to leave, although some WH diehards may still be there as they could not stop talking to each other. Others had plans to even visit more WHS that day, such as a Beguinage in Belgium that is closed on Mondays. It was a great day, blessed by sunny weather and clear skies. I’m open to ideas for a similar elusive destination for a possible next meeting. More photos taken during the day by various participants can be found here.

    Published 26 August 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WH Travellers meeting in Rotterdam:

    Klaus Freisinger (27 August 2015):
    Looks great, I would have liked to join, but I went there in June already (the guide was Narjara as well). Maybe next time :) Any way you could mention the participants and who is who on the pics?

    A History of WHS in Danger

    The UNESCO World Heritage List owes its existence directly from safeguarding endangered monuments. The succesful campaign for the salvage and relocation to higher ground of the temple complexes of Abu Simbel and Philae because of the construction of the Aswan Dam was an important trigger to create the World Heritage Convention in 1972.

    List of World Heritage in Danger

    A specific subset of this List contains the sites that are labelled ‘in danger’. Inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger has the purpose “to inform the international community of conditions which threaten the very characteristics for which a property was inscribed on the World Heritage List, and to encourage corrective action”. That danger can be ‘ascertained’ (sites already facing specific and proven dangerous situations) or ‘potential’ (sites threatened by situations that can have harmful effects, such as armed conflict).1.

    Portobelo (Panama): suffering from floodings and general neglect

    Some statistics

    Since the publication of the first World Heritage List in 1979, 76 different sites have been put on the Danger List:

    • 1 immediately was deemed in danger in 1979 (Kotor);

    • 12 were already endangered upon inscription;

    • 18 have been in danger for more than 10 years and still are;

    • 30 are natural or mixed sites, 46 cultural (percentage wise natural sites are more prone to fall into danger as the general division of WHS is 228 natural/mixed versus 803 cultural);

    • more than half were added since the year 2000 (showing that the Danger instrument is used more often nowadays, which could be a sign of more danger or of much closer monitoring);

    • remarkably, none of the (former) danger sites are in the countries with the most WHS, such as Italy, China or Mexico (these countries seem to have their acts together on conservation).

    Five sites have even been labelled ‘In Danger’ twice: Djoudj (1984 and 2000), Everglades (1993 and 2010), Garamba National Park (1984 and 1996), Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve (1996 and 2011) and Timbuktu (1990 and 2012). Each time it was for different reasons as far as I can tell, but this obviously is not a sign that the property achieves a lot of management attention.

    Djoudj National Park in Senegal: In Danger twice

    Reasons and trends

    How did all these sites become endangered? To get a feel for this I looked for the reasons given in the State of Conservation reports, and updated the Danger List on this website with those for each individual WHS that has ever been in danger.

    War, conflict and other human interventions seem to do more damage than natural disasters. A tornado hit the Royal Palaces of Abomey, a fire almost completely destroyed the Tombs of the Buganda Kings, a hurricane damaged the Everglades and of course there were several major earthquakes (Kotor, Bam, Baku). Surprisingly, this year’s earthquake in the Kathmandu Valley did not lead to an immediate inscription on the Danger List, despite "extensive damage". The WHC usually seems to wait a year or so for a request for help by the State Party.

    Palmyra's Temple of Bel, victim of human destruction (Photo by Michael Novins)

    Especially since 1991 (starting with Dubrovnik), various forms of armed conflict have lead to placement on the List of World Heritage in Danger. The wars in former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and local / tribal conflicts in Mali, DR Congo, Niger and India have done much harm. Is this a new trend? I don’t think so – various heritage sites including those that are now WHS, have been hit during the Vietnam War and Korean War too (not to mention those that were hit or destroyed during World War I or II).

    20-25 years later, several of the former endangered sites have returned to their former or improved selves. Plitvice, Dubrovnik and Angkor are now tourist attractions welcoming one million visitors or more. Sites of this importance do proof to have a strong resilience. Let that be a lifeline for Palmyra.

    Published 5 September 2015 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #585: Neusiedlersee

    The Neusiedlersee (Fertö tó in Hungarian) is a saline lake about an hour east of Vienna. It’s on the WH List as a cultural landscape. “A combination of stockraising and fishing with viticulture beside a lake” seems to be its core value. This is a fairly well-visited site among WH travellers, and the general public also knows how to find it as shown by an annual visitor count of over 700,000. In preparation of my visit I tried to find some things to see or do that haven’t been described on this website before. I will leave the omnipresent vineyards for what they are, but focus on the reed and vernacular architecture.

    Layers of reed, with some lake in between

    I started my visit in the town of Mörbisch, at the west bank of the lake. The nomination file applauds its “characteristic oblong farmsteads and narrow lanes leading down to the Lake”. My car navigation however delivered me at a huge parking lot at the "Seebad" (Lakeside Resort), without anything particularly interesting to see en route. I had chosen this town mostly for its transport link to the other side of the lake. Every half hour a bike and pedestrian ferry starts the round-trip, and I thought this would be a nice alternative lake cruise. The trip takes only 20 minutes, and most of the action comes from the private sailing yachts navigating the lake.

    The ferry supposedly drops you off at Illmitz, although the town itself lies a few kilometers inland. Here’s where a bike would have come handy, as it would bring both Illmitz and its acclaimed Neusiedler See visitor center within reach. A broad straight road leads out there. I had no other option than to go on foot. Dense reed surrounds this road on either side. Glimpses can be caught of a couple of smaller lakes and channels, with waterfowl species floating around remarkably similar to those in my backyard in Holland. Locals used the reeds in an elaborate fishing method called "Vejsze": a labyrinth of reeds was created to trap the fish. Reed was also used for roof cladding. Although the nomination file suggests that the latter still is a common practice, I saw my only two buildings with thatched roofs near the bird hide on the way to Illmitz. I never made it to the town itself by the way, it’s definitely too far to walk in the sun on a boring road.

    Traditional farm house with thatched roof

    After Mörbisch and Illmitz I got back to my rental car and drove on to Rust. This is where the wealthy winemakers lived. Rust's citizens received market rights in 1470 and the privilege to mark the corks of their wine barrels with the famous 'R' brand in 1524. Rust (together with the rest of this ‘Burgenland’ area) only became part of Austria in 1921: before that this mainly German-speaking region belonged to Hungary. It is a lively (and touristy) town, with a small but neat historic city center. Every other house still seems to be in use as a part of the winemaking industry. The local Fishermen’s Church is worth a look for its odd shape, historic altar and murals.

    The nomination history of Fertö/Neusiedlersee shows a giant U-turn just before inscription in 2001, one that seems hardly possible in these days. It was originally nominated as a mixed site. Its natural values featured prominently in the dossier, but were rejected at the Bureau session. The lake was deemed unique on a European scale, but not globally. Also, the lake regime is somewhat artificial as the water level is controlled by a sluice. The regular use of chemicals in the modern viticulture methods does not help its natural values either.

    Weingut Storchenhof, Rust

    But the Advisory Bodies did see possibilities for a cultural landscape. However, in that case the core zone would have to include the towns surrounding the lake (which were mostly placed in the buffer zone in the first nomination centering on the lake itself). This was changed in the final nomination, though the UNESCO website still shows the old map. Towns such as Mörbisch, Oggau, Donnerskirchen and Purbach with their fields and field systems are now included. Essentially this change has left us with yet another viticulture landscape WHS, which is pleasant enough to visit on a sunny day but will not make a lasting impression on the seasoned traveller.

    Published 13 September 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #585: Neusiedlersee:

    WHS #586: Wachau

    The Wachau is a riverine landscape in Northeast Austria. Here the Danube flows for 36km through a fertile valley, that has been used since the Middle Ages for growing apricots and grapes - yes, this is another viticulture WHS. Fortunately they have thrown in a number of palaces, castles and picturesque historic town centres to enhance the visitor experience. A wealth of individual monuments and places has been highlighted in the nomination file.

    Schloss Schönbühel

    I visited on a Sunday, and thought it would be a nice idea to start the day with a hike enjoying the river views. I parked my rental car in Schönbühel, a small town east of Melk. An oversized palace dominates its town center. It provided a tantalizing start, though you cannot get in because it's in private use.

    Just as in Neusiedl, which I visited the day before, cycling is very popular here: one can traverse the entire Danube valley on a smooth bike path. Unfortunately there is no separate trail for hikers, and there’s a lot of noise from car traffic on the parallel road. Hiking by far turned out less pleasant than I had imagined. When I also could not find the follow-up signs for my planned 2 hour ‘Steinwandweg’ walk, I decided just to push straight on for 5 km to the city of Melk. I had planned to visit it later in the day, now I arrived already at 10.

    Melk is a major crossroads in the Wachau: it holds one of the few bridges across the Danube in this area, and also is connected via an intricate road network to the highway to Vienna. Its historic center does have a few notable buildings, but the overall atmosphere was a bit too old fashioned for me. Only the murals on the exterior of the 16th century former clergy house could hold my attention for a while.


    Melk is famous for its great Abbey. Each year, it is visited by more than half a million tourists. On this early Sunday morning the courtyard was already filled with groups of visitors. The Americans and Asians evidently know how to find it on their beaten path through Europe. I joined a German-language tour through the Abbey for 12 EUR (you can also visit on your own, then it costs 2 EUR less). The Abbey is still used by Benedictine monks, and has an active highschool with 900 pupils. It is a huge complex, the wealth from the past is visible all around. The interior is not as interesting as the exterior would suggest, with the sole exception of an ingenious spiral staircase.

    After a filling & cheap lunch at a Mexican/Greek/Italian restaurant I was ready for the walk back to Schönbühel. There's a 2 hour route signposted from the Abbey, so I tried that one. I can be brief about the outcome: this alternative route was even more boring than the one in the morning. The outskirts of this town really aren't pretty.

    Melk Abbey staircase

    There’s much more to see in this region than can be covered in one day. I was intrigued by the Gozzoburg in Krems for example, which can only be visited once a day during the summer months. I believe that you’d need to find a quiet time in the year to really enjoy the Wachau – although due to its proximity to Vienna, I am afraid the tourism business here seldom is slow.

    With this trip, I have for now ‘completed’ Austria (a total of 9 WHS). Looking back at these visits, the common factor among them is that I found all Austrian WHS over-touristy. Tourism has a long history in this country and its main sites are very accessible. WHS hunting here rarely leads you to undiscovered destinations or surprising discoveries.

    Published 19 September 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #586: Wachau:

    Els (22 September 2015):
    oops -- changed it to NE!

    Klaus Freisinger (21 September 2015):
    Sorry to be picky, but the Wachau is in the northeast of Austria. It's just to the northwest of Vienna :)

    Jarek Pokrzywnicki (20 September 2015):
    Less touristic are for sure areas outside cities. There are plenty of small, beautifully situated villages with wineyards like Willendorf (where the famous statue was found), Spitz, Sankt Michael (my favourite as it contains some 5 houses and the church) as well as Durnstein. For me Wachau resemles very much Upper Middle Rhein Valley.

    One of our Missing: Shwedagon Pagoda

    When we were compiling our List of Missing Sites in 2014, two sites from Myanmar made it into the Top 20: Bagan and the Shwedagon Pagoda. The history of Bagan is known and it will be submitted again without a doubt in the coming years, but why isn’t the Shwedagon Pagoda even on Myanmar’s Tentative List? Could it be because it is an active religious site and they want to keep it sacred? Or is it too strongly connected with political activities such as the August 1988 call for democracy by Aung San Suu Kyi addressing 500,000 people there, or the uprise from monks in September 2007?

    Glitzy model

    I scheduled a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda on my very first afternoon in Myanmar. I had arrived a bit later from Bangkok than anticipated, so I headed out there only at 4.30 p.m.. The site supposedly is on its best at dusk anyway. I entered via the western gate, after paying the 8000 kyat entrance fee for foreigners (about 5,60 EUR). This gate comes with escalator stairs, not a very usual sight in a temple complex but quite handy as the pagoda lies on a hill. You have to leave your shoes behind already downstairs so this became my first barefoot escalator experience.

    I had seen Shwedagon’s enormous gilded pagoda already from the air. There aren’t many highrise buildings in Yangon, so this still is the city’s major landmark. Up and close it’s mainly the glittering golden colour that stands out. Climbing the pagoda itself is off-limits to most visitors: they have to make do with a circumambulation. During my stay the visitor audience consisted of a mix of some 90% locals and 10% tourists. It was lively but not overwhelmingly busy.

    Umbrella lady

    I walked the full circle around the pagoda twice. On my first loop I focused on the elements at the base of the pagoda. Here you’ll find 12 planetary posts representing the days of the week. Each has a marble Buddha statue that persons born on that day lustrate while making wishes. A Burmese week has 8 days: Wednesday is split into a part before and after 6 p.m. The latter is called “Rahu”, and as I was born on a Wednesday evening I felt a little special. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday have two shrines dedicated to them, so that makes 12. These small monuments are the most popular with the locals, kneeling before them, lightning a candle or pouring water over the statues. Also there are hundreds of fantastical statues called nats that represent mythical gods and spirits.

    On my second loop I strayed a bit to the edges of the plateau that is fully covered with smaller and larger examples of eclectic religious architecture. Think of a mix of Luang Prabang (with its silvery tiles and mosaics), a major Wat in Bangkok and the liveliness and active pilgrimage of Jokhang or Boudhnath temple. There’s even a small Hindu temple in South Indian style. The buildings further away from the main scene are mostly of interest to devout buddhists, such as bodhi trees, buddha’s footprint and stone inscriptions. When dark falls, most shrines are illuminated by coloured light bulbs – this is when the spectacle turns from glitzy into gaudy.

    By night

    The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most important Buddhist site in Myanmar, and with its prominent collection of Gautama Buddha relics (including 8 hairs, 3 bones, a tooth and a footprint) also one of the holiest among Buddhist sites in general. Just as in Islam, there are many contenders to the title ‘holiest place’. After the obvious ‘Big 4’ Lumbini (birth), Bodh Gaya (enlightenment), Sarnath (first sermon) and Kushinagar (death), Shwedagon often features on lists as the prime example of the Theravada branch of Buddhism such as the “8 Wonders of the Buddhist World”. As masterpiece of a Burmese style pagoda and religious pilgrimage site since at least the 16th century, it should have enough OUV to warrant a future inscription on the WH List.

    Published 27 September 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to One of our Missing: Shwedagon Pagoda:

    Durian (28 September 2015):
    To say that Shwedagon is the masterpiece of Burmese style pagoda is maybe not correct since the pagoda is built by Mon people in their "Mon Style". For Burmese style pagoda can be found at Bagan.

    WHS #587: Pyu City of Halin

    Myanmar’s very first WHS came as a surprise in 2014: few will have visited one of the Pyu Ancient Cities before its inscription. History wise, it is not an illogical choice however. The Pyu were the first of the civilizations that settled along the Ayeyarwady River, in what is the heartland of current Myanmar. They started building city-states here from the 2nd century BC on. They came from the north (the Tibeto-Burman plateau or India) and brought Buddhism with them.

    I'm a sucker for these kind of signs

    None of the three Pyu cities Halin, Beikthano and Sri Ksetra lie close to the main tourist destinations in Myanmar. While I was staying in Mandalay, I hired a car plus driver and guide for the day and went for Halin. Though only 95 km, the trip took us 2.5 hours. We found our way out of the busy streets of Mandalay, and then passed the lovely Sagaing with its numerous gilded stupas. Afterwards it’s a long haul northwards in the direction of Shwebo. The guide had been there once before, but they do not make it out to Halin often. So driver and guide took some time asking around for the right turn-off. It turned out that there is a huge sign pointing to the World Heritage.

    From that sign it’s another 17 km on a semi-paved country road. We had to stop several times to let cattle and goats pass. Halin was and still is a major agricultural area, the land made fertile by irrigation. You’ll mostly see rice paddies (they export rice to China!), but also sesame is grown here.

    Arriving at Halin and passing the hot springs in town we went straight for the Archaeological Museum. Here you have to pay the 5,000 kyat entrance fee (3,50 EUR). In return you get a ticket and even a folder in the English language. My name went into the visitor book, that showed that a number of people do visit each day – mostly from larger towns in the region such as Shwebo. The museum itself houses about 10 glass cases with objects found at Halin. A lot of pottery, but also series of decorated pipes and an ornamental candle holder with space for 4 candles. A stone slab shows inscriptions in Pyu writing, a script with elongated characters that is different from the contemporary Burmese.

    Stone slab with engravings in Pyu writing

    After the museum we went back into the car to start the circuit around the archaeological site. Because it stretches over several kilometers a car (or motorbike) is necessary. These are essentially still farmlands, and the Pyu findings have been singled out and are “protected” by circles of cacti. Like the other Pyu cities, Halin was surrounded by a city wall. Parts of it have been excavated, and also some of the entrance gates. The Eastern Gate was our first stop, two rows of bricks with a bend at the corners. The other remaining gates looked pretty similar. Traces of stupas or monasteries also have been found, their ground plans can still be distinguished. All single locations have a unique number, and boast an information panel with explanations in Burmese and English.

    More spectacular findings are kept in a covered building. Both pottery and human skeletons are left in situ in the layers where they haven been discovered. A previous reviewer might be comforted in the fact that it’s not possible anymore to step into these graves and possibly damage the bones. Outside that building we found the one and only Halin souvenir hawker! He even was selling Halin WHS T-shirts, quite a collectors item. We there also met with a government official who came after us and wanted our names & passport numbers. He apologized for the poor outfits of the staff (“we don’t even have uniforms”). A woman from the museum went ahead of us on her motorbike to the last 2 sites, ones that have to be opened up with a key. They are a collection of stone slabs, inscribed with mostly Burmese and some Pyu texts, and another graveyard.

    My guide said that despite Halin’s WH status, he does not think it will ever attract many tourists. He is probably right, low heaps of brick in farmland will get few people excited. There still is not much known about the Pyu, I believe that more research would make a better-selling story. Going out there to see how rural Myanmar lives I found certainly worth the trip. It reminded me of Mahansthangarh TWHS in Bangladesh.

    Foundations of a stupa

    Halin seems to be the least interesting of the 3 inscribed Pyu cities, with Sri Ksetra being the main site. ICOMOS could even not find enough justification for the inscription of Halin, while they saw sufficient in the other two cities. Their report on the three sites was pretty harsh in general, and Deferral was advised. They were especially reluctant of accepting the view that the Pyu cities had served as role models for Angkor. The ICOMOS advice was overturned during the disorderly 2014 WHC session where at some point each site got in no matter what the Advisory Bodies had suggested. So here we are with the three Pyu Ancient Cities, recognized for the spread of Buddhist urbanism across Southeast Asia, testimony to the past Pyu civilization and innovative urban planning.

    Published 3 October 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #587: Pyu City of Halin:

    Konbaung Wooden Monasteries

    The Konbaung Dynasty was the last Burmese monarchy before British colonial rule started in 1885. With their expansionist agenda they set the current borders for Myanmar. Since 1996 a group of 7 Wooden Monasteries from the Konbaung Period has been on Myanmar’s Tentative List. They are located in Ohn Don, Sala, Pakhangyi, Pakhannge, Legaing, Sagu and Mandalay – scattered roughly in the area between Mandalay and Bagan. In contrast to the earlier brick architecture of the Pyu and Bagan civilizations, these monasteries owe more to pre-Buddhist Southeast Asian house-building practices and beliefs than to Indian prototypes.

    Shwe-Kyaung in Mandalay

    Shwe-Kyaung in Mandalay was my first encounter with these teak wood monasteries. I had been cycling around town all morning without seeing many tourists, but this is a major sight well on the beaten track of every tour guide. There’s an entrance fee to this and all other landmarks of Mandalay (valid for 5 days), costing 10,000 kyat / 7 EUR.

    The building originally belonged to the royal palace and was intended as sleeping quarters for the king. After he died, the building was donated to a Buddhist monastery in 1883. It became known as the Golden Monastery, because the wood was completely gilded. Inside it has still partially retained its golden glow. The main attractions however are its many finely carved figures, especially the Jataka scenes. This was the most outstanding single monument that I saw in Myanmar.

    Ornate woodwork, gilded pillars

    At the end of my trip I set my sights on the fairly obscure Pakhangyi and Pakhannge monasteries. The travel agency where I booked my car plus driver was confident about getting me there. And indeed the next day we drove straight to Pakhangyi, where a 5,000 kyat entrance fee was collected. This former monastery clearly demonstrates the linear plan typical of the Konbaung monasteries, with 4 buildings in a row (shrine - prayer hall - main teaching hall - ancillary building). It is raised on 254 pilings, with access to the main platform via massive staircases made of brick and stucco. It is more simple than the one in Mandalay, but I liked the human figures carved into the doors. The building has undergone major renovations in 1992, "ordered by the military regime’s former spy chief Khin Nyunt" – photos inside show the rickety state it was in before that.

    My final goal was the elusive Pakhannge. The given GPS coordinates point to a spot right in the middle of a river. The travel agent told me I should cross the river and that the driver would wait. We drove for only 5 km from Pakhangyi on a narrow country road, slowed down by a festive election parade for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD in front of us. We ended up at the Chindwin river, where the ferryman came into action rightaway. The crossing was short and smooth, and on the other side I asked for ‘Pakhannge Kyaung’. I was enthousiastically guided to … the ‘modern’ monastery in town. This involved some serious mud hiking, as the pouring rain had turned the town’s sandy streets into a mess. They were so kind to lend me an umbrella though.

    With no English speaking local around, I showed the curious onlookers some of my photos from earlier in the day of the wooden monastery of Pakhangyi - hoping this would trigger a recollection of something similar in their village. The photos were easily recognized as being of Pakhangyi, and they pointed to the road where I just came from. Yes I know where Pakhangyi is, because I was there an hour ago. But where did the monastery of Pakhannge go? So in the end I never found it - it was the largest of this group of wooden monasteries, standing on 332 piles. The building itself seems to have collapsed.

    Beautiful door at Pakhangyi

    I haven’t found any indication that Myanmar is actively pursuing this as a future WHS. A complete nomination dossier would need substantial documentation, something that now seems to be lacking at least in English. The cost of such an undertaking may be too much for the Myanmar Department of Archeology, National Museum and Library. Maybe they can get help from a donor such as Japan with its strong tradition in wooden architecture.

    Published 9 October 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Konbaung Wooden Monasteries:

    Bagan Archaeological Zone

    Bagan was a powerful kingdom from the 11th to the late 13th century: the empire stretched over almost all of what now is Myanmar. The remains of its ancient capital city comprise over 2,000 temples, monasteries and pagodas. They were constructed in a religious construction frenzy by Bagan’s rulers and wealthy subjects. Bagan at this time also became a center for religious study, attracting devotees from afar. Although it lost its prominence in the 14th century, the site was never abandoned and has stayed a pilgrimage destination throughout.

    View from Dhamma-ya-za-ka Zedi

    Nowadays Bagan is Myanmar’s tourist central, and it delivers proof that even the gentle Burmese can turn into annoying souvenir sellers & touts given a steady influx of wealthy tourists. I stayed in Bagan for 4 nights, using it also as a base for a side-trip to the wooden monasteries of Pakhangyi and Pakhannge. It was the end of the rainy season, and I experienced mostly partly cloudy weather during the day and a daily heavy downpour around 3.30 p.m.. I ‘did’ two longer trips of exploration among the monuments, once by mountainbike and the other time cruising around on an e-scooter (a rightly popular mode of transportation at the site).

    There’s no clear ‘Angkor Wat’ among Bagan’s religious monuments, no flagship temple or monastery that serves as the site’s iconic image. I would say that the two best contenders are the Ananda and Sulamani Temples. The Ananda was built in a fusion of Mon and Indian styles, and today is the most lively among the temples with worshipping Burmese. There’s an interesting tier of green terracotta glazed tiles around its outer wall. The Sulamani (aptly meaning 'Crowning Jewel') looks more refined, also more ‘complete’ than many of the other temples. It is tempting to make comparisons to Angkor as the two sites are so similar in many aspects, but either because of the worse state of conservation or the hasty (re)construction work I found Bagan less impressive in its artistic features.

    Interior with paintings, Upali Thein

    It is worth visiting Bagan's Archaeological Museum early during your stay. The museum is housed in a grand building with lots of empty space, but many of the exhibits are of good quality. Signs in English tell that they do apologize for the electricity problems, and are working on a better museum! Here you can see a model of how Bagan looked like during its heyday: now only the temples and pagodas remain, but in between there was a city of 50,000 – 200,000 inhabitants living in wooden houses. They also display the 55 hair styles for women (and 5 for men) that can be seen at the various wall paintings in Bagan, all variations on long black hair in a ponytail.

    A lot of the joy of Bagan comes from exploring its smaller or more outlying temples and pagodas. The good ones include the Ananda Ok Kyaung (a chapel with detailed murals, including depictions of Portuguese traders), the Upali Thein (well-preserved murals, can only be seen peeking through the closed door), the Tayok-pyi pagoda (has a façade with fine carvings) and the big red Dhamma-ya-za-ka Zedi in the morning light.

    Lots of detail at the Tayok-pyi pagoda

    2017 is now the estimated admission year of this major historical site to the WH list. It fell victim before to possibly the worst case of polarization in the history of World Heritage, a whole thesis can be written about the stand-off between the Myanmar military rulers and UNESCO & other representatives of the international community. It ended up with a Referral in 1997, stating the need for buffer zones and management plans but not mentioning the shoddy reconstruction techniques, the construction of the Nann Myint Viewing Tower in 2005 or the displacement of the population of Old Bagan that were among the critical issues earlier on.

    Published 17 October 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Bagan Archaeological Zone:

    Ancient cities of Upper Myanmar

    The impressively titled TWHS Ancient cities of Upper Myanmar comprises the former royal residences of Innwa, Amarapura, Sagaing, Mingun and Mandalay. They're located near Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city. Except for Mingun, the cities served also as state capitals for periods between the 14th and 19th century after the demise of Bagan. The Burmese seem to be especially fond of switching their capitals, using over 20 of them since the year 849. The current one (since 2005) is the greenfield site of Naypyidaw.

    Reconstruction of Mandalay Royal Palace

    I stayed in Mandalay for 4 nights, and - though admittedly I edged out a day for visiting the Pyu City of Halin - that was even not enough to see these 'Ancient cities' properly. I spent one day cycling around Mandalay proper. It’s a bit of a mystery what would be included in a future nomination here. The Royal Palace is the major landmark of the city, but it is (a) a complete reconstruction and (b) used as a military base. The army probably is still convinced of the strategic value of the fortress walls and moat surrounding this zone. The outer wall has a huge sign saying ‘The Tatmadaw Shall Never Betray the National Cause’, the only time I came across such a display during my two-week stay in Myanmar.

    Although it’s a sensitive area, foreign visitors are welcome. I encountered a soldier with reasonable English posted at the only entrance gate, ordering tourists off their bikes in the most friendly way. The palace itself is worth a quick look from above from the viewing tower, but lacks any soul - so I cut my visit short and cycled onwards. Mandalay has numerous temples, monasteries and pagodas too of course. One of particular interest is the Kuthodaw pagoda – home to 729 little stupas together forming 'the world’s largest book'.

    The Mingun Bell

    My first look outside of Myanmar’s bigger cities was via a boat trip to Mingun - the royal residence from 1810-1819. Already the spectacle at the ‘Mingun Jetty’ in Mandalay was worth the journey. The daily tourist ferry leaves at 9 a.m., and I arrived half an hour before. A number of less fortunate Mandalay citizens live close to the river, and have to wash themselves and their belongings in it. The harbour also provides small jobs for people in the loading and unloading of cargo from the ships. This involves getting the lower half of your body wet while wading through the dirty water, balancing a load on your head. It was incredibly dirty and smelly, and I encountered a dead rat on the shore (not my first in Myanmar).

    The 1 hour boat ride is a pleasure. Mingun is the result of the megalomania of the late 18th century King Bodawpaya. He wanted to create the world’s largest stupa, but stopped the works before they were done. The remaining brick structure can be seen from the river from afar. He did finish the world’s largest ringing bell. The people of Mingun now all seem to live off tourism, but I found it a pleasant place to look around for an hour or two. Supposedly an entrance fee applies, but it was not actively collected when I visited. At 12.30 the ferry returns to Mandalay.

    Kaunghmudaw Pagoda, Sagaing

    On my way out to Halin I had a quick look at Sagaing - capital of the eponymous kingdom of the 14th century and once again from 1760-1765 during the Konbaung Dynasty. The view from the bridge connecting Sagaing with Amarapura & Mandalay already is memorable: a hill dotted with innumerable golden stupas. A bit further along the road lie the more ancient temples and pagodas. These include the enormous Kaunghmudaw Pagoda (nicknamed 'the big boob'), where the controversial repainting from white to gold seems to have been completed.

    I concur with what the other reviewers have said about the unlikeliness of this batch of Ancient Cities ever becoming a WHS in this form. But it's a very worthwhile region to spend a few days.

    Published 24 October 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Ancient cities of Upper Myanmar:

    Tips for Travelling to Myanmar

    In September and October I spent 2 weeks travelling around Myanmar. This destination was a last minute decision, as the group tour to Azerbaijan & Iran that I had planned for that time frame was cancelled. Somehow I had never been that interested in going to Myanmar: with only one WHS so far, the ‘return on investment’ didn’t seem worth it. Also finding the right season was always a puzzle: too many tourists during the high season (November-February), too hot or too wet outside that period.

    In the end it was a rewarding trip. Weather-wise it was fine, only maybe a bit too cloudy for excellent photos. Find below my Top Tips for Travelling to Myanmar as a World Heritage Traveller.

    Slow train to Hsipaw

    1. Allow as much time as you can

    Myanmar isn’t a small country: it is larger than Italy & Germany combined (or for readers from the US: slightly smaller than Texas). Most roads aren’t in a great condition and you’ll have to share them with motorbikes, oxcarts and pedestrians. So any travel will be slow.

    The e-Visa that is available to most tourists will allow 28 days in the country. If you have that much time to spare, I would say: go for it. I had to make suboptimal choices during the 2 weeks that I had available. From the ‘Big 4’ (Yangon, Inle, Mandalay, Bagan) I had to skip Inle Lake to make room for a detour to the slightly more off the beaten track Hsipaw.

    2. Aim for Sri Ksetra to cover the Ancient Pyu Cities WHS

    For my WHS ‘tick’ I travelled to Halin, located between Mandalay and Shwebo. Although it’s always ‘interesting’ to see a remote site in rural lands, I would not recommend Halin if you had the choice. It’s quite costly to reach and not that exciting to visit. Halin however is only one of the three inscribed locations. If you’re set to create a WH centered itinerary, I would focus on Sri Ksetra. This is the prime location among the Pyu Cities. It lies about half-way between Bagan and Yangon.

    Ananda Temple in TWHS of Bagan

    3. Use Mandalay as a primary base

    Mandalay as a city gets mixed reviews: in some of the trip reports which I had been reading beforehand it was even suggested to skip it in favour of more time in Bagan. It is a ‘modern’ city, in the sense that it has broad streets made for cars and parades. With ca. 1 million inhabitants it’s huge, and as everywhere in the Burmese plains it gets hot. I did enjoy my stay here, and there’s so much to see and do in the surrounding area that it warrants at least 4 nights.

    Be aware though where you will be staying in Mandalay – I actually switched half-way because my B&B in the outskirts of town would have involved a 45 minute walk during the night to the train station. There weren’t many restaurants in the area either. I can recommend the efficient Yadanarbon Hotel in the city center.

    4. Choose your TWHS wisely

    Of the current T List, I would say that Bagan and the Wooden Shwekyaung Monastery in Mandalay are the biggest contenders for future WH status. They are easy to visit and would be part of any Myanmar route anyway. A nomination of Mrauk-U seems to be considered also. However I believe we will see one or more natural WHS from Myanmar coming our way during the next years. For example Twin Taung Lake or the Myeik Archipelago. These will take a lot more time and effort to fit in. Myanmar isn’t much of a nature destination at the moment.

    Palaung lady in Shan State

    5. Don't forget the non-(T)WHS

    This tip applies of course to every country, but more so to Myanmar as its steps into the world of UNESCO World Heritage have just started. Though you can never see it all, configuring a trip to Myanmar solely around (T)WHS would be a waste. It would leave out for example Yangon (home to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the National Museum and some crumbling colonial architecture) and Hsipaw (with its ethnic minorities and spectacular access via the Goteik Viaduct). These were among the highlights of my stay.

    Published 31 October 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Tips for Travelling to Myanmar:

    meltwaterfalls (2 November 2015):
    Thanks so much for this Els. Myanmar has been ruminating in our minds for a little while and is looking like a real option for next year. This will come in even more useful than your normal info. Thanks.

    Sonian Forest’s Beech Cathedral

    The Sonian Forest near Brussels is proposed as an extension to the Primeval Beech Forests of The Carpathians and ancient beech forests of Germany. If all goes well, this is scheduled to materialize in 2017. The extension proposal is a trans-border series consisting of 33 components, located in 11 State Parties: Albania, Slovenia, Romania, Italy, Poland, Austria (in the lead), Croatia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Spain and Belgium. This in addition to the current WHS that already covers 15 beech forests in Slovakia, Ukraine and Germany.

    Creative welcome at Hoeilaart

    The listed Primeval Beech Forests represent pure and mixed stands of European Beech in various environmental conditions. One wonders if so many more examples are really necessary. The nominating countries are serious about it though, and have developed a classification system defining Beech Forests of Regions (BFR) in Europe. Each BFR is characterized by specific climatic conditions and flora, and demonstrates an individual piece of history of the beech forests.

    The Sonian Forest is the only remaining beech forest in the Atlantic climate zone. It marks the western limit of the species range in Europe. 74% of the forest area is covered with beech, part of the scattered remains of the ancient Silva Carbonaria or Charcoal Forest. The Sonian Forest furthermore has nice trivia value as its area covers parts of all three regions of Belgium: Flanders, the Brussels-Capital Region and Wallonia. And it would be another addition to the already extensive Brussels WH Hotspot.

    Tall they are

    I feel a bit bad about my first visit to a WH listed Beech Forest: in 2008 I spent half a day driving around the east of Slovakia. I saw a lot of forest, probably beech - but I searched in vain for an access point. So I try to make up with this Belgian location once it is inscribed.

    The Sonian Forest website shows various ‘entry points’ of which I choose ‘Toegangspoort Groenendaal (Hoeilaart)’. This is also where the Jan van Ruusbroec Museum is, a somewhat old school museum about the forest including the obligatory stuffed mammals. I was surprised to learn from it that exotic fauna species such as parakeets and squirrels have been introduced to the Sonian Forest and are thriving. Its many species of bat led to it being classified as a Natura 2000 protected site.

    The Sonian Forest is nicknamed ‘Beech Cathedral’: the beeches can reach a height of 50 meters, giving the forest the character of a gothic cathedral. Some are over 250 years old. They originate from Austrian Habsburg times, when the landscape architect Joachim Zinner planted beeches on a massive scale. This resulted in long avenues with lines of trees running along each side. It's a pleasant place for a Sunday walk, but I had trouble finding the designated hiking paths (marked by orange or red painted wooden stumps) and got bored quickly by the endless rows of trees.

    Autumn hikes often result in mushroom photo hunts

    A coordinated nomination from 11 countries is pretty difficult to follow through in one attempt. The so-called Vienna Short List even included no less than 20 countries, including Kosovo! As most beeches in the Sonian Forest date back to human intervention in the 18th century, I don’t really grasp their ‘primeval’ or ‘virgin’ classification. But somewhere along the way during the nomination process 'primeval' has been changed into 'ancient'. And 'ancient' is now defined as 'at least 150 years old'.

    The title of the future extended WHS will probably be 'Ancient Beech Forests of Europe' - steering away from cumbersome constructions such as 'Primeval Beech Forests of The Carpathians and ancient beech forests of Germany and those of Albania and the beeches in Austria and those in Poland (and so on)'.

    Published 7 November 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Sonian Forest’s Beech Cathedral:

    WHC 2016: Ani Cultural Landscape

    Turkey has nominated Ani Cultural Landscape as one of its two candidates for the 2016 WHC session, which it will host in Istanbul next July. Ani comprises the ruins of a medieval Armenian city. It lies in the far east of Turkey, right at the border with Armenia. Between 961 and 1045, it was the capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom that covered much of present-day Armenia and eastern Turkey.

    The church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents in Ani, in the year 1992

    Considering the history between Turkey and Armenia, this is a controversial nomination. I won’t go into detail here about the current Turkish political scene and its complicated opinions on what happened in 1915 (you can have a look at Erdogan’s shifting points of view here). But behind the scenes the acceptance of Ani as an important part of the heritage of this region has been in the making for almost 20 years. The site finally entered Turkey’s Tentative List in 2012.

    In their study US Cultural Diplomacy and Archaeology: Soft Power, Hard Heritage, Christina Luke and Morag M. Kersel argue that the placement of Ani on the Watch List of the World Monuments Fund in 1996 was the most important trigger in the conservation and recognition of Ani. The US government supported this, as the normalization of Turkey’s relation with Armenia would sustain Turkey’s important bridge function. They conclude: “the support for preservation of Ani with U.S. congressional funds (as part of a much larger initiative with the World Monuments Fund and others) is yet another example of the strategic and political use of archaeological heritage by the U.S. Department of State”.

    Ani Cathedral, in the eyes of Armenian painter Arshak Fetvadjian (1905)

    I visited Ani way back in 1992, during a 3-week-long group tour that took us all over Turkey by bus. I don’t remember much about Ani, only the remoteness (and excoticness!) of whole eastern Turkey is a clear memory. Ani itself for me is symbolized by that one ruined church (see first photo) and the deep gorge next to it that divides the two countries.

    Since then quite a lot seems to have changed. While looking for additional photos to accompany this post I noticed all kinds of buildings that I do not remember from 1992, some including interior murals. The website Virtual Ani covers all of them. Recent visitors confirm that it stil is an off-the-beaten-track destination though. Minor Sights describes his visit from 2012 as a lonely experience and helpfully suggests "Don't mention the war!" A Tripadvisor report from June 2015 hints at the very vast size of the site, the need to bring plenty of drinking water and the entrance fee of 8 Turkish Lira.

    Turkey’s WH history and current approach has been summarized nicely here on our Forum. Activity has strongly increased since 2011. This corresponds with the observations of US Architectural Historian Heghnar Watenpaugh in Preserving the Medieval City of Ani: Cultural Heritage between Contest and Reconciliation: “These high-profile government initiatives occur at a time of unprecedented deliberation within Turkish civil society about the country’s foundation and modern history, often articulated through cultural heritage.” And “… the public debate about non-Muslims in the late Ottoman Empire has positioned Ani at the center of dialogue about the ambiguities of preservation and the politics of cultural memory in contemporary Turkey.”

    Watenpaugh sees heritage as a medium “for reconciliation rather than only contestation”. She worries that Turkey only brings Ani forward to attract international tourists: “The fact that culture and tourism share the same ministry in Turkey has prompted criticism that the tourism industry’s pursuit of profit might be the driving force in cultural management decisions”.

    The gorge dividing Turkey and Armenia (also 1992).
    Some rock-cut dwellings can be seen too, which are part of the WH nomination.

    The question remains: will Ani become a WHS in 2016? Googling for how the nomination will be presented by Turkey, I stumbled upon the Executive Summary of the Nomination Dossier. As a proposed Cultural Landscape, it relies heavily on the “interchange of ideas”. Quotes such as “stylistic interactions between Christian and Islamic art” and “center of a multi-national and multi religious population” attribute to this.

    Watenpaugh already foresaw this approach in her December 2014 article: “The rhetoric official Turkish state organizations use when they refer to Ani often invokes the trope of multiculturalism to describe this multilayered site. It is undoubtedly appropriate to discuss Ani in terms of a crossroads of cultures. However, sometimes multiculturalist rhetoric is used to gloss over, erase, or silence Ani’s most crucial layers.”

    In the Executive Summary the term ‘Armenian’ appears 6 times. The fact that we’re mainly talking about Armenian churches here is not denied. It would not surprise me that the WMF has assisted the Turkish Ministry of Culture in writing the nomination and make it acceptable to a broader audience. It also underlines Watenpaugh’s observation of “the introduction of limited acknowledgment at the state level regarding Turkey’s minorities such as the Armenians, Alevis, and Kurds”.

    I am interested in what ICOMOS has to say about the way restorations have been done by Turkish and international conservationists. In a reply to my question, Virtual Ani-owner Steven Sim (who has visited Ani yearly since 1984) wrote: “… thanks to the destruction of Ani's integrity as a historical site (caused by recent extensive and heavy-handed restoration works and rebuilding), I doubt that Ani can genuinely now meet the standards required to be listed as a World Heritage Site. If it were to be listed, it would just be additional proof that UNESCO is all about politics.”

    It seems that the planned site visit by ICOMOS has already been cancelled because of the current internal unrest within Turkey. Given the fact though that Turkey will be the host of the 2016 WHC session, I cannot see the nomination being referred or deferred (combined with the disdain the recent sessions have shown to ICOMOS’s opinion anyway). Probably some compromise will be found, maybe they will put Ani on the In Danger List simultaneously?

    Published 13 November 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHC 2016: Ani Cultural Landscape:

    Walter (17 November 2015):
    Worth mentionning that Armenia TL has "the basilica ans archeological site of Yererouk", which lies 5 kilometers across the border with Trukey and Ani cultural landscape.
    It would make a good (but very unlikely) transnational nomination.

    Minor Sights (16 November 2015):
    Thanks for mentioning our piece about Ani.

