Blog WHS Visits

WHS #733: Mafra

Mafra Palace, Convent and Royal Hunting Park became my first ‘new’ WHS post-Covid! I had planned to go and pick up the 2 recently inscribed Portuguese WHS in April already, but had to cancel at the time. After things started opening up again within the EU, this trip quickly got back to the top of my list as Portugal was welcoming tourists with open arms. I wouldn’t normally visit Portugal in mid-summer (it was 36 degrees Celsius!), but the good feeling of being able to travel again overcame any disadvantages.

Entrance to the Tapada de Mafra

Mafra hasn’t received the best of reviews, “another run of the mill Baroque palace/monastery” sums it up I guess. All previous reviewers ‘only’ visited the Palace, so I planned to focus on the Tapada: the hunting park. I just did a photo stop at the palace, which seems way too big for its surroundings. There’s a convenient large, free parking next to it and I also enjoyed a 1.60 EUR fish soup for lunch at a bakery in the street across.

The Mafra WHS comprises only 1 location (it’s a large area), but still the entrance to the Tapada lies 7 km away from the Palace. I drove there in my rental car, via narrow and winding roads. It is signposted well, also with UNESCO signs. At the entrance I found out that, as an anti-Covid measure, visits to the park have to be pre-booked via their website. Fortunately I could do that via my phone and was able to secure a spot for the next time slot. They only let 10 people in every 30 minutes, but there were far less visitors than that on the Friday afternoon when I was there.

Tapada landscape

The Tapada de Mafra is an enclosed area that was created to bring self-sufficiency to Mafra, not only by hunting. It had water reserves, farming livestock, orchards, vegetable gardens and woodland for timber and firewood. It is now mostly a recreational area: there are four signposted walking trails, a mountain bike route and a falconry show. The helpful information centre at the entrance also has toilets and (in normal times) a cafetaria, of which now only the vending machines were accessible.

I choose the Blue walking trail, the shortest at 4.5km. It only goes to the central area of the park, while the other routes also reach the fringes and are a better bet to see animals (I hesitate to call it wildlife). Nevertheless I encountered a number of deer along my route, they seemed to have succumbed to the heat and were just resting in the shade. It’s a pleasant walk, with interesting tree formations to look at. It loops around the center where there is a rather modest royal hunting pavillion and stables for the horses of the guests. You’ll also pass a lime kiln and a row of hunting shelters: small bunkers from where they used to shoot the game.

Former horse stables in the Tapada

While visiting WHS one unwillingly becomes some kind of a hunting expert. The list contains no less than 15 hunting lodges. The Tapada de Mafra is more similar to the Store Dyrehave component of the Danish Par force hunting landscape than to more opulent country houses such as the Palazzina di Stupinigi in Turin or Falkenlust in Brühl. Unfortunately its contemporary use as a recreational area does make it feel more like a theme park than a historically accurate preserved cultural landscape.

Els - 12 July 2020

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Looking ahead to 2021

The WHC meeting of 2020 has not even been rescheduled yet, but signs are there that the preparations for 2021 have already started and the World Heritage nomination process will not skip a year. I encountered an official delegation during my visit to the Jewish cemetery in Worms on June 19 and the Executive Summaries of the 2021 cultural nominations have become available (were leaked?) via ICOMOS USA. They include 18 sites, of which 1 is a mixed site and 1 an extension.

Mikveh in ShUM city Speyer, nominated for 2021

I read through all these Executive Summaries to see whether they’d convince me – for an inscription or a visit that I’d look forward to. I even tried to weigh them by adding a few more objective criteria:

  • Do they cover an underrepresented country or category?
  • What impact have these sites had globally?
  • Are they better than comparable sites on the List?

I put the answers all into a table for comparison, simply giving a 1 (Yes) or a 0 (No) (click here for a full size overview):

I am tempted to conclude that there is no great site among them, however a few do stand out:

  • Coptic Monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun: framed as ‘the’ place that carries forward the Coptic traditions, including the Coptic language, and the birthplace of Christian monasticism. It indeed is probably a better site to show the historical continuity of Christianity in Egypt than the already inscribed Abu Mena and Coptic Cairo.
  • Lake Chad: an exemplary African nomination, bringing together 4 countries in what seems to be a fairly recent effort. It’s a cultural landscape mainly for its inhabited islands, it will be nominated for a natural criterion as well.
  • Chinchorro: a very old pre-Columbian site in the desert of northern Chile, noteworthy for its preservation of mummies in situ.
  • Jomon Sites: the archaeological remains of a sedentary hunter-fisher-gatherer society, it would become the oldest Far Eastern cultural WHS. I am a bit biased about this one as I had such a pleasant visit in 2012.
  • Grobina: an important stepping stone in the global impact of the Vikings, “where Scandinavian settlers acquired the first invaluable experience for further expansion overseas, which determined the later processes and developments in the Viking Age”.