    It's great that Ani is a candidate for the WHC session. The site needs all the attention it can get and it is far from being at risk of being overrun by tourist- quite the opposite.

    In spite of the complex and sensitive history, I'm positive that Turkey has been moving in the right direction with its recognition of Ani and other Armenian heritage as part of its own heritage.

    We recently published a follow-up piece about some of the Armenian churches near Ani. You might want to read it too.
    The address is www.minorsights.com/2015/10/turkey-minor-armenian-churches.html

    Khuft (13 November 2015):
    Thanks, Els, for this comprehensive overview about Ani and the politics / considerations around it!

    Rome. Emperor Constantine’s dream.

    De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam lies just outside the core zone of the Amsterdam Canal Ring WHS, but is a monumental building in its own right. It's a former church dating from the 15th century and a bit of a national burial site with tombs of Dutch historical figures such as Michiel de Ruijter, Nicolaes Tulp (surgeon of Rembrandt fame) and Joost van den Vondel. It currently hosts artifacts on loan from several Vatican Museums concerning the period that Rome transformed into a papal center dominated by Churches with crosses. This exhibition will run til 7 February 2016.

    De Nieuwe Kerk Amsterdam

    Rome. Emperor Constantine’s dream shines a light on Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from 306 to 337. He allegedly was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. He stopped Christian persecutions and legalised Christianity along with all other religions and cults in the Roman Empire. Until today we can see the results of his policies in the many basilicas of Rome, and also abroad. His most famous building projects include the (original) Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Old Saint Peter's Basilica.

    After entering through a copy of the Arch of Constantine, the first exhibition room holds artifacts that show the mix of religions and cultures that were present in Rome in Constantine's period. I found this the most interesting part of the exhibition. There's a sculpture showing the Egyptian goddess Isis breastfeeding her child, just as Maria is depicted often in Christian iconography. And an inscription with a combination of text in Greek and Jewish symbols such as the menora. Mystery cults such as those of Mithras, Jupiter Dolichenus and Sol are represented by images of their deities.

    Relïef with Jupiter Dolichenus and Sol
    Rome, late 2nd – 3rd century
    Marble, 41 x 84 x 7 cm
    Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano

    The subsequent rooms show burial traditions (sarcophagi with Christian subjects carved in Classical Greek ornamental styles), mediëval books and Renaissance paintings - all with reference to Constantine or his period of Christian emancipation. To me it felt as a somewhat haphazard 'mix and match' of objects. I spent about an hour at the exhibition, and that mostly because the audioguide slowed my pace. The stories told by 4 more or less prominent Dutch are quite tedious, and I wonder what foreign visitors think of for example the private insights of TV host Nelleke van der Krogt.

    As with most Amsterdam museums, De Nieuwe Kerk has become quite a commercial affair. Entrance costs 16 EUR and photography is not allowed. But if you have an hour to spare on a rainy day, the exhibition is still worth a visit. There were no queues when I visited on a Sunday morning. The tour ends at one of the highlights: the gigantic sculpture of the right hand of the Colossus of Constantine.

    Right hand of the Colossus of Constantine

    Published 22 November 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Rome. Emperor Constantine’s dream.:

    Books: Wonders of the World

    Publishers seem to believe that the weeks leading up to Christmas are a great period to publish coffee table books and what I call ‘list books’. The latter in the travel book genre often mean Top 100 or Best 500 of sights around the world. An Amazon search will reveal a pretty long selection of these. Both Lonely Planet and National Geographic recently came up with a Travel List book that may be of interest to World Heritage Travellers.

    Lonely Planet

    Lonely Planet’s The World’s Great Wonders covers 30 man-made sites and 20 natural wonders. The book is a smallish hardcover. It aims “to inform, to inspire and to encourage its readers to travel”. It covers a lot about the selected World Wonders in 4 to 6 pages per Wonder. It does so by including ‘How did they do that?’ and ‘Getting there’ sections.

    The selection was made by Jheni Osman. She managed to include recent world wonders such as the Panama Canal, Maracana Stadium, Palm Jumeirah and the Larga Hadron Collider. With a background in scientific journalism, Osman happily includes the Lark Quarry (site of a dinosaur stampede) among her favourite Wonders.

    I particularly admired her choice of the Afghanistan TWHS Band-e-Amir, a place I knew so little about.

    National Geographic

    National Geographic’s Destinations of a Lifetime is more of a coffee table book, and draws heavily on its photography. The sites were chosen by National Geographic photographers. “Superlative iconic spots” is what they’re after. This is a selection of 225 sites, also both covering natural and cultural spots.

    There are many WHS among the 225, but there's also a fondness for second rate sites such as Sochi, Tonle Sap or Doha (which may be meant as ‘hidden treasures’). Their choice is pretty USA centric - I can't say that I am immediately drawn to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas for example. The accompanying texts give the impression of being written by a copy writer: they are full of superlatives such as "We're discovering new species all the time", "astonishing diversity" and "unforgettable experiences", all found on the same half page about Manu NP for example.

    If I had to choose between the two books, I'd go for the Lonely Planet one as it has more depth (and still does not shy away from great photos). However I don't regret buying the two of them. They're both reasonably priced too.

    A World Wonders Canon

    So what’s the common ground between the lists in these two books and our beloved WH List? Can we recognize a Canon of undisputed ‘Wonders of the World’? The following sites are included in all 3 sources:

    • Grand Canyon

    • Ngorongoro Crater

    • Terracotta Warriors

    • Petra

    • Hagia Sophia

    • Church of St. George (Lalibela)

    • Alhambra

    • Machu Picchu

    • Easter Island Statues

    • Potala Palace (labelled a ‘fairyland castle’ by NG, in the same league as Neuschwanstein)

    • Sagrada Familia

    Notably absent in both books are entries from Iran (too hard to get in for UK and US writers/photographers?). Islamic monuments are thinly covered in general, as is modern architecture. Also overlooked are some of my personal favourite WHS such as Meroë, Kathmandu Valley and Samarkand.

    Do you have a favourite 'Travel List' book?

    Published 28 November 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Books: Wonders of the World:

    Solivagant (29 November 2015):
    A few months ago I suggested that we try to establish a "Community" view on which were the "best"," most important" (or whatever - we would need to try to establish some sort of definition without being too prescriptive) WHS - The top 50 or 100.
    Although no doubt many of those of us who live in the temperate north will be doing some travels to warmer climes we will still be facing a fair number of long cold nights so it seems a good time to start doing it if we ever intend doing so!
    See my comment from July 11 under the topic "Do we need more Top Lists?"

    WHC 2016: Cetinje

    Montenegro made a sudden appearance on the international political scene this week as it was asked to become a member of the NATO. The move steers it away from the Russian sphere of influence, which it was a part of essentially until independence from Serbia in 2006. So far this small Balkan country holds 2 WHS, both 'inherited' from former Yugoslavia. At the WHC session of 2016 it hopes to double this number with the transboundary site of the Stecci Medieval Tombstones and on its own steam with the old capital Cetinje.

    Kids celebrating Independence Day

    Cetinje was the Royal Capital of Montenegro from the 15th century until Montenegro's incorporation in Yugoslavia after WWII. In the early 20th century it was the world's smallest capital, registering only 5,895 inhabitants. It is considered both a cradle of Montenegrin culture and a Serbian Orthodox religious center. The official residence of the Montenegrin President is still located here.

    I visited Cetinje in 2013, on my way between Podgorica and Kotor. Buses between the two cities will make a stop in Cetinje, so it's an easy break. It's also within reach of the popular beach resort of Budva and its tour bus-daytrippers (you'll surely encounter them). I walked around the historic center for 1.5 hours, and was really surprised about the good state of most of the monuments. Especially the villas and old embassies are worth seeing. The town has a Central European feel, a bit like Kutna Hora or Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. It happened to be Independence Day, so the atmosphere was particularly festive.

    Cetinje Serbian-Orthodox Monastery

    Most people come to see the Cetinje Monastery, which is the seat of the highest and largest diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro. Its church holds an important relic: the right hand of Saint John the Baptist! It would be a fine addition to our 'Relics from the John the Baptist'-connection. The right hand is especially sacred as it is the one with which he supposedly baptised Jesus - besides Cetinje monastery, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and the Romanian skete of the Forerunner on Mount Athos claim to have it as well. Unfortunately I did not get to see it, as I didn't feel like waiting around with dozens of other foreign tourists in the inner courtyard for a group visit to start.

    Cetinje was named after the River Cetina that runs through it. Its historic core seems to be frozen in time, because it developed quickly during the short period between the seventies of the nineteenth century until the First World War. After Montenegro’s independence was recognized during the Berlin Congress of 1878, foreign architects added many modern buildings to the cityscape to serve as consulates. “The buildings of the French, Russian, British, Italian and Austro-Hungarian consulates are regarded as the most beautiful of these”, according to the Wikipedia-page for Cetinje.

    I found the residence of the President of Montenegro its most impressive building. It is actually a similarly colourful villa as the old embassies, called the "Blue Palace". It also dates from the late 19th century, when it was the palace of the Crown Prince of Montenegro.

    Blue Palace, residence of the President

    In the not particularly convincing summary of the nomination file that I managed to get my hands on, Montenegro aims for inclusion on criteria ii (“A veritable meeting point of cultural influences”), iii (town planning) and vi. The latter criterion is the most specific: “the Centre keeps three important Christian relics which include the famous icon of Our Lady of Phileremo; it is here that in the end of the 15th century the first book was printed in Cyrillic by the Crnojević Printing House”. But we can’t have a WHS solely on criterion vi, so the others would have to convince ICOMOS and the WHC.

    While we’re currently working our way through the categories looking for the best WHS, I’m afraid Cetinje wouldn’t stand a chance among the Urban Planning or Post-medieval European entries. Nice enough for a detour and of regional significance, but WH material?

    Published 5 December 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHC 2016: Cetinje:

    WHS #588: Forth Bridge

    Before the year 2015 ends, I needed to go on ‘mileage run’ to secure KLM Elite Status for next year. So I went on the lookout for a cheap return ticket to a nearby destination, including opportunities for an unvisited WHS of course. The choice fell upon Edinburgh – although I had visited the city before in 2001, I had at the time not been to the Forth Bridge. This 2015 addition to the List has many superlatives attached to it in its nomination file, such as “icon of Scotland”, “potent symbol of the Railway Age” and “unique milestone in the evolution of bridge and other steel Construction”.

    The Bridge lies just a few km from Edinburgh Airport, and already good views of it can be had from the air. I had especially chosen a window seat, and though it was a bit hazy early morning the three big arches were clearly recognizable on the approach. December is not a particularly good month to plan a visit to the Forth Bridge: the Firth of Forth ‘cruises’, where you can admire the construction from the water, aren’t running past November. And since a few days an extra handicap was added: the Road Bridge next to it had to be closed off til the end of the year to all traffic. Normally you can walk on it or cruise by on a double-decker bus.

    So that left me with only one option: take the train across the bridge. This wouldn’t mean the best views, but it is the ‘real thing’ as only the bridge itself is included. From Edinburgh Waverley Station frequent regional trains ply this route. I opted for a return to North Queensferry, the town just at the northern end of the bridge. Waverley Station itself is a maze, not exactly self-explaining for a first-time visitor. At first I got through the gates to the wrong platform, and had to be ‘freed’ by staff as my ticket wouldn’t let me out again. When I finally ended up at the right platform and on the right train, it could not leave because it was blocked by another train. So all passengers had to move to a different one.

    The ride itself was quite short, some 30 minutes. The bridge isn’t visible very well while you’re on it, you just see some red steel bars flashing by. I got off at the small station of North Queensferry. From here I descended down the road to the shore, to get unobstructed views of the Forth Bridge. You can walk almost underneath it, before you’ll end up on a Private Road. Trains pass by fairly frequently with a lot of noise, I guess the many houses in the vicinity of the construction need good soundproofing.

    The bidteam of the State Party managed to write 162 pages about the Forth Bridge: its history, its construction, its paint and how it compares to all other bridges in the world are all covered. I liked the explanation of the way how a cantilever bridge works via the Human Cantilever photo. It even includes a ‘viewpoint study’ comprising 78 views on the Bridge from all surrounding areas (including the Edinburgh Castle, see the 'Viewable from another WHS'- connection).

    The glowing nomination dossier calls it “an aesthetic triumph in its avoidance of decoration” and a “modern design in which form follows function”. But in the end it is what it is: an iconic bridge painted in a distinctive red colour. Is it the most impressive (railway) bridge that I have ever seen? I am thinking of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, or of railway bridges spanning deep canyons (such as the Goteik Viaduct that I recently crossed in Myanmar). Or among WHS, the Vizcaya Bridge. The Forth Bridge surely is in the same league as those, but I would not rank it above them.

    Published 13 December 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #588: Forth Bridge:

    A second look at Edinburgh

    In determining the Top 200 among WHS, we are constantly reassessing a certain site’s uniqueness on a global scale. The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh became a WHS because of juxtapositional Urban Planning: the organically grown medieval Old Town versus the planned 18th/19th century New Town. “The dramatic topography of the Old Town combined with the planned alignments of key buildings in both the Old and the New Town, results in spectacular views and panoramas and an iconic skyline.”

    View on the Old Town from Calton Hill

    So if the Skyline is what makes it different, Edinburgh should particularly be enjoyed from a high viewpoint. On a crisp Sunday morning in December I walked the short and easy trail to the top of Calton Hill. This is a setting very typical of Edinburgh: it’s one of several hills surrounding the city center, dotted with monuments and memorials to historic Scotsmen. I wasn’t the only one enjoying the morning here: especially young Asian tourists (or are they students?) know about the place too. This spot allows unobstructed views on both the Old and New Towns. You supposedly can see as far as the Forth Bridge, although I wasn’t able to spot its red arches.

    There’s plenty to discover: landmarks such as the Castle and the Hotel Balmoral of course. But also the numerous thin, (neo)gothic spires that stand out like needles piercing the sky. The obelisk of the Political Martyrs' Monument and the Scott Monument are two eye-catching examples of these.

    The Edinburgh City Council tries to protect the “key views and skylines that are considered fundamental to the image and sense of Edinburgh”. Not an easy task in a prospering city and noting the “international revival in the fashion for high buildings”. A controversial plan to create dramatic “Inca-style” terraces on either side of Calton Hill seems to just have been thwarted. This in addition to the commotion a proposed 12-storey luxury ‘ribbon’ hotel stirred earlier this year.

    Edinburgh New Town

    Edinburgh also has more than its fair share of notable single buildings. On my first visit to this city in 2001 I covered Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood House and other tourist hotspots along the Royal Mile in the Old Town. This time around I started with St. Giles Cathedral. It’s a rather bright structure as far as cathedrals go (it’s actually a former cathedral, having only acted as such from 1633- 1638 and again from 1661-1689). You’ll be looking in vain for the High Altar in its usual position: the church now being owned by the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, the focus of worship has been moved to a sanctuary in the middle of the church. The interior further distinguishes itself by the many stained glass windows. The ornate Thistle Chapel unfortunately was closed for the day.

    Next stop in the Old Town for me was the National Museum of Scotland. This refurbished museum comprises two connected buildings, one of those being dedicated solely to Scottish history. It’s a great building for a museum, very light and airy. Entrance is free. Just as I remember from my first visit in 2001, I wanted to like it but had trouble doing so. It’s more of a collection of rarities than a consistent story. I went looking for displays on the Forth Bridge (the “icon of Scotland” nonetheless), but there seem to be none. The museum does have two left-over railwaytracks of its predecessor, the unfortunate Tay Rail Bridge.

    Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial, St. Giles Cathedral

    The UK started its Justification for Inscription in 1994 with the sentence “Edinburgh is a great city”. And indeed, it seems to be both one of the prettiest and most livable cities of the country. I would happily go there again and explore some of the minor sights. Many thanks this time go out to Freda & Iain Jackson for inviting me to stay, allowing a glimpse into what life is like in Edinburgh and showing the subtle impact WH travel has on their existence (such as daily use of an eclectic collection of German WHS tea mugs).

    Published 19 December 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to A second look at Edinburgh:

    Pikkle (26 December 2015):
    Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities to explore. The Edinburgh World Heritage app for smartphones is actually pretty good and allows users to take photographs of sites for "points," answer trivia, and gives some pretty interesting details about lesser known sites.


    Rwandan Genocide Memorial Sites

    Rwanda has no WHS to date, and it saddens that the only entry on its Tentative List comprises the Rwandan Genocide Memorial Sites. The horrors of the Rwandan Genocide still determine the image of this small country, though it has come a long way since. The TWHS covers four locations connected with the memory of those 100 days in Spring and early Summer of 1994. Spread out over the country, they are: Nyamata (a church), Murambi (a school), Bisesero (a hill) and Gisozi (the main Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali).

    Remembrance wall at Kigali Memorial

    On my first morning in Rwanda I headed to the Memorial Museum of Gisozi. I got there on the back of a moto-taxi, the ubiquituous and very convenient mode of transport in Kigali. The Museum is guarded tightly, they wanted to see what I had in my backpack and pockets. Police and soldiers in the streets are a common sight in Rwanda, especially at intersections and government buildings. The Genocide Museum was opened in 2004 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. It consists of a building with several exhibits and an outdoor area. Admission is free but I payed 15 US dollar for an audio guide. They even had one with commentary in Dutch.

    The exhibition centers mostly around information panels telling the story in Rwanda’s three national languages: Kinyarwanda, French and English. It makes clear that although the mass slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus seemed like a short frenzy, a climate that has nurtured it was present since the Belgian colonial era and continued after independence in 1962.

    In the outdoor area around the museum around 250,000 victims are buried in a kind of monumental mass graves. There is a rose garden and small parks meant for contemplation.

    Elephant sculpture at Kigali Memorial - symbol of never to forget

    Day 2 in Rwanda meant another Genocide Memorial for me. I travelled by local bus about an hour north to the town of Nyamata. From the bus station it’s a short hop on a moto-taxi or a 15 minute walk to Nyamata Church (the exit is not signposted, but a nearby school named Les Colombes is). I found a modest building wrapped in purple and white ribbons. A female guide welcomed me in English and told the story of what happened at this place, which is one of the worst among the many murder locations. Some 10,000 people were killed inside the church building on April 7th, and thousands more outside of it. Tutsi had sought refuge in the church because it had acted as a safe haven during earlier outbreaks of violence before 1994.

    The building shows the scars of grenade shelling and the roof is perforated by bullet holes. To remember the death, their clothes have been left to occupy the church benches – a very moving gesture despite having seen pictures of it beforehand. The clothing is now slowly turning to dust. Underneath the church and in the gardens there are mass graves. The remaining skulls and bones show the signs of killing by machete, club and gun.

    Local people haven’t lost their Catholic faith since (although the foreign priests had fled long before the killings), and the proof is right across the road where this year a huge new Nyamata Church was opened. The old Nyamata Church was one of the earliest memorials in Rwanda. At first it wasn’t generally welcomed, and the Catholic Church even opposed to it.

    Interior of Nyamata Church

    Rwanda is still actively working on this group of sites to become a WHS. The last update I could find dates from June 2015: it tells of the difficulties the nomination process encounters, facing opposition from some surviving relatives who do not want the remains of their family members being exposed. And also from others who feel that the memorial sites are too politically oriented. At both Gisozi and Nyamata I only encountered foreign visitors, so I asked the guide at Nyamata Church if local people come here too. She told me they do so, especially during the National Week of Mourning that is held every year from April 7-14.

    Published 29 December 2015 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Rwandan Genocide Memorial Sites:

    WHS #589: Virunga!

    From the moment that I became aware that it’s feasable at the moment to cross the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo and visit Virunga National Park, I simply had to do it. I booked myself into the comfortable Mikeno Lodge, arranged transport from Kigali in Rwanda to the Congolese border and signed up for a gorilla trek in the park. This is one of the earliest WHS (1979) and it has been praised in superlatives for its montane landscape, volcanism and biodiversity. The site is also one of the 50 remaining WHS that are still unreviewed at this website.

    The park has been faced with “an almost uninterrupted series of trials” since the mid-1980s, ranging from the influx of one million Rwandan refugees in its vicinity to the oil exploration by SOCO. The latter is the subject of the acclaimed but rather unsettling documentary Virunga (2014), which I watched on Netflix a week before I headed out there. “Congo is safe now”, my Rwandese driver said while we were passing empty refugee camps near the border.

    Park quarters at Bukima

    One of the first remarkable things upon arrival I found that the park entrance lies in a quite densely populated area, and next to the main road that goes north. The road is in a terrible state, consisting of nothing but old to very old lava and potholes. It is used however by trucks (even oiltransporters), buses and moto-taxi’s that bump from left to right. Everywhere there are people: walking beside the road, living in villages or pushing the ubiquitous East-Congolean ‘wooden scooter’ called chukudu.

    After settling in at the lodge I saw my first ‘new’ monkey species rightaway. A number of blue monkeys have chosen the trees around the lodge as their home. They peek at the clients while they are eating, and drop nuts on them as if they are annoyed by them walking by.

    Staff showed me the entrance to a trail that I could walk unaccompanied. I expected it to be an easy interpretative trail that I know of other nature lodges, but this was Congo-style. Probably they think that if you’ve managed to come here you can take care of yourself. It was quite slippery at the start, and I learned quickly that the ants like to climb your legs when you stand at the same spot for a short time. It turned out to be an hour’s hike through the dense forest, on a trail that branched a few times (but the staff member had said: keep going left!). I saw no less than 3 groups of black-and-white Colobus monkeys. And I startled a bushbuck on the path, a rather rare sight I heard later.

    Ranger hacks away the bushes

    For the next day I was scheduled "to do the gorillas". The critically endangered Mountain gorillas can only be found in Bwindi and Mgahinga (Uganda), Volcanoes NP (Rwanda) and Virunga. Among these, Virunga offers the cheapest option for a permit at 400 US dollar ánd has the highest number of remaining gorillas (480 out of 900). The area I visited is called Bukima, and I was assigned to a gorilla family named Humba. They consist of 2 silverbacks, 2 adult females, 1 subadult, 2 juveniles and 2 babies. Gorilla trekking can turn into quite a strenuous hike, but I had read beforehand that time varies between 1 and 3 hours to find the gorillas here in Virunga. There were 12 people visiting today (Dec 31, 2015), and they were divided into 3 groups to visit different families. The park rangers use trackers to locate the families, and our group was only accompanied by a guide and 3 trackers. They were unarmed, except for one machete between them to hack away the bushes.

    Our walk started in the farmlands just outside the park borders. It was easy going and virtually no climbing was involved. Already after 15 minutes our guide told that the trackers had found the Humba family. So we walked 10 minutes more through the fields (saying “Bonjour” to the bewildered farmers), crawled between the wires of a fence into the park and just some 5 minutes of bushwacking later we were with our first two gorillas. I may just have described the easiest gorilla trek ever! The beasts were just within the park’s borders, maybe 50 to 100 meters away from the fence.

    We then had to put on surgical masks – this is another difference between Virunga and the other parks that organize gorilla treks: the Congolese are afraid that diseases may be spread as they already had to deal with 3 gorillas with tuberculosis. ‘Our’ gorillas were just lazing about, fortunately in a relatively open area so we had good views and excellent photo opportunities. Officially a distance of 7 meter should be kept, but there is just not so much space between the thick bushes. Most of the time we were at about 3 meters distance, and one big guy startled us by sitting pontifically 1 meter in front of us. A little tension arose among the four tourists, but the guide managed to keep his and the gorilla’s calm by making soothing noises. In the end he just walked away and we could move again too. You’re allowed to stay with the animals for one hour. After 45 minutes they were moving to another place, and we followed them on their trail.

    I think it’s needless to say that it was a very worthwhile activity, and what a way to finish the year 2015. We came up much closer to the gorillas than I had expected. But above all the surprise is that they stay so calm and relaxed.

    Gorilla up-close

    2016 started with a blast too: a group of chimpanzees had made their nest in the grounds around Mikeno Lodge, and we were able to ‘track’ them early in the morning of January 1st. This was much harder work than the gorillas, as they move quickly (leaving a trail of devastation and half-eaten fruits behind). But in the end we managed to catch up with them and have good sightings of the whole group.

    Unfortunately I had to move on after two days in this fascinating place. Several of the other guests at the lodge continued with an envying overnight trek to Nyamuragira Volcano’s lava lake - just another world class feature of this topnotch national park.

    Published 4 January 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #589: Virunga!:

    Esteban Cervantes Jiménez (4 January 2016):
    Great to finally have a review from Virunga, a wonderful site in such a hard-beaten country like Congo. I hope that in not such a far future, it can have the conditions to cease to be a in-danger site. Best wishes for the rest of your trip, Els.

    Mgahinga – Where Gold Meets Silver

    Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is a very small park in the extreme southwest of Uganda. Covering the Ugandan part of the Virunga Mountains, it is contiguous with both Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in Congo. The site has been on Uganda’s Tentative List since 2007, in preparation for a possible transboundary nomination of these 3 parks.

    Although it’s named ‘Gorilla National Park’, Mgahinga has only one habituated gorilla family that can be visited. And that one is prone to wander across the borders to Rwanda and Congo, so it’s not the safest bet for gorilla tracking (although since a few years the family has returned to Ugandan soil). Probably the only thing that sets this park apart from the nearby WHS of Virunga and Bwindi is its sizeable population of rare Golden Monkeys.

    Park entrance - they already have developed an Epic Subtitle

    The Ugandan Wildlife Authority has a helpful office in Kisoro, and I booked my Golden Monkey Tracking there a day beforehand. It costs 50 US dollar for the activity, plus 40 US dollar entrance fee to the park. On the day itself a moto-taxi picked me up at 7 a.m. for the 15 km uphill ride to the park entrance.

    Golden Monkeys are a related species to the more common Blue Monkey. They are an endangered primate, living in the bamboo forest. The monkeys have a bright orange-gold body, cheeks and tail, contrasting with its black limbs, crown and tail end. Some 3,000 – 4,000 of them are said to live in Mgahinga. They’re found 85% of the time during a tracking so they have a slightly lower succes rate than gorillas.

    At the park entrance I was surprised to find a ‘real’ visitor center, with some exhibits and souvenirs of Mgahinga. They had 4 other tourists for the day, 2 couples who would climb one of the 3 dormant volcanoes in the park. I was the only one wanting to look for Golden Monkeys. So at 8.30 a.m. I set out on foot with a guide and an armed guard – the latter would “shoot in the air” if we encountered an agressive buffalo or elephant on the trail.

    Views on the way up

    The park entrance lies at an altitude of 2,364 meter, and the monkeys live between 2,200 and 2,700m. Although this may seem close, we had some serious uphill hiking to do. Just as with the gorillas, trackers had been sent out earlier in the morning to try and find the beasts. The golden monkeys I’d be visiting are a habituated group. After an hour the guide’s walkie-talkie crackled: the monkeys were located. They were in their favourite habitat, the bamboo forest. Mgahinga Park still has a rather large virgin bamboo forest. That’s why they like it here so much.

    Some 45 minutes later the monkeys are all around us. It’s a large group of 20 that mostly are fairly high up in the bamboo trees. But sometimes they climb down just enough to get a better camera shot at them. The males have the characteristic golden glow of fur, while the females are a bit more dull. These monkeys are not afraid of people and don’t mind talking among the visitors. They only have their eyes set on the green bamboo leaves.

    Golden monkey eating

    After an hour we have to leave them alone and we make our way back to the park entrance. I was staying in the Ugandan border town of Kisoro for 3 nights and if you have that amount of time I’d surely check in on Mgahinga. Beside volcano and golden monkey treks, they also do the ‘Batwa trail’ from here: a forest tour led by pygmy Batwa (Twa people) who were forcibly removed from Mgahinga when it was turned into a national park. It sounded too much like a ‘human safari’ to me (including dancing at the end of the programme), so I leave it to others to report on that.

    Published 9 January 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Mgahinga – Where Gold Meets Silver:

    WHS #590: Bwindi

    Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has been made a WHS for its high variety of tree and fern species, whose dense cover of the valley floors has lead to the name ‘impenetrable’. It is the remnant of what once was a very large forest. To the general public the park is mostly known as the number 1 place to see mountain gorillas. Bwindi welcomes over 20,000 visitors a year for that purpose.

    Impenetrable Forest

    Although the southern part of Bwindi lies only some 50km north of Mgahinga NP and the Virunga Massif, it is a separate mountain range. Both nature reserves were once connected via a corridor, but they got separated some 500 years ago. The mountain gorillas in Bwindi have evolved on their own since, that’s why they’re sometimes regarded as a different subspecies from the Virungan ones. According to research, they are more likely to feed on fruits, travel longer distances per day and build their nest in trees than their Virungan cousins.

    As this was my second gorilla tracking after Virunga 5 days before, it is tempting to compare the two experiences. In hindsight I am happy that I choose to put two gorilla visits in my schedule. Actually quite a lot of people do so, often combining Rwanda and Uganda. My two visits complemented each other well: the gorillas in Virunga were extremely calm, just sitting around for 45 minutes so it was easy to take good photos and observe their enormous bodies. The gorillas in Bwindi were very active: climbing trees, tumbling down from the hillside, breaking a tree with bare hands and delivering a mock charge to clear the path from park staff that were in their way.

    7-month-old baby

    The experience in Bwindi was a bit more touristy also. There are porters available here from the village that earn their money by carrying your bag & pulling/pushing you whenever needed - not a bad idea as, according to the Bradt Travel Guide, Nkuringo trailhead is “the most physically challenging of all gorilla tracking locations”. It essentially comes down to walking from the ridge to the valley floor, and back up again. At the end you will receive a gorilla certificate to proof that you made it. I had booked my gorilla permit to the Nkuringo family 9 months before, as they’re said to sell out quickly. However there were only 5 people in our group for the day (there’s a maximum of 8) and one guy even booked only a day in advance.

    The Nkuringo are one of 12 visitable groups in Bwindi. They became habituated in 2004 after they had been so naughty to destroy crops. Nowadays a buffer zone between them and the local farms has been created via the introduction of tea plantations. This provides some extra jobs for the community, and the gorillas don’t venture in there as they don’t like the taste of it (in the past gorillas have learned to eat corn, a quite recent addition to the African food chain). Just as in Virunga, the gorillas were easy to find (after a 1.5 hour scramble down from the steep hill).

    Three-horned chameleon

    Bwindi lives up to its ‘impenetrable’ nickname as it doesn’t give away its inner treasures easily: I haven’t entered it for more than 10 metres as the gorillas were close to forest edge. I stayed for 3 nights at the Nkuringo Gorilla Camp, a friendly and cosy lodge with good food. Besides gorilla tracking, there’s no other option to get into the park from there. I filled part of my second day here with some birding and ‘chameleon tracking’ on the roads surrounding Nkuringo village. From another trailhead, Ruhija, it is possible to do a trek deeper into the park to the Mubwindi Swamp.

    Published 15 January 2016 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #591: Rwenzori Mountains

    Rwenzori Mountains National Park covers a 80km long mountain ridge in the far west of Uganda. It forms a natural border with the DR of Congo. The park attracts some 2,700 visitors a year, of which at least half are local schoolchildren. The others are mainly trekkers and mountaineers, arriving to hike a 10-day circuit or give the 3rd highest peak of Africa (Margherita’s Peak) a try. WH travellers do not often make it there: so far only 16 claim to have visited it, while noone has written a review yet.

    Old mining barracks in Kyanjiki

    In preparation of my visit I had been looking for the best access point to get into the park without having to do a multi-day hike. I found out that there are two main entries: one at Nyakalengija (with the Equator Snow Lodge and Ruboni Community Camp) and one near Kilembe. I choose the latter, as the Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS) advertised one day treks into the park departing from the associated Trekkers Hostel Kyanjiki. The office of the RTS, whose members accompany the hikes and maintain the trails, is also found on the hostel’s premises. The Nyakalengija trailhead is managed by another company (Rwenzori Mountaineering Services), which gets mixed reviews especially due to their mountaineering safety standards.

    So I ended up in Kyanjiki near Kilembe, itself already an extraordinary sight: it is an abandoned mining village, with lots of collapsed buildings and a broken-down cable car system. The endless rows of houses for the miners are now rented out to ordinary people, it looks very shabby and poor. Since last year mining (for copper and cobalt) has resumed however in this area, when the Chinese-owned Tibet-Hima Mining Company Limited won the concession.

    After a good night’s sleep in the basic Trekkers Hostel, I started my one-day trek at 7.30 a.m. Our goal would be the Musege rock-shelter, a post at 2,240m elevation. This is a 9km walk one-way, and you have to come the same route back. I had the pleasant company from three young Chinese (two men and a woman) who work for a Chinese oil company in Kampala. They were visiting the Rwenzori on a weekend trip from the capital. We had two dedicated RTS guides with us.

    A pleasant forest trail

    The hike started out quite strenuous, it’s a 2.2 km long route out of the village and over a ridge before you even enter the national park. Fortunately it gets much better after that. On the other side of the hill we walked on paths through farmlands. They mostly grow cassava here. And there are cows and goats. After an hour’s walk we came upon a stone building: the park office. Here we had to pay the 35 US dollar entrance fee and write down our names in the visitors log.

    I had been deliberating quitting the trek here (the Chinese girl had had the same thoughts, she confided), as I was afraid the hiking would be too tough for me. But I decided to continue as the going had been so easy. And it stayed that way for another hour or 2. Within the park borders, the trail runs parallel to the Nyamwamba River and is almost flat. Monkeys are often seen here, but we didn’t encounter any. One of the guides showed us a chameleon: it was so well camouflaged that it looked like a dead leaf.

    After about 3.5 hours we left the forest track to start another steep climb. That brought us to the finish of this hike: the Musenge rock-shelter. The shelter is nothing more than that, a roof attached to an overhanging rock. It is sometimes used by park staff. That shelter suddenly also served us well because it started raining.

    Nyamwamba River

    The rainforest really lived up to its name. We waited for an hour for the rain to stop, but when it didn’t we started the 9km march back to the hostel. We only had a quick stop again at the park entrance where we muddled the warden’s office with our wet gear.

    Neither from the trail nor from Kilembe did I see the Rwenzori’s famed snow-capped mountain peaks. Later I asked a guide in Fort Portal about it, and he said that there is a viewpoint along the main road between Kasese and Fort Portal from where on a clear day you can see them. Otherwise there's no other option than embark on a multi-day hike through the Rwenzoris.

    Published 20 January 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #591: Rwenzori Mountains:

    WHS #592: Kasubi Tombs

    The ‘Kasubi Tombs’, as the Tombs of the Buganda Kings are known locally, may be the only tourist attraction of Kampala (a capital city with 2.5 million inhabitants). And then came that devastating fire on March 10, 2010: the main thatched structure with the 4 tombs of the former kings and their regalia burned to the ground. The cause is still unknown: was it arson or was it struck by lightning? Anyway: it hasn’t been rebuilt yet. Still I found it an interesting site, and it is an easy place to visit shortly before leaving Uganda via Entebbe Airport.

    The 5 most recent kings of Buganda: the 4 to the right were buried here.
    The current king is the one on the left

    The tombs are situated on a hill about three kilometers outside of Kampala city centre. Due to a traffic jam my minibus from Entebbe had a hard time reaching the bus station, so I got out somewhere along the way and approached a boda-boda. The guy immediately understood where I wanted to go, and we took off zigzagging through the dense traffic. There are even a few signs along the way to announce the proximity of a world heritage site, a small detail that always makes me happy.

    One enters the site through the only original thatched building that remains after the 2010 fire. There are two guards at the door opening, each associated with a different Buganda clan that is in charge of security. The modern entrance including guest book and ticket seller is a little further inside the compound. There they tell me that women are required to wear skirts, but they do have a wraparound cloth that I can use to cover my pants.

    After the formalities (there’s a 10,000 UGS / 2.5 EUR entrance fee), I was introduced to a guide who would give me a tour of the site. The tour begins with the story of the origins of this place. The Buganda kingdom dates back to the 13th century, and since then there have been 36 kings. During the English colonization in the 19th century they lost their worldly power. With the exception of a few brief intervals during the dictatorship of Obote and Amin in the 1970s and 80s, they have nevertheless kept their ceremonial function until today.

    Thatched entrance hut to the site

    The destroyed structure, an eight meter high circular building with a thatched roof, was the centerpiece of the site. The progress of reconstruction is slow. According to the guide that is caused by the many ceremonial rules that have to be followed. But the costs were an obstacle too: Japan recently has chipped in, and it is expected that at the end of 2016 the large thatched dome will be resurrected again.

    This main building is located on a circular plaza, with rows of houses around its edge. These houses belonged to the favorite widows of the deceased kings. The first king had as many as 84 women. Even today the descendants of the widows live on the property. There is a kind of village at the back where 35 people live permanently, and there is arable land for them to grow some food.

    At the far end of the site lies a cemetery where members of the royal family are buried. This is similar with the tradition of the Toro, whose tombs I visited a few days before near Fort Portal. Just like the Buganda, the Toro are one of the four remaining traditional kingdoms in Uganda. I'm glad I had been able to enter the Toro tombs and see the ceremonial possessions of the deceased kings, because here in Kasubi these have largely been lost during the fire.

    Near the exit lies the Royal Drum House. Drums are kept here that are used for ceremonial occasions, such as a visit of a member of the royal family or a death. Women cannot enter here, but you are allowed to take pictures from the doorway. This restored house shows how the reed layers are attached to make a thatched roof.

    Interior of the Royal Drum House

    My half hour guided visit ended at the shop where they sell paintings on bark cloth. They are pricey but seem done well to my untrained eye (I did not buy one). The tradition of the Buganda is closely connected with the production and use of bark cloth. The cloth fabric is made from the soft bark of the fig tree – there are still a few of those trees at the Kasubi complex and the guide had shown me these. Bark cloth has been manufactured in Uganda for centuries (until the introduction of cotton by Arab traders), and it represents Uganda's sole entry on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

    Published 24 January 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #592: Kasubi Tombs:

    Tips for Rwanda, Congo and Uganda

    Right after Christmas I spent 3 weeks travelling around Rwanda, DR of Congo and Uganda. It was a great and well-balanced trip, that covered 2 TWHS and 4 WHS. 2 out of the latter had not been reviewed before on this website, so this is some real undiscovered territory.

    Find below my Top Tips for Travelling to Rwanda, Congo and Uganda as a World Heritage Traveller.

    Want to see the hippos of the Ugandan Kazinga Channel?
    40 US dollar entrance fee + 28 US dollar boat ride

    1. Go there when you can afford it

    In preparation I read trip reports from people who travelled in this region without entering any of the major National Parks. They only had the money to sustain their daily travel costs of food, public transport and lodging. I’d say: be prepared that these are expensive destinations, and that you’ll enjoy them more if you have saved up a bit. You’ll easily be asked to hand over 50 to 100 US dollar for any activity on top of entrance fees (the Ugandan Wildlife Service provides a handy leaflet with pricing). And you’ll also have to pay for mostly private transport getting into the parks and out again. There’s not much of interest in the towns and cities in this area that you can see under your own steam.

    2. Now is the time to aim for these Congo WHS

    So I already proved that Virunga is easily doable. What about the others? The lowland gorillas of Kahuzi-Biega can be accessed in a similar way, on a short dash from the border with Rwanda. Or do a combination tour of these 2 WHS, an itinerary that is offered by various agents (such as Green Hills Ecotours and Amani Safaris). You'll also pass through the city of Bukavu, of Art Deco interest. Here's what a more or less independent traveller has to say about this area.

    Okapi Wildlife Reserve is advertised too at the moment by Congolese tour companies. Even Garamba in the far north-east flirts with tourists again, as its website states that contact has been made "to set up joint safaris" with Virunga and Epulu (Okapi) Park. Only Salonga seems to be virtually off-limits to tourists. The 2012 edition of the Bradt Guide to Congo states that visiting the Salongas is "one of the most difficult things to do in the DR Congo".

    Filling jerrycans of drinking water from Lake Kivu (Congo)

    3. Don’t be scared by ‘Africa’

    Rwanda and Uganda are said to be the safest and easiest African countries to travel in. But so are Morocco, Ghana, Botswana and Namibia. And Gambia, Senegal, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Madagascar and South Africa are well on-the-beaten-track even for package holidays or group tours. I’d travel independently to all these without a doubt.

    A visa for Rwanda & Uganda can be picked up on arrival – they share a handy multiple entry East Africa visa with Tanzania. And a special DR of Congo visa will be reserved for you when you book for Virunga, with no hassle at the border. Just pay 105 USD and you will be put on the list to receive a visa stamp: here’s that ‘allocate money’-tip #1 again.

    4. This trio of countries makes an excellent combination

    Distances in the border area between Rwanda, Congo and Uganda are fairly short. My whole 3 week route was only 1200 km long. I never had to travel for more than a few hours to get from A to B, even on public transport. The best itinerary to pick up the 3 WHS and 2 TWHS in this region seems to be: Kigali – Ruhengeri – Goma (border) – Rumangabo – Bunagana (border) – Kisoro – Kabale - Kasese - Fort Portal. The Bunagana border between Congo and Uganda is open, and provides quick access from or to Virunga (ca. 2 hours).

    Although the three countries share a similar landscape, their general atmosphere differs greatly. Orderly Rwanda, with a genocide memorial in each town and armed police at every street corner (they have the most fierce traffic police that I ever encountered). Uganda with its British colonial touches (love of paperwork, tea plantations and education) and very welcoming and chatty inhabitants. And bewildering Congo, from the quirky statue of a golden chukudu in central Goma to a dishevelled soldier standing guard every 500m along the road to Rumangabo.

    8 different ape and monkey species seen on this trip

    5. You’ve got to love your apes and monkeys

    If your focus is on cultural WHS, this isn’t the kind of trip for you. This was mostly a nature journey, where 'tracking' of various species of apes and monkeys alternated with shorter nature hikes, birding and a safari-type drive & boat ride. I enjoyed the excitement that comes with the searching for and - eventually - spotting (larger) mammals. And even a small, colourful bird (kingfisher!) can hold my attention. A good general trip report about what wildlife in SW Uganda has to offer can be found here.

    Published 30 January 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Tips for Rwanda, Congo and Uganda:

    Els (2 February 2016):
    Hi Clyde,
    They can be found under the label "Countries" in the Index at http://www.worldheritagesite.org/blog/blog.php.

    Clyde (2 February 2016):
    Are such overviews stored somewhere accessible on the website after their week or two of glory? It would be interesting to have a section on the forum or somewhere to be able to view them again at leisure.

    Ian Cade (2 February 2016):
    Will second Philipp's post. Whilst natural sites don't tend to top my list of "must sees" these reports have been great. And I really enjoy these end of tour overviews, thanks for posting them.

    Philipp Peterer (30 January 2016):
    You really made me wanna go there. Thanks for all the reports Els!

    WHC 2016 – Corbusier’s Villa Savoye

    Together with Frank Lloyd Wright & Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier is without a doubt one of the ‘missing’ modern architects from the WH List. However, the state parties involved have a hard time getting this transboundary serial nomination of Le Corbusier buildings together. After referral in 2009 and deferral in 2011, the revised proposal still is a complex one with 17 sites in 7 countries. The earlier dismissals were mainly about the number and choice of locations, and how they individually show Outstanding Universal Value. The 2016 nomination now also includes Chandigarh (India); they even had President Hollande come over and promote it last month.

    After standing in front of closed doors in La Plata (Casa Curutchet), Antwerp (Maison Guiette) and Tokyo (National Museum of Western Art), I longed for a proper visit to one of Le Corbusier’s undeniable masterworks. The Villa Savoye et loge du jardinier in Poissy has been part of all 3 Corbusier-nominations and is also among the 3 French sites deemed worthy enough by ICOMOS in 2011 of inscription under their own steam. So that's where I headed!

    Relaxing in the hanging garden (including horizontal windows)

    I left my home at 6.40 in the morning, and drove straight to the site in about 4.5 hours. Poissy is a town some 30km northwest of Paris. Villa Savoye is signposted from the town center, though I failed to notice it on my first approach. It lies behind a wall on a main street, next to a school (with lots of children exiting on Saturday morning!). Somehow I had expected a more suburban setting. I parked my car across the street and entered the gate. There’s a sizeable garden around the Villa, in which you can walk freely. The entrance fee of 7.5 EUR only has to be paid when entering the Villa. After that you can go on a self-guided tour of the building. There were about 8 other visitors around when I visited, some French and some Asian. The Poissy municipality envisions opening a Le Corbusier museum nearby in 2018.

    The indoor route first leads you via the grey lino ramp in the hallway to the ‘hanging garden’ at the first floor. This is a large terrace surrounded by walls, where horizontal windows (some with glass and some without) frame the views of the surrounding landscape. One such window frames a view of the Seine – at least it would have done so in the 1930s. Nowadays the local area is very built-up, and there are no unobstructed views anymore.

    Opulent bathroom

    The use of large, horizontal windows is a repeating pattern throughout this villa: one always feels close to the outdoors with views from the toilet, the kitchen, the study, the laundry room. Even the large tiled bathroom next to the parents’ room has exterior views, at least when you fold away the curtain that separates it from the bedroom. This bathroom is the most remarkable among the rooms, a sudden explosion of colour and exuberance.

    I ended my tour at the Gardener’s House, next to the entrance. This is the only remaining pre-War example of the so-called ‘Minimum one-family house’. Designed by Le Corbusier in 1929, it was meant to be built quickly and house a family of 3. It is based on the same architectural principles as the main Villa, but additionally shows the architect’s ideas on how to provide housing for the lower social classes. The House has been fully restored over recent years, and has reopened last September. Its interior can only be seen on infrequent tours, but one can admire its polychrome exterior from the garden.

    Gardener's house

    I found my visit interesting and worthwhile, though I am not sure if I like the Villa that much. It is rather sterile. Maybe it's the overall whiteness, or the lack of furniture. There are many websites and books available that elaborate on the how and why of its construction, and in a way it seems primarily a study object. The WH inscription of the Villa Savoye would give us a nice addition to our connection Buildable in Lego. The Lego Villa even comes with very detailed building instructions for those that are interested in construction technique.

    Published 7 February 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHC 2016 – Corbusier’s Villa Savoye:

    Els Slots (9 February 2016):
    Regarding Chandigarh: it seems only the 3 buildings that comprise the "Capitol Complex" are in the core zone.

    See this link.

    Solivagant (9 February 2016):
    Yes, I too had been wondering about the "condition" issue - and noted that Els had made no comment it. I visited Chandigarh and Ronchamp as long ago as 1976 and 1998 respectively. Chandigarh was already in the first stages of decrepitude (despite only becoming the capital 11 years before my visit) - partly the concrete but also the general surroundings - paving etc etc. Its problems since, both interior and exterior, have been well documented.
    I can't say I noticed anything "wrong" at Ronchamp but have been surprised to find this relatively recent (Jan 2014) report on its problems - both with crumbling concrete but also with aspects such as vandalism which can't really be laid at the door of Le Corbusier or the construction engineers! See www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/architecture-design-blog/2014/jan/23/vandals-break-in-le-corbusier-ronchamp-chapel-scandal
    By the way, does anyone know how much of Chandigarh was nominated? Was it only the 3 main civic buildings (Secretariat, High Court and Assembly) or the "larger" townscape and overall plan. Really only the former would seem relevant to Le Corbusier's oeuvre since he inherited the main aspects of the plan and worked at arms length with a team of senior architects on site who presumably did much of the rest within overall guidelines (no high rise etc). Also, despite his putting a philosphical "meaning" to the overall layout ("Head", "Heart", "Lungs" and "Viscera" etc) much of the rest is rather ordinary.
    Regarding Winterkjm's comment about Chandigarh ("Le Corbusier did not adapt his architecture to the locale (example Chandigarh)"). The remit given to Le corbusier by Nehru was rather stark ("a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past”!)

    Luis R Domingos (khuft) (8 February 2016):
    Thx for this, Els - and thx for the pics! They confirm one of my major concerns with Le Corbusier's (and others') architecture of pure concrete: it doesn't age well. While the Acropolis still looks "nice" after millenia, the concrete floor of Villa Savoye's balcony and even the blue-tiles bathtub look grey, decayed and ugly (at least to me).

    Kyle (winterkjm) (7 February 2016):
    Love the contrast between FLW and Le Corbusier this year. I imagine it might confound Mr. Wright that Le Corbusier would be recognized alongside him as one of the greatest 20th century architects. FLW once called the Notre Dame du Haut, "An angel cake punched full of holes — or should I say a piece of Swiss Cheese?"

    Despite their differences, there is certainly some commonalities with "organic architecture" and "The Five Points". They both used horizontal windows, reinforced concrete, open free-flowing interiors. However, one noticeable difference is Le Corbusier did not adapt his architecture to the locale (example Chandigarh), while FLW designs are very influenced by their environment (example - Taliesin & Taliesin West). I've visited dozens of FLW structures, but sadly none by Le Corbusier. Hopefully, I will rectify this in the future!

    WHC 2016: Rediscovering Dosan Seowon

    This summer, South Korea’s nomination of nine of its historic “seowons” will be under scrutiny from the WHC. Seowons were private institutions combining education (in the form of preparation for admission to the national civic service) and Neo-Confucian worship. A serial proposal such as this is always worth checking out in detail, as there may be hidden surprises among the selected locations. Personally I was happy to discover Dosan Seowon among the entries listed, a site that I visited on my Korea trip of 2001.

    One of the library buildings, elevated to protect against humidity

    Dosan Seowon is located not far from Hahoe WHS, and I visited both on the same day (I even included a third 'national treasure', Jebiwon Buddha). My trip notes about Dosan Seowon are brief: “Idyllic location. Very quiet, only a handful of visitors. Lots of Korean film directors apparently come here for shooting traditional Korean footage.”. All memory of my activities of that day have since blurred, and the fact that I had not labelled the photos in my Korea photoalbum does not help either (mind you, 2001 was the pre-digital age).

    There’s a large difference between the way I am visiting (future) WHS nowadays and how I travelled 15 years ago: I now put considerably more effort into arriving prepared. This research has only become possible because there is so much more information readily available. Dosan Seowon for example has a very detailed official website, where you can virtually walk through the complex. Each structure is shown and described. Thanks to that I was able to add captions to the 3 photos shown with this post.

    Entrance door to the dormitory

    Trying to relive my visit, I found a little lesson on Korean Neo-Confucianism was necessary. Apparently the “Neo” in Neo-Confucianism dates from the 12th century, when in China superstitious and mystical elements of Daoism and Buddhism that had entered the original Confucianism were rejected. Korean scholars visiting China at the time were influenced by this new school of thinking, and brought it back to Korea. During the Joseon Dynasty, that started from the late 14th century, Neo-Confucianism became the Korean state ideology and Buddhism was restricted.

    Neo-Confucianism had a strong focus on education, and this aspect still remains a vital part of South Korean culture. Dosan Seowon in Andong was established by Yi Hwang, one of the most prominent scholars of the Joseon Dynasty. After passing his civil service exams, he worked for the government but left office after becoming disillusioned by the power struggles. In 1560 he built an academy called Dosan Seodang, where he - the author of many books on Confucianism in the Korean language - taught his students. The complex was enlarged and turned into Dosan Seowon by his disciples after his death. Yi Hwang’s spirit tablets are preserved here too.

    Picturesque location of the Sisadan Stele,
    which marks the place of government examinations

    So will the Korean Seowons be an asset to the WH List? The Joseon Dynasty is already well-represented among Korea’s WHS, with the Jongmyo Shrine, Joseon Tombs, Namhansanseong, Hwaseong Fortress and Hahoe&Yangdong all dating back to the same period. And so are Korean Neo-Confucian sites, with again Jongmyo Shrine and Hahoe&Yangdong. The latter WHS even already contains two out of the nine proposed seowons! I believe these ‘Exact locations inscribed twice’ should not be encouraged. The Koreans could have gone for one outstanding Seowon (for which Dosan Seowon might qualify), instead of a series of locations that are mostly covering intangible heritage anyway.

    Published 13 February 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHC 2016: Rediscovering Dosan Seowon:

    Warisan Budaya Indonesia (13 February 2016):
    It was great to be able to visit your page. The information you presented increasingly expanding my knowledge and insights about the diversity of the world's cultural heritage . warisanbudayaindonesiaonline.com

    Kyle (winterkjm) (13 February 2016):
    Thanks for sharing Els! Check out the video I posted in the forum, it highlights some of your pictures as well.

    WHS #593: Aquileia

    Aquileia is a town in the far northeast of Italy, situated between Venice and Trieste. This frontier location is what made it into a WHS as well: founded as a Latin colony in 181 BC, it rose to a respectable position as Adriatic port, trading centre and seat of a patriarchate whose territory extended to large parts of modern Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. Aquileia had 100,000 inhabitants in the 2nd century AD – today there are only 3,500 and the town has fallen almost into oblivion.

    The Basilica, with the apse covered in frescoes

    I arrived in Aquileia on a bright sunny Saturday afternoon – the town would be my base for 4 days in the wider Venice region. Originally I had booked a hotel in Cervignano, but I cancelled it a week ago – a good choice so it seemed, as Cervignano appeared to be nothing more than a sleepy transport hub when I passed through it getting off the train from Venezia Mestre. Aquileia is much nicer: very compact, and just touristy enough to have several restaurants and frequent bus links within the region.

    The WHS encompasses the whole town center, but the focus is on the Patriarchal Basilica and the Early Roman ruins. The Basilica’s tower can be seen from afar, it is the landmark of Aquileia. I started my sightseeing here at the Patriarchial Complex. I bought my ticket at the Baptistery: for 9 EUR you receive a combination ticket that gives access to all parts of the complex. The octagonal Baptistery lies across from the main church. It has its floor mosaics, and there are re-used pagan sarcophagi on display. Both date from the 4th and 5th century.

    This is only an appetizer for what is on show in the Basilica itself. There the floor is fully covered in mosaics (37x20m!). Visitors walk a meter or so above it on a plexiglass cover. Not surprisingly for a port there are many marine scenes: fish, fishermen and octopus are all immortalized in mosaic. But there are also ‘portraits’ of recognizable human beings, possibly of donors. Twice I noticed a depiction of the struggle between a cock and a tortoise, symbolizing Christianity versus paganism.

    Portrait mosaic on the Basilica's floor

    At either side of the Basilica lies a crypt. The one at the far end is the Crypt of the Frescoes. It has colourful 12th century murals on its walls and vaults. Part of it is under restoration at the moment, but you can still see most of the frescoes. They illustrate the lives of Saint Mark and Saint Hermagora, the latter being the first bishop of Aquileia. The crypt to the left of the entrance is called the Crypt of the Excavations. These actually are the excavations of a corridor, with more mosaics and some visible parts of a Roman villa.

    After spending an hour in and around the Basilica, I walked on along Aquileia’s main street to the Roman ruins. These comprise several locations within a few minutes walk from each other. There’s no entrance fee, but the sites are fenced off and signage tells that they close at 4 p.m. in winter. The gates were open until at least an hour after that fortunately, otherwise my visit would have been very short. While there is nothing mindblowing to see, three of the excavations stand out in my opinion. The Forum has one row of capitols left, which picturesquely stand out against the Basilica’s Tower. Across the street lies a large mausoleum from the 1st century AD, which was found a few kilometer outside Aquileia.

    Most typical for Aquileia however are the remains of the ancient port. They’ve created a nice shady path for a stroll along the river (now a mere ditch). The silhouettes of warehouses and quays are easily discernable. A few information panels give some background story, but it is hard to imagine the hustle and bustle that was going on here over 2,000 years ago.

    Ruins of the ancient port

    Although Aquileia is surely worth a detour, I would not rate its Early Christian / Byzantine features as high as Ravenna (the WHS to which it is often compared). The mosaic floor is great, but especially the frescoes in the Crypt disappointed me. And you wouldn’t surely come here for the Roman archaeogical site alone, of which there are many better preserved examples in the Mediterranean. I had been reading the (rather long and repetitive) book SPQR on the plane and in the train on my way to Aquileia. It now and then touches on the plight of ‘Latin colonies’ such as Aquileia – outposts loosely linked to Rome, inhabited by non-Roman citizens (at least until the year 90 BC). After finishing the book and this visit I am left somewhat but not a whole lot wiser regarding this subject.

    Published 21 February 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #593: Aquileia:

    Venice in one day

    My first visit to Venice took place in 1987: it was my first holiday abroad without my parents, and I had joined a youth group tour to Slovenia that included a sidetrip to Venice. I remember nothing about what we did that day, and only have a few holiday snaps left of a gondolier in front of some church. So there is reason enough for a return visit to one of the richest cities in Italy in terms of history and art. But again in 2016, I had only one day to spare for Venice. This time I arrived by train from Aquileia via Cervignano.

    Sea approach to Piazza San Marco

    So how much ground can one actually cover in one day? During the train ride I noted down a mix of sights and activities from the 2005 Michelin Green Guide Italy and some ideas copied down beforehand from the internet. This resulted in an all-day itinerary of eight things-to-do: vaporetto to Canal Grande, St. Mark’s Basilica, Palazzo Ducale, Sta. Maria della Salute church, Ca d’Oro, I Frari church, Rialto bridge and Scuola di San Rocco.

    Unmissable from any day in Venice is a ‘cruise’ by vaporetto. Waterbus #1 follows the Grand Canal through the city center, but I (accidentally) started with waterbus #2. It also ends at St. Mark's Square, but arrives there via a different route. It takes the long way round, along the railway station, through the lagoon with its islets and in the company of larger ferries and cruise ships. The advantage of this itinerary is that you approach the city from the sea and slowly the most beautiful buildings will appear on the horizon. Especially the Basilica Santa Maria della Salute is impressive. On my way back at the end of the day I used vaporetto number 1: the trip on the Grand Canal across the town center of Venice is the ideal route to take pictures of its villas and public buildings (they usually face the canal with their beautiful side). I liked both boat trips so much that I would advise to do only this when you’re short on time in Venice.

    Ventian Gothic Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti

    Like most passengers I disembarked at St. Mark’s Square. I had considered skipping this landmark as it is the busiest place of the city (Venice sees an average of 50,000 visitors a day!). The Cathedral and the Doge's Palace are its two biggest draws. As I didn’t have the time to enter every single building (not to mention that it adds up greatly in entrance fees), I choose the cathedral above the palace. Most of the cathedral’s interior was closed however because of a function that would take til late afternoon. Only the museum and the loggia were open. Climbing the stairs you can still take a peek at the sparkling golden Byzantine wall mosaics in the main church. Taking pictures here is unfortunately banned as in many other Venetian buildings.

    From the loggia there’s a beautiful view over the busy square. And you are up and close with the various statues that adorn the façade. Most striking of these are the four bronze horses. The originals (probably from Roman times) are preserved a few meters away inside the museum, apparently they’re too expensive and fragile to expose to outside weather conditions.

    One of the best things I had saved for last: the Scuola di San Rocco. A ‘scuola’ in 16th century Venice was a kind of assembly hall of an association of citizens (confraternity). This particular society was certainly able to raise serious money, as all walls within their building are covered with paintings of the Venetian master Tintoretto. There are two floors, each consisting of one large and richly decorated hall. It’s a rather decadent sight. Besides the paintings I also admired the wooden carvings in the Upper Hall. There were very few other tourists visiting: just as in Florence the masses are concentrated around very few places.

    Woodcarving representing the painter Tintoretto

    After about six hours strolling through the city, I decided to return to the railway station. Venice isn’t very big, but there are no straight walks anywhere so it gets exhausting in a while. There is still much more to see, you definitely need three days for a good visit. A walking tour through the less visited quarters, the art museums and a boat cruise to the outer islands surely would be worthwhile additions. But if you have only one day, it is still worth going. This time around I enjoyed the vaporetto boat rides, the sunny weather and the many beautiful Venetian Gothic façades.

    Published 27 February 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Venice in one day:

    Another piece of the Longobard puzzle

    The Longobards took over a town called Forum Iulii from the Byzantines in the year 568. They established their first ‘Italian’ capital here and named it ‘Civitas Austriae’ or ‘City of the East’ (later italianized into 'Cividale'). Like their Roman predecessors, they went on to erect prestigious religious and private buildings to assert their power.

    This early medieval city has ended up as one of the seven locations comprising the Longobards in Italy WHS. Four of the other inscribed locations I have visited in previous years: intriguing buildings that made me curious for probably the prime example among the Longobard WHS locations: Cividale dei Friuli.

    Very fine stucco in Cividale's Tempietto Longobardo

    Cividale lies in the far northeast of Italy, just south of the Alps. It seems somewhat hard to reach by public transport. But a private railway company called ‘Ferrovie Udine Cividale’ runs an hourly train between Udine and Cividale. Its schedule will not show up at the Trenitalia website & is missing too from the Google Maps directions. One of the first things that I noticed upon arrival was a road sign pointing to nearby Slovenia (17km away). And the town center has a definite Austrian feel about it.

    So far during this mini-break, travelling way out of season to northeastern Italy had not hindered me. My previous two days in Aquileia and Venice respectively were a success. Dissecting the places to see in Cividale and checking their opening hours, I became aware that I could not enter the ‘Duomo’s Treasure Museum’ as it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. This museum houses two of the most important works of Longobard sculpture that have been found. But from the main Longobard highlights there still would be the Tempietto Longobardo and the Archaeological Museum left. The core zone of this WHS is pretty small, comprising the two almost adjacent areas of Gastaldaga and the Episcopal Complex.

    Tempietto Longobardo, a building in a building

    The so-called ‘Tempietto Longobardo’ is encapsulated by the ‘Monastery Santa Maria in Valle’ in the Gastaldaga neighbourhood. Via this more recent Benedictine monastery one gets access to the Longobard temple. After paying for my ticket, I was whisked away by one of the ladies there without any explanation. We speeded through the monastery, went up some stairs and suddenly we stood before medieval frescoes on a stone wall. We had come to what was the outer wall of the Tempietto. The lady pointed to some windows on the other side, from where I was able to peek into the little church. Only then it dawned on me that I would not be able to get into the old building itself, as it is being restored!

    Disappointed as I was, I tried to make the most out of the view from the windows. One positive side is that you’re almost on the same level as the famous stucco decoration of 7 female figures (see first photo). The other decorations, including frescoes and mosaics, I was not able to see. The Tempietto probably served as the royal chapel for the Lombard dukes and king.

    Typical Longobard S-shaped fibula

    After some 15 minutes I was back on the streets again. It was drizzling slightly, so a perfect timing for a visit to the Archaeological Museum. Here I was the only visitor too: they had to deliberately switch on and off the lighting in the various exhibition rooms for me. I did take my time though, as their Longobard collection is excellent. Numerous graves were found in this region, and the skeletons are on display in the museum together with what remains of their belongings. I even noticed a horse burial. Another recurring theme in the Longobard exhibition is the ‘S-shaped fibula’. This must really have been a fashionable thing to wear among Longobard women (it’s a kind of brooch).

    So that was about it. When I left the museum I made a detour to the Celtic Hypogeum (a mysterious subterranean structure that could have been a Celtic funerary monument or a Roman or Lombard jail), but this was closed too. Cividale may be just too much off the beaten track to fully cater to visitors during the winter months.

    Published 5 March 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Another piece of the Longobard puzzle:

    Fortress Town of Palmanova

    Palmanova features twice on Italy’s current Tentative List: on its own as Fortress Town of Palmanova, ánd as part of The Venetian Works of Defence. The latter is a transnational serial nomination of fortifications in Italy, Croatia and Montenegro, which is scheduled for WH listing in 2017. The bid strategy seems to be using the already inscribed Venice and Kotor as virtual 'bookends', to be able to pull along a string of minor sites between them such as Zadar and this small town of Palmanova.

    One of the 9 points of the star-shaped fortress

    The fortress town of Palmanova was built by the Venetian Republic in 1593, in the shape of a nine-pointed star. These kind of star fortifications were fashionable in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries primarily in response to the French invasion of the Italian peninsula. The French army was equipped with a new, more powerful cannon that was easily able to destroy traditional fortifications built in the Middle Ages. Palmanova certainly isn’t the only surviving star fortification: we have an ample connection for them already on this website. It is one of the early ones though.

    Other reviewers have found it hard to spend more than 30 minutes here. But especially on a bright day I found that there is enough to see and do for a ‘proper visit’ of at least 2 hours:

  • Admire the three city gates from both sides: they date from two different periods and vary enough in design to check them all out.

  • Circumnavigate the town via one of the ‘Nordic walking’ trails. These footpaths are between 4 and 6.3 km in length. Each is dedicated to one of the three phases of construction of the fortifications.

  • End up at the massive hexagonal central square. It looks made for a parade.

  • Visit the Civic History Museum or Historical Military Museum. The Military Museum has an outdoor part too. Be aware though of the limited opening hours of both museums.

    Porta Aquileia

    During my short trip to northeastern Italy late February I arrived in Palmanova by direct bus from Aquileia, some 40 minutes south. I got off just after entering the city gate, and walked back to the ramparts. Information panels show the trails that have been created here for mountainbikers and (Nordic) walkers. I took the inner route, which would take 50 minutes to fully complete. It was a very hazy day unfortunately, only the silhouettes of the fortifications were visible. I walked one third of the trail, and then entered the town again via another gate. Passing any of the three city gates on foot is a small adventure, as the entrance is only wide enough for one car and the traffic flows steadily. So the local authorities have installed traffic lights especially for pedestrians to safely overcome this hurdle.

    I had a look around town and ate a pannini for lunch in a typical neighbourhood café, before walking to the railway station for the return trip. The station lies outside of the third gate, and next to an open field where one of the nine star points of the fort can be seen well. This I found the most interesting of the 3 possible approaches into Palmanova.

    Loggia dei Mercanti

    The creation of Palmanova was a bit of a failure, historically speaking. It was built ex nihilo by the Venetians, as an ideal city that would be lovely to live in. Unfortunately no volunteer citizens came forward, so the Venetians “pardoned a number of prisoners in 1622 and gave them property in Palmanova”. And although being a fortress, Palmanova never saw a battle. Despite its apparently impenetrable defense, Palmanova was captured twice – first by Napolean and then back by the Kingdom of Italy.

    Published 12 March 2016 Leave a Comment

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    What counts as a visit?

    One of the recurring topics at our Forum is the question “When can I count a WHS as visited?”. See for example #1, #2 and the nagging doubts in #3. Some WH travellers are straight-forward about it: they consider a WHS as visited when they have seen at least one monument or protected feature in the site's core zone. Others see it more from an esoteric perspective, ticking it off when they 'feel' like having visited a site.

    A clear clue that you have arrived is always welcome

    I plan to visit the Coa Valley and Siega Verde WHS next week, and this is a good example of the difficulties in determining what constitutes a ‘visit’. First of all, it’s a transboundary WHS. So do I have to visit both the Spanish and Portuguese parts? Second, the WHS is made up of 17 different locations. Do I have to visit 1, >50% or all of these locations? And have I ‘visited’ the WHS when I have set foot in the inscribed area, learned about it nearby (for example in the Coa Museum), or do I have to see/experience the rock engravings in situ? My personal general ‘rule’ is: get into the core zone and see the site's OUV. But sometimes I also reward the effort that I have put into it: have I made the most out of what was possible given the circumstances of the day?

    Travellers on a quest to complete different lists from ours have found their own solutions. The mammal friends of mammalwatching.com often rely on a ‘record shot’ (a shot from a camera that is!). I was a bit disturbed at first to read that it is perfectly acceptable among them to set traps, or go around driving at night hoping to catch an elusive animal in the headlights of a car. Fortunately we as WH Travellers do not have to worry whether our desired object is present in the supposed location. For us, 'Getting there', 'Getting in' and 'Tracking down the OUV' are most of the time the difficult parts.

    Used entrance ticket for Yin Xu, with 3 holes in it for having visited 3 sublocations

    The competitive travellers at The Best Travelled (TBT) have taken this topic to the next level. They have created quite detailed guidelines for visits to UN countries. At least a ‘minimal’ visit to a country is needed to be able to count it (a 'good' visit where you have actually experienced something relevant is encouraged, but not rewarded more). A transit at an airport does not count according to these rules, but “standing with both feet in an area beyond the airport area is accepted”.

    Intrigued by this level of detail I asked Anthony Asael, Manager of TBT, how they came up with it. He replied that TBT had to find a proper balance between not recognizing travellers that only were transiting at airports, but at the same time allowing for those that did not visit a place in full-depth: “[the guideline that] .. .travellers must go beyond the entrance of the airport buidling, symbolizes the choice we made. You really have to go through immigration, present your passport, and that involves possessing a visa where and whenever you need one.”

    This guidance is only one step in the process. The final hurdle lies in the verification system, where top travellers are asked for proof for a random 20 countries they have claimed to have visited. This means for example not only being able to show a visa for those countries, but the passport/visa also needs to be stamped by authorities upon arrival or exit. Other types of proof can be creditcard statements, train or bus tickets, photographs. Anthony Asael: “…it can cause some headache for elderly members who were not very organized, or for people who had to surrender their passports, and have no other proof.”

    Me, a sign for a WHS and 2 witnesses

    The main difference between ticking off regions/countries, such as advertised on TBT, and WHS seems to me that visiting WHS is not purely a geographical excercise. It doesn’t only need preparation about where it is (and how to get there), but also why it has become a WHS. You have to familiarize yourself with that subject and try to get a feel for it when you've reached the geographic destination. So my conclusion is that the answer to ‘What counts as a WHS visit?’ cannot be measured or proven beyond an individual's own frame of reference.

    Published 19 March 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to What counts as a visit?:

    Clyde (19 March 2016):
    I totally agree! The more "rules", the more competitive it gets and at least as I see it, it's your personal experience that counts and how much a WHS enriched your knowledge, how much of a surprise was it, comparing it with other WHS, etc. I think this site really strikes the balance well between rankings and insights gained. I just managed to visit a rock art location of the Mediterranean basin and a good museum and after such a hassle, I'm surely going to consider it a valid visit, especially since I managed to see the real art not a replica!

    WHS #594: Santiago de Compostela

    This was my last WHS left ‘to do’ on mainland Spain: the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela. Hidden away in the far west of the country, it’s actually better accessible from Portugal than from the main Spanish airports. I visited the city on a day trip by rental car from Oporto, on Holy Saturday. (I actually wrote ‘Easter Saturday’ at first, but in the English language this seems to be reserved for the Saturday after Easter Sunday).

    Façade of the Colegio de San Jerónimo

    There’s an hour time difference between Portugal and Spain, so I did not arrive as early as I had wanted. Most of the religious monuments are only open short hours, with a long lunch break or even no afternoon openings at all. And to make things worse it was raining heavily. I hurried directly to the city’s landmark, the Cathedral. Unfortunately its main entrance, the Façade of the Obradoiro with the Pórtico da Gloria, is undergoing restoration at the moment. You now have to enter via a side entrance.

    The Cathedral is huge and there’s a lot to admire - especially if you’re a lover of over-the-top baroque. For someone like me, not raised with (Iberian) Catholicism, it feels very kitsch. But to those that come here as a pilgrim, it really is their holy site. I saw people praying at several chapels, lighting candles. I stumbled upon a man in robes inside a wooden box – a fully operational confessional, one of many here. A long queue zigzagged through the church: this consisted of people wanting to enter the narrow passage behind the High Altar, where one can ‘embrace Saint James’ (one of the many pilgrim traditions associated with this Cathedral).

    Embrace Saint James

    When the clock struck 12, all benches were taken and many congregants were standing to attend Mass. While I whiled away my time as a curious bystander (waiting for the rain to end), I wondered what a high-profile target this place would be for Islamic terrorists. It is one of the prime symbols of Christianity in Europe, and the Cathedral is often packed with people. I noticed no security measures at the door when I entered. Only a few security personnel were moving around inside the Cathedral, observing the crowd. They seemed to be preoccupied though by tourists taking photos with flash, and screaming children disturbing the required silence.

    Santiago de Compostela is closely associated with the battle between Moors and Christians in the Middle Ages. It suffered from Moorish raids between the 8th and 10th century. One of the (many) legends surrounding Saint James had him miraculously appear during the fictional medieval Battle of Clavijo, where Christians fought Muslims. Nicknamed Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor-slayer), he appeared as a warrior on the battlefield on a white horse. There’s an equestrian statue of him inside the Cathedral, representing this episode.

    Saint James the Moor-slayer

    After Mass I explored the rest of the city center. Santiago isn’t too big. I had not expected to see any pilgrims during this time of the year, but there were many around. Maybe they had hiked a short stretch, I can’t see anyone starting the Camino from the French border in early March. I had lunch at a typical small restaurant enjoying the regional specialty Pulpo a la gallega, and found myself surrounded by female hikers from Northern Europe who could barely get up and walk to the restaurant's toilet.

    Published 26 March 2016 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #595: Rock Art of the Coa Valley

    I almost failed twice in visiting the Coa Valley Rock Art WHS. In 2002 I was all set to go with a confirmed tour booking, the only way to get into the WHS core zone, when I received an e-mail a few days beforehand that the site had been flooded. All visits were cancelled. On my next try, in March 2016, I enquired about a tour a week before and was told that those on Saturday were fully booked! The PAVC gave me a list of private tour companies that also arrange visits (at considerable cost I am afraid). Fortunately I was able to change to Sunday, and they had spaces left for that day. Phew. I could not imagine having to travel to this corner of Portugal for a third time just to see one left-over WHS!

    Rock formations at Penascosa

    In hindsight this one day delay proved to be a blessing during the Easter weekend: Sunday was the only bright day between two days full of rain. So I drove happily for 2.5 hours to this far corner of Portugal, once again passing the Alto Douro WHS which I had already ‘ticked off’ in 2002. I had planned a couple of stops to improve the photos of that WHS on the website, but there’s hardly anywhere to stop along the way.

    I arrived at the Côa Museum about noon. One wonders what lay behind the decision to build such a huge modernist structure for what probably always will be a minor tourist attraction. Having found my way to the reception in what appears to be a dark and moist basement, I was happy to discover my name on the list for the tour that afternoon. Nothing could go wrong now! First I explored the museum, which does a good job to explain the basics about the rock art of this region. They also display several replicas and colourful wall panels.

    The restaurant downstairs seems to be more popular among locals than the museum. Numerous extended families were celebrating their Easter lunch here. It is a bit upmarket (it certainly feels that way), but at 13-14 EUR for a main dish the prices are reasonable. I had bacalhau (cod), the staple of Portuguese cuisine. From the restaurant’s garden there are great views over the Coa Valley, which I found more spectacular than the Alto Douro Valley.

    A large horse, with other animals carved on top of it

    For my encounter with the actual rock engravings I had a booking for the Penascosa tour at 14.30. This starts from the village of Castelo Melhor, some 15 minutes further into the valley. Driving there the scenery gets more and more impressive along the way. Castelo Melhor itself is cute too, you can easily spend half an hour or so here before the tour starts.

    Penascosa is one of the 16 inscribed Portuguese locations comprising this WHS. It was created 25,000 – 17,000 years before present. The site has 10 engraved rocks, which are only covered with animal figures. Together with 7 other participants (all Portuguese), a guide took me down on a bumpy ride in a 4x4 to the Coa River. I must commend this female guide that she kept on explaining everything in both Portuguese and English during the whole 1.5 hour tour.

    It might have been the soft Spring sunshine or the excellently chosen timing of the guided tour, but to my surprise the engravings were clearly visible (and even photographable). They're found on rocks close to the river, there's another group of rock art across the water - it is said that the location was kind of a valley entrance. The guide also had brought a book from where she could show the individual carvings, separated from each other. On many rocks the carvings are made on top of each other so it is sometimes difficult to see which limb belongs to what animal. Some carvings also supposedly show movement of animals: a horse with 3 heads is explained this way.

    This represents a fish

    I truly enjoyed my afternoon in the Côa Valley. This is a really well-kept WHS. The Portuguese have installed 24 hours a day (human) site surveillance at each of the separate locations. This upkeep comes with a cost, to which visitors only attribute 10% (the government has to chip in for 83% of the budget). 41,087 people reportedly came last year, but that may be the visitor number of the museum (the guided tours seem to attract a lot less attention). It also is a remarkable WHS as it is one of the most ancient man-made sites on the list: Côa has the oldest petroglyphs discovered in the world so far and is just slightly younger than the Altamira Cave (which contains rock paintings/pictographs).

    Published 2 April 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #595: Rock Art of the Coa Valley :

    WHS Top 200: The Results

    So here they are, the long awaited results of the 2016 Vote to determine which are the most valuable ones out of the 1031 inscribed WHS. In all 64 people voted, for a total of 946 different WHS. This turn-out is a bit lower than our last popular vote in 2014 for the Missing WHS which attracted exactly 100 voters. I guess the current excercise might have been a bit too labour intensive for some. 40 subscribers voted in both events.

    Sharing the number 1 spot: Angkor

    The highest ranked are all very well-known sites, that also have shown up in the final stages of competitions such as New 7 Wonders of the World: the Pyramids, Angkor, Machu Picchu. Only the strong position of Vatican City surprised me, higher even than Rome itself – it only gained momentum in the last week of the voting, maybe we had an unusually high number of Roman-Catholic voters in? In the earlier stages of the voting, Angkor and Pompei did really well.

    How does this selection compare to the Community 200 we compiled earlier this year, based on a fair representation of categories? Only 85 sites got no votes at all this time, and a further 20 received only 1 vote. Among these bottom 105, (fortunately) there are no sites that we thought belonged to the Top 200 By Category. When we compare the 220 sites with a ‘Yes’ recommendation with the top sites of this vote, 44 are not included. Hard to love sites such as Vredefort Dome and the Joggins Fossil Cliffs are among them. But to my surprise also Teide Volcano and Halstatt-Dachstein did not make the cut this time. Overall, natural WHS and pre-Columbian sites seem to have done worse.

    When we look at it from the other side, 23 WHS have been chosen now that were relegated to a ‘Maybe’ earlier. These include for example Socotra and the Loire Valley. In general I'd say that the current 'popular' selection tends to lean more to WHS that people have visited themselves or know about from books/TV/media.

    No support for Southern Öland (and 84 other WHS)

    So what can we learn from this? I’d like to hear your opinion: I’ve opened a new Forum topic for discussions and further interpretations. Personally I believe a lesson for the future of the WH List could be taking a categorized approach as well. Maybe it’s time for a session where only natural WHS can be nominated?

    Published 9 April 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS Top 200: The Results:

    A Rainy Day in Oporto

    During the past Easter Weekend I used Oporto as a base to visit the Santiago de Compostela and Côa Valley WHS. With the introduction of low-cost flights, aiming at secondary airports, Oporto suddenly has become a ‘hot’ destination for a weekend-trip. My Transavia flight from Amsterdam was fully booked. I had been to Oporto before in 1991, as part of a one-month long Interrail-trip across the Iberian peninsula. I enjoyed it at the time because of its unique, somewhat raw atmosphere.

    Built on hills

    Unfortunately this time around the weather forecast for the day was terrible. I was tempted to stay in my hotel room all day. But the check-out time at 11 a.m. was non-negotiable, so I returned my rental car to the airport, put my larger backpack in a locker and took the subway to the center of Oporto. I exited at a stop called ‘Bolhão’, and the first thing I saw above ground was this fantastic Santa Catarina church (see 2nd picture), totally covered with azulejos. I suddenly felt glad to be travelling and exploring again, despite the rain.

    I had chosen this metro stop because it lies next to the Bolhão covered market. Unfortunately I found the market closed for the day: Easter Monday is a public holiday in Portugal. So I walked a bit further down into the city center, to the other ‘attractions’ I had put on my to do-list beforehand. All the time it kept on raining and raining. When I reached the Cathedral, another of the city's landmarks, I found it closed too! I took shelter under some arcades and managed to take one gloomy picture of the Cathedral square.

    Azulejos galore all around Sta. Catarina Church

    At the square I noticed a tour group with a guide, braving the weather conditions as well. I decided to follow them at an appropriate distance, hoping that they would lead me to the river side through the maze of narrow streets below the cathedral. Oporto is built on several hills, so everything is a bit of a hike here. The group stopped somewhere on 2/3 of the walk to hear a longer story from the guide. From that point on I managed to get to the Douro River under my own steam. This spot down from the Cathedral provides the iconic view of Oporto, with the river and the Dom Luis I bridge, the traditional wooden ships and port houses (wine cellars) on the other side.

    After having had a short look around at the waterfront, I headed back towards the center of the city to try to find a metro stop for the journey back to the airport. However I suddenly found myself in front of the Palacio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace), where I noticed the front door to be open. This Palace is one of the main attractions of Porto. I thought it would be closed this afternoon, but I was clearly mistaken. Inside dozens of drenched tourists were waiting for a tour to start of this late-19th century showpiece. Of course I joined them. The tour is well worth it, especially the last room: the Arab room, the parlor where the traders from Porto received their important guests. The stock exchange is now no longer in use, but you can hire the halls for private functions.

    Moorish design in the Palácio da Bolsa

    After the interesting tour I regained my courage to defy the (now only slight) rain. I went over to the adjacent Sao Francisco Church. Its catacombs, with rows of black-and-white tombs, are worth seeing. But the church above it is an unmissable great spectacle of baroque carvings and gold leaf! That made a great ending to my day in Oporto: it takes a grand city to still be worth visiting during a day of pouring rain. Oporto has passed this test.

    Published 16 April 2016 Leave a Comment

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    Temple of Fire

    Although some 85% of the current Azerbaijani population is Shi’a Muslim, Zoroasterianism still plays an important part in the image the nation presents to the outside world. After Azerbaijan's independence from Soviet Union, the phrase “Land of Fire” was coined as the slogan to promote the country as a tourist destination. It reflects both the natural burning of surface oil deposits and the oil-fueled fires in Zoroastrian temples. So it’s no wonder that one of these temples is on the country’s Tentative List: the Ateshgah at Surakhani.

    Interpretation of how it might have looked like in the old days

    According to this informative website about Zoroastrian heritage, the tradition of ‘fire-houses’ started with the development of community fire houses that housed an ever burning flame. The flame was kept going by professional fire keepers. Members of the community would light their house fires from the central community fire. These fire-houses later evolved into temples, which also served as solar observatories in order to fix dates for festivals.

    The Ateshgah (“home of fire”) at Surakhani lies about half an hour outside of Baku. On the way out there we first visited Yanar Dag. This is a good appetizer for the actual fire temple, as it is a place where natural gas has been burning continuously since 1957. It’s an odd place, not much more than a small hill with multiple flames coming out of its base. This natural phenomenon once was more common in the Absheron peninsula (as this region is called), hence the attraction for Zoroastrians.

    The fire temple at Surakhani nowadays is a popular tourist attraction. It is surrounded by a large complex that includes a restaurant, and there are ample parking spaces for tour buses. I visited on a Sunday, and there were many local tourists around.