7 sites did not manage to score even 1 point in my ranking. Jordan’s As-Salt is probably the worst of them all. Especially these they try to hide behind political correct ICOMOS/IUCN/WHC lingo and excessive use of superlatives. They use phrases leaning to the ridiculous, such as: “.. has surpassed its original religious symbolism to become a community of belonging, social and economic organisation” (Ribeira Sacra), “petroglyphs full of symbolism, metaphors and Prehistoric realism” (Lake Onega) and “support between Muslim and Christian communities in the City transcending religious and ethnicities and producing a sense of community and belonging to a shared space” (As-Salt). 

There lies a potential 2021 WHS on the other side of these mountains

From these 17 new ones I have visited 5 conciously before. While reading the summaries I noticed that I had been close to Iran’s Hawraman/Uramanat Cultural Landscape as well, even twice! The valleys are located in a mountainous region in the provinces of Kurdistan and Kermanshah in western Iran. I have been as close as Sanandaj, the Irani Kurdish capital 155km away, and Halabja (long story to tell about that one) 84km away across the border with Iraq and the equally intriguing Ahmed Awa even closer as the crow flies. At least I got photos of the iconic Zagora mountains from the other side!

What do you think of the batch of 2021 so far?

Els - 5 July 2020

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messy 11 July 2020

they seem fine, but what about the Hagia Sophia? Do to be whitewashed and turned back into a mosque?

Nan 5 July 2020

The batch is not making me excited. It feels Unesco would be better served by cutting off new inscriptions by the regulars.

Zoë Sheng 5 July 2020

Nice overview. I only went to ~half of these...

I didn't enjoy Coptic Monasteries. The access was really restricted because the driver was Muslim and try finding a non-Muslim driver in Egypt! After all the police checks and military escorts one eventually gets to visit the monastery it's basically what many European monasteries look like. People inside were very welcoming to visitors. Being "earliest" might be a thing but it's not a good visit plus they are heavily restored to the brink of looking like new buildings.

Blog TWHS Visits

Great Spas: Bad Ems

The Great Spas of Europe will be discussed at the 2020 WHC meeting, whenever it will be rescheduled. I had ‘ticked’ it already in 2014 with a visit to Spa in Belgium and of course, like 553 others on this website, had been to the future double-nominated City of Bath in the UK as well. But with a serial transnational nomination such as this, it is always interesting to visit locations in other countries. Germany has 3 Spas left in the line-up for the 2020 nomination: Baden-Baden, Bad Kissingen and Bad Ems (Bad Homburg, Wiesbaden and Bad Pyrmont have been dropped). On my way back home from Worms I stopped for a few hours in Bad Ems, where they were eagerly awaiting the decision:

Bad Ems lies in the vicinity of Koblenz, close to the Upper Middle Rhine Valley WHS but on the river Lahn instead of the Rhine. The town with about 9,000 inhabitants extends on both river banks. It is therefore nice to walk along the waterfront and as many as four bridges allow you to get to that other side: two only for pedestrians and two also for motorized traffic. One actually has the best views of the buildings from across the wide river.

In the 19th century Bad Ems attracted visitors from all over the world to enjoy its spa facilities. Among them the Tsars Nicholas I and Alexander II from Russia and the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, who had summer residences here. They were attracted by the beautiful setting of the town and its apparent health benefits, but they also enjoyed socializing with the European aristocracy. This Russian link has been visually preserved in Ems by way of the Russian-Orthodox church which is still in use.

The town still relies for its income on the spa business, although it has gone through hard times in the late 20th, early 21st century. When I took a walk along the waterside around 10 on a Sunday morning, I only came across a man with a can of beer in his hand (not his first of the day) and I saw someone smoking a cigarette on one of the park benches. The many restaurant terraces were also still waiting for customers. To be honest it all came across quite boring and old-fashioned, although well-maintained.

The only thing that sparked my interest was a sign for a historical hiking route, partly uphill through the forest and with panoramic views of the pretty setting of Bad Ems. But with an indicative duration of 3 hours, I found that too long for this short visit. So I just walked back to my starting point via the other side of the river. From that side you have a good view of the monumental Neo-Baroque buildings of the Casino and the Kurhaus, both originating in the 18th century but further extended by Prussian emperor William I in the late 19th century.