    Entrance gate to the Ateshgah

    There's only one entrance to the temple grounds. I read in a trip report from 1911 that this gate used to be adorned with inscriptions, a swastika emblem, a sun, four flowers and “several nondescript figures”. Now only the sun emblem is visible, positioned between possibly two lions, plus one inscription. When I asked for clarification, our Azerbaijani tour guide told that many of the original inscriptions and decorations had been shipped to Sint-Petersburg in Russia during the communist era.

    The fire temple itself lies right in the middle of the inner courtyard, which also has a number of other burning flames. The courtyard is surrounded by a cloister of pilgrims’ cells. These have been turned into small exhibition rooms. It’s good to realize that this isn’t a temple anymore, it’s a museum (although people are free to worship if they want to). And even more anticlimatic: the structure that we see nowadays is a temple built by Hindu/Sikh immigrants in the 17th or 18th century. Zoroastrianism at that time had been eradicated already for some 10 centuries, after the conversion of this region to Islam. And the fires that burn in this courtyard are fed by a gas pipe from Baku…..

    The Hindu-style fire temple

    Zoroasterianism came to this region around 550 BC via the conquering Persian Achaemenid Empire. Now there are no Zoroastrians anymore in modern Azerbaijan, but the religion still has a hard-to-grasp cultural influence in the country. It may be largely symbolic (flames are everywhere in Baku, from the Flame Towers to the billboards announcing the next Baku Grand Prix), as well as folklore. The Ateshgah at Surakhani is another of these symbols. The Azerbaijani will get a hard time though explaining the authenticity of this site to an international audience for a future WH nomination.

    Published 24 April 2016 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #596: Walled City of Baku

    Azerbaijan isn’t exactly a tourist magnet, but it does try really hard to reach out to the world. In a few weeks time it will stage its first Formula One race (on a street circuit just like Monaco!), and it has been host to the European Games and Eurovision Song Contest in recent years. Its capital Baku houses half of the country’s inhabitants, and is a sight to behold. A relatively small part of it, the Walled City of Baku with the Shirvanshah's Palace and Maiden Tower, has been designated as a world heritage site.

    The Maiden Tower

    Despite the "Walled" epithet, the medieval city center isn’t fully enclosed anymore. Only the western and northern side still are fortified. In our timeline we put ‘12th century’ as the age of this WHS, derived from the construction date of the landmark Maiden Tower. This tower lies on the edge of the old town, at a stretch without a continuing wall. It has a peculiar cylindrical shape, with a rectangle brick structure attached for additional stability necessary in this earthquake-prone region. It is climbable via an inner staircase, you’ll see that there’s a cistern hidden inside.

    The whole site is easily walkable and low on traffic. There are many restaurants on hand for a tea break or a kebab, and there is outdoor art (some of it Soviet-style). Somehow I had expected more of a ‘medieval town center’-atmosphere, but most of the buildings are from a much later date and/or don’t have their original purpose anymore. In this way Azerbaijan has similar ‘problems’ as the Gulf States – while now they have the funds and self-consciousness to celebrate and preserve their ways of the past, most of these have been demolished or died out. The core zone for example has several hammams, but none is in use anymore (“All the houses have bathrooms now!”, exclaimed our over-enthusiastic guide). When you use your imagination (a lot), you can see there’s a hint of Silk Road cities like Bukhara here. But especially the long Russian dominance has erased a lot.

    A former hammam in the Old City

    Probably also a result of Soviet times is the low-key existence of mosques. The call-to-prayer has been forbidden in Baku for example (although I heard it during my stay). While the old Uzbek cities are full of ostentatious religious monuments, Baku’s old town Friday Mosque is easily overlooked.

    The second main monument inside the walls, the Shirvanshah’s Palace, housed the rulers of medieval Azerbaijan when they moved their capital to Baku in the 15th century. The complex consists of several elements, including its own mosque plus minaret and mausolea. The main residential palace can be visited but is rather bare. Its façade is covered with bullet holes stemming from "soldiers shooting training", or the inter-ethnic conflict in 1918 known as March Days / Azeri genocide by the hands of Armenians (all depending on who you ask).

    A fine example of Square Kufic at the Palace

    During my visit I came exactly to the same conclusion about Baku as Solivagant did more than 10 years before: while the walled city center is worth a visit, the real attraction of the Azeri capital lies in the ‘modern’ town. There you can find many monumental late 19th century constructions in (mostly) neoclassical style, testimony to an earlier oil-boom. These buildings have found new functions and are well-cared for, especially the facades are splendid. The Azeri’s also use this succesful window-dressing technique to hide uglier building fronts from the Soviet-period.

    Devotees to modern architecture will find in Baku a masterpiece like the Heydar Aliyev cultural center, done by the recently deceased Zaha Hadid. And the three elegant Flame Towers will draw your attention from afar, especially when illuminated in the evening in yellow & red. Both constructions were only finished in 2012, and these are just two of the highlights. More are on their way - until the natural gas & oil money runs out I guess.

    Published 29 April 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #596: Walled City of Baku:

    Solivagant (28 April 2016):
    I came exactly to the same conclusion about Baku as Solivagant did more than 10 years before:
    16 years ago I am afraid!

    Sheki, the Khan's Palace

    This is a site probably few have heard of – I also did not know about it until I started preparing for my trip to Azerbaijan and stumbled upon this TWHS. Sheki has been an independent country between 1743 and 1813, after it wriggled itself free from Persia. It lies in the far north of Azerbaijan, just below the snow-capped peaks of the Greater Caucasus and the border with Russia. The proposed nomination Sheki, the Khan’s Palace seems to cover more than the palace alone: the town’s trade and industry neigbourhoods and vernacular architecture are included as well.

    Sheki Old Town

    Sheki was a main center of silk production in the Caucasus. It was an important stop on the trade route between “the Dagestan Mountain Traders and the main East-West Caucasus Route”, according to my Trailblazer Guide to Azerbaijan. During my trip I stayed for 2 nights in one of the two large former caravanserais in the old town: the 18th century Yuxari Caravanserai. Its grounds are nicely renovated, although the rooms are a bit damp and mouldy. But I did enjoy sitting in the little alcove in front of my room in the evenings.

    The houses in the old part of Sheki town are all built in a similar style: their walls are a mix of brick and cobblestones, plus wooden windows. It’s a nice and quiet place to walk around, although unfortunately there’s not much you can enter.

    The undoubted highlight of Sheki is the 18th-century summer palace of the Khan. It was constructed in 1762, so it dates from exactly the period that Sheki was an independent state. The palace and related buildings are located above the city in a walled enclave. The palace façade is quite stunning: it consists partly of wood and partly of stone decorations. It is located in a little garden with two old plane trees in front of it.

    The Khan's Palace

    Inside you’re not allowed to take pictures, but it is even nicer than the exterior. The wooden windows are inlaid with pieces of colored glass, adding a magical sun light to the rooms. The palace is not that big, it has 6 different rooms. It was only used for business purposes, the khan’s family lived elsewhere. The main areas such as the reception hall and throne room are fully covered in murals. Most of it is figurative, but there are also hunting scenes and lively images of the victory of the army of Sheki on Persia (including heads on sticks).

    The grounds further contain a museum that seems not to have been refreshed since the communist era. It’s nice enough for a short visit though, it has some archaeological findings and Lenin memorabilia. Another building is set up as a shop for artisans who make the specific wooden windows with stained glass, called shebeke. A young man shows how it is made: tiny pieces of wood and glass are put together like a jigsaw puzzle (without glue or a single nail).

    Putting together a coloured glass window

    In hindsight, the Sheki Palace was the most memorable monument that I visited in Azerbaijan. It has a very distinct architectural style that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. Also it has been well-kept. It provides an eye into the past of what is now the Republic of Azerbaijan.

    Published 2 May 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Sheki, the Khan's Palace:

    Colvin (1 May 2016):
    The palace looks fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

    WHS #597: Gobustan Rock Art

    What would an international trip be without a visit to a fine example of rock art? Azerbaijan is represented among the at least 60 rock art-related WHS with the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape. Gobustan is the name of a region near the Caspian Sea, where in the 1930’s the first discovery was made by local miners looking for gravel. The petroglyphs were carved into blocks of stone that had fallen from the cliffs above, blocks that provided natural shelter for those living in the area.

    The rocks of Gobustan

    The site now lies a couple of kilometres inland, but when the rock art was made the water level was much higher and these rocks were near the sea shore. It’s a quite barren area nowadays, from which you can see the offshore oilfields that keep Azerbaijan’s economics afloat. Next to the entrance of the sizeable archaeological area lies the modern Gobustan Museum. Other reviewers already have sung praise about this museum which is a 2011 addition to the ‘visitor experience’. I can only second that: it has a comprehensive exhibition that relies heavily on audio-visuals and computer animations. Our enthousiastic Azeri guide loved showing the developmental history of the site by swiping forwards and backwards in time.

    The WHS officially comprises 3 areas with rock art, surrounding 3 table mountains that can be seen from the entrance. We only went to see one of these, Boyukdash. It seems that all tourists are immediately directed there, I even doubt that the other two locations are visitable by non-scientists. There’s a short trail here that leads along some 20 rocks with engravings. The rocks are all numbered (another relic from Soviet times), but no explanation is given where to look and what to look for.

    We visited in the early afternoon, and the petroglyphs were easy to see. The stone is quite soft, and most of the time the chiselling technique that leads to broader and deeper carvings seems to have been used. One of the highlights lies immediately at the start of the trail: ‘the dancing people’. A fragment of this is also displayed on the Azeri 5 Manat banknote (in the top left corner, you have to look closely).

    People dancing

    It is tempting to compare this site to the Coa Valley Rock Art WHS, which I visited just a few weeks ago in Portugal. Both are petroglyphs (i.e.: not paintings or drawings), and date from about the same period: the Upper Palaeolithic. There are various ideas about the exact age of Gobustan, but the displays in the museum start at about 15.000 BC. This was seconded by our guide, who had been a deputy director of the Gobustan archaeological site in the 1990s (in his lifetime he also had grown up on a kolchoz and served in the Soviet army, and now makes a decent living in tourism).

    The visiting experience between the two sites however is completely different: due to the secluded location of the Coa Valley the visit there felt more exclusive, and the carvings were explained in more detail by the specialized guide. Here in Azerbaijan only a short overview for general tourists is provided (there were also many schoolchildren around). Gobustan’s engravings span a longer period though, so it has greater variety in depicted objects than Coa. Best known among these are the boat petroglyphs, made famous by Thor Heyerdahl.

    A ship

    During the bus ride back to Baku with my tour group I was asked to explain a bit about World Heritage and why Gobustan has become a WHS. It is a rocky story, where Azerbaijan proposed inclusion on 3 criteria but only one was awarded (hesitantly). The claims for 'place of worship' and 'interchange of ideas' weren’t substantiated enough. The UNESCO website now shows a meagre explanation of Gobustan’s OUV, calling it “a testimony to a way of life that has disappeared”.

    Published 5 May 2016 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #598: Safi al-Din Ensemble

    The Sheikh Safi al-Din Khanegah and Shrine Ensemble in Ardabil is a 16th century Iranian Sufi sanctuary with an especially cumbersome name. It is shortened in the nomination file and at the site itself to ‘SKSEA’. I had it registered at this website under ‘Ardabil’, but to be clear: it’s not the whole city that is included in the List – only a specific religious ensemble.

    Entrance gate to the Ensemble

    Ardabil was the first city that I visited during my Iran trip. It is a sizeable provincial capital in the far northwest of the country. I arrived here from Azerbaijan via the Astara border post, somewhat of a back door to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Sufi complex lies in the center of town. It doesn’t look particularly noteworthy from the street. Most of it is hidden behind brick walls. A smallish gate, decorated with distinctive glazed tiles, houses the entrance.

    I arrived early in the morning, and there were hardly any other visitors. Via the garden there’s another gate to tackle, and then the site opens up to you. The courtyard of the religious complex is surrounded on all four sides by buildings which are covered with blue tiles with green and yellow accents. This was my first example of Iranian architecture and I immediately knew it was a wise decision to come here.

    'Stalactite' ceiling (muqarnas)

    The three towers, that hold the mausoleums of the most important Sufi’s that are honoured here, are almost overlooked among all the splendour. Yet they are the most special thing about this complex. The oldest tomb tower (that of Safi al-Din) lies half-hidden behind the other two. It is currently being restored. The biggest of the three has the wonderful name 'Allah Allah Tower' - it is decorated with countless times the word 'Allah' in Arabic calligraphy.

    After removing your shoes you can cross the threshold to go inside. A beautifully decorated room awaits with an unexpected colour scheme. Gold, dark red and blue are the main colours. The space itself is a prayer room, surrounded by several niches containing the tombs of the deceased who are honoured here. The ceiling under the domes is covered with "stalactites" which serve as reinforcement of the structure.

    In addition to the main prayer room, the Porcelain Room is also very worthwhile. This is a large space in the shape of a cross, where the walls are covered with small niches in a variety of forms (such as a violin or a vase). In 16th and 17th century these niches (there are perhaps 1000 of them!) were filled with Chinese porcelain, received as gifts or robbed by the Safavid rulers. Most of it is now gone to great museums in Tehran, and the famous Ardabil-carpet that formerly covered the entire floor of this room has landed in London.

    One of the shrines accessible from the prayer room

    In the outdoor area at the back of the complex it is worth having a look at the 'school’. Here teachers taught various religious and secular subjects, and they did so by speaking to their students (1 or 2, sometimes 5 at a time) from a niche in the outer wall. The wall now has some 30 of these niches, most with a special platform in it to elevate the teacher above his pupils.

    This is purely a Sufi sanctuary, but it has Shi’a connotations too for the Iranians. The Safavid dynasty responsible for this ensemble promoted Shi’ism to the state religion. In its nomination, Iran proposed inscription on an additional criterion 6 to honour the special meaning that the site has for the country. But this was brushed away by ICOMOS which did not see the universal relevance of this. The rest of its OUV was easily accepted.

    Published 8 May 2016 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #599: Tabriz Bazaar

    The Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex has been declared a WHS because of its original lay-out and architecture. The nomination file goes into extreme detail about Iranian bazaar types and customs, this apparently is “a central bazaar with radial gate-bazaars”. The 3 inscribed locations are the Grand Bazaar and 2 of the remaining secondary bazaars. It’s also one of the oldest bazaars still in use: Tabriz was already a bustling town in the 13th century, when it was an important commercial stop on the northern route of the Silk Road through Iran.

    Shopping in the Bazaar

    We arrived at the Grand Bazaar late in the afternoon. It still is a popular shopping district in this city of 1.5 million inhabitants, and many shoppers were about. Both modern necessities such as kitchen utensils and traditional goods like nuts and spices are sold. The figs especially are to die for, soft and sweet - nothing liked the dried-out objects you’ll find in supermarkets in Europe. Despite the bazaar’s age, it does feel quite modern and not as atmospheric as for example the medina’s of Fez and Marrakech. People in my tour group that had been to Aleppo, the most similar WHS because it’s also a covered bazaar, preferred that one over Tabriz too.

    In the bazaar’s back alleys and behind closed doors there is however more to discover than appears at first sight. The bazaar not only has a commercial function, it provides social and religious roles too. We had a quick look into a huge covered caravanserai (timcheh). And we visited a sizeable, brick vaulted Shia mosque. Behind a curtain there we found some black ‘Ashura’ banners, used for the most important religious day in Iran. It’s the festival known for its bloody self-flagellation rituals, although this practice is discouraged in modern Iran.

    Ashura banners in the mosque

    Within the protected area of the Bazaar complex also lies the ‘Blue Mosque’ (which also mysteriously still features on Iran’s Tentative List). Looking at the UNESCO map it seems indeed connected to the Grand Bazaar, but in practice it requires a taxi ride from the bazaar to get to this mosque. Its renovated brick backside faces the main street, but when you walk to the other side a monumental gate like that of the masterpieces in Uzbekistan appears.

    This mosque was built in the style of the Mongolian Timurid dynasty in the second half of the 15th century. Tabriz was at that time the capital of East Persia. The mosque has suffered badly during the past - an earthquake in 1779 largely destroyed it. On 19th century sketches made by passing European travelers it is shown as virtually a ruin. Since then much brickwork has been added to make it whole again. But it is far from finished – according to our guide there is disagreement about how to proceed.

    The Blue Mosque

    Although certainly worth a visit for a couple of hours, Tabriz Bazaar was the least exciting of the 6 WHS that I visited during my tour of Northern Iran. But the name ‘Tabriz’ for me will forever be connected to the ‘Tabriz meatballs’. Ordering this from the menu in a touristy restaurant in Tabriz’s Luna Park, I expected to get something like kofta. But this is one big ball of ingredients, filled at its core with egg and chicken. With some difficulty I managed to eat half of it.

    Published 11 May 2016 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #600: Armenian Monastic Ensembles

    The Armenian monastic ensembles comprise two monasteries and a church belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church of Iran. This was probably the WHS I was most looking forward to in preparation of my recent tour of Azerbaijan & Northern Iran. Since it has been added to the List, I’ve always wondered why a Shiite theocracy would nominate a purely Christian pilgrimage site. Also, remote monasteries belong to my favourite types of WHS.

    St. Thaddeus Monastery

    Out of the inscribed locations I only visited the St. Thaddeus monastery, which is considered the main site. Legend has it that the apostle St. Thaddeus brought Christianity to Armenia, and this spot (now located on Iranian soil) was the place where he died. Sometime between the 7th and 10th century, the St. Thaddeus Monastery was founded here. It developed into a place of pilgrimage for Armenians from Iran and neighbouring countries. Annually in summer a big festival is held in the vicinity of the monastery, with thousands of pilgrims staying in tents. From 1930 to 1947, the monastery was the seat of the Catholicos (spiritual leader) of the Armenian church.

    As befits any good monastery, it lies in a very remote spot. The day before my visit I overhead our Iranian guide and Dutch tour leader in fierce debate about how far the drive from Tabriz is and whether it is worthwhile to make a day trip. Neither of them had ever been there, or possessed reliable information about the distance and road conditions. Is it a 240 km drive one way or return for example?

    At 7 o'clock next morning we left with 75% of the tour group towards the east, to the extreme northwest tip of Iran. St. Thaddeus Monastery is located near the border with Azerbaijan and (obviously) Armenia. Landscape-wise this is the best part of Iran I’d seen so far, with views on numerous snowy peaks. The monastery itself lies in a barren area. You can see its two white, typical Armenian conical towers from afar. It’s not a completely uninhabited area though: next door lies a poor Kurdish village.

    Black Church altar

    From a distance, the church seems to be intact and in good shape. Up and close though you can see that a lot of props are needed to keep it upright. Cracks in the walls caused by various earthquakes are clearly visible. The church interior feels sober because of the gray / black walls made out of tuff, just as the churches in the motherland Armenia (hence the nickname 'Black Church'). Texts in Armenian script and simple crosses are carved into the stone.

    The exterior is much more decorated. Most of these decorations date from the 19th century, when an additional (white) part was added to the church due to more and more pilgrims arriving. At different heights sculpted reliefs were added, representing the 12 Apostles, local kings and less recognizable individuals from the Iranian folklore. You really need to take your time circumnavigating the church to take it all in. I even went back for a second time when I found a series of images in the UNESCO nomination file which I had not spotted on site.

    Relief of mythical hero Amirani

    Afterwards, I heard no complaints from my 12 fellow travellers (not afflicted with the WH virus) about the 2x 4 hour-drive ‘only’ to see a small church. It’s a fascinating work of architecture and important piece of regional (religious) history.

    The final question to be answered remains: why has the Islamic Republic of Iran chosen this Christian site to represent the country? The fact is that the Iranian government does have a selective tolerance for certain religious groups or ethnicities (they don’t seem to mind the Kurds or Zoroastrians either). The Armenians, beloved by few in the wider region, somehow are Iran’s favourites. According to Wiki: “The Armenians remain the most powerful religious minority in Iran. They are appointed five seats in the Iranian Parliament (the most within the Religious minority branch) and are the only minority with official Observing Status in the Guardian and Expediency Discernment Councils.” In all major cities of Iran one can find active Armenian Apostolic congregations. On my last day in Teheran I attended a mass in a prominent church, where some 60 churchgoers showed up. The existence of this kind of pluriformity in Iran is one of the main lessons I learned from this trip. Unfortunately, this ‘tolerance’ does not extend to other groups such as the Bahá'í (who are actively persecuted) or to allowing conversion from Islam to Christianity.

    Published 14 May 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #600: Armenian Monastic Ensembles:

    Els Slots (17 May 2016):
    I thought of bringing a jubilatory "600"-sign, but decided against it.

    By the way, for those who want to go there: the distance is 246km one way from Tabriz (so almost 500km for a return trip).

    Ian Cade (17 May 2016):
    I just noticed that it is a milestone visit, congratulations on reaching 600+ sites! (I just checked and you were on 115 visits when I first encountered the site so good going for the intervening years)

    I also like your reference to other non WHS obsessives thinking that it was a worthwhile trip, it is always useful to gain some non biased feedback on the sites we spend so much time travelling to.

    WHS #601: Takht-e Soleyman

    Takht-e Soleyman is one of these names on the WH List that mean nothing unless you’ve been there. It ranked among the very lowest in our recent Community and Popular Votes for the WHS Top 200, probably because almost nobody had visited it (13 were there before Solivagant and I visited in April/May 2016). It ended up being my favourite WHS of Northern Iran, both for its colourful mountain scenery and introduction to Zoroastrianism. We spent 3 hours there, but I could easily have stayed an hour more.

    Solomon's Prison

    Takht-e-Soleyman (meaning: “the throne of Solomon”, an apocryphal name given during the Arab conquest) was the spiritual center of Zoroastrianism. It was created in the 6th century by the Persian Empire of the Sassanids, who were in fierce competition with the Byzantine Empire and Christianity and wanted to build a showcase for their own citizens.

    Despite reading various sources beforehand and listening to the explanations of our tour guides, I find summarizing the faith of the Zoroastrians difficult. They worshipped one god, but in their temples the focus is on the four elements of water, earth, air and fire. The combined presence of a volcano (fire) and a natural spring (water) made Takht-e Soleyman an especially auspicious location for Zoroastrians.

    After a nutritious lunch in the canteen of a nearby mine where we met two bewildered French tourists travelling with their own campervan, we started our visit at the volcano. This is nicknamed ‘Solomon’s Prison’ (Zendan-e Soleyman): folk tales suggest that King Solomon used to imprison monsters inside the 100 m deep crater. This small volcano can easily be climbed in 20 minutes or so, though it had previously been raining so I found the path to be quite slippery. And near the top you have to do some rock-climbing. Long ago Zoroastrian rituals were performed at this summit, but now it is mainly a natural spectacle: an empty, hollow volcano crater with a grass-field at the bottom.

    The artesian lake at the main sanctuary

    The core zone of the WHS consists of several archaeological sites a few kilometers apart. The main sanctuary lies 2 kms away from the volcano. It is completely walled and resembles a fortress. A more than 60 meters deep lake is the surprising centerpiece. The water flows from here down the hill, and irrigates the surrounding agricultural land. It uses the ‘dragon wall’, a 2m high natural wall shaped by the sediments transferred alongside the water.

    Our guide told that this sanctuary was especially made for the royals and the army of the Sassanids. Elsewhere in their state (for example near the Sasssanid capital Ctsesiphon in Iraq) there were spiritual centers for the general population. One of the most interesting buildings on the property is a long vaulted gallery, with an opening every few meters for a soldier to stand guard. It’s a bit of a mystery what the use of all these buildings was, and not all date from the original Sassanid construction (the later ‘Mongol’ Ilkhanid dynasty used the site also).

    Photos in the on-site museum show that Zoroastrians still come here once a year, though the fire in the fire temple (a little square platform) has been extinguished long ago. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, a lot of Zoroastrians have fled Iran. Their religion however is officially recognized, and I saw a modern Zoroastrian temple in Teheran (it lies close to the St. Sergius Armenian Church, in the affluent north of the city).

    Vaulted halls

    The fun isn’t over after you’ve left the core zone. My fellow travellers at this point in the trip had gotten the hang of spotting WHS signs, guessing possible OUV and debating conservation factors. Driving down from Takht-e Soleyman to Zanjan via the Dandi road, they were as amazed as I was by the long cableway that connects these mountains with the nearest town. Raw metals are transported this way. It must be worth of WH status as the ‘longest cable car traject in the world’! As icing on the cake we also were treated to a marvellous double rainbow spanning the volcanic landscape. A fine finish to a great day in off-the-beaten track Iran.

    Published 18 May 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #601: Takht-e Soleyman:

    WHS #602: Soltaniyeh

    This nomination carried the Epic Subtitle “Dome of Soltaniyeh; the pasture which became the capital city of the empire”. Unfortunately it was not brought forward to the inscription, now the name of this WHS is a simple Soltaniyeh. The original title though hinted at the Mongol origins of the site: this is the best representation of the heritage of the Mongolian Ilkhanids among Iran’s WHS, although the newer parts of Takht-e Soleyman and the Blue Mosque of Tabriz also date from this era (13th-14th century).

    Model of a complete mausoleum of Öljaitü

    The famous Dome of Soltaniyeh can already be seen from miles away. The light-turquoise structure on top of a 50 meter high octagonal building still towers above everything in its surroundings, including the current town of some 6,000 souls. This is a very flat landscape, the Mongolians are said to have chosen this spot to settle because of the vast pastures it provided for their horses.

    The building was made to house the mausoleum of Ilkhanid khan Öljeitü. Its interior at the moment is fully covered in scaffolding, therefore unfortunately it is impossible to see anything of the inner construction of the dome. This repair work has been going on for a long time already, apparently since 1994. The ongoing restoration prompted me to look at the Management Plan which Iran submitted with the nomination. The 1-, 3- and 5-year action plans seem to be detailed. However only a budget of 300,000 dollars a year was available, from which they also have to pay the regular upkeep of the site (electricity bill, salaries etc). Through annual projects the Iranian state provides for the costly maintenance of the monument. They started the restoration with replacing the missing tiles on the outside of the dome. Now they take on the interior.

    Geometrical patterns of specially cut brick

    One can climb the stairs to the second and third floors, and walk around in the galleries on the outside of the building. This is enough to see the the remarkable decoration of the structure. There are some ubiquituous blue tiles of course, but also stucco design and intricate brick work. Just as at many other sites that I visited in Iran, earthquakes have also here led to many cracks in the walls and ceilings.

    In the vicinity of Öljeitü’s mausoleum there are 13 other sites that belong to this WHS. Our tour group made a short coffee stop (picknick-style, with our own packed ingredients) at one of them: Chelebi Oghlu. This is also a mausoleum, built at the same time as the large mausoleum of Soltaniyeh. A Sufi saint lies buried here, and a Sufi shrine developed in this place. Not a spectacular sight, but enough to remind you that this site once covered a capital city of an empire.

    Chelebi Oghlu

    A nice bit of trivia about Soltaniyeh is that khan Öljeitü, who lies buried here, was a bit shaky in his religious beliefs. He was baptized as a Christian, and took the name ‘Nicholas’. Afterwards he dabbled in Buddhism and Sunni Islam, before finally choosing Shia Islam (and changing his name to Muhammad). He suddenly was so sure of this road that he planned to transfer the bodies of Imam Ali and Imam Husayn from their resting places in Karbala, Iraq (the holiest site in Shia Islam after Mecca and Medina) to Soltaniyeh. Maybe unfortunately for the current Islamic Republic of Iran, this did not materialize.

    Published 21 May 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #602: Soltaniyeh:


    Masouleh is a town at 1,050m altitude in the Alborz mountains, in the north of Iran near the Caspian Sea. It dates from the 16th century, when the population of Old Masouleh was displaced due to an outbreak of the plague. Some 180 families still live in the ‘new’ village. Masouleh has been on Iran’s Tentative List since 2007, but the explanation provided why it should be considered a WHS is particularly concise: “The traditional and untouched architecture of some houses”.

    The town of Masouleh

    I arrived at Masouleh on May 5th, a religious holiday in Iran. It quickly became clear that many Iranians had selected this mountain village as a destination to celebrate their day off. Long lines of cars were parked alongside the entrance road. Many had ditched their cars even earlier, and were picknicking on the bank of the road. I even noticed that a few women had removed their headscarves, a pinnacle of rebelliousness in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

    The village only shows itself when you are right in front of it: it consists of yellow or beige coloured houses stacked on top of each other against the steep mountainside. The space is so limited that the roofs of the buildings below serve as roads for the level above. So if you really want to see something here, you have to climb. I started my round from the left, first uphill and then onto the main street joining the thousands of daytrippers. It reminded me of Volendam, a Dutch town fully focused on tourism. You can also dress up in traditional dress and get your picture taken. People were relaxing at the outdoor restaurants, smoking shisha.

    "Streets are built on top of the roofs"

    The area around the old mosque is especially picturesque. I walked all the way to the upper streets of the village. There 'normal' people still live and it is not so commercial. Most of these old houses have decorated circular wooden windows in their adobe façades.

    Beforehand I had searched long to learn more about the specifics of this site, and couldn’t find more than often repeated clichés. The very thin Bradt Guide gives it a mere 2 sentences, “welcoming residents and stunning nature, despite crowds of young tourists coming up here in groups to smoke qalian (waterpipe) and relax in one of the cafés”. After my return I found a scholarly article called ‘Masouleh: a City a History’, which does a better job. Masouleh is portrayed as a quintessential example of vernacular architecture, adjusted to the particular wet climate of the region with heavy rains, hig humidity, hot summers and cold winters. The houses are made of locally available materials such as wood, stones and adobe. People use the second storey for living quarters, to stay away from the moist ground. Balconies were added to keep the rain from hitting the main building, as well as providing outdoor space in summer. The yellow coating of the buildings is for better visibility during fog.

    Relaxing Iranian-style with some shisha

    The Iranians state in their Tentative List proposal that Masouleh is comparable to sites such as “Uranamat in Kang, Abyaneh, Proush in France and ...” (I especially like the “…..”, they probably ran out of imagination or time). I haven’t been able to find a French village named Proush, even not among the List of The Most Beautiful Villages of France. Uramanat (right spelling) and Abyaneh are both on Iran’s Tentative List. The Uramanat Villages lie in Irani Kurdistan (cool pic), and Abyaneh is accessible from the road between Qom and Isfahan. Abyaneh looks very similar to Masouleh but with red houses in stead of yellow. It might be the most interesting of the bunch, at least the Iranians think so: “Both villages are multi-leveled and constructed by local materials but Abyaneh has kept its architecture, ceremonies and culture, language, clothing and etc.”. Maybe they can turn these three examples of vernacular architecture into a serial nomination ‘Stepped Villages of North and Central Iran’?

    Published 25 May 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Masouleh:

    Esteban Cervantes Jiménez (26 May 2016):
    Great review, Els!

    Even with so many iranian new sites on the last years, there is still hasn't been nominated something that represents this kind of vernacular town/architecture. Of course, Maymand is now in the list, but it comes from a completely different tradition.

    Els (25 May 2016):
    Thanks for finding Perouges, that looks like the one indeed (though less steep).
    I am pretty sure the traditional customes were hired on the spot in Masouleh.

    Solivagant (25 May 2016):
    I think that "Proush" must refer to the village of "Perouges"

    Coincidentally we were in Abyaneh on the same day as you, Els, were in Masouleh. It was likewise "en fete" and extremely crowded. Likewise there were Iranians having their photos taken in traditional costumes. We were told that they would be from families who originally came from Abyaneh but now lived in cities, and would have these at home and brought them with them on festive occasions.
    I may, some time, get round to a review!

    WHS #603: Golestan Palace

    Golestan Palace is the most recent construction on the timeline of Iranian WHS, dating from the 19th century Qajar dynasty. It also is possibly the only real attraction of Tehran - a metropolis of 10 to 15 million inhabitants. Because of its location in the capital’s city center, it is the most visited Iranian WHS among our community after the ones in Esfahan. Still this results in only a meagre 696th spot overall.

    Edifice of the Sun

    Despite its relative fame, the palace is not so easy to find for an individual visitor. It lies just off a main boulevard, and is completely surrounded by much higher government buildings from the 1960s and 70s. The construction thereof by the government of the last Shah was made at the expense of older buildings belonging to the Golestan Palace (such as a theater).

    When you finally find yourself at the entrance gate, there’s a big decision to make: how many of the 8 buildings/museums warrant a visit? Because on top of the 2x 150,000 Rial entrance fee to the grounds and the main buildings, there are additioneel fees of 80,000 each for the others. I decided to settle for 3 extra tickets: to the Building of the Windcatchers, Edifice of the Sun and the White Palace. It turned out that the actual tickets do not mention a specific building, so in the end you can always switch to another one if that appears more interesting.

    Exterior tile-work

    I first did a full lap around the palace grounds to photograph the lovely tiled exteriors of many of the buildings. There are fierce Mongolian-type warriors, European-inspired landscape motifs, funny men in Persian (or Turkish?) uniform and even portraits of two women with deep cleavage (“no mullahs at the time”, I overheard an Iranian guide saying). The two most beautiful objects however I found the two yellow-white marble artworks that are exhibited half in the open air: the huge Marble Throne (no longer hidden behind a curtain) and the tomb of Naser ed-Din Shah.

    I wasn't too charmed by the additional buildings that I entered and had bought the separate tickets for. The White Palace now is in use as an ethnographic museum. It is advertised as "one of the most interesting ethnographic museums of Iran", but there’s not very much to see except some traditional costumes. The Building of the Windcatchers was very disappointing. I had already seen a functioning badgir 5 years ago in Bahrain: they are meant to 'catch' the wind and turn it into natural ventilation in a building. Unfortunately here in Golestan you cannot enter the the towers itself.

    I quietly walked around for two hours, and occasionally sat on a bench for some people watching and to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. The palace has a large courtyard / garden (even with a café with terrace!). My feelings about this WHS are mixed: the many halls are clearly European-inspired and often very flashy, with lots of mirrors and 19th century furniture. But these strangely tiled walls I found very fascinating and unique to Iran.

    Marble Throne

    The most unusual elements at the Golestan Palace grounds date from the reign of Naser ed-Din Shah (1848-1896), the first modern Persian king who visited Europe. He also introduced other Western innovations in the country, such as postal and telegraph service, a newspaper and infrastructure and education in western style. He wrote a very enjoyable travelogue about his visit to a number of European countries in 1873, called ‘Diary of H.M. the Shah of Persia’. He travelled from royal court to royal court, from Russia via a large U-turn (even reaching England) to Turkey. He also showed amazement about technical novelties such as iron bridges, tunnels (“holes in the mountains”) and pedestrian paths.

    Published 28 May 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #603: Golestan Palace:

    Tips for Azerbaijan and Iran

    During late April and early May I travelled for just over 2 weeks in Azerbaijan and Northern Iran. With this trip I may have definitely earned my place on the domestic security watchlist (googling my head off about Shia Islam) & given up an easy visit to the USA for 5 years (because I ticked off Iraq, Sudan and now Iran from the new Axis of Evil-list in the past 2 years). But it was all worth it: it opened up a whole new part of the world for me with its own pecularities. And that is what travel is all about.

    Martyr portrait in the streets of Iran

    1. Be prepared for some serious personality cults

    In Azerbaijan this veneration is limited to one person: Heydar Aliyev, founding father of the current independent republic and Soviet Politburo member before that. His son has been in power for the last 13 years, but he is much less charismatic and seldom portrayed. Iran’s streets on the other hand show a whole pantheon of depicted persons. The combined pictures of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei are the most frequently seen. But the main streets of all towns are also aligned with endless rows of pictures from ‘martyrs’ who died in the Iran-Iraq War. This custom can also extend to local celebrities: in Bandar-e Anzali for example I saw a large billboard in remembrance of a young player from the national football team, who had recently suddenly died. I did not encounter any anti-USA or anti-Israel slogans in the North (in contrast to Solivagant at Pasargadae): at least there were none written in English.

    2. Learn about Shia Islam

    Azerbaijan and Iran are two of the only four countries in the world where Shia Islam is the majority religion. Although I had been to the other two before (Iraq and Bahrain), I never gave much thought about it at the time. But the knowledge about Islam in the West is much more derived from Sunnism than from Shiism. The Shia have their own rules and rites, such as combining the 5 prayers of the day into 3 sessions. A visible difference in mosques is the use of a clay tablet for prayer, holding the holy soil of Karbala (see 2nd photo). One of the biggest surprises of Iran is that outwardly it isn’t a very pious country: life just went on during prayer times and mosques were far from fully occupied.

    Türbe - clay prayer tablet

    3. Enjoy the pluriformity of this region

    This particular itinerary, entering Iran from a back-door in the northwest, shows the pluriformity that is present in this region. You’ll meet a lot of Azeri’s, Armenians and Kurds before you end up in Tehran. Bordering the Republic of Azerbaijan lies the vast Iranian Province of East Azerbaijan, with its inhabitants speaking a Turkic language and the important historic regional center Tabriz. The Kurds were being their gregarious selves, strolling around in traditional dress in the streets of Sakez and Zahandaj. And an old monastery and a modern church represented the healthy Armenian minority.

    4. Expect a steady flow of good but not great WHS

    I was a tiny bit disappointed by the quality of the WHS that I saw on this trip, though there were no less than 8 of them in 2 weeks time. I do use a ranking system for my own ‘administration’, and all 8 visited WHS received a mark between 6 and 8 (out of 10). Takht-e-Soleyman got an 8, the Armenian Monastic Ensembles and the Sufi Shrine in Ardabil both a 7.5. Especially Iran is hyped up a lot at this moment, experiencing the most favourable window of opportunity since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. But the sites that I visited did not match up to the main monuments of Uzbekistan for example. I expect Persepolis and Esfahan to be top class (as per our WHS Top 200), but they lie much further south in Iran.

    Modern architecture in Baku: Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center

    5. Try Baku for a long weekend trip

    Azerbaijan’s capital Baku is the most interesting large city along this route. It’s a vibrant place, with European-style restaurants and shopping. There are many layers to discover here, so it’s worth a couple of days of your time. Its old city center is a WHS, but especially for those fond of architecture there are many more remarkable sights. A carpet museum in the shape of a rolled-up carpet for example. Or the re-styled facades of former Soviet housing. Or the fascinating Flame Towers – they may be kitsch but I loved watching them at night when they are illuminated with alternating projections of yellow-and-red flames and the Azeri flag.

    Published 3 June 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Tips for Azerbaijan and Iran:

    WHS #604: Rjukan / Notodden

    Rjukan/Notodden Industrial Heritage Site was added to the WH List last year. It’s a niche site that very few will have visited before its designation - our visitor count currently still stands on a modest 17. It’s also one of the clearest examples of under-represented cultural properties brought forward by the Filling the Gaps study of ICOMOS (2005): a ‘developing technology’ related to ‘energy conversion and utilization’. At Rjukan/Notodden, hydro energy was created using the natural power of waterfalls and river.

    Gaustatoppen, casting its shadow over Rjukan

    Of course I had done my usual preparations: reading the ICOMOS review and the nomination dossier, plus some additional Googling on certain subjects. But I had difficulty to grasp what this WHS exactly involves. What will follow is a reconstruction that hopefully will provide a starting point for future WH travellers.

    First of all, this is a linear WHS. It covers the flow of the water downhill via two rivers and a lake, plus the railway tracks and the land in between that run parallel to the water. The core zone is 93km in length, and stretches between the towns of Rjukan and Notodden. Rjukan lies a little over 3 hours west from Oslo Airport. The E37 road runs parallel to the river and railway. It is an easy and quiet route to drive (there are also buses).

    While driving I was constantly on the lookout for 'something industrial' - this is an industrial WHS after all. What you get though is the quintessential Norwegian landscape with dark blue lakes and forested mountains. The weather was glorious too on the first Saturday in June, so it was all very pleasant. But the relevance to a technology site eluded me.

    Railway ferry

    My first ‘find’ I did near Tinnsjö Lake, almost half-way. Beneath a shelter at a parking lot I stumbled upon a kind of steam rail car on wheels, a Lokomobil from 1903. Across the road stands an information panel about the Lake itself: it was the spot of an act of resistance in World War II when a railway ferry laden with "heavy water" (required for hydrogen bombs) was brought down by the Norwegian resistance.

    The closer I got to Rjukan, the more dramatic the landscape became. The 1,883m high Gaustatoppen, the highest mountain in the region and still fully-covered in snow, beaconed. The town of Rjukan was built from scratch by hydropower producer Hydro in the early 1900s for its workers. It lies literally in the shadow of this high mountain, from September to March no sunlight reaches the houses. Only in 2013, the residents decided to do something about it: mirrors have been placed on top of the mountain so the sunlight is reflected back into the village.

    Hydro had chosen this spot because of the Rjukanfossen: a high and steep waterfall, which produced a lot of power. There is a viewpoint just north of Rjukan from where you can see this. Only there’s no water flowing anymore! The course of the river has been diverted because of a modern hydropower station. The original hydroelectric plant now houses the Vemork Workers Museum. It sits high on the hillside, a 20-minute climb from the car park across a narrow riverbridge where people were bungeejumping (again: no water). The museum itself focuses strongly on the WWII-connotations of the site, and less on the hydroelectric story. There is one main hall with shiny black steam engines and pumps: here it resembles the closest comparable WHS, the Ir. D.F. Woudagemaal.


    Just outside Rjukan I made another quick stop: this time at one of the two railway ferries. These old ships have been lovingly restored to their former state. It's funny to see how the railway track runs right down to the lake’s edge, and then connects with the tracks on the ferry. Meanwhile it was getting late already, so I just drove on the Notodden: a messy little town, with even less of industrial history visible at first sight than elsewhere on the route.

    So what’s the verdict about this WHS? You’ll have to keep in mind that it is a relict industrial landscape – the same area is also used for modern industries, town life and nature tourism. On paper (such as in the nomination dossier) it is easy to focus on the early 20th century industrial elements, but in reality they hardly stand out. I also believe that the Norwegian cultural or tourism authorities could do more about the interpretation of this WHS to visitors. Except for the Vemork Museum, the remaining elements seem to be kept going by volunteers. There are hardly any signs pointing to wortwhile elements of the industrial landscape. I never found the Tinfos power plants for example, two of the most prominent structures highlighted in the nomination.

    Published 10 June 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #604: Rjukan / Notodden:

    Vestfold Ship Burials

    Like so many serial nominations of recent years, ‘Viking Monuments and Sites’ was sent home with a deferral (2015). The cooperation between Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Latvia and Norway stranded on a weak selection of serial locations and “conceptual vagueness”. Fellow-Vikings Sweden had already earlier left the sinking ship, stating the lack of diversity in the representation of Viking Age culture. I have been looking for news about a possible re-nomination in the future, but have not found any indication that they’re working on it.

    Oseberg burial ship

    Norway contributed two locations to this initiative: the Hyllestad Quernstone Quarries and the Vestfold Ship Burials. Combined they’re one site that still features on the Norwegian Tentative List. To make things even more confusing, the Hyllestad Quarries has one location and the Vestfold Ship Burials has three. They’re not close to each other, even lie in different parts of South Norway. And one wonders what’s still left to see, as 2 out of the 3 ship burials have been removed from their original sites to the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.

    During my visit to Oslo in the first weekend of June, I went to see exactly this museum. It is one of many museums on a kind of ‘museum peninsula’ at the outskirts of the Norwegian capital. The Viking Ship Museum is a cross shaped construction, almost like a church. 3 out of its 4 arms contain a completely restored burial ship. They include the ones excavated from Oseberg and Gokstad – 2 of the sublocations that comprise the TWHS.

    Animal-head post from the Oseberg burial

    The practice of ship burials was used by the Vikings in the 9th and 10th century. Seaworthy wooden ships were placed in burial mounds, the ship being an important symbol of power for the Viking nobility. They held skeleton remains of deceased, plus burial gifts including for example “… kitchen equipment, farm equipment, three ornate sledges and a working sledge, a wagon, five carved animal heads, five beds and two tents. There were fifteen horses, six dogs and two small cows.” (inventory of the Oseberg ship).

    The burial ships of the Viking Museum are displayed in their full glory. The visitor can admire them from all sides, even from above: each room has a little balcony from where you can look into the ship and take the better pictures. The Oseberg ship is the one with the best wood carvings. Some of the burial gifts are also on display, especially the wagon with wooden wheels is impressive and looks remarkably complete.

    Excavating the Oseberg ship (1904)

    It would be nice to hear from someone who has visited one of the archaeological sites that make up this TWHS. They lie a bit too far from Oslo (1.5 hours at least) for a casual visit during my short stay. As far as I can imagine from the descriptions, 2 out of 3 are ‘empty’ burial mounds. They are advertised as 'a memorial landscape'. The ships were already excavated in the early 1900’s and preserved in Oslo. Will this ever become a WHS? I seriously doubt it.

    Published 18 June 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Vestfold Ship Burials:

    clyde (18 June 2016):
    I remember passing by the Vestfold Ship Burials archaeological site as a stopover while driving from Northern Norway to Oslo six years ago and I surely wasn't impressed as there's pretty much nothing left to see. It's a bit like several early man/homonid sites, where the main findings with OUV are kept safe in a museum. The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo most probably has the best examples of intact viking ships and remains worldwide. I will visit the viking ship museum in Roskilde, Denmark in July since I don't think it will take too long to visit the Cathedral.

    WHS #605: Swiss Alps

    When I was a child, we always went on holiday to the Allgäu Alps. Living near the German border, my parents only spoke German as a foreign language and felt the most comfortable in German-speaking countries. We went there so often that we even were designated by the local tourist organization with a special pin celebrating 10 (or 15?) visits. So I have seen my fair share of Alpine landscape and know the omnipresent sound of cowbells. Although I must confess that when I got older I skipped all the hiking and my parents often left me at the hotel with a book to read.

    Starting the hike

    This background might be the reason that I left it so long to visit the Swiss Alps WHS. But also the site’s inaccessibility played a part: the WHS originally encompassed only the Jungfrau-Aletsch area, which is quite costly to visit and doesn’t lend itself for a short weekend break. Since 2007 however, the core zone has been extended across a wider area in the Bernese Alps. Additional access points to the east and west have come into play.

    I choose Kandersteg as my base, a town some 2.5 hours from Zürich Airport. From here a cable car takes you for 18SFR to the Oeschinen Lake, which lies already within the inscribed area. At a gloriously sunny Friday in late June I arrived at the top cable car station around 10 am. From that point a number of hikes are signposted, of which I took the ‘Heuberg Panoramaweg’. Most people will just walk half an hour down to the lake, especially the groups, but this route follows a path on a ridge somewhere mid-level up the mountains. It has great views on both the lake and the massif of High Alps. The highest top you can see from here is the Bluemlisalp with a height of 3,661m.

    Oeschinen Lake and High Alps

    The route steadily goes uphill for the first 1 to 1.5 hours. A few times I had to cross little streams coming down from the mountains, once even I got my socks totally wet. But there are many places to rest, and I dried my socks for a while in the sun. There were some 10 other hikers active on this route this morning, and we kept on seeing and passing each other all day. The trail takes 3 to 4 hours to complete, but most took it slowly and sat down often to enjoy the views. At Underbärgli (a spot with a few farms near the far side of the lake) there’s a nice little café where I had the soup of the day for lunch.

    It’s all downhill from there. The path stays on the same side of the lake, and now has fine views of its pebbled beach and enclosed setting. The Oeschienen Lake is a 56m deep glacial lake and one of the larger Alpine lakes. It is fed by the glaciers of the surrounding peaks. It is possible to walk back to Kandersteg from here instead of taking the cable car back – I did so and it took another hour. You won’t see anything though that you haven’t seen earlier in the day and it takes some additional concentration as it is steeply downhill on a terrain of loose stones.

    Fründenhütte amidst the snow-clad mountains

    Remarkable about this WHS sublocation is that they haven’t pimped it. It is what it is: an Alpine mountain landscape with a lake, with hiking paths and two or three places to have something to eat or drink. No adventure sports, no interpretative trail, no visitor center. Kandersteg itself has been a tourist destination since the late 19th century. Nowadays it's a somewhat oldfashioned town, still popular with elderly British.

    Published 25 June 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #605: Swiss Alps:

    clyde (27 June 2016):
    Interesting review. Since the Top of Europe was an extraordinary experience for me and I was very lucky with the weather, next time I'll be in Switzerland I'll visit this other natural aspect of this WHS and save some money.

    WHS #606: Reichenau

    It has taken me 17 years, but in late June 2016 I finally ´finished´ Germany: I have now seen all 40 WHS in this country. The last one left to do was the Monastic Island of Reichenau, some 10km from the border with Switzerland. I visited it on a day trip by car from Zürich Airport. Unfortunately my camera had broken down two days before when touring the Swiss Alps, so I can only show some images taken with my smartphone.

    Münster St. Maria und Markus

    The Monastic Island of Reichenau originated in the 8th century, when the traveling monk Pirmin founded the first monastery on this island in Lake Constance. Some 24 other churches and chapels were added in the remainder of the early Middle Ages, and religious relics were shipped in (often gifts by pilgrims). The large Benedictine monastery developed into an important center for study and arts in the empire of Charlemagne and his successors. The island also is very suitable for agriculture (then and now), so the monks could be self-sufficient.

    Nowadays it’s a holiday island with only 3 churches left. Many tourists arrive here by bicycle from Konstanz. The island covers just over 4 square kilometers, so all is easy to reach. There are three villages, and the middle one of these (Mittelzell) has the most amenities. This is also the site of the main museum of the island, and I made that my first stop. The history of the monastery island is told using information panels and replicas. The original pieces, such as the exquisite miniature paintings made by medieval monks, are unfortunately kept elsewhere. Within walking distance lies the Münster (the former Monastery church): its Treasury does hold some original relics and art, but unfortunately it is closed on Sundays.

    Yes, there are vineyards too

    From the last review of this WHS (thanks Clyde!), I knew that I had to time my visit well to be able to see the murals of the St. Georg Church – the undoubted highlight of this island. To lessen the impact on the wall paintings, the church is open only twice a day during summer and by guided tour only. So together with some 20 other tourists, I waited patiently in front of the little church until the guide showed up exactly at 12.30. He collected 2 EUR from each visitor, and started his talk not before having locked the church doors again behind us.

    About two-thirds of the church interior is covered in paintings, which have been repeatedly restored in recent years. And although they are a bit faded, they still look good and complete. The paintings date from the ninth to the eleventh century. The main ones display eight scenes of miracles performed by Jesus. Especially the Lazarus Resurrection scene is very remarkable (with two onlookers holding their noses because of the stench involved in digging up a 4-day old body). I liked the way the guide quietly told his story (in German only) and pointed out the many details in the murals.

    Murals of St. Georg Church

    Despite the interesting medieval wall paintings, this isn’t an unforgettable WHS. One wonders if Reichenau would stand a chance if it was nominated in 2016. We discussed it (or rather: we did not waste a single word on it) in its context during the WHS Top 200 and awarded it with a ‘No‘.

    The site was added to the WH List relatively late, in the year 2000. It ticks the boxes of Carolingian Empire (10x represented, including the very similar St. John in Müstair (1983)), Benedictines (26x represented, including Lorsch and again St. John in Müstair) and 8th century (German alone has Aachen (1978) and Lorsch (1991) to represent this century). I’d say that both the Carolingians and medieval Christian wall paintings were already represented well before Reichenau was admitted to the List. Germany stated that there is "No significant comparison north of the Alps" (but just a few km’s south of it, in Müstair there is!). The reasoning relies heavily on criterion vi (important artistic centre), but this resulted in mostly moveable objects now safely stowed away in museums and treasuries outside Reichenau.

    Published 2 July 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #606: Reichenau:

    Agricultural Pauper Colonies

    Between 1815 and 1830, the current states of the Netherlands and Belgium were united for a short period in the ‘United Kingdom of the Netherlands’. They are now working on a joint nomination for 2018 to highlight a specific experiment of that era: the efforts of the so-called ‘Society of Benevolence’ to “improve the inhumane conditions suffered by many of the poor”. The Society established domestic colonies to reeducate paupers (tramps, orphans, down-at-heel families) by means of land reclamation and agricultural innovation.

    "Order and Discipline", the Headmaster's House in Veenhuizen

    The Dutch part of this nomination covers 6 separate locations in 3 clusters, all in the northeast of the country known at the time as the ‘Dutch Siberia’. I visited most of these already in 2011, when I did a whirlwind summer tour along the sites on the Dutch Tentative List. The best known of the colonies is Veenhuizen, a name tied to its large prison that can hold 1,000 inmates (nowadays filled for 25% with prisoners 'on loan' from Norway by the way). An impressive square former prison building holds the disappointing Prison Museum. Walking around town, the most remarkable sights are the edifying nameplates on the houses of the former guards. They hold slogans like "Order & Discipline" or "Work & Pray".

    Last weekend I decided to visit the Belgian part of this nomination. It consists of two locations, Merksplas and Wortel, two villages just south of the Dutch-Belgian border. They’re not as remote as the Dutch sites, but driving along the cobblestoned access avenues does give you a feel that you’ll arrive somewhere special. Like Veenhuizen, Merksplas and Wortel still are known for their large and active prisons.

    Shaping the landscape, Merksplas

    Beforehand I had downloaded a 11km long hiking route, aptly named "Escape Path", through Merksplas Colony. The trail starts at the former Vagrants Chapel, a recently renovated example of eclectic architecture. Roman-Catholicism was the only supported faith in this colony, in contrast to the north where there was 'freedom of religion'. I continued southwards, passing farm fields and following a soggy path through the adjoining forest. It was a very pleasant walk, the landscape reminding me of the area where I grew up in the east of the Netherlands. References to both World Wars are made along the way via a remembrance field of poppies and a memorial dedicated to a fallen British corporal.

    After some nice small-talk with a passing shepherd, I ended up near where I had parked my car. I decided not to walk the northern loop of the trail, but to drive directly to the intriguing ‘vagabonds cemetery’. This consists of two open spaces in the forest, where 6,000 former residents were buried from the Colony Merksplas. They only received a simple cross with their number on their grave. Most of them are overgrown now.

    The second Belgian location, Wortel, lies just 6 kilometers from Merksplas. The landscape is very similar: neat straight roads and farm fields, still in use. Only the buildings are painted white in Wortel. I found that there is less to see than in Merksplas.

    Vagrants Cemetery in Merksplas

    This nomination has been in the making for years. The Belgians are still finishing the restoration of the large farm structures in Merksplas: they plan to be ready in Spring 2017, when the buildings will be transformed into a visitor & conference center.

    So what will be the chance of success for the nomination? In 2015, the Dutch (who will lead the nomination) organized an ‘evaluation of experts’ to give their opinion on the draft dossier:

  • They worried about the lack of evidence given of the material impact this colonization has had on nature, how to support the claim that this is a cultural landscape.

  • Also, a more critical approach of this social experiment would be welcome in the dossier: in the end it was mostly a failure. And how would representatives of poorer countries react to this patronizing approach to eradicate poverty?

    To elaborate on the second issue (and they did not foresee this in their evaluation): the former Dutch colony Indonesia will be one of the WHC members to judge. The man behind the Society of Benevolence, Johannes van den Bosch, later became Dutch Minister of Colonies where "he demanded increasingly high financial results from the colonies, often to the detriment of the interest of individual farmers and slaves." (wiki)

    Life in the Dutch Pauper Colonies has been immortalized fairly recently in the popular family history Het pauperparadijs, a sad story about coercion, infectious diseases, taking children away from their parents and crop failures.

    Published 9 July 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Agricultural Pauper Colonies:

    10 Bits of Trivia about the WHS of 2016

    The WHC Session of 2016 was one to remember, due to the coup attempt happening in Turkey overnight right in the middle of discussion about the new WHS. However, the Committee managed to finish that agenda item before everybody flew home again. 21 new sites were selected – a mixed bunch. Find below some aspects that warrant a closer look.

    Steccí in Bosnia Herzegovina - one of the new WHS

    1. Year of the architects

    Long awaited were the nominations of the Works of Le Corbusier and those of Frank Lloyd Wright. The latter discussion had an unprecedented cliffhanger when it couldn’t be finished on Friday and the Saturday session was cancelled. All to no avail: the FLW sites have been referred. A third renowned architect, Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer, in all quietude walked away with a second WHS centering on his works: after Brasilia, now Pampulha.

    2. The world’s largest salamander

    One of Hubei Shennongjia’s claims to fame is that it is home to the world’s largest salamander: the Chinese giant salamander. It is fully aquatic and can reach a length of 180 cm. The species is critically endangered (like the Mountain Gorilla and the Mount Kahuzi Climbing Mouse). It can also be encountered at two other Chinese WHS, Wulingyuan and Mount Wuyi.

    3. Antigua is the 25th SIDS to gain a WHS

    Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are low-lying coastal countries that tend to share similar sustainable development challenges. There are 52 recognized SIDS, of which Antigua is the 25th state to win a WHS listing. The Caribbean SIDS are well-covered, while the Pacific ones are lagging behind with only 7 out of 20.

    4. The oldest WHS?

    So far we had 3 sites in our Timeline from the Proterozoic, the oldest stage in history covered by a WHS. With the addition of Mistaken Point, 580-560 million years old, we have an additional one. So which one is the oldest of the 4? I’m no expert at this, but I learned that Mistaken Point is ‘Ediacaran’ (a phase within the neoproterozoic). The winner seems to be Vredefort Dome, dating from the paleoproterozoic and over 2 billion(!) years old.

    One of Niemeyer's works in Pampulha (photo by Ian Cade)

    5. More diving destinations

    With the Revillagigedo Archipel and Sanganeb, two prime but remote diving destinations have entered the list. We actually already have so many of these that we can easily make a Connection out of it. How about Cocos Island, the Rock Islands, Belize, Tubbatha and Great Barrier Reefs, Aldabra Atoll, Malpelo and the Galapagos?

    6. A Giant Head

    Included in the Antequera Dolmen WHS is the ‘La Peña de los Enamorados’ mountain. It is mostly known for its anthropomorphic profile that resembles a gigantic human head looking up to the sky.

    7. Land of the Marsh Arabs

    ICOMOS did not like the combination of the Mesopotamian Marshlands with the old Sumerian cities such as Ur into one single nomination: the Ahwar of Southern Iraq. Lead by Lebanon (always the one to hand-out an incentive for effort or international cooperation) it was voted in unanimously by the WHC as the first serial mixed property on the List. Its connection with the Marsh Arabs (immortalized by Wilfred Thesiger in one of my favourite books of all time) is mostly associative though.

    8. Apples and walnuts

    Sometimes Outstanding Universal Value is hard to explain. Western Tien-Shan is a Central Asian mountain range similar to the adjacent and already inscribed Xinjiang Tianshan. But suddenly there it is: its walnut-fruit forests are considered to be the largest of this type in the world! And then there is the Siverse’s Apple tree "which of all wild apple species is considered the progenitor of today’s variety of apples".

    9. Missing WHS

    From the Missing List we compiled in 2014, a further 4 sites have now been inscribed as a WHS: Ur (part of Ahwar of Southern Iraq), Works of Le Corbusier, Nan Madol and Kangchendzonga National Park .

    Sanganeb Reef (photo by Bram de Bruin)

    10. Most and least visited of the new ones

    After a week, 15 out of the 21 new WHS already have been claimed by WH Travellers. Only the Works of Le Corbusier are an easy tick (so many locations in various accessible countries). All the others need an off-the-beaten-track approach. Mexico's Revalligedo Archipel seems the most difficult, it is even a candidate for the “takes more than 5 days to visit”-connection. I haven’t found a cruise yet that will do it within this time limit.

    Published 23 July 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to 10 Bits of Trivia about the WHS of 2016:

    Meltwaterfalls (27 July 2016):
    I like this breakdown, it is rather fun without getting too "Buzzfeed-y".

    I'm glad Bastille had a nice trip to Istanbul, it must have been a strange atmosphere with the coup, glad you got to Bursa it is a lovely place.

    Batsile, Botswana (26 July 2016):
    I attended the recently ended 40th Session of the World Heritage Committee in Istanbul, Turkey and had that rare opportunity to visit the historic old town of Bursa and Cumalikizik. What a rich cultural heritage this place holds in trust for humanity!! What a landscape of rolling highlands with beautiful cloud forests-it reminded me of Ngorongoro Crater highland forests in Tanzania.

    July 15, 2016 had two unforgettable experience for Turkey and the world, but I cherish it for the inscription of Ani as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    Thanks to UNESCO for organising the tour and a million thanks to Bursa Metropolitan Municipality and the people of Bursa for their hospitality.

    Els (24 July 2016):
    Regarding the SIDS: Assif just pointed out rightly that Antigua isn't the 25th, but the 26th or 27th (shared this year with Nan Madol/Micronesia). We had overlooked Kiribati (Phoenix Islands). Also, 9 out of 20 Pacific members now have WHS.

    Kyle (winterkjm) (23 July 2016):
    Thanks Els! Slowly but surely, sites from the Top Missing list are being inscribed.

    clyde (23 July 2016):
    Interesting trivia with a good overview of this year's new inscriptions. Well done!

    Colvin (22 July 2016):
    That's some great trivia about the newly inscribed sites!


    With no less than 17 entries, the Belgian Tentative List keeps on providing opportunities for rewarding day trips from my home. So this Saturday I drove just south of Brussels to a spot near the town of Waterloo, famous for the eponymous battle of 1815. It is actually home to two TWHS: the Battlefield of Waterloo and the Panorama of the Battle of Waterloo. Both nowadays are located on the grounds of the Mémorial 1815.

    Overlooking the Battlefield

    I arrived at 9.30 in the morning, right at the opening hour. The large car park already held some 20 cars and a bus. I had been wondering whether this is a busy site, but it turned out that I was the first visitor of the day. The other vehicles must have belonged to the staff and the ‘actors’ that carry out the reenactments which spice up the visitor experience during summer days.

    For a long time the Waterloo Battlefield and its huge Lion’s Mound had been a popular but not all that interesting destination for school trips. However, the bicentennial of the battle (in 2015) lead to a modernization of the site. An underground exhibition has been built, and the farmhouse of Hougoumont – where an important episode of the Battle took place - has been fully restored. They’re probably still paying the bills, as the entrance fee is a hefty 17 EUR.

    The fee does include an audio guide, which leads you through an underground exhibition. It does tell the historical circumstances of the Battle, shows the uniforms and arms used and the aftermath. You’d need to be a real militairy history buff though to enjoy the recommended 2 hours of the tour.

    Part of the Panorama

    The back exit brings you to the second ‘attraction’ of the complex. It is the Panorama of the Battle of Waterloo, a TWHS in its own right. The Panorama is a cylindrical painting, dating from 1912. It contains 14 canvases with battle scenes. Physical elements in front of the painting, such as cut-out figures, add some extra drama. The painting fits within the panorama-hype of the late 19th and early 20th century, and is one of the few surviving ones. There’s a famous Panorama in the Netherlands too (Panorama Mesdag near The Hague) which has been discussed for the Dutch Tentative List. Though being the oldest in the world, submission was rejected because of the ‘scale’ of the site.

    Next door stands the huge Lion’s Mound: a conical artificial hill, built on the orders of King William I of the Netherlands. Just as the Agricultural Pauper Colonies that I visited a few weeks ago, this monument dates from the short era when the Netherlands and Belgium formed one country (its people are strangely named ‘Dutch Belgians’ in the exhibition texts). Right at this spot, the King was hit by a musket ball during the Battle of Waterloo and fell of his horse. The mound can be climbed via 226 steps. At the top there are unobstructed views of the former battlefield, now mostly farmlands.

    Monument at Hougoumont

    The last part of the sights included in the entrance ticket lies a few kilometres away. A free shuttle bus ferries the visitors between the locations every half hour (you can reach it by car too, but there is nowhere to park). The Farm of Hougoumont was one of the first places where Napoleon’s French encountered the Allied forces. It is associated with some heroical acts. Since 2015 this is also a museum, a more atmospheric one than the underground exhibition at the main site. Not to be missed during a visit.

    The Mémorial 1815 site overall gets mixed reviews on Tripadvisor for example, but the general opinion is that the 2015 relaunch is an improvement from before. I enjoyed my 3 hours at the site, as a glimpse into a short historical period frozen in time. However I don’t think it will ever become a WHS: the Belgians still have the WWI memorials waiting, a similar site but with much more emotions still attached.

    Published 30 July 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Waterloo:

    Kyle (30 July 2016):
    Waterloo is a turning point in history, but to inscribe a battlefield is problematic and a slippery slope indeed. Yet, its amazing how historical perspective on Waterloo continues to evolve, some historians today are of the view that Europe would have been far better if Napoleon won! The argument simplified is that Wellington fought for the status quo, a Monarch driven Europe, while Napoleon- battle wearied and old no longer wanted or could conquer other portions of Europe (particularly England, Russia, or Spain/Portugal). Lastly, the final piece of the argument claims a more united European continent would have been less nationalistic, resulting in less revolutions against later monarchs, which ultimately may have prevented WWI or even WWII. Interesting "what if", but the debate continues today! More books have been written about Waterloo than any other battle in history. I would recommend any "History buffs" to Bernard Cornwell's expansive “Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles.”

    WHS #610: Piedmont Vineyards

    I’m down to 3 in my quest to ‘complete’ Italy: Mt. Etna on Sicily and Su Nuraxi di Barumini on Sardinia are still beckoning. Interesting sites, but a bit too far away for a weekend trip. So (with a little reluctance) I settled for the 3rd remaining WHS: the Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont. This is a serial nomination of 6 sites in Northern Italy, situated east and south of Turin. Within this group, I focused on the wine growing area of Nizza Monferrato.

    Wines for sale at Palazzo Crova

    Nizza Monferrato is the namesake of Nice in the Provence (called Nizza or Nizza Marittima in Italian): both once belonged to Duchy of Savoy and got their suffixes to distinguish between the two. I travelled to the Italian Nizza by a combination of train and bus from Turin. The trip takes about 1.5 hours, and a transfer is needed in Asti. From that point on the flat surroundings of the northern industrial cities are replaced by a landscape of cultivated hills. That’s where the WH area begins.

    The bus travels via one or two interesting hillside villages such as Mongiardina. I expected Nizza Monferrato to be something similar, but this is a fairly large town of over 10,000 inhabitants. In the nomination dossier it is highlighted as the best example of a vilanova: a medieval settlement with a main, arch-lined street and a market square for the sale of local products.

    The typical arch-lined main street in Nizza Monferrato

    So there I was, in the city center. But what’s to see? I had noted down a few sights that are named in the nomination dossier: there should be a market, 19th century ‘devanture displays’ like a bottle resting on a wine glass, a Museum of Taste and an Etnographical Museum. On my first round of the center however I only encountered locals enjoying their first coffee of the day and chatting with their neighbours. Signs to city attractions are seriously lacking, and I only had a basic map. I eventually found my way to the Palazzo Crova. This 18th century villa nowadays houses a wine bar & shop, plus the Museum of Taste. Noone was around though and the doors to the Museum were closed.

    I was similarly unlucky with the Museo Bersano, the etnographical museum. This lies just across the street from the train station. They have an outdoor exhibition of tools used in the wine industry. It sounded as the most interesting thing to see in Nizza Monferrato, but I encountered another closed door. The museum is only open between 9 and 11 on weekdays! This must be a recent change, as the hours advertised on the internet are much longer and include weekends. I had to console myself with looking at some of the exhibits through the closed iron gates.

    Part of Bersano winery

    Rather desperate now I tried to find another mysterious sight described in the nomination dossier: “a multi-storey residential building, from the early twentieth century, richly decorated with graffiti representing bunches of grapes placed in vertical ornamental stringcourse”. Could this be the one? By ‘graffiti’ they probably meant ‘sgraffito’ and not the spray paint type. My expectations of this WHS weren’t already high beforehand, but this visit was totally underwhelming. And although vineyard landscape aren’t among my favourite kind of WHS, I have spent some pleasant days in Lavaux, St. Emillion and Champagne. This part of the Piedmont though is very built-up and winemaking is big business.

    Published 6 August 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #610: Piedmont Vineyards:

    20th Century Ivrea

    Ivrea, industrial city of the 20th century will be submitted by Italy as their cultural nomination for 2018. It was actually already scheduled for 2017, but had to give way to the Venetian Defence Works. Ivrea lies in the foothills of the Alps, about an hour north of Turin. It’s a sizeable city of 25,000 inhabitants.

    An original Olivetti typewriter made in Ivrea

    Travelling by train from Turin, you’ll surely know when you’ve arrived in Ivrea: the townscape near the train station is invariably modern with lots of apartment blocks. During the 20th century, the city was transformed into the Olivetti Company Town. Olivetti was a very successful producer of type writers and calculators (until the Age of Computers started). Especially Adriano Olivetti set the most famous Italian architects and planners to work during the period between 1930 and 1960. He promoted a different kind of company town, more geared to the community’s needs (gathered via questionnaires) and involving psychology.

    This is going to be a serial nomination consisting of the Via Jervis and the Borgo Olivetti. The Via Jervis is the main drag of the modern city, the Borgo Olivetti comprises six self-sufficient single-family homes nearby. The latter were commissioned by Camillo Olivetti (father of Adriano) in 1926. The local authorities have turned the former company town into an ‘Open Air Museum’: this means that several information panels are strategically placed around town. They also have launched a very informative official website with a good map and detailed descriptions of the individual buildings.

    Edificio ex Sertec, headquarters of the Engineering services

    The completionist in me would have liked a well-signed trail along all 42 of the proposed buildings, but the 'Open Air Museum' is a more associative route somewhat half-heartedly signposted around town. It includes industrial, residential and social facilities. Main focus on Via Jervis is a large factory building with many windows, similar to the Van Nelle Factory or Fagus Factory. Across the street lies a former library, and behind that a still in use kindergarten. Most of the nominated buildings are in private use, and some are hard to see from the street view due to high gates and trees.

    The most remarkable of the buildings I found the Unità Residenziale Ovest. Better known as ‘Talponia’ (which means Moleville), this is is an underground apartment complex. It is shaped as an amphitheatre, opening up only on one side to its natural environment. I was eager to get a closer look, but came across signs that access to the compound is forbidden. I did see an information panel though on top of the molehill, so I ignored the warnings and walked around a for a bit on what is the roof of the apartment complex. I doubted whether it is still lived in, some of the windows have been covered by newspapers. But earlier I saw two cars leave the (also underground) parking garage. The building was made for basic lodging for graduates and new workers. You can buy one of these apartments today for 51,000 EUR. The photos of the interior made by the real estate company show a box-like structure basking in the sun.

    Talponia / Moleville

    I spent some 2 hours in Ivrea and enjoyed my stay. It certainly is recommendable to the many modern architecture adepts active on this website (especially those with fond feelings for Le Corbusier). WH status almost seems a last straw for Ivrea, as it looks a dying town in other aspects. “Today, “for sale” signs are ubiquitous in Ivrea. Some of the most iconic buildings commissioned by Olivetti lie empty and abandoned.” is the verdict of this article; "the city has not been able to recover from the decline of Olivetti".

    Published 13 August 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to 20th Century Ivrea:

    Ian (17 August 2016):
    Thanks for highlighting this one Els, I hadn't really paid much attention to it previously. But it is one to bear in mind for future visits to the area, even if it doesn't make it onto the list.

    Though I may pass on buying a holiday flat there :)

    Palazzina di Stupinigi

    The Palazzina di Stupingi is one of the 23 inscribed Residences of the Royal House of Savoy. It’s a former hunting residence, commissioned by Duke of Savoy Victor Amadeus II and built between 1729 and 1733. The architect Filippo Juvarra was responsible for designing this residence or little palace (hence: ‘palazzina’).

    The original bronze deer that stood on top of the Palazzina

    Stupinigi nowadays is a suburb of Turin: the palace lies some 10km from the city center. Among the Savoy residences, it is one of the later ones. It dates from the period that the court started incorporating parts of the countryside into their domain. For the purposes of entertainment and hunting, they created a so-called “ring of pleasure” around their capital.

    I took a taxi to Stupinigi from my Turin hotel near the train station, and 20 minutes later (and 20 EUR poorer) I was dropped off at the entrance of the palazzina. I visited in the late afternoon, hoping to avoid the peak of the summer heat and visitor crowds. It was very quiet, there were maybe only 10 other tourists around. I seriously doubt this site ever gets really busy: it’s too much off the beaten track for that. The first impression is a Versailles-like structure, with a huge deer statue on top to indicate the original purpose of the building. Familiar, but a bit quirky too.

    A familiar European palace decoration

    The royal family of the Duchy of Savoy invited friends and acquaintances here for hunting - the no. 1 pastime of the European elite. In the 18th century Stupinigi was a wooded area, so there were plenty of deer to hunt. In the decoration of the interior the hunting theme is continued. The original bronze deer that stood at the highest point of the roof of the palace can be seen (the one now at the top is a copy). Antlers feature prominently in several of the rooms.

    Two rooms of the castle are dedicated to another popular hobby of the late 18th century: Chinoiserie. Fake Chinese wallpaper, screens, and candlesticks with stereotypical Chinese figures are its remaining examples. It’s all very much over-the-top and shows the rococo style of the furnishings.

    After a short walk in the disappointing gardens, I had to get back to the city center. There was no taxi in sight, so I walked the whole driveway of the castle (about 2 km) unto the main road. There is a bus stop, but buses seemed to run infrequently on Sundays. So I continued on foot along the very long Corso Unione Sovietica to the nearest subway station. It is located in the Olympic quarter of 2006, when the Winter Olympics were held here. For future visitors I’d recommend renting a bike to get to Stupinigi: the tree-lined roads straight from the centre are easy to follow.


    Visiting a country residence like this one is a good addition to the innner city Savoy palaces such as Palazzo Reale and Palazza Madama, which I visited already in 2013. Unfortunately it also suffers from high entrance fees (I paid 15 EUR!) and a not overly friendly reception that regard non-Italian speakers as a nuisance. The entrance fee includes an audio guide. It provided good quality explanations in English, but I had to surrender my passport as a deposit (which isn’t good practice at a government-owned institution in a developed country).

    Published 20 August 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Palazzina di Stupinigi:

    WHS #611: Curonian Spit

    The Curonian Spit always has been a bit of an enigma to me. Who were these Curonians? And what is a Spit anyway? The Dutch translation (‘Schoorwal’) did not really help me as it is also a very uncommon word, used primarily to adress the Curonian Spit. So I was happy that we decided to have our WH meeting in Vilnius this year: with a few extra days I could check out this WHS too. I stayed for two nights in Klaipéda, the easiest access point to the Lithuanian part of the Curonian Spit.

    The forest almost reaches the beach

    Besides its name, another part of the site’s mystery is why it was designated a WHS. It was put forward under 7 natural and cultural criteria. But in the end it was only recognized for one: the efforts, started by the Prussians in the 19th century and continued by the Lithuanian and Russian authorities after WWII, to save this sand dune peninsula from erosion. Constantly moving sand dunes even had made whole villages disappear. Large-scale (re)afforestation was started to keep the sand in place.

    Forest still is one of its main features: my first impression of the peninsula was driving by bus from Smitylne to Nida. Especially the first half hour or so goes on a narrow road through a dense forest. The Lithuanian road ends after 50km in the town of Nida, close to the Russian border which unfortunately cannot be crossed easily (one needs a Russian visa and a mode of transport). Nida is the site of the Spit’s no. 1 landmark: the Parnidis Dune. That’s where I headed for my first hour of exploration.

    Curonian weathervane

    It’s a fine walk, with the bonus of a bit of warm sand between your toes. The scenery reminded me of the islands in the Dutch part of the Wadden Sea, the most comparable WHS to this one. The Curonian Spit also shares the nuisance of high visitor numbers in a relatively confined space with it. Lots of families with young children were trodding along on the interpretative trail to the Parnidis Dune. And at the top it got even worse: there is a bus parking at the back. Literally hundreds of cruise ship passengers are offloaded from their buses all day long, to be allowed a glimpse of this work of nature too.

    Back in the village of Nida I visited an old fisherman’s house. It is a reminder of the life of the Curonians, who lived in this region until they merged with other Baltic tribes in the 16th century. Via a video display you can witness the last two men speaking the now extinct Curonian language. Next to the house is an exhibition of colourful Curonian weathervanes. Sculpted from wood, they were not only useful for the sailors to see which way the wind was blowing but also indicated the people ashore from which hamlet they came.

    For lunch I had put my sights on the local specialty: smoked fish. For 5 EUR I got a large smoked mackerel on a paper plate, which I enjoyed dissecting. With this boost of energy I walked to the other end of Nida, where I had a look at the old cemetery. The graves here are specifically mentioned in the AB evaluation, so this is an aspect not to be missed. The gravemarkers are cut from timber into designs of flowers or human silhouettes. It’s not exactly that the cemetery is full of them, but I found a few.

    Nida cemetery

    On my way back to the ferry to Klaipéda I made stop in Juodkranté, the second most important town of the peninsula. It is a historic seaside resort, with lots of early 20th century wooden villas. It also is home to the 'Hill of Witches', where artists have shown their woodcarving skills via timber sculptures depicting local legends. It's a bit of a tourist trap, but some are nicely done and it is a fine short hike through yet another part of the forest.

    So that's what I grasped from my day trip to the Lithuanian part of the Curonian Spit. I'd love to see a review featuring the Russian side.

    Published 26 August 2016 Leave a Comment

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    WH Travellers meeting in Vilnius

    During the weekend of 27 & 28 August, the lovely Lithuanian capital of Vilnius was the venue of this year’s WH Travellers meeting. The location provided ample possibilities for sidetrips to the Lithuanian coast (for Curonian Spit), the other Baltic States and Belarus. We were 15 travellers from 8 countries, including for the first time someone that flew in from outside of Europe (Hi Kelly!). There were even spouses present from 2 further countries, plus 3 tiny globetrotters.

    A captive audience at the Trakai courtyard

    On Saturday we did a customized day tour by minibus, stopping at Trakai TWHS, Kernavé WHS, the geographical centre of Europe at Purnuskes and finally one location of the Struve Geodetic Arc WHS. We had to share Trakai with the tourist masses, but from then on fortunately it got more and more quiet and remote. The visitor experience at Kernavé was a surprise with no less than 2 new museums. One of them is Open Air, and the timber building style of the huts gave us the idea for a new Connection called No Nails. And we were all awarded with a certificate that we visited “a” geographical centre of Europe. Our guide for the day Agnes did well in sticking to the programme, time schedule and answering odd questions about Lithuania.

    We ended late afternoon at the Struve site ‘Meschkanzi’ with celebratory drinks. Beforehand the tour company had suggested to me doing the itinerary in the reverse order, ending at the more impressive Trakai. But I was adamant that for our group of travellers a Struve location was the icing on the cake. I’ll leave it to Nan to write up a review of this WHS (his 300th), but I can disclose that he could not stop laughing when he saw it.

    A highlight for many: Struve location #023

    On Sunday morning, we finished it all off with a leisurely guided walk through Vilnius. The sizeable German-speaking WH travel contingent was present again, despite a late beer tasting session the night before. A few others had to catch early flights, but we welcomed Clyde as a new participant in our midst.

    An occasion like this of course also is meant to exchange travel ideas and ‘learn from each other’. Had we always considered Iain’s self-imposed rule about ticking WHS only after they are included in the List as overly strict, his pure focus on stringing together WHS without ‘waisting’ time on TWHS now suddenly seems very efficient. Wojtek made a good case about Kazan, gateway to the Kazan Kremlin and Bolgar but also very close to next year’s Russian hopeful Sviyazhsk. It now has made at least my list of travel plans for the near future.

    Strolling through Old Vilnius

    So will there be another meeting next year? I guess so, if we manage to find a destination that is attractive to both seasoned and developing WH travellers. We would like to get into a difficult-to-access site, use the group leverage to make things happen that are off-limits for the individual. Gorham’s Cave has been mentioned. St. Kilda also has supporters. I am open to ideas, and especially to people with the right connections to make it happen.

    P.S.: Thanks to Hubert, group photos can be found here.

    Published 31 August 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WH Travellers meeting in Vilnius:

    Wojtek (2 September 2016):
    It was a pleasure to be there. Thank you Els for organizing the meeting and all the participants for interesting talks.

    vantcj1 (1 September 2016):
    Great to know that you all had such a great time together! I hope to be able to be with you all on another occasion.

    Kind regards and good WH travels!

    nan (1 September 2016):
    >> write up a review of this WH


    Not sure if this counts as review.

    >> [H]is pure focus on stringing together WHS without ‘wasting’ time on TWHS now suddenly seems very efficient

    Agreed. Seeing how many TWHS I visited and how few get actually inscribed.

    >> WHS #300 -- at Struve Geodetic Arc, no less!

    Not a coincidence. I had gone to Chrstianfeld before to get to 300 during our meeting. And Struve is such an iconic site.

    clyde (31 August 2016):
    I think you can add the Silk Road to the No nails connection. I recall that the Xian Drum Tower and some structures at the Xian City Walls are also built without the use of nails

    Colvin (31 August 2016):
    Sounds like you all had a great time, and I hope everything works out to continue these get-togethers in future years. Congratulations to Nan on WHS #300 -- at Struve Geodetic Arc, no less!

    WHS #612: Kernavė

    The WH meeting in and around Vilnius provided me with a good opportunity to polish up some reviews of WHS in this corner of the world. Kernavė Archaeological Site had been reviewed for the last time 6 years ago, and – like the Curonian Spit – its distinguishing features always had been a bit of a mystery to me. It is also the least visited site in Lithuania among our subscribed travellers. However, it lies only 45 km from the capital and is open 5 days a week without any restrictions.

    Wooden chapel

    It is a largely unexcavated archaeological site, harbouring the remains of a settlement and five hill-forts dating from the 12th – 14th century. Kernave slowly had grown into a permanent town at this strategic location near the Neris River from the 1st century on. Its OUV lies mainly in the construction of these hill-forts, as well as the mixture of pre-Christian and Christian traditions (shown for example in the burial rites). The Lithuanians were very late to embrace Christianity: the official year is 1387, ending the existence of the last pagan nation in Europe.

    Since 2012, the interpretation of this WHS has greatly improved due to the commissioning of a new on-site museum. The exhibition lies mostly underground, and lighting is kept to a bare minimum. This benefits the many audiovisual features. During summer, events of Experimental Archaeology are often held at the site and they’ve used recordings of these to explain the use of findings that are displayed in adjacent showcases. As many of the objects are quite primitive and repetitive (think endless numbers of earrings), the videos make the exhibition much more interesting. The only memorable object found & shown here is a small sculpture of a male figure, that is said to represent a pagan god (but could also well be a totally unrelated trade product obtained from Germany).