Bad Ems surely is one of the minor locations among the 11 remaining Great Spas of Europe. It seems to become the kind of town that enters the WH List piggybacking on stronger partners: Bath has already proven to hold on its own, I liked Spa for its Art Nouveau and others on this website have reviewed Baden Baden and Karlovy Vary favourably. Ems actually has pulled off this trick before, it is already blessed with a WHS as it contributes 3 unremarkable locations to the 439 of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire WHS. 

Els - 28 June 2020

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pikkle 28 June 2020

Have been to all the TWHS German Spas (as well as many of the others) and while I find Bad Ems beautiful I am surprised Wiesbaden was left out...

Nan 28 June 2020

And I just visited Bad Pyrmont which was not included in the final nomination :(

It's worthwhile to point out that there are still plenty of Kurorte/Bäder in Germany. You can get a Kur (which some may consider a holiday) paid for by the health or retirement insurance. Which is why so many Kurorte/Bäder have remained open to this day.

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ShUM city of Worms

The ShUM cities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz will probably be up for nomination in 2021 – I write “probably” as we have no idea how the schedule of new nominations will be after the postponement of this year’s WHC session. When I visited Worms last Friday the city seemed to be more preoccupied with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms than with the upcoming World Heritage (Worms has a UNESCO Memory of the World listing for Luther already). I of course focused on the 2 locations included in this TWHS: the former Synagogue Compound in the Jewish quarter and Old Jewish 'Heiliger Sand' Cemetery of Worms.

Every Friday at 11 am there is a guided tour of the Heiliger Sand cemetery. I aimed my arrival in Worms to be in time to participate, which meant that I left my home already at 5 am! An 8 EUR ticket has to be bought beforehand at the Tourist Information in the city center, the tour starts at the entrance of the cemetery just outside it. Upon buying my ticket I was told that the tour would start half an hour later today. I arrived around 11.15 and noticed rightaway an official looking group with people in neat clothes including one or two who could pass for specialists on Jewish heritage. My guide later on confirmed my first impression: these were UNESCO / ICOMOS members and specialists on a site visit related to the appraisal of the WH nomination. 

For my tour 13 people showed up (15 is the maximum). The tour is conducted in German only. The guide managed to fill almost 2 hours – it was her first tour post-Covid and maybe she got a bit carried away. The cemetery certainly isn’t large and half an hour would be enough when you’re on your own. But I was glad that I joined the tour as lots of little details were pointed out. The cemetery lies outside the medieval city walls of Worms and within its own enclosed area (it is locked during the night, but I noticed no other obvious security measures). A lot of new research on it has been done to strengthen the world heritage nomination dossier (available here).  

The cemetery is located at the site of a former quarry. The lower part near the entrance has the oldest tombstones. They all have long inscriptions in ancient Hebrew. The 2 most famous stones date from the late 13th century and are those of the Maharam of Rothenburg and Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen. The first was a Rabbi who was captured by the German king while fleeing from his tax regime. Alexander eventually paid up to have the rabbi’s remains released, on the premise that he himself would be buried beside him. Visitors now leave pebbles on their stones as a memorial.

Higher up lie the dead of later centuries. The Jews in Worms at that time were more assimilated into the German mainstream. The texts on the grave stones were written in German instead of Hebrew, the Christian calendar was used to display the year of death instead of the Hebrew one. The shape of the headstones became more similar to Christian gravestones as well. But still here are a few interesting grave traditions to see, such as the use of a broken column to represent a young man's life cut short.

At the other end of the Worms city center lies the former Jewish quarter, centered around the Judengasse. Here the synagogue complex can be found – with the male and female sections, the ritual bath (now closed for renovation) and the small Jewish museum. It all felt a bit over-restored and clinical. The museum display especially seemed to showcase a far and distant culture instead of a once flourishing local community and the neighbours of the grandparents of today's citizens of Worms.

So what’s the verdict on this TWHS? I am “sitting on the fence” on this one. The historical value of the 3 ShUM cities in the Jewish diaspora is undoubted. However there are very few original tangible remains left and what bothered me the most is that it is a dead culture, fully cut short in the 1930s. The cemetery being advocated in the nomination dossier as a pilgrimage site “for Jews from all over the world” may be a stretch – it’s not that droves of Jews visit the site on special days or so. The City of Worms, volunteers and donators should be praised for rebuilding and taking good care of these monuments, but its Jewish soul left already long time ago.