    Pagan symbol (possibly), shown at the museum

    After the museum, which lies at the entrance to the archaeological site and next to the modern church, we took in the views of the five hills near the river that comprise the main site. It’s difficult to see them all in once; and it's even more difficult to see fortresses in them: they look like tumuli (such as those in Gyeongju in South Korea) or a natural curiosity such as the Chocolate Hills in Bohol (Philippines). Fortunately we had just seen an animated video in the museum, showing the development of the hill-fortresses through the ages. The nobility and their guards lived on top of these hills, while the common people still stayed down near the river.

    The lifestyle of these people is the subject of the Open Air Museum, also a fairly recent addition to the complex. It consists of a small village of wooden huts. There's not much 'story' told here, I have no idea which period they are trying to re-create or houses of which members of society. Also, no connection is made with the wooden chapel that seems to be the only original building still remaining on the grounds. One of our Swiss participants declared their interior "just like a contemporary Alpine mountain hut".

    The hills

    Long flights of stairs have been added to the hills, to allow climbing without disturbing the whole mound. Our guide for the day did not take us up there (which I really did not mind much as it was a hot day & I do not need to climb everything), but some of our WH group members wanted to. They succeeded taking in a couple while the others walked back slowly to the minibus. In all, we stayed at the site just under 2 hours - which proofs that with the additional 'attractions' there's more to see than in 2010 for example. There were some other visitors around, though it still it is not nearly as popular as Trakai Castle or Vilnius.

    Published 3 september 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #612: Kernavė:

    1940's - 1950's Architecture of Minsk

    I am not going to make a habit out of reviewing former TWHS, but I sincerely thought that the 20th century Minsk architecture still was on the Tentative List of Belarus. However, it was removed from it in 2015. And that while Soviet (or Stalinist) Architecture is not yet represented on the List. Worthwhile other additions in this category could be The Soviet Architecture of Moscow and The Motherland Calls Statue (Volgograd), both featuring in our Top 50 Missing. Anyway, it would not surprise me if Belarus would renominate Minsk in the future. More on that later.

    Trade Unions Palace of Culture on Lenin Square

    The Architectural ensemble of Francysk Scaryna avenue in Minsk (1940's -1950's) - the full name of the former TWHS - includes the buildings along the city’s 2.9 km long main avenue. It was a harmoniously planned cityscape, constructed in 15 years time after the end of World War II. Minsk had been severely damaged during the war, turning 80% of the houses into rubble. Its architectural design was made by M. Parusnikov, who was selected after a competition.

    Today the street has been renamed into ‘Independence Avenue’, dropping the name of Francysk Scaryna (a 16th century Belarussian humanist and language reformer). Ian has reviewed this site a few years ago, and I do agree with him that Minsk is a surprisingly enjoyable city. It has a combination of an almost Parisian elegance with a youthful vibe. I first walked this avenue on my way from the train station to my hotel in the city center. The road is very wide (42-48m), suited for militairy parades. Most of the time as a pedestrian you go to the other side via an underpass. One monumental building after the other pleases the eye.

    Building of the KGB

    The next day I did a self-guided tour of the city on foot and by metro. I was already tired before I reached this street again, so I managed only to walk half way this time. I did so from the Lenin statue to Lenin square, passing for example the Post Office, GUM department store, McDonalds (yep, in a Soviet-style monumental building), KGB headquarters and the Trade Unions Palace. Guidebooks and trip reports warn against taking photos of the statue and the surrounding government buildings, but I was never bothered by police. What struck me was how classicist this architecture was – hence the title ‘Socialist Classicism’. According to Wikipedia, Stalin liked “new, expensive "ensemble" projects which valued facades and grandeur”. This undoubtedly has worked well on this avenue.

    So what’s up with future plans of making this a WHS? Ian in 2010 found a source that said “the roofs on the pedestrian subways [..] supposedly led to it being rejected by UNESCO as a WHS”. To my knowledge however, the site has never been officially put forward (so it cannot have been rejected).

    In fact, Belarus in 2013 was still actively discussing Minsk’s WH potential. It took part in an ICOMOS sponsored meeting called Socialist Realism and Socialist Modernism. World Heritage Proposals from Central and Eastern Europe. Countries of the former communist block discussed a possible transnational serial nomination of Socialist Realist monuments. ICOMOS seemed to welcome this: “an important contribution to .... closing gaps on the UNESCO list. Buildings from the socialist period characterise the architectural heritage of the 20th century in Eastern Europe and Eurasia dominated by the Soviet Union. They also represent an important facet of Modernism and of contemporary cultural identity on a global scale...”.

    Fragment of the facade of GUM department store

    There’s a third option however: have the Belarussian authorities become a bit embarassed about Minsk's Stalinist roots? Since organizing the World Ice Hockey Championships in 2014, its approach to western visitors clearly has thawed. Stratfor’s blog states for example: “Whether or not Minsk's facelift was for these anticipated tourists, the city has definitely changed. It will never fully be able to conceal its Stalinist look, …. Recently, however, I found a pleasant city full of cafes and nice restaurants, most of which had a new clean and modern design, more Baltic than Russian.”

    And then, when I just got back and was finalizing this review, there's the confirmation: Minsk Independence Avenue to be nominated for World Heritage Site status.

    Published 7 September 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to 1940's - 1950's Architecture of Minsk:

    WHS #613: Mir Castle

    The last review on this website of Mir Castle dated from 2010. It is however the most prominent tourist attraction of Belarus, receiving 300,000 visitors a year. I went there on a day trip from Minsk, with a car and driver for the day (we also covered nearby Nesvizh on the same tour). Driver Roman was pleasant company, and he made sure that I was given audioguides in English at both locations to learn more about their backgrounds. This approach made the tour considerably less expensive than taking a guide in person with us for the day.

    First impression

    Mir Castle only lies an hour away from Minsk, and is accessible from the country’s main highway to Brest (we fantasized that we could drive straight ahead, all the way to Amsterdam via Warsaw and Berlin, a drive of at least 1,700km). We arrived at Mir at the opening hour of 10 a.m.

    The reconstruction of the castle only has been finished since 2013. Entrance costs 10 BYN (New Belarus Ruble), quite expensive at 4.5 EUR: this is far more than the average main course in a restaurant in Minsk. Access to the interior of the castle is now one of the main attractions: 6 years ago it was still completely bare inside, now the rooms have been filled with objects commonly associated with European late medieval castles (canonballs, armoury, hunting trophies). There are also many portraits of the families who lived in this castle. Almost everything on show is a reproduction: the real valuables have long ago been carried away, to museums in Warsaw for example. Still it gives an idea of how it must have looked like. There’s even a reconstruction of the wine and beer cellar!

    Dining room, including heaters with Radziwill coat of arms

    Belarus has very few 'old' things left: both the First and the Second World War and the Soviet era are to blame. Only in 1991 they seriously started to renovate the castle, after it had been empty for decades and had served as a POW camp. The castle barely got in on the List: it is part of our infamous Inscribed at third attempt or more connection. During my pre-visit research (carried out between 5 and 6.30 a.m. in the morning of the same day that I went there!), I found out that ICOMOS originally even had advised ‘Rejection’ at its first try in 1991. A study had confirmed that it was of “a type that is not uncommon in this area of Central Europe”, and they did not see sufficient quality.

    I spent 1.5 hours on site, taking in the castle’s interior, the brick chapel on the grounds (closed) and doing a full loop around the lake. Men were even fishing there. From the wooden bridge on the far side of the lake, one has the best view of the castle - with four of the five towers in sight. The very different design of these towers clearly is the castle’s Unique Selling Point.

    View from across the lake

    In the course of the morning a lot of other visitors had arrived. All three car parks were fully occupied when I returned to the gate to drop off my audioguide. Most arrivals seemed to consist of Belarusian day trippers. The influx of Western European tourists, as is seen in Vilnius for example, is still far away here.

    Published 10 September 2016 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #614: Nesvizh

    Nesvizh until 1939 was the family estate of the most prominent noble family from Belarus: the Radziwill. The WHS consists of a palace with landscape gardens and a church. I visited it right after Mir Castle: it lies just about half an hour away, a bit deeper into the countryside. With only 33 recorded visits on this website, it ranks a very low 442th among 500 European/North American WHS. On the day itself it was also much less crowded than Mir.

    The palace in all its glory

    I started with a quick lunch in Nesvizh town because I wanted to try out the Belarussian specialty ‘machanka’ (something creative with the regional staples of pork and potato – not recommended). On to the palace then, which lies at the end of a very long driveway on the outskirts of town. It has been reconstructed since 2001, was hit by a fire in 2002 but the works seem to be all finished now. You can compare my pictures with those in the other Nesvizh reviews on this website for a ‘before and after’.

    They obviously are very careful with the interior of the palace, as everybody is requested to wear plastic shoe covers. What awaits inside is a series of European-style palace rooms. The founding Radziwill got inspired by French and German castles during his travels, and wanted to recreate such a thing for his family in Belarus. Like in Mir, there is not much original in here but the audio guide diligently explained per room what is 'real' and what from a later date.

    After many dining rooms, bedrooms and a ballroom I came to the most surprising place: a room full of hunting trophies. I counted two stuffed bears and dozens of grouse. Star object in this room however is an American billiard table from 1896. This was too heavy for the Germans to take during World War II. In subsequent years, the palace was used as a sanatorium and the pool table came in handy in the recreation room.

    The billiard cum hunting room

    Once outside again, I walked along the palace’s moat. The adjoining landscape garden did not look very appealing, so I returned to the main gate. Next to this gate lies the Corpus Christi Church: a major component of the nomination, maybe the one that embodies the “transition of western (architectural) concepts to Central Europe”‘ value the best.

    Its exterior is under scaffolding at the moment, but inside everything is still in place. A woman of about 60 stood guard at the entrance. She started a long talk in Belarussian, but luckily there were some visitors in front of me so I learned that it is first necessary to give a donation to the church. Only after that the lady removed the rope that separates the entrance from the rest of the church.

    She gave me a booklet with explanations in English and immediately sent me to the crypt. Here most of the Radziwill dynasty lies buried. I found several wooden boxes covered in dust – somehow I had expected more grandeur. The church itself would not be out of place in Italy. It was modelled after the Jesuit church in Rome, and has many baroque frescoes and other features.

    Dynastic burial place

    Unfortunately I did not have enough time to explore more of Belarus than Minsk, Mir and Nesvizh. I’d like to see Brest and the Khatyn memorial, major historic playgrounds that suffered a lot in various battles. And Polotsk, a TWHS and supposedly the best preserved medieval Belarussian city. The Bialowieza Forest WHS is also still waiting. It’s about time to turn the tide in Belarussian tourism and relieve them from national worries such as Why Do So Few Tourists Visit Belarus?.

    Published 17 Sept 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #614: Nesvizh:

    wojtek (17 September 2016):
    Hopefully it is going for the better. Belarus recently extended visa free zone to Grodno and there are rumours that visit through Minsk airport will be without visa for tourists.

    WHS #615: Makapan Fossil Hominid Site

    My two-week journey around eastern South Africa is going to be one of obscure sites. This is partly inevitable, due to remoteness or lack of tourism features of WHS like Mapungubwe and Vredefort Dome. But my first site of this trip is an obscure one by choice: for ticking off the Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa, there is the easy option of the Sterkfontein Caves (close to Johannesburg). From what I gathered it’s a bit of a zoo, so I opted for one of the other inscribed sets of fossil hominid caves. Fortunately there’s one about half way on the road north between Johannesburg and Mapungubwe: the Makapan Valley.

    An almost hidden entrance

    The Makapan Valley was added as an extension to the Sterkfontein area in 2005. It is said to enrich the original nomination, with its long unbroken record of occupation (spanning almost the entire 3.5 million years) and the recovery of fossil fauna alongside. The location (notably the Cave of Hearths) was deemed “as good” in its own right as the Ethiopian Valleys of the Omo and the Awash. The hominid fossils found here are of the Australopithecus africanus and Homo heidelbergensis species.

    Gaining entrance to the site proved not to be easy, especially while organizing it from abroad. I learned that the area can currently only be visited on appointment. The e-mail adresses that I found online turned out to be invalid however. So I decided to just show up at the associated Arend Dieperink Museum in nearby Mokopane. The museum is a charming ramshackle private collection with bits and pieces of local history. There’s one exhibition room devoted to findings from the Makapan Valley. It may not look much from the outside, but I was delighted to come eye-to-eye with several skull fragments of specimens of the Australopithecus africanus. They really had much smaller heads than modern humans.

    Skull fragments of a Australopithecus africanus

    Upon leaving the museum, I asked the lady in charge how to go about a visit to the Makapan’s Caves. “You can go there now – it’s always open”, she replied. So no appointment then? I was a bit sceptical, but decided to drive there anyway. The caves lie north of Mokopane, at a signposted turnoff from the ‘old’ road to Polokwane. The last couple of kilometers to the site itself are on an unpaved road. It was just doable with my standard rental car. I had no idea where I would end up, but after passing a hamlet called Makapan Valley I found myself right in front of a gate of National Park proportions. A female guardian came up and after telling that I’d like to see the caves, she directed me inside and said that a guide would be available for me there.

    I arrived at what is now ‘the office’ of Makapan Valley World Heritage Site. The guide on duty asked “Have you paid for the tour already?”. Apparently one has to pay at an office on the outskirts of Mokopane (at the Mokopane Center across the street from the Park Hotel?) – which of course I didn’t know about. But he took pity on me, and got into the car with me to the caves that lie still much further into the countryside.

    Three caves are open to visitors. The first one has limestone deposits, that’s where the hominid fossils were found. When we arrived at its gate though, it turned out that my guide had forgotten to bring the right keys. Not wanting to drive all the way back on the bad road, we just went on to the other two caves which lie next to each other. These particular caves were used for mining, and railway tracks are still visible. First we saw the Cave of Hearths, renowned for the first hominid-controlled fire and many stone age findings. The top layer of the cave has almost collapsed. And along the same trail lies the ‘Historic’ Cave – the site of a siege between the local Kekana Chief Makapan, who with his clan members sought refuge in these caves, and the advancing Voortrekkers in 1854.

    Cave of Gwaša, or the Historic Cave

    A “world-class” Visitor Centre with auditorium was planned for Makapansgat in 2005, paid for by lottery money. It never materialized. Of course the stories and findings are much more exciting than the actual caves. A remarkable object found here is the Makapansgat Pebble: a 3 million years old pebble shaped like a human face. It’s a ‘manuport’, probably the oldest ever found: a natural object removed from its original setting by humans (or hominids), who did not alter it but took it back to the cave because they may have recognized its symbolic or aesthetic value.

    Published 3 October 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #615: Makapan Fossil Hominid Site:

    WHS #616: Mapungubwe

    Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape lies at the northern border of South Africa, adjoining Botswana and Zimbabwe. This remote setting probably accounts for its low profile and limited visitor numbers, even among World Heritage Travellers (ranking 830th out of 1052). In the nomination file it was noted that although many WHS have to deal with high numbers of visitors, the sustainability of Mapungubwe is threatened by attracting too few of them.

    Approaching Mapungubwe Hill

    What I found however was a well-cared-for National Park, worth anyone’s visit for a day or so. On my first two half-day trips into the park, I focused on game drives and brushed up my mammal list total: I saw mongoose, klipspringer, southern giraffe and steenbok for the first time. The park isn’t teeming with wildlife: there are no fences between the park and the adjoining zones in Botswana and Zimbabwe, so the animals migrate a lot between the three countries. Also the density of mopane bushes makes it hard to see smaller animals. But especially the dramatic landscape, with lots of old baobab trees, ridges and canyons makes the park attractive.

    Mapungubwe was a large inland settlement that pre-dates the much better-known Great Zimbabwe. There’s a hint of Kernave to its story: the chief with his close allies lived in a palace on the hill, whille the common people inhabited villages below. In its heyday in the 13th century, the society is believed to have consisted of 9,000 people. While large parts of the park can be explored with your own car, that hill (Mapungubwe Hill) is only accessible with a guided tour from the park office. These 'Heritage Tours' are conducted 3 times a day, and I booked a spot on the 4 p.m. tour about two hours before. I was the only participant.

    The flat-topped hill where the archaeological findings have been made lies in a startling green part of the park. Vegetation shows that a river flowed here in the past, so the Mapungubwe people had chosen their spot well. After a short drive we left the jeep behind and continued on foot. The guide was carrying a gun: this is lion and elephant territory.

    Carved board game

    Mapungubwe Hill is where the royal family withdrew at a given time, and where three graves with precious objects have been uncovered. It is a natural fortress, the walls are so steep that no one could approach unseen. From photos that I had seen beforehand I thought it would be a single outstanding inselberg – but in fact whole Mapungubwe National Park is full of this kind of eroded hills. At neither of the two game drives I had recognized Mapungubwe Hill.

    In the past there was only one way up, via a ladder. We used the same approach. It took some 10 minutes climbing steep stairs (modern wooden ones fortunately), and then we were on the summit. Although naturally flat, it was made more inhabitable by the former residents by adding sand to it. They (the women apparently) took it from the valley below. The top still is covered with a layer of sand with grass, convenient enough to build your hut. The only visible remains are circular cutouts in the soft red sandstone. There is also a water tank and a granary. Water and grains were obviously provided to the royals by the ordinary people 'from below'.

    Copy of the Golden Rhino

    In 2011 a museum opened at the park to show the Mapungubwe findings. But they have not been very succesful since to lure away artifacts from the University of Pretoria Museum where most are stored. Mainly glass beads and ceramics, evidence of the position of the Mapungubwe Kingdom at the Indian Ocean trade route, are shown. The most spectacular of the discoveries is a little gold rhinoceros, made of gold foil and tacked with minute pins around a wooden core. I already had made plans to go and see it in Pretoria on my way up north, but it turns out that the Golden Rhino just moved to the British Museum on a temporary loan! It’s the first time that this symbol of post-Apartheid South Africa has left the country. There’s a copy on show in the Mapungubwe museum.

    Published 8 October 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #616: Mapungubwe:

    Ngwenya Mines

    The Ngwenya Mines comprise the only entry on the Tentative List of Swaziland, a country without a proper WHS so far. The site has been lingering on that list already since 2008. It claims to be the “oldest mine in the world”. Its iron ore deposits were worked at least 42,000 years ago, when red haematite and specularite (sparkling ores) were extracted by the forefathers of ancient San Bushmen. The mining history of Ngwenya further consists of early iron smelting by the Bantu from 400 AD on and the ‘modern’ mining of the 20th century by foreign companies.

    Overgrown mining area

    I entered Swaziland by rental car from South Africa, crossing the border at Oshoek. The turn-off for the ‘Old Ngwenya Mine’ lies right after the border crossing. It is signposted well. After a few kilometers uphill drive I arrived at the gate to the Malolotja Nature Reserve, of which the former mines now are a part of. A ranger welcomed me, collected the 28 Rand entrance fee and jumped into the passenger seat so we could drive further up to the mine itself.

    The first view of the mine pit is quite spectacular. Although the stepped walls made during the blasting process are still visible, the hole is now almost fully covered by trees and bushes. Since the mine closed in 1977, nature has had almost 40 years to win back its territory. Mammals have returned, mostly monkeys.

    Piece of equipment (1913)

    All historic mining stages are represented at the visitor center, which lies next to the first viewpoint. It has one room of exhibitions, showing the geology, the iron tools (including shackles and spears) made by the Bantu and a machine from early 20th century England. There are also photos of how the mine looked like right after the mining stopped: so totally different from now, only bare ground with chunks ‘eaten away’ by the heavy equipment.

    We got into the car again for a visit to the Lion Cavern, which is where the earliest traces of mining have been found. Access is from the other end of the large pit, an old gravel road circumvents it. From the car parking over there it’s another 10 – 15 minute uphill walk to reach the cave. There are very fine views over the rolling hills of Swaziland from up there. A wooden staircase leads to the cave itself. It’s very small and also very red. The guide tells that people from the territory below were probably attracted by the red colouring. They started using the iron dust for cave paintings and sun protection. He smeared some of it on the back of my hand, and indeed it has an amazing deep red colour and a glittery effect.

    Lion's Cavern

    Mining has been going on intermittently in this region. Although this ‘old mine’ now has closed, another one has opened up more to the north in the Malolotja Nature Reserve. Considering the involvement of even the Swazi king, I guess the economical benefits of the mines will take precedent above a possible World Heritage status. I was pleasantly surprised though by the professional demeanour of the guide and the care that has obviously gone into the visitor center. With some 10-20 tourists a day (plus the odd school group during the season), it does see a steady trickle of visitors just strong enough to keep it going.

    Published 12 October 2016 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #617: iSimangaliso Wetland

    iSimangaliso Wetland Park lies well on the main tourist trail around South Africa. It’s a huge park, stretching for 220km along the Indian Ocean coast until the border with Mozambique. It also has a 5 km wide marine component along the whole coastline. I stayed for 3 nights in the town of St. Lucia, which is the tourist capital and main access point to the park.

    Overlooking the Indian Ocean

    Because of its size, there are completely different ecosystems to be enjoyed. For the marine part, I had set my eyes on a whale watching tour. But unfortunately it was cancelled due to strong winds. So what I mainly did was drive around by myself. From St. Lucia there are two gates into the park, one to the Eastern Shores and one to the Western. The park is remarkable for South African standards as it is very green. No shortage of rain here, compared to the severe drought much of the rest of the country suffers from.

    On my first morning I entered via Bhangazi Gate, which leads you to the Eastern Shores ending at Cape Vidal. For the best part the drive goes through a savannah. Prominent inhabitants are the Greater Kudu (quite big indeed) and other cloven-hoofed mammals such as the Common Reedbuck. All loop roads from the main road were closed for maintenance, but the various viewpoints were accessible. They will give you views over the coastline, one that is remarkably similar to the all-too-familiar Wadden Sea.

    This road ends at a wooded area, where two species of monkey play around. The Vervet Monkeys occupied their usual spot at the parking area, looking for any left-over food from human beings visiting the beach here. More special are the Samango Monkeys, who kept their distance. They’re a subspecies of the Blue (or Sykes') Monkey.

    On the way back I stopped at the Catalina Bay lookout, probably the best viewpoint of this side of the park. It overlooks Lake St. Lucia.

    Female Greater Kudu

    Later that day at 4 pm I took part in the most touristy thing you can do here: a Hippo & Croc Boat Tour. I was already sceptical beforehand, but it’s the only way to see some of the park from the water. The boat travels the estuarine system into Lake St. Lucia. There are many operators offering this tour, and they all visit the same spots at the same time (so you have to wait your turn at each stop). Imagination and variation is not a strong point of the South African travel industry in general – they cater to the mainstream, to the first time visitor to Africa. The boat slowly navigated the estuary, hitting the favourite spots of the hippo’s. Sightings of these are abundant, and as always they are fun to watch. We didn’t see anything else of interest, besides two almost hidden crocodiles and a fish eagle.

    The next day I entered the park at the Dukukduku (western) gate. This part seems to have more mammals than the one I visited the day before. The road was blocked by a large male elephant so I had to wait a while until he finished his breakfast. There are also large herds of wildebeest here, as well as zebra, giraffe and various antelopes. Scenery wise it isn’t as attractive as the Eastern Shores. During the evening I took a night drive tour, also into this western part. As it was raining slightly, we got very cold. The only remarkable creature of the night we saw was a Bushbaby.


    iSimangaliso nowadays advertises itself as a Big 5-park (or even a Big 7). I find that a pity, as its unique setting for Southern Africa and water-related features should be their main selling point. These features are now difficult to enjoy. I did see few birds for example, I think the site could do with some good bird hides. South African parks are obsessed by the Big 5, and they reintroduce species frequently to reach the 5 (iSimangaliso got lions again in the last few years). This seems to be not only the policy of the main parks managed by the SAN, but also that of the many private game (and hunting!) reserves the country has. In Mapungubwe I was staying in one of those, and the staff told me that they just bought some elephants and were already planning for adding rhinos.

    Published 15 October 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #617: iSimangaliso Wetland:

    Nelson Mandela Legacy Sites

    Human Rights, Liberation Struggle and Reconciliation: Nelson Mandela Legacy Sites is the full name of a South African Tentative Site covering 13 groups of sites related to the anti-apartheid struggle. They cover locations ranging from the Sharpeville Massacre site to prominent institutions for missionary education which “produced Southern African leaders who presented a synthesis of Western and African values”. It needs a good understanding though of South African history during the past 100 years to get a full grasp of what’s included and why. But I was willing to be educated.

    Luthuli Museum in Groutville

    As I had another long drive ahead of me – 440km between the WHS of iSimangaliso and Drakensberg – I decided to visit two of these anti-apartheid sites along the way. I first hit the town of Groutville for the ‘Chief Albert Luthuli Home & Museum’. The museum is already signposted from the highway. Fortunately so, as my TomTom navigation did not recognize any street adress in Groutville. The town is definitely not one on the itinerary of European tourists, crossing South Africa from (white) tourist enclave to another. Groutville is 99.6% black. To me it felt like a town in the Deep South of the USA.

    Before I prepared this trip I had never heard of Albert Luthuli, but he was an important predecessor of Mandela. Luthuli was president of the ANC in the 1950s and 1960s, and advocated nonviolent resistance against apartheid. It earned him the Nobel Peace Prize already in 1960. The house where he lived most of his life has become a museum since 2004. After signing in at the gate, I was shown around by a serious young guide. In the garden Luthuli had a special place of contemplation. Here he also received his guests (he was only allowed to see one at a time and forbidden to leave his hometown himself). His most famous guest was Robert F. Kennedy, who arrived in Groutville by helicopter. Within two years of their meeting both men were dead: Kennedy was assassinated, and Luthuli died in a train accident. The guide said that his family however thinks that it was not an accident but a political murder.

    Garden bench where Luthuli met Kennedy

    Driving on along the southeast coast, past Pietermaritzburg, I approached the second location. It’s the ‘Mandela Capture Site’ at Howick. The site isn’t signposted as well around town as the Luthuli Museum, but this time my TomTom did the trick and had it listed under ‘tourist attractions’. This is the location where Mandela was arrested, the arrest which lead to his long imprisonment on Robben Island. He was stopped by the side of the road, while pretending to be the driver of a white businessman. It still is a inconspicuous spot, some 4 km outside of Howick along a secondary road.

    At this symbolic location a visitor center and memorial monument have been constructed. They’re even in the process of building a grand exhibition hall: this should for example include a replica of Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. A tunnel has to connect the hall with the exact location where the arrest took place across the road near the railway tracks. Even now tourists already know to find this place. Two Dutch tour groups were already present when I arrived, and there were also numerous individual South African visitors. The exhibition now shows dozens of information panels about Mandela's life since he was a child. In the outdoor area a straight path symbolizing the Long Road to Freedom leads to a work of art. 50 jagged steel bars (a reference to prison bars) form the silhouette of Mandela’s face.

    Memorial at the Mandela Capture Site

    This TWHS obviously has clear links with the already inscribed Robben Island, although it is not presented as an extension. To add to the confusion there’s an earlier incarnation of this TWHS on South Africa’s Tentative List called ‘Liberation Heritage Route’ (2009), which covers both Robben Island and the Mandela Legacy sites. It seems logical though that South Africa will push on with this 2015 TWHS. Its selection of sites goes well beyond a Mandela personality cult, and brings more depth to the history of the anti-apartheid struggle than Robben Island alone. For now checking out a few of them is a good excuse to get off-the-beaten track in South Africa.

    Published 19 October 2016 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #618: Drakensberg

    The Maloti Drakensberg Transboundary World Heritage Site covers hundreds of km’s of a mountain range on the border between South Africa and Lesotho, with protected areas on both sides. The whole region is known for its beautiful mountain landscape and abundant rock art. It’s especially popular with South Africans (pensioners mostly) for weekend getaways.

    Looking down into the Sani Pass

    Traditionally, the South African Drakensberg mountains are divided into 3 parts: southern, central and northern. I started my visit from the south, with the quaint English-style town of Himeville as my base. From the neighbouring town of Underberg daily 4x4 tours leave to travel the Sani Pass. This is a steep gravel mountain road that ends in Lesotho at an altitude of 2876 m. This may be one of the last years to experience this soft adventure, as the South Africans are planning to pave the road up to the top (the Lesotho side is already paved). This would deprive the tourist operators in Underberg from their steady income. But it may have a positive side also, opening up more creative tours besides just driving up and down.

    Touristy as it might be, I still enjoyed the trip up the Sani Pass. It has the great vistas that the Drakensberg mountains are known for, with rolling green(ish) hills and a heavy-looking basaltic top layer. It will give you a ‘country tick’ as well as it ends up in Lesotho – but we did not see more of it than the border post and the inside of a ‘traditional’ hut. On the way back we did encounter several Basotho herdsmen and their longhaired sheep on their weekly trip to the market in neighbouring South Africa.

    San Rock Art at Main Caves, Giant's Castle

    European tour groups and individual tourists generally only spend 1 full day in these mountains, but I had planned for 3. On my second day I focused on the Rock Art. The Central Drakensberg area has the best locations for that. I drove northwards on the N3, and took the turn-off to Giant’s Castle near Mooirivier. Not far from the turn-off you can also follow a road to Kamberg, home to the Game Pass Shelter (possibly the best example of San Rock Art). I was a bit pressed for time and worried about the road conditions though, and choose the safe option of Giant’s Castle. This still is a 56km drive, mostly paved but not all. Giant’s Castle now is a resort/lodge, where you can turn up as a day visitor and visit the Main Caves.

    Guided tours are available here every hour, a ticket has to be bought beforehand at the reception of the lodge. You’re then supposed to walk to the caves by yourself (some 35 minutes). I enjoyed this little hike, it goes through a very pretty canyon with a river. Many more trails are available for people staying overnight at the lodge. Near the caves you have to wait at a fence until the tour starts right on the hour. Only one other visitor showed up beside me, and we were taken along the 2 main caves by a guide. The rock art is painted in different colours here (yellow, red, white, black) and shows many elands. Depicted also are people hunting and dancing, and shamans watching. It includes an example of Contact Rock Art, in the form of two British military men with a gun. The British fought fierce battles here with the San people, eventually leading to the expulsion of the latter.

    Northern Drakensberg Mountains

    During my final 2 nights in the Drakensbergen I stayed at the Greenfire Drakensberg Lodge, just outside the Royal Natal National Park – in the far north of the WH area. This is a lovely area to relax and do some leisurely hikes. I saw more primitive rock art here, and enjoyed the encounters with fierce-looking elands. 

    Published 22 October 2016 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #619: Vredefort Dome

    The Vredefort Dome is one of the most unique sites on the World Heritage List. It covers a representative part of what is the largest meteorite impact structure on earth. The structure is also the oldest at 2023 million years (or as some sources say: the second oldest after Suavjärvi which seems to be slightly older). This also makes it the oldest WHS in our Timeline. It’s virtually impossible to comprehend how old this is: the impact happened before our continents split, before most forms of plant life as we know it existed (only stromatolites lived after) and well before animals and humans came into existence.

    Part of one of the concentric rings of hills

    The crater site lies in the Free State and North West Provinces, near the towns of Parys and Vredefort and some 1.5 hours west of Johannesburg. No towns exist in the dome itself, but there are many farms. Almost the whole designated area is private land. That’s one of the reasons that the site is hard to visit. And also you really have to know what to look for: the crater itself is so large (400km in diameter) that it can only be seen from the air. So the focus needs to be on the geological impact of the event that is still visible on the ground.

    Fortunately there are a few local tour guides who are waiting to share their knowledge. I choose Jan Fourie, who runs private tours from Parys. I opted for the 5 hour version (which ended up taking 6.5 hours), but there are also full-day tours. The tour starts at Jan’s home, where with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table a South African couple and I were shown a powerpoint presentation about the origins of the dome. And – most importantly – about the geological features that are still recognizable in the field. We were promised 5 different 'impact markers', with such difficult names that I probably forgot already 2 of them before we were in the car.

    Many gates to private land have to be opened

    The drive along the locations of interest was a slow one: virtually all roads in the core zone are unpaved, and littered with potholes. We weren’t the only ones on the road here: the area is quite popular with weekend guests from Johannesburg, enjoying a family visit, a function such as a wedding or an outdoor adventure organized by one of the many outfitters.

    Our particular adventure consisted of entering farmland (Jan had all the necessary keys) and look at deformed rocks. The earlier geology lecture came in handy, otherwise it would still be difficult to know what you’re looking at. No part of the actual meteorite has ever been found here. What we did see though were scatter cones (created by the enormous pressure of the impact), black melt rock (even some with rock engravings on it), the hills of the concentric ring structure around the impact site and examples of pseudotachylite. Vredefort is the geological type site for pseudotachylite (i.e.: ‘fake volcanic glass ) – we saw some great examples in a former stone quarry.

    One of the ‘hidden’ entries along the dusty road gave access to a 19th century gold mine. Its buildings lie left to fade away, its tunnel into the underground mine is still intact. The mining is a product of the meteorite impact too: the impact brought deeper layers within the earth crust more to the surface. Also the drilling has uncovered numerous geological places of interest. Gold mining rendered too little in Vredefort, but the major gold mines near Johannesburg are a product of the same geological upheaval as well.


    The state of conservation of this WHS is worrying. None of the locations we visited was protected, however it must be said that they’re hard to find and thus not much in danger of theft or vandalism. The South African authorities use the same defense in their State of Conservation Report from 2013: “… decided not to clearly mark the boundaries of the serial sites in order to better protect them, as it states that their excellent condition is due to their exact locations not being generally known”.

    It’s a large area, and the land is owned by 149 private farmers. The South African government still has not been able to reach a final agreement with them and assure protection under national legislation. A visitor center has been built, but due to financial issues it was never used and is now crumbling away. There is a small exhibition at Venterskroon, a former mining town in the core zone and possibly the only site easy enough to visit under your own steam.

    Published 29 October 2016 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #620: Plitvice Lakes

    Plitvice Lakes National Park already became a World Heritage Site in 1979. It was among 6 sites from Yugoslavia that were inscribed that year, sites which now lie in 4 different countries (the others were Ohrid, Kotor, Split, Stari Ras and Dubrovnik). Plitvice is one of those ‘golden oldie’ Eastern European tourist destinations, like the Wieliczka Salt Mine or the Postojna Caves. One wonders if there comes a time when nobody will go there anymore. But it still attracts over one million visitors a year. I visited in early November - so what is Plitvice like out of season?

    Late autumn scenery

    I had stayed overnight in a town nearby, which allowed me to be present at the Lakes at 8.30 a.m. A November trip proved to be rewarding financially rightaway: no parking fee is required at this time of year, and the cost of an entrance ticket is cut in half to 55 kuna (about 7.30 EUR). This gives unlimited access to the various park entrances for one day, plus free transportation on the ferry across the largest lake and the shuttle buses. Quite good value I think.

    The park has two main entrances. I first drove to Entrance 2 (which lies somewhat half way the Upper and Lower Lakes). This parking lot turned out to be closed, so I returned to Entrance 1. While in summer queues of an hour or more are not unheard of, the only other visitors this morning fitted in the one bus and some 10 cars that were at the parking. From Entrance 1 it’s only a short walk to the highlight of Plitvice: the big waterfall and its associated travertine pools. If you have only one hour to spend at the park, I would suggest to take Entrance 1 and make a short dash down to this spectacular section. From the viewpoint it looks like a rather complex jigsaw puzzle. It includes a system of waterfalls and pools, crossected by a boardwalk.

    Jigsaw puzzle material

    The disadvantage of starting at Entrance 1 is that the rest of the park isn’t as spectacular. Mind you - it is still interesting enough and one can spend easily 4-5 hours hiking the trails. I did a combination of hike C and K: K is the only circuit that can be done fully on foot, while all the others involve some form of park transport. I did take the ferry across the main lake – I believe I had read beforehand that it doesn’t run in the low season, but it does (once an hour). The cafeteria near the dock was open too. There were some 60 people aboard, including a large group of Asian tourists. The latter stayed on board until stop P1, so their tour skipped the Upper Lakes which are accessible from stop P2.

    I hiked all the way up, along the smaller waterfalls that feed the Upper Lakes. Trails all around the lakes are well-maintained and easy to navigate. Near the top lies a shuttle stop, where I hopped on a tourist train-like vehicle to take me down to the middle section again. By that time it was around 12.30, and there were many more people around than earlier in the morning. Most visitors seem to come in groups – Asians, but also locals from maybe Zagreb or other cities nearby.

    Hiking path along one of the main lakes

    This first Saturday in November was blessed with dry and fairly mild weather. Scenery wise it would probably have been better to visit a week or two earlier to enjoy the fall foliage – almost all trees had lost their leaves by now. But it was a pleasure to walk around relaxed, the many boardwalks are no fun when there are droves of people crossing or stopping to take yet another selfie. The Plitvice Lakes are an undisputed WHS, although I found the scenery fairly similar to Jiuzhaigou (which is bigger and has higher mountains – IUCN also stated in Jiuzhaigou’s evaluation that its “landscape attractions exceed those of … Plitvice Lakes WHS”).

    Published 5 November 2016 Leave a Comment

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    Zadar - Romans and Venetians

    The Croatian coastal town of Zadar has been engaged in a battle with ICOMOS since 2012 to get a favourable recommendation for inscription on the World Heritage List. It has tried three times so far with its Roman and early Christian remains, although they were told already in 2014 “Please stop pursuing this!” The town also boosts a second Tentative Site: a part of the serial nomination for the Venetian Works of Defence, which is up for nomination next year. Last week I visited Zadar to check them both out.

    Cylindrical Church of St. Donatus

    As recently as 2016, the ‘Roman Urbanism of the Zadar Peninsula with the Monumental Complex on the Forum (Croatia)’ has been nominated and subsequently withdrawn after a negative advice. It focused on Zadar’s Roman orthogonal street network and Forum. The remains of the latter were discovered after World War II when “about 60% of the city’s historic fabric was destroyed”.

    What’s left of the Forum opens up to the seashore. It’s a large square, with on the city side notable monuments such as the odd shaped church of St. Donatus and a Pillar of Shame. The St. Donatus church literally stands on spolia, as the bottom row of the construction consists of slices of Roman columns. There’s also an Archaeological Museum which could have presented more about the town’s Roman history to me, but it turned out to be closed on Sundays. A few findings are displayed in the open air, possibly in situ where they were found. It does look rather staged though.

    Landward Gate

    The Venetian TWHS is a separate area from the Roman TWHS: these walls, fortifications and related buildings are located on the fringes of the historical town. They were constructed in 1472 to separate (and better protect) Zadar’s peninsular (Roman) core from the mainland. The defence works are still very prominent, except ironically at the sea side where they were destroyed and the Roman Forum was brought to light, the focal point of Zadar’s other nomination.

    The various gates around town have small parking lots, where I was able to find a space and explore the town on foot from there. The most interesting area is the Grimani bastion (now a night club) and the adjoining citadel tower of the Great Captain. When you go to the outer side here, you’ll be in front of without a doubt the major point of interest of this defence system: the Landward Gate or “Porta Terraferma”. It was designed by the famous Venetian architect M. Sanmicheli. The overall setting reminded me a lot of Corfu.

    Great Arsenal

    Zadar already does attract its fair share of tourists and even in November when I visited, there were numerous other visitors. The town this year already has secured one honorary title: the town hall featured a large banner displaying “Zadar elected European Best Destination 2016”. The Michelin Green Guide for Croatia gives it 2 stars (worth a detour), which seems rather generous. I found it pleasant enough, but had seen all components of both TWHS ánd drank a cappucino on a terrace with the locals within 1.5 hour. Although it must be said that I was visiting on Sunday morning, so for example I wasn’t able to visit the interior of churches like the St. Donatus.

    Published 12 November 2016 Leave a Comment

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    A Silk Roads overdose?

    According to this Thematic Study from 2014, the WH List contains 35 sites related to the Silk Roads / Routes. We had 27 already in the Silk Roads Connection, but with Bam, Lhasa, Mount Qingcheng, Bisotun, Soltaniyeh, Esfahan, Shustar, Takht-e-Soleyman, Armenian monasteries of Iran, Hatra, Samarra, Bosra, Anjar, Baalbek, Kathmandu, Makli (Thatta), Divrigi, Nisa and Itchan Kala 21 others could be labelled that way. And there is no end to Silk Roads nominations: the tentative lists of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, Turkmenistan, China and Iran all contain explicit serial Silk Roads sites.

    Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, a center on the Silk Road

    The Thematic Study found no less than 54 ‘Corridors’ within the Silk Roads system, linking ‘nodal’ points along the routes such as cities and towns. Nominations of these separate Corridors are now slowly brought forward. There is one already Pending: in 2014, the 'Silk Roads Penjikent-Samarkand-Poykent Corridor' (Tajikistan – Uzbekistan) got referred. In addition to the already inscribed Samarkand and Bukhara, this 365km long stretch would include places like Chor Bakr, Penjikent, Raboti Malik Caravanserai, Vobkent Minaret and the Bahouddin Naqshband complex. Besides trade, Sufi pilgrimism is the focal point of this corridor. Criticism about the selection of sites and the state of conservation of particularly Penjikent and Poykent lead to a negative ICOMOS advice.

    Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are currently preparing a nomination for the ‘Fergana-Syrdarya Corridor’. Another one under construction is the ‘Maritime Silk Road’. China and India are competing on this with initiatives like “Maritime Silk Roads” (China) versus “Mausam: Maritime Routes and Cultural landscapes” (India). Some see in this an example of the Chinese extending their sphere of influence.