Els - 21 June 2020

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Durian 21 June 2020

Interesting !!! they already started to evaluate the site even before WHC officially approved the nominated sites list of 2021. With open border in Europe this could be done, but for other region, it would be totally difficult to get international experts to travel. But with today technology, physical visit maybe not necessary anymore, they can ask local experts to dig information for them.

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Cologne revisited

There’s a Dutch proverb that says “Aachen and Cologne were not built in 1 day”. It means that a lot of time and patience is needed to accomplish an extensive task – the equivalent of “Rome wasn't built in a day” in English. Aachen and Cologne were random old, distant places in the imagination of the medieval Dutch and feature in several proverbs. The “not built in 1 day” is very fitting for the Cologne Cathedral, as it took over 600 years to complete. I had visited the cathedral already in the year 2000, but after a pleasant revisit to Aachen 2 weeks ago Cologne also seemed like good option for a return trip. This of course while my action radius is still limited – effectively til June 15 – to Germany.

Bronze door knockers at one of the main doors

Both Aachen and Cologne are easy day trips from Holland – Cologne takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes of driving from my home. A thing both cities have in common as well is that they host a modern art museum based on the Ludwig collection, very much recommended if you’re into that kind of art. But while Aachen is a quaint and midsized university town, Cologne is a proper big city with over 1 million inhabitants. It is generally less likeable.

To get to know Cologne better I took part in a Free Walking Tour. I choose the one in English – where I was accompanied by 14 others hailing from Colombia to Belarus. All of them were working and staying in Germany for longer periods. The guide did not try to hide that Cologne isn’t especially pretty: the city center was flattened at the end of World War II and rebuilt quickly afterwards. It is also much less neat and organized than the rest of Germany – they like the bohemian way here. A good thing about tours like these is that they bring you to spots that you’d not find yourself. We for example were directed into a parking garage, where a well can be seen that was part of the medieval construction that predated the current Gothic cathedral.

The well of the Ancient Cathedral

It is remarkable how close to the Cathedral modern structures were built. There's this parking garage, but there is also the ugly box of the Romano-Germanic Museum which houses a Roman mosaic. There is the Ludwig Museum - a bit more tasteful in style but also very close to the cathedral. The worst addition though must have been the railway station, which contributes to the pollution of the facades and the general scruffiness of the area.

Before the tour I had started my visit with the Cathedral of course. It opens at 10 and I was one of the first people of the day to enter. They had limited the access to not only the choir but also the nave was closed. So only photos from a distance were possible of the magnificent stained glass windows. The interior only “shines” when there is sunlight, which is not too often in this region.

Two goat gargoyles

Afterwards I did a full loop around the building. And I crossed the river via the Hohenzollern Bridge. From the other side of the river Rhine the best (unobstructed) views of the Cathedral can be had. Compared to the one in Aachen however, I found it much less interesting and I decided to downgrade my rating from 3 to 2.5 stars. Its size and its centuries long tourist fame seem to be its main assets that got it into the World Heritage List. Funny enough the fact that it took so long to complete was even used in the OUV statement: its apparently showed the "persistence of Christian belief in medieval and modern Europe".

Els - 14 June 2020

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Chapultepec Woods, Hill and Castle has featured on Mexico’s Tentative List for almost 20 years now. Most people visiting Mexico City will have been there in some way or another. However, mentioning ‘Chapultepec’ often leads to “mèh” reactions. The 9 voters on this website so far gave it a 22% thumbs up rating, which is pretty awful. Personally I find Mexico City one of the most interesting cities in the world and I’d be happy to go there again. The Chapultepec area also really has some great aspects.

Ahuehuete "El Sargento"

The negative associations may come from the Castle – the 19th century construction is not especially pretty and you need to be a Mexican modern history buff to find it interesting. The Zoo can easily be skipped (although it is famous for its success in giant panda breeding!). The city park itself also is not as lush as those in other capital cities. But there is a lot of history to be found on these 600 hectares. They comprise 3 ‘green lungs’ which are nowadays mostly used for recreational and educational activities by Mexico City's nearly 9 million citizens.

On my second visit to Mexico City in 2014 I explored Chapultepec by bike. I had joined a bicycle tour which I would not especially recommend, but at least we ticked off some of the sights near the Reforma avenue and in the Park. We visited on a Sunday, that’s when the main Reforma road is closed to car traffic. I believe Mexico City was the first city to do so each Sunday, a great initiative I think. Several other Latin American cities have followed its example. We must have encountered hundreds of cyclists and skaters – from beginners to athletes.