    Bahoutdin Complex, Silk Road site in Uzbekistan

    Iran also has a ‘Silk Route’ tentative site. What this entails however is totally unclear. No specific locations are named in its description, and the suggestion of only criterion I seems like they haven’t given it much thought yet. The thematic study from 2014 distinguished 3 separate corridors on Iranian territory: ‘Crossing the Northern Iranian plateau’ (with Afghanistan), ‘Ray to Bagdad’ (with Iraq) and ‘Soltaniyeh to the Black Sea’ (with Turkey). Examples of prominent Silk Road sites along these routes are Nishapur, Ray (Rey) and (the already inscribed) Tabriz with its Kaboud Mosque. Nishapur sounds interesting with its nearby “turquoise mines that supplied the world with turquoise for at least two millennia”. Ray or Rey lies close to Teheran and warrants a visit plus review by an intrepid WH traveller.

    Although they got a Corridor already inscribed, China is aiming at another inscription besides the already mentioned Maritime Silk Roads. 46 Locations are named, a lot of them in the remote provinces of Gansu and Xinjiang. It includes for example the Xi’an mosque, but also the Yumen Pass and Hecang City which are already included in the current WHS.

    Ruins of Hecang, Chinese Silk Road

    It may be clear that there is a dazzling number of sites that could be connected to the Silk Roads. But one wonders how much they would add to the already inscribed top sites such as Samarkand, Merv and the Mogao Caves. Most Corridors seem to "just" string together a number of lesser sites with these top WHS as nodal points.

    Published 20 November 2016 Leave a Comment

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    Looking for the Golden Rhino

    Last October, when I visited Mapungubwe WHS in South Africa, I got intrigued by the cute small statue of a golden rhino which was found in a grave there. The rhino itself isn’t displayed at the site (a copy is): the original is in possession of a University Museum in Pretoria. Coincidence has it that just now they have lent this golden rhino to the British Museum in London for an exhibition on South African Art. So that’s where I headed yesterday.

    Exhibition announced outside the British Museum

    I had paid 12.5 EUR beforehand for an entrance slot to the exhibition at the opening hour of 10 a.m. It has received good reviews, so I expect it to be busy all the time. My surprise could not have been bigger when I stood in front of the first display case: it contained the Makapansgat pebble! This is the most curious discovery from one of the other South African WHS, the fossil hominid site of Makapansgat. It is a reddish brown, face shaped pebble, apparently taken ‘home’ by an Australopithecus africanus. It was larger than I had imagined it, about ca. 8 cm in height. I found it so fascinating that I returned for a second look at the end of the exhibition tour.

    The golden rhino is just around the corner from the pebble. It is displayed together with a golden oxen and a golden sceptre and bowl, all taken from the grave in Mapungubwe. They do look a bit ‘lonely’ here, and the accompanying text only hints at the history of Mapungubwe. Without the site's context, the value of these golden objects is quickly overlooked. To be fair the exhibition is on South African Art, not History per se (although the objects are clustered chronologically). Still I had expected more from the exhibition: I'd seen it all in 45 minutes, there aren't many objects although most of the ones on display are top-notch.

    The Rhino and other findings from Mapungubwe

    As I finished rather quickly, I decided to go and see some interesting other exhibits in the British Museum. I used our In the British Museum connection for that. Maybe it would be better if we added the room number where each object can be found, as the museum’s lay-out isn’t entirely logical. I first set my sights on the Uruk Trough, found at the Sumerian site which is part of the Ahwar of Southern Iraq WHS. I walked the entire Near East hallway downstairs, but that’s mainly dedicated to findings from Nimrud and Nineveh (looking at the extent of the items on display here, it’s a miracle that there was something left for ISIS to destroy). I eventually found the Uruk Trough on the first floor. It is engraved with rams around a reed house, befitting the signature of this WHS.

    The Meroë findings are also on the first floor, at the far end of the Egyptian corridor where there always is a crowd of visitors because of the sarcophagi on display. The back wall of the corridor is covered with a pieced together interior wall of a tomb in Meroë. On the way I found another one for our connection, a glazed brick guardsman from Susa.

    Part of the Uruk Trough

    The good thing about the British Museum is that entrance is free, which makes its classy exhibits accessible to people from all over the world that come and visit. It did struck me this time however how much of a warehouse feel it has, it seems to be frozen in time since I visited it for the first time during a school trip almost 30 years ago.

    Published 4 December 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Looking for the Golden Rhino:

    Westminster Abbey

    Westminster is the second most visited WHS according to the statistics of this website. So far 12 of those visitors have written a review about it. Some zoomed in on Westminster Palace and praised the guided tour of the Houses of Parliament, others focused on Westminster Abbey or the site's third component St. Margaret’s Church. Last week during my day trip to London I took a closer look at Westminster Abbey.

    Familiar view

    “Huge Crowds” and “Ridiculous charge” are two common denominators to describe the first impression of a visit to the Abbey. I also smiled about the “Not allowed to sketch” comment from a previous reviewer. Photography is forbidden, and apparently even sketching is (would taking notes be also?). The reasoning behind the ban is stated on the Abbey’s website: “We believe that the unique beauty and history of the Abbey are difficult to enjoy with the distractions which widespread photography would bring; and that photography would diminish the sacred and intimate atmosphere of a building which is, first and foremost, a living, working church.”

    From our reviews we can also see the admission fee rise over the years: 6 pounds in 2011, 18 in 2015. It is 20 pounds now (December 2016). That’s a staggering amount for a church, especially in the light of the common opinion that one shouldn’t have to pay for entrance to a place of worship. And as we have just learned from the photography ban: this “.. is, first and foremost, a living, working church”. This reeks of applying double standards; the real reason probably is the enormous cost for the upkeep. No visitor would object to a contribution to that I believe, although it would be fair to share costs with the Anglican Church, the Royal Family and the English Government. Why would only tourists have to pay for it all?

    Faith or Money?

    My visit started with queuing some 20 minutes in one of the two lines that lead up from the sides to the North Entrance. Upon entering I was spoken to by one of the vergers. After enquiring where I came from (she did not ask whether I came to worship by the way), this friendly elderly lady said she was sorry that no audio tours in Dutch were available. So I settled for one in English. It’s good that one is provided within the entrance fee, though I wasn’t really impressed by its explanations. It does not go much beyond “This is a church where many famous persons are buried and hey, there’s a throne used for coronations too”. My suggestion for improvement would be to be able to select stories from different angles, so as to learn more about the architectural history of the church or Anglicanism (as this will be the only Anglican church most foreign visitors will visit during their whole life).

    Northern Entrance decoration

    My lasting impression of Westminster Abbey is that of a monumental graveyard, confined within the limited spaces of a Gothic building. Besides the numerous UK royals and politicians, also scientists such as Newton and Darwin are buried here. It almost feels like sacrilege to step on their graves.

    Published 10 December 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Westminster Abbey:

    WH Trip Planning in 5 steps

    In a couple of days I’ll be on my way for my last trip of 2016: South Korea and Palau are waiting, including 4 'new' WHS. Maybe you want to look over my shoulder how I plan and prepare these WH related trips. I just hope I don’t come across as too obsessive–compulsive!

    1. When to go?

    I am in the fortunate circumstances that I can have about 45 days off from work each year. And that it does not really matter when I use these days. I like to spread them evenly across the year, so most years I take 4 trips of about 2 weeks length. I always travel the weeks right after Christmas, just to escape the European winter and because I get some bonus days off this time of year (Dec 26 and Jan 1 are national holidays in the Netherlands).

    The remarkable Flag of Palau (the yellow circle represents the moon)

    2. Where to go?

    My wish list of destinations is still very long. I even maintain a spreadsheet of countries (or parts thereof) that I’d like to visit in the near future. I have added the number of weeks that I’d like to allow for a visit to that particular destination. Also I have marked the best months to visit that destination – those are the yellow fields in the graphic below.

    Destinations that I am looking at nowadays have a combination of a couple of WHS and are somewhat off-the-beaten path. I'm not looking to incorporate as many WHS as possible (I'd better stay in Europe for that) - the destination itself is more important than the number of 'ticks'.

    Palau at least fits the criteria and December/January is a good time to travel there. I asked on our Forum whether South Korea will be bearable this time of year and the WHS are open for business. The replies were reassuring.

    Part of my wish list; the whole list contains 45 destinations

    3. Booking stuff

    Just before finally booking I create a new worksheet in my spreadsheet: this will contain a day-to-day itinerary for this trip. At this stage it mainly contains the places where I’d like to stay and any longer transfers that I have to make. In this case, on which days can I fly from Seoul to Palau and how long am I going to stay in each country.

    I usually book my flights and hotels beforehand. Looking back in my e-mail archives, I see that I booked my flights to Korea and Palau already on May 21, the hotels in Seoul on May 22 and the hotel in Koror on Palau on May 23. So I got the basics settled already 7 months before!

    4. Day-to-day planning

    All of the activities above were based on a rough idea of where I wanted to go and how much time I would allow to each destination. In the following months I fill in the worksheet with more detailed activities. For example, on which day will I visit which (T)WHS? I look at the opening hours of course, and other practical details. I read many trip reports and forum topics about the destination, and keep on adding sites that take my interest to the schedule.

    My detailed 'roadbook' for this trip

    5. Preparing for the individual visits

    This is the final iteration, it usually starts some 3 weeks before I leave. I create Word documents for each (T)WHS and other major stops on the trip, and copy into them all relevant available information that I can find about them on the web. A print of this document I take with me on the day of the visit, and the digital version will be used in writing up the review afterwards. All hard copies put together form my 'roadbook', which also includes prints of hotel confirmations, airline tickets, specific directions etc.

    Some sites / museums etc require specific preparation of course, such as pre-booking of a ticket to secure a place on the day that I want to visit. For the upcoming Korea/Palau trip I booked a day tour to the Rock Islands of Palau and from Seoul a tour to Panmunjom/DMZ (both about 2 weeks before the actual visit date).

    After finishing all of this, I feel both 'in control' and relaxed about my upcoming trip. I'd like to hear from you in the comments whether you have any specific ways of preparing that differ from mine?

    Published 21 December 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WH Trip Planning in 5 steps:

    Els (22 December 2016):
    Re: "How's packing for low 0 C weather and 30 degree C weather for the same trip?"

    There's even an extra hurdle: I always only travel with carry on luggage. But I only go for 12 days so I do not need a lot.

    I plan to do a dry run packing on Saturday to see if it all fits. But I have those handy compression bags which usually help with issues like this. I probably only have to carry my winter jacket separately when landing in Palau.

    Kyle (winterkjm) (22 December 2016):
    How's packing for low 0 C weather and 30 degree C weather for the same trip? Your post is interesting, you definitely plan more in-depth than me, but there are quite a few similarities. For example, I've purchased my flights to Denmark/Sweden last month, despite the fact I am not departing for this trip until June 2017.

    I am also very curious about your final itinerary for Korea. Were you planning to visit:

    - Munmyo Confucian Shrine & Seonggyungwan National Academy
    - Deoksugung Palace & Jeong-dong Old Legation Quarter
    - Hanseong Baekje: Seokchon-dong Baekje Tomb
    - Seodaemun Prison History Hall

    Which Royal Tombs?
    Yungneung Tomb Cluster (Suwon)
    Donggureung Cluster (Seoul)
    Seolleung Cluster (Seoul)
    Hongyureung Cluster (Seoul)

    Clyde (21 December 2016):
    Cool post. My annual leave amounts to 26 days so together with a list (instead of your excel sheet) I also try to maximise my annual leave by combining my days off from work with public holidays and long weekends. I also have separate lists for road trips and shorter trips. I'm also almost half way through my top 100 whs which usually inspires my travel plans for at least half of my travel plans while I reach compromises on destinations which are on my better half's wishlist.


    Seoul is preparing for inclusion of its 4th WHS in the city proper in 2017. ‘Hanyangdoseong’ covers its City Wall, originally constructed in the late 14th century. ‘Hanyang’ is a reference to the old name for Seoul, while ‘Doseong’ is a “walled city where a ruler lives”. The over 18 km-long wall was built along the ridge of Seoul’s four inner mountains. The site seems well on track for receiving foreign visitors, it already has an elaborate website in English and its own Seoul City Wall Museum.

    Heunginjimun - East Gate (Dongdaemun)

    12 km of the wall has been preserved, as well have the South Gate and the East Gate. The official website has extensive information about hiking trails on and alongside stretches of the wall. I choose the shortest and most accessible route, the Naksan Mountain Trail. I started from the southern end at Dongdaemun (East Gate) – the site of one of the best remaining gates, plus the location of the City Wall Museum. Dongdaemun has its own subway stop, and from there I took exit number 1. The way to the museum and the start of the hike is signposted by arrows on the street tarmac.

    The museum is located in what looks like an enormous office building. It is solely used however for exhibitions on the City Wall. Entrance to its 3 floors is free. Lots of money has gone into restoring the wall over the past years, and the museum seems costly too. All has been done with future WH status in mind – I believe that there are very few countries nowadays willing to invest that much into self-promotion. The exhibits contain some interesting displays about how the wall was built (with help of lots of conscript labour from people outside the city).

    Steep climb

    The Naksan Trail starts right behind the museum. The track is easy to follow. It had been snowing lightly overnight (daytime temperature was still below zero), so I had to be somewhat careful on the steep slopes. For the first part of this trail one walks on top of the wall itself. There are good views on the inner city of Seoul and also the narrow streets of the old neighbourhoods close to the wall. The nomination will also include cultural sites close to the wall, but the ones that I passed on this trail (such as the Naksan Pavillion) I didn’t find too interesting. Other stretches of the wall may have more things to see.

    I did enjoy my short hike though. The weather couldn’t have been better for a winter’s day – a little snow on the ground, bright blue skies and a strong sun. There were some other people (locals from the look of it) hiking as well. It took me about an hour to get to the smaller Hyehwamun gate, which lies within close reach of another subway station.

    Layers from different periods

    The builders of this wall had the local topography in mind. After having walked a stretch of it, I left with a different feel for this city. Downtown it is very crowded and people live in tiny spaces, but there are magnificent mountains around Seoul. The Wall also is a testimony to the city’s long history. And with all the effort put into it (then and now), I can't see why it wouldn't become a WHS next year.

    Published 29 December 2016 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Hanyangdoseong:

    Kyle (winterkjm) (30 December 2016):
    I think Durian's point is an interesting one. Bukhansanseong seems to be on the path toward an extension of Namhansanseong. These would be mountain fortresses designed to protect the capital during an emergency, with Namhan fortress being a place of refuge if Seoul was in danger. Seoul City Wall protects the entire city of Seoul, but also was part of the daily routine of the capital, with gates being opened and closed during specific times. The Cultural Heritage Administration would argue there is enough distinction in function, purpose, events, and design that would warrant a separation of these fortress designs. Yet, how much fortification-related world heritage sites should one country have? Even if Korea is sometimes called the "nation of fortresses".

    As far as authenticity, sure there are restored sections. Yet, I would caution any visitor to not be deceived by historic repairs during the 15th and 18th centuries. There are several sections that are relatively untouched by modern restoration. Specifically, the Bugaksan Area is a well-preserved portion. Nevertheless, nearly 6km of fortress wall sections have been lost, mostly during the last 100 years.

    nan (30 December 2016):
    I think the wall was heavily reconstructed. Like many sites in Korea. That to me would speak against inscription.

    Durian (29 December 2016):
    I also think that Seoul City Wall should be WHS, but in my opinion it should combined with Namhansanseoung and Bukhansanseong as single site of "Seoul Fortification System"

    Tet el Bad (Stone Coffin)

    Palau’s Stone Coffin or Tet el Bad is one of the strangest entries on any Tentative List. It may be the smallest object in size: it measures 233cm by 66cm, at a height of 40cm. And it is a moveable structure, not only in theory but also in real life as it has been moved for research to a museum in Koror in the 1930s. It has stayed there until the 1980s, when it was transported back to its place of origin on northern Babeldaob. Despite its flaws, I am going to write a full 500 word blog post / review about it!

    The Object

    The coffin lies on Palau’s main island, Babeldaob. When I was young I was active with geofiction, and Babeldaob could have been a creation of mine (its name sounds like fiction already). Somehow the countries I created were always islands, often located in the Pacific. Always round or oval-shaped, with points of interest scattered around evenly across the surface. For sure I would have designed a flag for it, another one of my childhood interests.

    Finding this stone coffin required some determination. I had rented a car from my hotel in Koror (on a different island, but connected to Babeldaob via a bridge), and drove all the way north to the ‘state’ of Ngarchelong. Possibly due to its long connection with the USA, Palau calls its communes ‘states’ – each often having not more than a few hundred inhabitants. There is only one main road into Ngarchelong, so that part is easy. To get to the coffin, you have to drive on to the hamlet of Ollei. This lies further north (but along the same road) as the Badrulchau Stone Monoliths and the ruins of a Japanese lighthouse. I had to ask for directions at both sites, as the Stone Coffin is not signposted.

    Approach to the Stone Coffin

    The fifth or so building after the turn-off to the Japanese ruins is the village house of Ollei, and that’s where the coffin lies behind (still without any sign). When you face the building, there is a patch of grass to the right and from there you’ll see a path going uphill. This is the trail that you need to take: the coffin lies some 20 metres to the left and is in the process of being overgrown by weeds and plants.

    Surprisingly little can be found about the history of this stone coffin. It originates from Medong in Ngarchelong, which may or may not be a different place from Ollei where it is located now (one source has it that Medong is a terrace system on Ollei). Traditionally on Palau, people were buried on specific burial platforms on modified ridges or earthworks. The coffin’s current location can be seen as a kind of stone platform too. Its age is unknown, but it probably was carved after the Palauans had contact with Europeans and Japanese and adopted (forced or willingly) their burying practices. The stone coffin effectively mimicks a European-style coffin.

    Badrulchau Stone Monoliths

    The coffin resembles a sarcophagus, it is hollow inside and has a lid with two knobs on each side that can be taken off. It is made out of basalt. Apparently the coffin contained the remains of two individuals which were brought to Japan for study in the early 1900s, but much of the information has been lost. The individuals might have been a female and a child another source says. The Palauans were expert carvers, using the abundant soft stone on their islands. The nearby Badrulchau Stone Monoliths are another example of this: their date of origin is also unknown, and it is uncertain whether the monoliths and the stone coffin are related in any way.

    Published 1 January 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Tet el Bad (Stone Coffin):

    wojtek (3 January 2017):
    What a story, I feel ashamed that mine was so short. But this magnificent object certainly deserves attention :)

    WHS #621: Rock Islands

    Rock Islands Southern Lagoon so far is Palau’s only WHS. It encompasses a marine area south of the nation’s main islands Babeldaob and Koror. The lagoon is a maze of some 445 karstic islands, of which many show a typical mushroom-like shape. The site is a mixed WHS: some difficult to access archaeological sites are part of the core area too, mostly on Ulong and Ngeruktabel islands.

    Typical Rock Island

    The WHS cannot be visited under your own steam: you have to join a tour, hire private boat transport or step on the state ferry to the outlying island of Peleliu that only runs twice a week. I visited the Rock Islands with Impac Tours – this may be Palau’s largest and most professional tour outfitter, aimed especially at a Japanese audience but other nationalities are welcome too. On my tour an English speaking guide and a Chinese & Korean speaking guide supported the Japanese head guide. The cost was 95 USD for the tour, plus 50 USD for a special conservation permit.

    I joined 20 other tourists on the ‘Rock Islands plus Kayaking’ full day tour. Around 9 a.m. each day you’ll see many boats leaving the tourist resort of Koror – one hardly has the lagoon (which isn’t too big by the way) to itself. But it must be said that the Impac guides tried to avoid anchoring at places where there were already other boats. Probably the best part of the day was the hour that we spent kayaking. A kayak gets you up and close with the islands. You’ll notice the sharpness of their limestone ridges that protrude above sea level, you can touch them with your hands. We kayaked into a small bay, where we were in for a surprise as I spotted a smallish crocodile on the shore! According to the nomination file, only 500-750 saltwater crocodiles inhabit this conservation zone.

    Kayaking is the best way to explore

    For lunch we stopped at one of the bigger islands, one of the few that has a sandy beach. This also presented an opportunity to have a closer look at the flora of these islands. All Rock Islands are lush and green – it rains a lot here. Huge ferns and palm trees are prominent, but so are exotic-looking flower and fruit bearing plants that I do not know the name of.

    Most tourists visit Palau and the Rock Islands because of the excellent diving opportunities. On this tour we had the chance to sample some underwater life at two different snorkeling spots. It was my first time to snorkel and I could not really get much pleasure out of it (I'm not really a 'water person'). But it may be clear that marine life is both colourful and abundant here.

    Lush and green

    The Rock Islands have been compared to Halong Bay, but Palau's remote location in the Pacific guarantees that this area stays much more pristine than the Vietnamese tourist trap. The shapes of the karst islands are different as well. Unfortunately, the Rock Islands’ distinctive marine lakes cannot be visited (the only one that generally is open to tourists, Jellyfish Lake, is still recovering from 2016's El Niño effects).

    Published 4 January 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #621: Rock Islands:

    Els (4 January 2017):
    It may be allowed (with a permit), but I guess you'll have to be a strong kayaker to do it and know your way around in the maze of islets.

    Wojtek (4 January 2017):
    Actually, Rock Islands can be visited on your own. You have to pay for a permit and then you may go with your own kayak, camping on the beaches of some bigger islands.

    Palau and the Yapese Stone Money

    Palau’s best chance of a second WHS is the serial transnational nomination of the Yapese Disk Money Regional Sites / Yapese Quarry Sites. This collection of 4 locations in two countries has already been brought forward in 2010, but ended up with a Deferral advice from ICOMOS and a subsequent withdrawal of the nomination by the Federated States of Micronesia (representing Yap) and Palau. They will try again in (possibly) 2018.

    Orrak Island with overgrown causeway

    Palau played an important role in the origin and practice of the use of stone disk money on Yap. Although the island state lies almost 500km away, with its fine limestone it provided the source for producing the large disks that were used on Yap as stone money. In 1883 it was reported by judicial commissioner G.R. Le Hunte that he found around 100 Yapese at Palau cutting stones and preparing them for transport.

    The two locations on Palau included in the original nomination are called ‘Uet el Doab ma Uet el Beluu’ and ‘Chelechol ra Orrak’. After the discussion we recently had on the Forum and some further research, I’m quite sure that both are located on the island of Orrak (the former in the interior, the latter near the beach). I found the original ICOMOS evaluation of 2010, which sheds further light on the boundaries of this nomination. The locations on Orrak Island are both quarry sites.

    Approach to Airai

    Orrak is a tiny island, which was connected to Airai Village in Babeldaob “by a prehistoric causeway constructed of coral rubble now covered in mangrove vegetation”. From the harbour of Airai this causeway is still visible, although it’s also easy to see that it is broken down by water in one or two places.

    The Yapese did not just go and take the stone disks from Palau: they had arrangements with the traditional owners of the lands for the quarrying rights, and brought gifts from the chiefs of Yap to the chiefs of Palau. In the case of Orrak Island, this meant the chiefs of the village of Airai. In its evaluation, ICOMOS argues that there is at least an intangible relationship between the quarry sites on Orrak and the village of Airai. Therefore the village itself could be part of the revised nomination or at least the buffer zone.

    On my first day driving around Babeldoab, I checked out Airai too. It has probably the finest example of a traditional bai (men’s meeting house) of Palau.

    Airai Bai

    Unfortunately I did not have the time to arrange a visit to Orrak Island while on Palau, although I was tempted to speak to one of the fishermen present at Airai to take me across. Which locations finally will end up in the new nomination is not clear: ICOMOS requested a further justification of the selection of these two sites on Orrak Island, as there are at least nine other documented quarry sites on Palau (including the already inscribed Omis Cave (part of Rock Islands WHS) and the one tourists get sent to, Metuker ra Bisech).

    Published 7 January 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Palau and the Yapese Stone Money:

    WHS #622: Namhansanseong

    Namhansanseong was the ‘contingency capital’ for the Korean Joseon Dynasty, built as a mountain fortress in the early 17th century. I visited it on a day trip from Seoul – although it lies only some 25km outside of the capital, it took me 1.5 hours to get there by metro and bus. Looking at the number of large parking lots and restaurants, the site must see huge crowds during the weekends (over 3 million visitors already in the year 2010, before WH inscription!).

    Entrance to Emergency Palace area

    On a weekday though, the place is the domain of elderly hikers. Most of them actually got off one bus stop earlier than I did, for the start of the trails that run on and alongside the walls. I eventually found myself at the roundabout of a tourist village, wondering what to do. I noticed some more traditionial looking buildings a bit to the north. These turned out to be the newly restored Emergency Palace, plus ticket and information stalls. I first went to get a ticket, which I was given for free although there is a usual entry fee of 2,000 Won. Maybe it was a special day, or were they just happy to welcome a foreigner? The ticket by the way is for the Emergency Palace only, the rest of the site is free of charge.

    At the entrance of the Palace an older man in traditional custome was strategically posted to catch any innocent visitors. He turned out to be an official guide with good English. So he enthousiastically took it upon him to show me around the Palace and tell all about it. Besides an ancestral shrine and offices, the Palace contained modest living quarters for the king and the crown prince – I gathered from the guide that their wives stayed in Seoul! The buildings have been freshly painted and just as many other South Korean sites are a bit dull in decorations.

    Woodwork at Emergency Palace

    After the Palace I went for a walk. One can hike the whole wall along the four entrance gates. That was too much for me, so I walked from the center outwards first to the East Gate and later (after lunch) to the South Gate. The route to the East Gate goes on a normal pavement through the not so interesting parts of Namhansanseong’s tourist town. The gate itself, though spectacularly located against a steep hill ridge, lies next to a heavy travelled road.

    The South Gate is (according to the nomination file) by far the most visited of the gates. It seems to be the preferred starting place for hikers, the trails aren’t so steep here. I didn’t really know where to go and quickly retraced my steps to return to the bus stop.

    At the South Gate

    Looking back after having now visited all South Korean WHS, I must say that I found Namhansanseong the least interesting (although it has some competition of other recent nominations). There is actually a second location to this WHS (“the remains of two Sinnam advanced defensive posts”) which none of the reviewers has checked out yet – so maybe we can get a new angle from that?

    Published 11 January 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #622: Namhansanseong:

    Kyle (winterkjm) (10 January 2017):
    I think I am in the minority, but Namhansanseong is far more interesting to me than Hwaseong Fortress, which was never actually used for anything. Granted, the gates at Hwaesong do stand out!

    1) There are vast sections of wall that are basically in ruins (outer wall), other sections are moderately restored and reflect early 17th century fortress design in Korea.

    2) Namhansanseong is a Provincial park and the nature can be stunning, particularly in Spring and Fall.

    3) The fortress was under siege for a month in one of the most famous battles on the Korean peninsula.

    As Els mentioned, there are at least 2 downsides, the tourist village in the fortress center is not particularly interesting or scenic. Secondly, the reconstructed Emergency Palace, which was criticized by ICOMOS is an example where Korean enthusiasm for cultural heritage and tourism runs a fine line between education and lack of authenticity.

    Perhaps I am biased after 2 visits and a 5 hour hike. That much effort requires positive affirmations!

    WHS #623: Baekje sites in Gongju

    The Baekje Historic Areas cover 8 archaeological sites in 3 clusters, representing the 3 former capital cities of this historic kingdom. During my stay in Seoul, I visited the Gongju cluster on a day trip by public transport. It was my first experience with Korea's long-distance bus system since my earlier visit in 2001, and it was a real pleasure to be transported on-time for only 7.20 EUR on a luxury coach with wide and comfy seats. It took 1.5 hours from the Seoul Express Bus Station to Gongju Bus Station.

    Lotus Pond at Gongsanseong Fortress

    Gongju nowadays has an odd city plan, with the river splitting it in two. A quick look at this provincial city proves that not everywhere in South Korea is as modern and prosperous as Seoul. The two components of the WHS are clearly visible from afar, each covering a hilltop near the river bridge closest to the city center. I first walked to Gongsanseong fortress. As I had spent the day before at Namhansanseong, I couldn’t bring up much enthusiasm for yet another Korean fortress. The flags are yellow here (“the national colour of Baekje, representing the center of the universe”), the walls steep and the main area without much sites of interest. Very little reminds of the Baekje area: the absolute low point is the “Site of Baekje Building”, which is just a flat piece of grass land.

    After half an hour or so I decided to move on to the second component of the WHS and the renowned Gongju museum. As said, this part is also clearly visible on a hill – but how to get there? I went on foot from the fortress, and quite nearby there’s a sign pointing to ‘Jeongjisan Archaeological Site’. However I ended up in a residential area with fiercely barking dogs, and never found any access to the WH area from this approach.

    Reconstructed tomb of King Muryeong

    I had brought a sketch of a map with me, and it seemed to show the main entrance of the complex to the back of the hill. So that meant another rather long walk on the Gongju pavements. Finally I ended up at the Royal Tombs of Songsan-ri. The area seemed deserted, but when I approached a ticket seller lifted the shutter of his booth and sold me a ticket. Then a trail awaits along the underground exhibitions and the tumuli outside. The interiors of the tumuli are all closed off nowadays, so the underground exhibition is the only way to admire the creative, Chinese inspired way of burial chamber design of the Baekje. Undoubted highlight is the tomb of King Muryeong: it looks as if he was buried in a book case!

    The outdoor area is nice enough for a short stroll, but doesn’t bring more than a series a grassy bumps that cover the original graves. The trail along the tumuli ends at the far end of the archaeological area, and that’s where the entrance to the Gongju Museum lies. It’s a gigantic modern building. At the entrance I’m overloaded with free brochures, including a map of the whole Baekje area (including the other former capitals next to Gongju). The main hall on the first floor is dedicated to the findings from the Songsan-ri tombs. The most impressive one is that of the aforementioned King Muryeong. He and his wife were buried with many of their possessions such as weapons, tableware (from China), jewelry and shoes. A couple of the exhibits are currently away on loan to the National Museum in Gongju, where I had also admired them about a week ago.

    Baekje crown ornaments in National Museum

    So that’s all there is. I must say that the museum exhibits and the underground reconstruction of the tombs were the most impressive. There’s not much left of the structures that the Baekje built. For future visitors to Gongju and both WH locations, I’d like to suggest taking a taxi or local bus (101 apparently) from the bus station to the Gongju National Museum. I walked everywhere, and especially the way back from the museum to the bus station across the river is tiring.

    Published 14 January 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #623: Baekje sites in Gongju:

    Kyle (winterkjm) (13 January 2017):
    "it looks as if he was buried in a book case!" I love this description, great pictures by the way.

    WHS #624: Royal Joseon Tombs

    With the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty, I ‘finished’ South Korea’s batch of 12 entries on the current World Heritage List. Like many of the others – 6 to be precise – it lies well within the range of the Seoul Hotspot. The Joseon Tombs comprise 18 different locations, of which I chose the Donggureung Cluster to visit - “the largest and most attractive” according to the Lonely Planet ánd our own South Korea expert Kyle Magnuson.

    Overview of the basic lay-out of each tomb

    Donggureung lies in Guri, a city typical for the Seoul metropolitan area with its many numbered grey high-rise apartment blocks. The bus driver alerted me where I had to get off the bus, but I had seen it already myself as there are big signs in Korean and English pointing to this royal cemetery. Despite the urban setting, this is a peaceful location in a forested area. There were few other visitors when I arrived on a Friday morning, only a couple of the ubiquituous Korean pensioners and even a small group of birders. Entrance costs a nominal 1,000 Won (ca. 0.80 EUR).

    Donggureung literally means "East Nine Royal Tombs”: there are 9 tombs that hold the remains of 17 Joseon kings and queens. Each of the nine has a separate setting in the forest, and they are linked by paths. The paved paths behind the entrance gate to each tomb follow the same principle as those at the Jongmyo Shrine: the central path is for the spirits (not to be walked on by mere mortals), the one alongside is for the kings (which nowadays may be used by normal visitors). Each path ends at a pavillion, and behind it lies the actual tomb on a hill. One of the unfortunate circumstances of Donggureung is that it is forbidden to get close to the hill-tombs - you have to stay behind a fence.

    Mongneung tombs

    The most interesting among the tombs here, one with a real Wow-factor, is that named ‘Mongneung’. It has 3 different graves in a wide open, grassy area. Each is located on a separate hill. The furthest of the 3 is the only one in the whole area that can be climbed, so you can have an up-and-close look at the stone objects that decorate the graves. Many of these are similar, and represent soldiers and government employees that stand guard.

    I also enjoyed just roaming the paths of the forest where the tombs are located at. In addition to a few bird species, bigger animals seem to visit the grounds too: I noticed signs (in Korean only) displaying a warning about a beast resembling a wild boar.

    Close-up of the stone figures "guarding" the grave

    Like Korean food, most of the Korean WHS are not as accessible as their Japanese or Chinese counterparts and require an ‘acquired taste’. In contrast to the other main Northeast Asian countries, Korea isn’t overly Buddhist (Christianity even is the main religion nowadays) and the sites in and around Seoul are mostly Confucian - with its often difficult to grasp concepts and rites for an outsider. To me though, these Joseon tombs are very much worth their spot on the List for their atmospheric setting and testimony to a very distinct royal burial practice.

    Published 21 January 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #624: Royal Joseon Tombs:

    Completing Europe

    Covering Europe is key to a high WHS score: the List is definitely eurocentric, and the high density of sites combined with good infrastructure and relatively short distances make for easy pickings. I like to set myself (travel) goals, and was wondering how long it would take me to see all WHS in Europe using only (sometimes longish) weekend breaks. Earlier I have written about how I choose destinations and prepare for my longer trips. Here’s my plan for the shorter ones in Europe. All with one goal in mind: ‘completing’ Europe!

    Density of WHS locations in Europe

    Narrowing it down

    UNESCO has divided the WHS into their own version of ‘continents’, and now has 499 sites in 'Europe and North America'. On this website I have 500 as the total number because of Jerusalem, which is attributed to Jordan on the UNESCO list while I have it linked to Israel. That’s not meant as a political statement, but a mere practicality in the database. It doesn’t matter anyway for this description of achieving my goal, as I have been to the Old City of Jerusalem WHS already.

    When you leave out the sites in the USA and Canada from the list of 500, there are 461 sites left in Europe. Of these 461, I have already visited 357. Looking at the general overview, my Europe score is relatively high. It’s also clear that one needs a high score in Europe to be among the top WH visitors.

    This means there are 104 WHS left ‘to do’ for me. Six of these however lie in “colonies” in geographical different continents. I will deduct those as they logistically need different trips. They are: the Lagoons of New Caledonia, the Pitons of Réunion, Willemstad (Curaçao), Henderson Island, Gough and Inaccessible Islands and St. George. (Bermuda).

    So I have 98 left!

    Hard to access: Wrangel Island (satellite view)

    Making a plan

    I started working on a plan to cover these final 98 sites. I created yet another spreadsheet, and divided these remaining 98 WHS into 3 categories:

    1. Weekend trips (without taking a day off from work, so Fri evening - Sun evening)

    2. Long weekend trips (3-4 days, Thur – Sun, making good use of public holidays)

    3. Short breaks (up to one week)

    The smaller blocks (category 1) are actually preferred because they won’t cost me vacation days. Of course one could lump a number of the weekend destinations together into 1 or 2 week trips, but that’s not what I want (I need those for destinations further away)!

    What becomes clear quickly is that the countries on the fringes of Europe (such as Russia, Turkey, Georgia and Israel) warrant full trips on their own. They do not share the same characteristics, are more challenging logistically.

    Two sites are even impossible to visit within one week: for Wrangel Island cruises take about 14 days for a roundtrip and Putorana Plateau costs at least 10 days if you can arrange it at all. Derbent also seems terrible to get to under your own steam, although more due to safety than remoteness.

    Should be an easy one: Visby

    How long will it still take me?

    It would take me a daunting 65 different trips all together to ‘complete’ Europe:

    17 different weekends

    30 different long weekends

    16 short breaks

    2 specials

    At my current level of some 7 weekend trips a year, it would cost me at least 10 years (assuming I can find time in my travel schedule to fit in those one week short breaks). Even without any work or money or stamina limitations, it would still take 294 days to string them all together in successive visits.

    But this whole excercise has made me more aware about the logistic possibilities, and I found out that there are more weekend trips still doable for me than I thought. So watch out for WHS reports of the Parforce Hunting Landscape, Burgundy and the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans in the coming weeks!

    Published 27 January 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Completing Europe:

    Solivagant (29 January 2017):
    Another aspect of the “unvisited 98” which might be worth having a bit of a discussion about is the number of “mediocre” ones included within – hardly surprising in that the European “stars” are likely to have been already picked up by Els. Unfortunately the “Top 200 List” format on the Web site doesn’t facilitate analysis by Continent - but I wonder how many of the 98 are on it? I suspect the majority are going to be those on the “periphery” of Europe!
    Now of course, to a committed “WHS traveller”, the mere fact of being inscribed provides some intrinsic value and that “tick” has its own “value” but how many of them would one really go out of one’s way to see if one didn’t live only a “Short weekend” trip away from them or if one wasn’t passing by as part of a longer visit to the country?
    I did a quick “personal” subjective assessment – We have already visited 59 of the 98 and, of these I would only place 14 in my “highest recommendation” category ( Mt Athos (sorry Els - you are only ever going to see it from the boat!), Meteora, Thingvellir, Surtsey, Scelig Michel, Masada, Bib Tells, W Nor Fjords, Kizhi, Baikal, Troy, Catalhoyuk, St Kilda, Orkney). Of the remaining 39 I would only place 8 among my “top unvisited” list (Vezere, Pont d’Arc (but then there is the “replica” issue which somewhat degrades the value), Svaneti, Su Nuraxi, Solovetsky, White Monuments, Kamchatka, Lena Pillars). So, as with Els, Russian WHS remain a significant gap (at least in our perception!) - but we have already visited the country itself at least 6 times across the past 50 years so it would have to be a visit mainly to see these “gaps” with a “take” on contemporary Russia as an additional driver – not a really storng dirver with other sites around the World calloing. Svaneti was “closed” when we visited Georgia - I think we are unlikely to kindle enthusiasm to revisit just for it. Which leaves Su Naraxi – I guess we need to start looking at the Ryanair/Easyjet schedules to do an “Els Weekend” there!!

    Els Slots (29 January 2017):
    @Alexander Barabanov: Indeed Russia is a particular weakness of mine (as well as not having been to Egypt yet after almost 30 years of travelling). The sites surrounding Moscow and Kazan should be relatively easy to cover though. But I'd rather save them for a longer trip, stringing them together with a Transsiberian Railway route to Vladivostok.

    @Solivagant: "And across the next 10 years Europe seems likely to add another say 8 pa average (?) = 80"
    Oops - I forgot about that. Sigh.

    nan (28 January 2017):
    I would also exclude sites that aren't geographically in Europe. Personally, I rather try to finish a country than a continent ;)

    Solivagant (27 January 2017):
    Even across 10 years there is a fair bit of optimism there! Despite my reputation for travelling fast I am not sure I would want to combine Orkney and St Kilda as a combi in a single week-end, flying into/out of Inverness from NL. And it isn't quite clear whether the "combi" of Surtsey/Thingvellir is a "Short break" or a "Long w/e". As you have commented on posts for similar subjects "WHS" aren't the only reason to visit a country and to go all the way to Iceland and then try to do it in a "short break" (Let alone a "long week-end"!) would be a bit of a waste. The same point applies elsewhere.
    And across the next 10 years Europe seems likely to add another say 8 pa average (?) = 80. With previous wide travel and good planning a fair number might be achievable without many more "week ends" but there will always be the odd one tucked away in "European" corner not otherwise being covered - e.g Gran Canary??!
    Anyway - plenty to keep you going for a fair number of years to come

    Alexander Barabanov (27 January 2017):
    So much of Russia to be covered!
    As I understand, Russia usually issues single visa, which is very expensive, correct? Would be especially difficult to tick off remote Russian sites, which require multiple trips, like Lena Pillars or Sikhote-Alin..
    In my management file I separate Europe and Asia and categorize everything to the right from the Ural mountains as Asia (e.g. Putorana; Lena Pillars, Baikal, etc.). That's why I only have 416 European sites..
    In fact yes, it could only be faster if you only concentrate on Europe, but it's not realistic, given other interesting destinations...

    WHS #625: Par force hunting landscape

    “You don’t need luck. You need good shoes!”, fellow WH traveller Nan e-mailed me when I told him to wish me luck ticking off the Par force hunting landscape. He was so right, and I’d like to add to others that plan to visit this WHS: also bring snacks, something to drink and a smartphone with GPS. And do read up a bit about what par force hunting entails beforehand.

    From the 3 main components of this WHS, I had set my sights on Store Dyrehave (“large deer park”). Both Store Dyrehave and a formerly connected second component, Gribskov, lie near the town of Hillerød (the third, Jaegersborg, is located closer to Copenhagen, sees a whopping 7.5 million visitors a year and is already well-covered on this website).

    Entering the forest of Store Dyrehave

    Getting to Hillerød already did not prove to be as easy as internet research had lead me to believe. Part of the direct S-train route was blocked, so passengers had to be transported by buses to the final destination. This added another 20 minutes to the 1 hour trip from Copenhagen Airport.

    Having finally arrived at the station in Hillerød, you'll just have to walk. There is no signposting at all. Beforehand I had carefully studied the route to the deer park and downloaded a map of the area to my phone. Both actions proved necessary, not at least to find the "right" patch of forest: a remarkably similar forest lies on the other side of the main road Københavnsvej - but that is not part of the WHS.

    Using my sense of direction (and the help of the GPS on my phone) I hiked towards the center of the park. I had given myself a time-box of two hours to catch a glimpse of the meager remains of this former hunting landscape. Those being – according to the nomination file – “markers”, “numerical place names” and “an emblematic marker (Kongestenen)”. It’s like doing a treasure hunt with no clues. So I was quite happy when I came across an original marker for road #8 after a while: these numbered stones signal the 8 main radiating roads that lead to the central point.

    A first marker!

    Store Dyrehave now is used mainly by mountain bikers and joggers. The distances are actually a bit too long to enjoy for hiking and the landscape too monotonous. After an hour though I was rewarded for my efforts: I found the central point, the intersection where the 8 roads diverge in a star shape. I was really pleased with myself, and even rather impressed by the ingenious lay-out of the lanes and the original star stone at the center. Here, the ritual slaughter of the captured animal by the King would have taken place to end it all. It reminded me of a children’s TV series from my youth (‘De Zevensprong’ – Crossroads of Seven Roads): each episode started and ended at the crossroads of 7 roads in a mysterious forest setting.

    On my way back I took road number 6, one of the other main lanes. It ends at the northern end of the park, where part of the original stone fence is still visible. Close to this exit is a parking lot with an information panel in Danish and English about the park's WH status.

    The Apotheosis

    In hindsight and comparing the experiences of other reviewers, Store Dyrehave may be the best among the locations to understand what this WHS is about. If you arrive by car (recommended), park it at the main parking lot along Overdrevsvejen.

    Answering a recent observation by Solivagant (how to handle trips to European WHS that aren’t among the continent’s highlights): I ‘did’ this as a day trip from my home, flying to Copenhagen early morning and returning early evening. My plan was to spice it up a bit by combining a visit to this WHS with the Islamic art of the David Collection. In the end however the WH visit took so long that I didn’t have time left for the museum.

    Published 4 February 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #625: Par force hunting landscape:

    WHC 2017: Dilmun Burial Mounds

    The Burial Ensembles of Dilmun and Tylos (renamed to: "Dilmun Burial Mounds") are nominated by Bahrain to become a WHS later this year. This move forward is quite surprising, as in the past these burial fields have been known as sites with ‘issues’. “In a New Age, Bahrain Struggles to Honor the Dead While Serving the Living” wrote the New York Times in 2009, while CNN similarly reported in 2013: “In Bahrain, development chips away at world's largest, oldest burial site”.

    Hamad Burial Mounds

    The Dilmun civilization existed in what now is Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and coastal Saudi Arabia. It controlled the Persian Gulf trading routes and was an important trading center from the late fourth millennium to 800 BC. Tylos was the name used by the Greeks to refer to Bahrain after the Dilmun period (ca. 6th to 3rd century BC). While burial mounds or tumuli are quite a common sight all over the world, these Bahraini ones from the Dilmun and Tylos eras “have the highest density of mound fields in a limited territory and the highest concentration of mounds in one single field”.

    The excellent Bahrain National Museum is a good start for learning about this ancient period and the tradition of tumulus construction - they even have an original burial mound on show that has been moved from Hamad. During my visit to Bahrain in 2011 I further visited 5 out of the 11 locations that are part of this Ensemble: the A’Ali tumuli, the Hamad Town Tumuli (cluster of 3 locations) and Saar Heritage Park. The latter two are also separately on Bahrain’s Tentative List.

    Sign prohibiting the extraction of sand and stones (A'Ali, 2011)

    In my memory, the visits to Hamad and A’Ali have blurred into one. I can only distinguish between the photos of the two based on the digital time stamps. Both are dusty fields in an urban setting, and I found them as neglected as is described in the reports above from the NYT and CNN. The high density of the mounds is the most distinguishing feature of the sites, like a giant mole has been at work. Technically though they weren’t constructed as mounds or tumuli: they were cylindrical stone towers, surrounding a grave chamber. Only natural erosion and the drifting sand has turned the landscape into what it looks now.

    The other burial site is located at Saar. Saar Heritage Park consists of the remains of a village, with streets, a temple and a cemetery. It appears that only its cemetery will be part of this nomination. It is characterized by two large tumuli. Saar definitely is the most interesting site to visit, though it all has to be considered from an archaeological perspective.

    One of the tombs at Saar

    There’s no doubt that these are important archaeological sites in Bahrain and the wider region. So why have they suffered so much neglect? Partly of course this is because of the growing pains of a fast developing and overpopulated country. It also seems that local people that live next to the locations have little appreciation and awareness about the mounds. For WH inscription, the main question will be whether the Bahraini state has turned the conservation issues around and have presented a perfect picture to the visiting inspectors from ICOMOS.

    Published 11 February 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHC 2017: Dilmun Burial Mounds:

    Els Slots (12 February 2017):
    This is the source that I used:

    Solivagant (12 February 2017):
    Am interested in this comment above - "Technically though they weren’t constructed as mounds or tumuli: they were cylindrical stone towers, surrounding a grave chamber. Only natural erosion and the drifting sand has turned the landscape into what it looks now."
    Do you have a reference for it?
    We have both seen the mounds in situ and the cut-away reconstructions in the National Museum and my understanding was that, although there are different types of interior tomb and mound size across many centuries and that they have no doubt become eroded from their original pristine shape, they all were indeed "mounds" and not "cylindrical stone towers". Inside, beneath the earth, are different types of interior chambers according to period and status of the family but externally all were covered by earth/sand to create a proper "mound".

    Now of course it is possible for "Mounds" to have low "side walls" keeping the mound "neat"- I think of some Korean tombs and also the Etruscan ones at Cerveteri (though those walls tend to be carved into rock with an earth "dome").

    This is the "best" academic article I have been able to find on the subject and it contains cut-away diagrams of early and late mounds
    Figures 2 A and B would seem to show that both early and late tombs were presented as "mounds".

    Books: Modern African Architecture

    A few weeks ago we’ve had an interesting discussion at the Forum about the unfulfilled potential of African sites as future WHS. With some creative thinking we easily came up with possible additions to tentative lists. But especially ‘modern’ sites, connected to for example modern architecture and urban planning, seem to be few and far between. Coincidentally, a recent publication on global heritage matters adresses just this issue.

    Global Heritage Assemblages: Development and Modern Architecture in Africa by Christoph Rausch is the publication of a PhD thesis. After a longish introduction of the theoretical framework, the second part of the book focuses on 3 case studies on Modern African Heritage. The most captive is the story of Asmara, up for WH nomination this year. The author shows how both the transnational organizations such as the World Bank and the EU ánd the Eritrean government use the cultural heritage of the Modern Architecture of Asmara for their own purposes.

    The early 20th century Italian colonial urbanism of Asmara is seen by the transnational organizations as a globally shared heritage, of importance to both colonizers and colonized. This is founded on a “nostalgia for colonial utopias of progress” and on the other hand on the creation of a “new blank canvas” for economic development (for example via heritage tourism and jobs in conservation).

    But while the Eritrean regime welcomes the money that comes with this appreciation, it has its own agenda with Asmara – and it certainly doesn’t want to share! Its reference to the Italian colonial period legitimizes the existence of Eritrea within its current borders and thus enstrengthens nationalism. This difference in views even went so far that Eritrea has not wanted to nominate Asmara for WH status, fearing the responsibilities that come with it and “erosion of sovereignity”.

    So one of the pitfalls is that ‘modern’ sites in Africa are often linked to colonialism – which isn’t something fairly recent independent countries creating their own identities want to be associated with. A different book, Modern architecture in Africa by Antoni Folkers, tries to highlight the 'other' modern African architecture. Folkers is a Dutch architect and founder of ArchiAfrika, an organization which also features in the book of Rausch. His knowledge is based on his own experiences in a dozen African countries.

    This attractively illustrated 350 page book is a very enjoyable read, both for its insights in architecture and world history. An intriguing map of medieval African cities looks like a WHS map with names such as Mapungubwe, Kilwa, Marrakech and Ghadames. At least those seem well-represented on the List.

    What about ‘modern’ cities? Casablanca is brought forward in the book for its urban planning and origin of the term ‘bidonville’. It’s on Morocco’s Tentative List, although its future track is unsure as Rabat’s Ville Nouvelle has already been brought forward relatively recently. African metropolises such as Kinshasa and Johannesburg have had to develop their own solutions for urban growth, though no outstanding example of this jumps out. To get away from the colonial bias and the difficult issue of ‘shared heritage’, one would be looking for architecture designed by Africans for Africans in African circumstances. The author critically looks upon the many preserved colonial fortresses, which seem to get more funding by the former colonizers than strictly African sites.

    Few outstanding individual buildings are discussed in the book (which is more about urban planning). Noteworthy though are the Kaedi hospital (Mauretania), Gando school and the Koudougou central market (both Burkina Faso). The first two were designed by African architects. They are among the very few Subsaharan African constructions in the wider Islamic world awarded with the Aga Khan award for Architecture. None of them are TWHS, so there might be something to gain here.

    Published 18 February 2018 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Books: Modern African Architecture:

    WHS #626: Beaune (Burgundy)

    The Climats, terroirs of Burgundy is a fairly recent addition to the evergrowing list of wine-related WHS. The site covers a large area in the east of France, with officially two components: (1) the over 1,200 viticultural parcels called ‘Climats’ with villages and the town of Beaune and (2) the historic centre of Dijon. The site so far has only attracted one review on this website. And noone has written about the Beaune component yet. So that’s where my focus was on my weekend trip to Burgundy. An early warning: I am not going to write about wine!

    Part of the old ramparts of Beaune

    Beaune once was the seat of the Duchy of Burgundy, a medieval state (or more precise: a personal union of many lands) that originated in the current French region of Bourgogne. The power of the Burgundian dukes stretched into what is now Holland and Belgium – the Burgundian Netherlands are still part of history lessons in the Netherlands. The Burgundian dukes managed to impose a central rule on the various provinces and city states of the Lowlands.

    During exactly this period, the 15th century, the city’s one true highlight was constructed: the Hospices de Beaune. This hospital for the poor was founded in 1442 by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy, Nicolas Rolin. He wanted to spend part of his money on social work, but the building also displays his wealth and is somewhat of a shrine for himself and his wife. The Hospices are a masterpiece of art and architecture with an interesting bit of social history entwined. It wouldn’t be out of place on the WH List entirely in its own right.

    The colourful rooftiling of Hospices de Beaune

    The poor patients were treated and cared for in a large hall. It looked more like a church than a conventional hospital – there were painted wooden beams in the ceiling to admire, and a chapel at the far end (far enough so that the patients wouldn’t be too much disturbed by yet another funeral). A special religious order of nuns looked after the patients, and the hospital had its own gardens and vineyards to provide for food and income.

    Parts of this hospital have functioned into the 1980s, now it’s a museum. Entrance costs 7.5 EUR, and audio guides are available in several languages including Dutch. At the end of the tour circuit a dark room awaits where silence is requested. This is the ‘sanctuary’ where the Last Judgement altarpiece made by Rogier van der Weyden is shown, a prime example of Early Netherlandish painting (one of my most favourite periods/styles). It originally was the altarpiece for the chapel inside the Hall of the Poor, and it was commissioned by Nicolas Rolin himself. It's in excellent condition, and I think it's a good thing that it still is preserved almost in situ and not in a museum.

    Original wooden ornaments at the ceiling of the Hall of the Poor

    Beaune nowadays is a friendly town of 22,000 inhabitants. Despite visiting very much out-of-season (early March), I wasn’t the only tourist around. The town has a nice medieval atmosphere, it reminded me a bit of Provins. The 313 MB nomination file lists many wine-related buildings in Beaune, such as schools and caves. But I skipped all of those in favour of art and architecture!

    Published 4 March 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #626: Beaune (Burgundy) :

    WHS #627: Salins-les-Bains

    From the Great Saltworks of Salins-les-Bains to the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans, the production of open-pan salt is one of the more imaginative WHS of France. With an admission date of 1982 it also is one of the earlier sites on the WH List. So I was really looking forward to visiting, and it did not disappoint. I even had wanted to stay overnight at Arc-et-Senans, but when I checked 2 months beforehand the on-site hotel La Saline Royale was already fully booked for the date that I wanted.

    Grande Saline of Salins-les-Bains

    My planned visit on a Sunday in March left me with a dilemma: because of the limited opening hours during the winter season, I only had time to visit 1 out of the 2 inscribed locations (Arc-et-Senans or Salins-les-Bains) properly. I eventually chose Salins-les-Bains, as its features are mostly underground and less weather dependent. The site lies in the French Jura, quite a trip through the countryside away from the nearest tollway exit.

    During the weekends off-season there are 3 daily tours of the underground saltworks. They are all conducted in French, although foreign speakers are provided with a leaflet in English. The stories of the guide are much more detailed though than what’s available on paper: you can download an audioguide in your language beforehand for your phone, but I forgot to do that. So I did my best to understand the French explanations.

    Underground leftovers

    The 1 hour tour teaches you everything that you never knew about salt. The product was so valuable in its heydays that the big Salins-les-Bains complex only had one small exit, where the labourers were checked everyday so they did not smuggle salt to the outside world with them. The factory at Salins-les-Bains was purposely built near a forested area to provide for its high energy approach to sustain the artificial evaporation process. The main distinguishing feature of Salins has been described by ICOMOS as “extraction techniques, notably the existing underground facilities, which testify to the pumping system and the production of open-pan salt”.

    There’s always some excitement about an underground tour, though I must say that there aren't many original features left. The saltworks here were based on preserved layers of salt beneath the ground. Via an extraction process (partly done by horses and later using water wheels), brine would be pumped into pans and concentrated by the heat of the fire burning underneath. As crystals of salt formed these would be raked out and more brine added. The huge drying racks and fans can still be seen.

    Main entrance to Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans

    I left Salins-les-Bains just after noon, and decided to make a short detour to Arc-et-Senans. Both of the Saltworks were linked together by a double-pipe system. This main location is situated some 20 minutes northwards and is only open from 10-12 and 14-17. But I hoped to still get a glimpse of this highlight of classicist architecture. Well, it wasn’t really worth it: the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans are fully surrounded by a 3m high wall! The gate was locked and I could only admire the main entrance.

    Published 11 March 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #627: Salins-les-Bains:

    Paris revisited

    I am a rather late convert to Paris – only in 2002 I visited the city for the first time and it took another 10 years for a second visit. My third trip to the French capital would be more in-depth than the first two that had covered most of the touristic route: during the past weekend I joined a small group of 12 fellow students at the Open University with whom I had been to Florence in 2015. The organizing team had drawn up a full 4 day schedule, focusing on small art museums and architectural highlights.

    "The Kiss" (1889) by Rodin, near the Orangerie

    Obviously we didn’t stay within the Banks of the Seine all the time, so I’ll try to focus this report on the sites that are within the WHS area or just next to it. We stayed overnight at the recommended Ibis Bastille, quite a steal at 80 EUR per night in central Paris. It is located close to Le Marais, a former aristocratic area and active Jewish neigbourhood (featuring an interesting Art Nouveau synagogue by Guimard).

    Along the Seine we visited the Orangerie, an often overlooked art museum housed in a 19th century shelter for the orange trees of the garden of the Tuileries. Since 1927 it has been the home of a cycle of Monet's water-lily paintings, known as the Nymphéas. The building is surrounded by a number of precious sculptures (made by Rodin for example), quite amazing to find them here without protection.

    Brick relief found at Susa, now in the Louvre

    On Sunday afternoon a travel companion and I decided to give the Louvre a try – without having booked a ticket beforehand. It took us only 10 minutes to get in, most other tourists were probably spending the sunny day outside. I had never been to the Louvre before, but had prepared a bit with researching a new connection called In the Louvre (we have similar ones for the British Museum and the Pergamon Museum). I was about the only person in the archaeological wing of the museum that afternoon. Like its peers in London and Berlin, quantity (and sometimes size) seems to prevail over telling a story. But they do have interesting objects from WHS such as Susa and Byblos.

    Unfortunately we do not have a thorough description of the core zone of the Paris WHS, so sometimes it’s a bit of a guess why one building has been included and another one hasn’t. One of the oddities of the Banks of the Seine WHS map is the peak in the center. The core zone here ends at the Church of La Madeleine, a “visual end” from the Place de la Concorde. Sometimes sight lines seem to have been included, but not those too far away from the river (such as the Pantheon). La Madeleine’s appearance is very un-churchlike, since it originally was built as a temple for Napoleon’s troops. It’s a firm neoclassical structure. Unlike many other buildings in Paris it hasn’t been polished up yet. The interior is gloomy as well.

    Relief on door of La Madeleine

    In the end I enjoyed my third visit to Paris. We visited a mix of very different things, of which the Fondation Louis Vutton (Frank Gehry, 2014) and the small but delicate Picasso museum stood out. Please, no more Impressionism for me though. And I can do without white sculptures of classical or French national heroes for a while too.

    Published 27 March 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Paris revisited :

    Els Slots (1 April 2017):
    @Aitia - Thanks, I did not know that! I'll add it to the connection. These moai have travelled far, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relocation_of_moai_objects

    Aitia (1 April 2017):
    There is also an original Moai inside the Louvre Museum.

    Els Slots (27 March 2017):
    @Clyde - it's already there

    clyde (27 March 2017):
    In the British Museum connection, Rapa Nui could be included as it houses an original Moai

    WHS #628: Ancient Thebes

    Thebes, what we now call Luxor, is one of the most ancient “tourist” destinations in the world. Already the ancient Greeks came here to marvel at the temples that were built by the Egyptian pharaohs. Later Christian and Muslim generations had much less respect for their forefathers, so it wasn’t until the 19th century that these sites were rediscovered by Europeans. The 21st century has brought Asian tourism to the spectrum: the Chinese are the only nation that dare to come here today en masse. It became especially popular since a visit of president Xi Jingping to president Sisi in 2016, which partly took place in the inner courtyard of Luxor Temple.

    Row of sphinxes from Luxor to Karnak

    The site was already inscribed as a WHS in 1979, with epithets such as “splendid”, “monumental” and “unique and unequaled”. It is also part of our Top 200. Not much of substance has been written about it yet among our reviewers though (sorry guys). Important to know is that it comprises 3 locations: the temple of Karnak and the temple of Luxor on the East bank of the Nile, and the Necropolis on the West Bank. Especially the latter is a collection of many temples and tombs, scattered around in a rural area and at the foot of a barren mountain ridge.

    On my first day, after having visited the excellent Luxor museum as an appetizer, I started with Karnak Temple. Heavy security measures are in place at this and Luxor Temple: cars are searched, trunks have to be opened. People have to pass security booths everywhere (similar to Paris, where I was a few weeks ago), and armed guards hover at strategic road blocks. There’s actually not much glory to be gained for a bomber at the moment – the parking lot was nearly empty. Karnak stands out for its size, the size of everything actually. Much has been taken away (such as the obelisk that now is at the Place de la Concorde in Paris) or has fallen down. Its prettiest feature is the hypostyle hall, a forest of 134 massive columns (much thicker than the average Roman or Greek ones).

    Karnak, hypostyle hall

    Luxor Temple lies at the heart of modern Luxor, there’s even a McDonalds right next to it. A long row of sphinxes once connected Luxor Temple with the Temple of Karnak, 3 km’s away. Egyptian authorities are now rebuilding this monumental path. I think it’s important to be aware that Luxor is still changing every day – the path is nearly finished, statues are put upright, colourful ceilings have been restored. Luxor Temple has more sculptures and carvings than Karnak, and I found it more atmospheric.

    During my second day in Luxor I went to the necropolis on the West Bank of the Nile. I had a driver and a guide with me, and we first had to cross the bridge which lies 20 minutes or so south of Luxor. Life on the “other” side of the Nile seemed more rural, especially sugarcane is harvested. We first stopped at the Colossi of Memnon – two enormous statues that once guarded yet another huge temple complex. German archaeologists are still excavating here, and the outline of the complex and other statues can already be seen.

    Afterwards we went to the Temple of Habu – the favourite of my guide, and I can easily understand why as it is the most intact of all around Luxor. The Ramses that had this built was especially proud of his slaughter of enemies, as shown by carvings of bunches of hacked-off hands (with a scribe next to it counting the numbers). The ceilings here are well-preserved too, including their colours. The only issue is that birds have taken over many of the niches that are present in the cut sandstone.

    One of the Colossi of Memnon

    Finally I did go and see some tombs. At the one of Ramose, a Noble, I was the only visitor. The Tombs of the Kings however are the masterpieces. And that’s where they all take the few tourists that are left in Egypts nowadays! There surely where over 100 buses and cars at the car park, mostly used by daytrippers from the Hurghada resorts. Certainly they weren’t staying in Luxor. An entrance ticket here gives you access to 3 of the tombs out of the 12 or so that are open. Some “special” tombs (like the one of Tutankhamon) can only be entered for an extra fee. On recommendation of my guide I went into tombs number 6, 8 and 2. One with the longest corridor deep into the mountain, the other two with fantastic bright paintings. The lighting is very good, so one can really enjoy it all. Photography is forbidden in the Valley so you have to go and see it for yourself.

    Published 16 April 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #628: Ancient Thebes:

    Els Slots (17 April 2017):
    @Solivagant: the photography restrictions already start right behind the visitor center, there's a booth where all cameras have to be surrendered (I left mine in the car). So you evén aren't allowed to take pictures of the part of the valley with the many entrances to the tombs. Some people with cell phones did so however, it seems strange that the Egyptians are unaware of the photographic capabilities of smartphones.

    Solivagant (16 April 2017):
    When you say "Photography is forbidden in the Valley" I presume you mean "forbidden in the tombs in the Valley"? We have visited the Luxor etc 3 times over the years - 1978, 1992 and 2006 and it has been a sorry story of additional restrictions and fears of terror etc replicated in so many places around the World. On the first occasion we hired bicycles in Luxor, took them across on a small ferry (no bridge then!) and just rode around all day to our heart's content, visiting whichever tombs we wanted on a single ticket. The Tombs of the Nobles were unlit and many of them had a man (or even 2) with a shiny sheet of metal which he/they used to reflect the sunlight down into the tomb from the top/half way down. Happy days. I have a fine set of photos of all the tombs taken with flash - no restrictions then. I understand that there is considerable doubt as to whether flash does actually damage colours and that the main reasons for restrictions are copyright and crowd management!

    Ptolemaic Temples

    The Ptolemies ruled over Egypt from 304 to 30 BC. They were descendants of Macedonian Greeks, whose leader Alexander the Great had conquered the pharaonic lands and set up his capital in Alexandria in the far north. The Ptolemies (all their kings were named Ptolemy) did however contribute their own set of temples to the already existing landscape of sacred sites upstream along the Nile. Four of these temples are combined on the Tentative List under the name Pharaonic temples in Upper Egypt from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. They are located in Dendera, Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo. I visited the latter two as side trips from a dahabiya cruise along the Nile.

    Horus statue at Edfu

    Edfu is a mid-size commercial town without any charm. Together with my 5 shipmates I crossed it quickly by horse carriage, the traditional form of taxi transport that also still can be found in Luxor. The temple’s parking lot even has a shaded section to park the horses.

    The temple at Edfu is dedicated to the falcon-headed warrior god Horus. His image is the trademark of this temple, and the various granite sculptures of his face that stand guard at the site are especially picturesque. Due to having its roof intact, the temple itself feels more like a complete building than the ones I visited so far in Egypt. Inside there are dozens of separate rooms that were used for storage and as chapels. All of its walls are decorated with bas-reliefs. They have lost most of their colours however, and the ceilings have been badly damaged by smoke. Numerous pigeons contribute daily to the deteroriating condition of the building. Access to the roof has even been closed off – this is to fend off another annoying animal species: bats.

    I enjoyed roaming around this temple on my own, discovering fully decorated corridors that lead nowhere. I stayed for two hours and there were hardly any other visitors.

    "Hidden" corridor

    Kom Ombo lies a few hours upstream from Edfu. This temple is also located near a sizeable (and eponymous) town. No need for a taxi this time: the temple of Kom Ombo lies directly on the eastern bank of the Nile. From a distance it strongly resembles a Greek temple, showing off its many columns.

    The distinguishing feature of the temple of Kom Ombo is that it is a double-temple, dedicated to two gods at the same time. They are Horus (like in Edfu) and Sobek, the crocodile god. This is one of the few places in Egypt where a cult around crocodiles developed. A live specimen used to live inside, and when it died it was mummified and replaced by another living crocodile. A number of the crocodile mummies can be seen at the on site museum.

    Kom Ombo also has a fine example of a Nilometer (that measured the height of the river’s water level), and numerous interesting bas-reliefs in good condition. The display of surgical equipment is possibly the best-known among them. We had arrived early enough to have unobstructed views of the temple’s highlights, but after 3.30 p.m. the passengers of large cruise ships started streaming in. At least 12 of them were docked near the temple when we left.

    Horus and Sobek together at Kom Ombo

    These two sites are examples of the value that in my opinion still can be taken from Egypt’s Tentative List. It’s a miracle that these sites have never been nominated, as is the case with nearby Dendera. Dating from the Ptolemaic Period, they all represent a part of Egypt’s ancient history that is not covered yet by its WHS.  

    Published 21 April 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Ptolemaic Temples:

    Colvin (23 April 2017):
    Great photos! I loved Kom Ombo and Edfu temples, and I hope these Ptolemaic temples are one day inscribed as World Heritage Sites. I was spoiled by magnificent temples traveling from Aswan to Luxor by dahabiya, leaving me to wonder if I would have enjoyed Luxor more if I took the trip in reverse.

    Els (23 April 2017):
    @Kyle: done!

    Kyle (22 April 2017):
    Can you link your Blog (Dutch) in the About portion of this website? I like following that as well, but I have to search the forums if I ever want to find it.

    WHS #629: Nubian monuments

    The Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae comprise 10 archaeological sites in the far south of Egypt. They were the products of the pharaonic attempts to dominate Nubia.

    Many trip reports from the past about Abu Simbel start with the compulsory convoy that has to be taken to travel there from Aswan, effectively limiting arrival times to two times a day. The convoy has been discontinued however since October 2016. So after leaving my dahabiya near Aswan, I was picked up by a car and driver at 9 a.m. for the 3 hour drive south. The drive is incredibly boring, just a desert road with maybe one or two gas stations. There are road signs however to temples into the desert – two of them are Amada and Wadi es-Sebua which are also part of this WHS .

    4x Ramses II at the Great Temple of Abu Simbel

    I was staying overnight to be able to visit the temples without tour groups being there, and also to get a hint of the Nubian feel of the town of Abu Simbel. My latter wish was completely satisfied by the Eskaleh Lodge, an oasis of friendliness where hypnotizing Sudanese music was played all day long. At 3 p.m. I was picked up by driver and guide for my scheduled visit to the temples. Somehow the tour company had found it necessary to send a guide, although it isn’t of much use (they are not allowed inside the temples). But well, he bought the tickets and explained the essence of the site to me sitting outside. We just sat at the entrance to the main temple, as no one else was there!

    The Abu Simbel site covers two temples next to each other. The largest one is to glorify Ramses II – the famous four huge statues at its facade all show himself at various ages! I even can’t think of a modern day dictator who would be so bold. One of the heads has fallen off (already 2000 years ago), but it still is laying at the statue’s feet like a toppled moai at Easter Island. The interior of the temple is well-lit, via a similar method as they use at the Valley of the Kings. As this temple was carved into the rock, not much natural light gets in. I had to forget about the delicate carvings and symbolism of the Ptolemaic sites that I visited earlier: the temple is a brash statement of power of Ramses II, mainly showing his accomplishments on the battlefield.

    The second temple at Abu Simbel is dedicated to Nefertari, one of the wives of Ramses II who was of Nubian descent. It does show her, and him again. The interior is decorated with remarkable heads representing the goddess Hathor. I finished both temples within an hour – except for the facades with the mega statues and an occasional glance at Lake Nasser there isn’t much that will keep you there longer. I tried to find the “seams” where they pasted the temples together again after the rescue effort in the 1960s. If you look closely they can be seen, but it has been done very well. Only the back side of the rock where they are now located feels manmade.

    Head fallen off

    The next morning I got up at 5.20 and walked through the streets of Abu Simbel once more. The temples are especially beautiful at sunrise, as they are illuminated by the sun at that hour. I had read that sunrise tours (even from Aswan) are popular here, but again no more than a handful of other visitors were present.

    After Abu Simbel, I unfortunately had only one afternoon left in Aswan. So there was little time to check out the other monuments included in this WHS. I decided to focus on Elephantine island, the island just in front of Aswan town center. A very short public ferry ride (costing about 2 minutes and 1 Egyptian pound) brought me there. At the southern part of the island lies the Aswan museum and the archaeological site. The museum did disappoint, I was expecting something to the level of the Luxor museum but this one is much more simple. It shows lots of small objects that were found on Elephantine island, but only the votive objects I found worth a second look. I did not do well at the rest of the site either: the temperature had risen so high that I had little energy to roam around ruins. I made my way directly to the Nilometer – the third of its kind that I saw on this trip, and the closest one to the Nile itself.

    Nilometer at Elephantine Island

    ICOMOS had its doubts in 1979 whether such a string of sites a long distance from each other would not set an unwanted precedent: “Does this not invite all countries to define the physical boundaries of their cultural heritage too broadly?” Well – almost 30 years later such loosely coupled WHS have almost become the norm, with the Works of Le Corbusier even stretching continents.

    Published 26 April 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to WHS #629: Nubian monuments:

    Els (26 April 2017):
    The Sound and Light Shows (Son et Lumiere) are still very much a tourist magnet, at Abu Simbel, Philae and Karnak. It doesn't appeal to me indeed, that's why I skipped them.

    Solivagant (26 April 2017):
    For our first visit to Abu Simbel back in 1978 we flew from Luxor – officially there were no seats available but we went out to the airport and a bit of baksheesh there unlocked 2. The only problem was that we (naturally!) were given no tickets! We were told, however, to say “Mr Qtab” at every occasion and this worked Ok at Luxor – but how on earth would we get back into the airport and onto the plane at Abu Simbel? No worry – The magic words “Mr Qtab” were like “open sesame”! There must have been quite a web of corruption distributing our fares (and no doubt those of many others) up and down the chain of employees! In ‘92 we had rented a car in Cairo and driven up to Aswan. The potential problem of driving on to Abu Simbel (this was before the “convoy era”) was whether there was any petrol in Abu Simbel as our small saloon car tank wasn’t definitely enough for the c600km round trip. No one in Aswan could state for certain that the only gas station in Abu Simbel (none along the road in those days) had any. Based on the belief that some $$$ would find some in Abu Simbel if really necessary, we set off early and alone on the empty road and had an excellent full day there – and got petrol ok! The tourists were like “waves” as coaches /planes arrived and departed and there were long periods when the Temples were virtually empty. Again – no limitations on taking photos in those days.
    You made no mention of “Son et Lumiere” taking place at either Karnak or Abu Simbel. Is this because they have been cancelled due to lack of tourists or simply that this form of “entertainment” doesn’t appeal to you? I would agree that it is an over rated medium which always reminds me of some 1950s Hollywood epic movie with its booming sound track and overblown rhetoric but still worth experiencing at Karnak I believe.

    Tips for travelling to Egypt

    I have just returned from a 10 day trip to southern Egypt - only my first visit to this country (105 countries came before!). I ‘did’ the Luxor to Abu Simbel stretch, covering only 2 WHS and 1 TWHS. But it was well worth it, as these are undisputed members of our Top 200 WHS.

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

    Kids in Daraw

    1. Go now to avoid the crowds

    Since the Revolution of 2011, visitor numbers to Egypt have been low. Many trip reports that float around on the internet date back to over 10 years ago. Locals that I met were complaining that especially Europeans and Russians do not come anymore. Fortunately for the Egyptian tourism industry, the Chinese are not deterred. And high hopes are held for the Indians. In general it was relatively quiet everywhere I visited – especially in the cities and during the early or later hours of the day. A number of shops and restaurants in Luxor and Aswan seemed to have closed down. But there definitely were crowds at the Valley of the Kings and at the temple of Kom Ombo. Beach destinations such as Hurghada and a Nile cruise are still popular, so people take day trips from those bases. A recent claim that tourist levels are back to normal again is overstated though I think.

    2. Take a Dahabiya Nile Cruise

    Labelled as "The cruise for people who don’t like cruises”, I can fully recommend a Dahabiya Nile Cruise. I went upstream for 4 nights on board of the Dahabiya Zekrayaat - a large sail ship in the style of Victorian travellers (it even included a piano downstairs at that time). The romantic magic is diminished a bit nowadays as it needs a towboat to move ahead at a speed high enough to cover the distance between Luxor and Aswan within 4 days (a train on the same stretch takes only 3 hours!). We were 6 travellers (South African, Australian and Dutch), pampered by 10 staff including a formidable cook.

    'My' Dahabiya Zekrayaat

    3. It will be a classical trip for everyone

    During our deliberations about the Top 200 WHS, noone had any doubt about including Egypt’s classical sites (Ancient Thebes, Abu Simbel, the Pyramids). Every serious traveller will be enriched by visiting these very ancient and unique sites. Touring them is inexpensive for the quality that you get to see – entrance fees to Abu Simbel or Karnak are a mere 5 EUR. And don’t underestimate Egypt as a nation, although it may not be at its prime at the moment it very much has its own soul.

    4. Prepare yourself for what you want to see

    Egypt is mostly a destination for package holidays and (large) group tours. This means that a one-size-fits-all approach usually is taken by its tourist industry. Scores of well-educated Egyptologists spend their days as guides going through the motions, rattling off all the dynasties in the right order and translating a couple of hieroglyphs here and there. Don’t let this industry decide how you will spend your days and what you will see. Do your own research beforehand. Include that recently opened tomb in the Valley of Kings (even for a surcharge) into your itinerary, find your way to those uncharted sublocations of a WHS, or that specialist museum. Cities like Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel are also very easy to navigate on your own.

    Gebel el Sisila

    5. Have a closer look at Egypt’s Tentative List (and beyond)

    Egypte has relatively few WHS for its size and place in history. Consequently, its Tentative List is still full of sites well-worth a detour. In the southern part of the country, which was the focus of my trip, this certainly is true for the Ptolemaic sites Edfu, Kom Ombo and Dendera. I heard from fellow travellers that they found Abydos interesting too. And along the Nile we made a worthwhile early morning visit at Gebel el Sisila, which was a stone quarry for Ancient Thebes and holds a number of small rock-cut tombs.

    Published 30 April 2017 Leave a Comment

    Responses to Tips for travelling to Egypt:

    WHS #630: Holasovice

    Holašovice Historic Village is a tiny WHS in the south of Czechia. Six previous reviewers on this website have already tried to capture its Outstanding Universal Value - often in vain. Its value lies in its architecture (the fusion of two vernacular building traditions into "South Bohemian Folk Baroque") and being an authentic representation of a Central European rural settlement. It also has been considered as a continuing cultural landscape, but that part seems to have been disregarded at inscription.

    Two of the facades

    Less than a week after I was in Egypt, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius in Abu Simbel, I found myself at a completely different scene. Holašovice lies in a hilly area full of farm villages. There was still snow on the ground. The closer I got to Holašovice the snow cover got thicker and it started raining as well. I had some trouble finding the town actually – I had to navigate via my smartphone, as there is no signposting. On the way I passed at least two village centers similar to Holašovice, with a pond and a row of colourful houses.

    Despite its unassuming surroundings, Holašovice is ready to receive tourists. At the edge of town there’s a parking lot large enough for a tour bus or 2. They also have an information center and a museum. And a monument celebrating the inscription on the World Heritage List. A minibus with some Asian tourists was just leaving when I arrived – the last passengers were running around to have some quick final shots of the village.

    Museum exhibits

    One of the characteristic spots in the village is the large pond in the center, but I could hardly see it because of the snow. All I could do was to take a brisk walk round the elongated square. Although the façades of the buildings that surround it have nice colours, they give away nothing about what lies behind their gates. None of the protected buildings except for the museum are open to the public. Which is understandable as people still live there. But it makes it hard to understand what exactly is so special about these farmhouses. If you want to prepare your visit in depth: more background info is available in this pocket guide.

    Farmhouse number 6 holds the small "museum" - perhaps one could better say that the farmer exhibits his old items in a barn to earn something extra. Its opening hours may be erratic, but I was let in after ringing the bell. The owner of the house proceeded to give me an extensive explanation in English about each object. Later we talked about the weather ("this is not normal") and about the Netherlands (good country, he had been there a few years before). The biggest advantage of visiting this museum is that you can see how the traditional farmhouses are set up: through the gate you arrive at a courtyard, with to the left the house and behind it the stables and sheds.

    Water pump

    In front of nearly every house stands a wooden pump, which was used to pump water by hand through pipes into the building. There might be some interesting piece of local history connected with the pumps, but I did not get to the bottom of it. Overall I lasted 25 minutes in town, my visit cut short because of the cold.

    Published 6 May 2017 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #631: Cesky Krumlov

    During my quick dash into South Czechia last week (3 WHS in 2 days) I stayed overnight in Cesky Krumlov. It’s perfect for that, as everyone seems to rent out rooms and there are restaurants to every taste. I arrived around 1 pm on Friday afternoon and left again at 10 am on Saturday morning. By that time I had seen most of the small historic center.

    Castle Tower

    As it was raining on Friday, I decided to go to the town’s museums first. The Egon Schiele Art Centrum is an exhibition centre dedicated to modern art, named after the expressionist Egon Schiele who lived in Cesky Krumlov at the beginning of the 20th century. I knew of Schiele from my Art History study at the Open University, where his distorted portraits adorn the "Expressionism" handbook (a course that I failed twice, and gave up on).

    Schiele was eventually chased out of Cesky Krumlov because he would let young girls pose naked for him. There is not much of his work on display here (it has very high value), most of it is in the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful art exhibition centre. I enjoyed the current exhibition of the works of the Czech Pavel Brazda especially.

    Main body of the castle, as seen from one of the bridges

    Due to the still pouring rain I hurried on to the castle, where I bought a ticket for the first available guided tour. Unfortunately I did not really pay attention: there are several kinds of tickets for sale, and I really wanted to go to the castle theater which apparently is very beautiful. However, together with around 40 other tourists, I ended up in the palace quarters. Rarely interesting, and no exception here - only the many stuffed bears used as carpets are remarkable. The castle owners have always kept bears in the castle moat. Two supposedly still are there, but they were not "on show" when I visited probably because of the cold.

    The most beautiful hall of the tour lies at the end: the Masquerade Hall, with painted masked party guests on all walls. No pictures are allowed inside the castle unfortunately - the reason given here is that the tours would take too long if everyone had to snap his or her perfect shot!

    The next morning the sun was shining at last, and I toured the town with my camera. From the various bridges there are beautiful views of the castle. The castle is so overwhelming that it looks too big for the small town centre. I did a full loop in an hour "uphill", through all the courtyards of the castle, across the white-blue mantel bridge and past the gardens. You eventually end up at a bridge at the other end of the town. This is a nice walk in the early morning, though I certainly was not the only one to enjoy it.

    Historic town centre

    Cesky Krumlov is really flooded by mainly Asian tourists, in the middle of summer it has to be terrible. Its medieval street plan does not accommodate such high numbers of people. Although it has kept its atmosphere well and it is a friendly place in general with some nice small cafees, it could do without tourist traps such as the Wax Museum, the Torture Museum and the Shanghai Restaurant.

    Published 13 May 2017 Leave a Comment

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    WHS #632: Telc

    I think the WHS of Telč will defeat me – can I really write 500 words about this over-commercialized market place?

    The historic center of Telč consists of a castle and a triangular marketplace, both of which originate from the Renaissance. Most striking is the series of original houses at the square, built in stone at the end of the 16th century after a fire had destroyed their wooden predecessors. In the 17th century, baroque facades and gables were added to several of them.

    One of the nicest façade-gable combinations, with sgraffito

    Not a lot of people from the general travel audience will have heard from Telč. But tourists do come here in large numbers: upon entering the town by car you will be directed to one of the major parking lots around the old center. There are ample parking spaces for buses, and the parking has to be paid for.

    From the parking it is only a few minutes walk to the city's main attraction: the market square. It is a very elongated square, approximately triangular in shape. On all three sides there is a row of colourful buildings with arcades. They are all in different colours and with various types of gables. The square itself isn’t especially pretty, unlike for example the Grand Place in Brussels or the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Maybe because it isn’t fully enclosed – it opens out to 5 roads.

    Adam at Telc castle

    In almost every review of the Telc market square on this website or at Tripadvisor you will read about the eyesore of the place: the center of the square is literally filled with parked cars and larger vehicles, blocking close views of the surrounding buildings. Parking actually has been allowed here only since 10 years or so, one wonders why they have made that decision. It also seems totally unnecessary given the many adjoining streets and parking lots. The view was even more obscured this Saturday by a bunch of haphazardly positioned market stalls, sporting commercial logos. It amazes me that so far no remark about this issue has been made in the State of Conservation reports concerning this WHS.

    In a far corner of the square lies the “chateau”. This is not a medieval type castle such as in Cesky Krumlov, but a more palatial one dating from the Renaissance and designed under supervision of Italian artists. I wasn’t in the mood for a tour with a tour guide and a large group again (which is the only way to get inside). But the building itself, the courtyard and the garden can be admired for free and are well worth it.

    Plague column at the market of Telc

    The verdict (5/10):

    I spent about 2 hours in Telč, including time for consuming a hearty and cheap lunch with the locals at the Švejk restaurant. The facades of the buildings aligning the square are indeed beautiful, but I couldn’t really enjoy them because of the obstructed views and the lack of information on display on site. This website has some more background on their origins.

    Word count = 500

    Published 20 May 2017 Leave a Comment

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