Turquoise-studded skull of an Aztec man (museum reconstruction)

In the park we stopped at the Botanical Garden. You can see from the plants here that the climate in Mexico City is very special: it is a city in the tropics, but also at an altitude of 2,400 meters. The vegetation is therefore a mix of tropical plants and plants brought by Europeans. A natural monument of interest deeper into the park is this notable tree: the Ahuehuete "El Sargento". It is a Mexican cypress tree planted by the pre-Columbian ruler Nezahualcoyotl around 1460. It is now reduced to its dead trunk.

After the tour I went to the no.1 highlight of Chapultepec: the Museum of Anthropology. Together with the Gold Museum in Bogota this is right at the top of the best museums across Latin America. Sunday is an extra busy day here, because the Mexicans can enter for free. One can spend hours here, but I stuck to a selection of works from Teotihuacan, Mexica and the coast of Mexico. It was busy, but the museum is so spacious that you can still see the most beautiful things at your leisure.

Voladores in action

Finally: the voladores. I had watched them before in 1997 and wanted to relive the experience. The voladores comprise a native Mexican tradition and are part of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list. 5 men climb into a 30 meter high pole and then 4 of them circle around downwards at the same time on a rope tied around one foot. A group of Totonac voladores always performs next to the Anthropological Museum, somewhat hidden behind the hamburger and ice cream stands on a lawn.   

I found them with an audience of about 50 people. The men had already climbed to the top of the pole. Some fireworks and music followed, and they started spinning down. Within a few minutes they were back with both feet on the ground. Originally this was a spiritual ceremony, "a fertility dance", but now it is performed for donations.  

Els - 7 June 2020

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Arturo Saavedra 7 June 2020

Chapultepec is one of Mexico City's best attractions and a great urban park, but I just don't see it getting WH status anytime soon. For me, it is one of those places in which a lot of its components are moderately interesting but none of them seem to be extraordinarily interesting.

As you pointed out, the Anthropology Museum is a must see for anyone in the city. However, there are other places in the park that may also be of interest to World Heritage travelers. The first one is the Cárcamo de Dolores, which is a hydraulic system of the 1950's, with impressive murals and a fountain, both by Diego Rivera. If you are planning a trip focused on 20th century arts and architecture in Mexico, the Cárcamo deserves a place alongside UNAM, the Barragán house, the Rivera-Kahlo studio and the historic district's murals.

There are also two visitable archeological sites in the park that may appeal to some travelers: A collection of reliefs depicting aztec kings and a water tank built during Moctezuma's rule. None of them are spectaculat but may contribute to a better understanding of Chapultepec's role in Mexico's history.

As for the Voladores, the best way to witness the ritual in its authentic form is to visit the villages of northern Puebla and Veracruz. Cuetzalan is also in Mexico's Tentative List and voladores play a very important role in the community's everyday life. Every Sunday, after the performing the ceremony, the dancers take part in a traditional Nahuatl mass in the parish church.

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Aachen revisited

My first visit to Aachen Cathedral was in 2001, really at the beginning of my WHS journey. It was my 74th visited WHS. I only had a basic compact digital camera then, I still know what it looks like. It made horrible photos, certainly compared to a smartphone from 2020 (let alone a proper camera). So at the start of this long Pentecost weekend I decided to driven to Aachen again to refresh my memory and to get better photos.

The Corona Shrine.

It was my first visit to Germany post-COVID. In preparation I stocked up on some disposable face masks (compulsory in public indoor places) and cash Euro’s. Although the crisis apparently has lead to increased card payments, Germany still is much more cash based than the Netherlands and I did not succeed in paying anything by card here. On the plus side, there’s no need to pre-book time slots at the Aachen museums or at the Cathedral – which is a more common measure in Holland to keep things under control.

I started my WH visit at the Cathedral Treasury. At 10 a.m. I was the first visitor of the day and I had the museum to myself. The Treasury made headlines in March as it announced the exhibition of the Corona Leopardus Shrine. It holds the mortal remains of the early Christian martyrs Corona and Leopardus. Corona was a legendary figure, whose relics were brought to Aachen around the year 1000. She is the patroness of causes involving money and it has been suggested to pray to her during the COVID-19 pandemic to support the world economy.

The octagon looking empty.

The Treasury as well as the interior of the adjacent Cathedral are true containers of religious relics. Those relics are the physical remains of a holy site or holy person, or objects with which they had contact. In the Middle Ages, it was good to collect as many interesting relics as possible as it would attract pilgrims to your Cathedral (adding prestige and boosting the local economy). The best relics of course are those associated with Jesus and Mary; Aachen keeps 4 uber-relics: the swaddling clothes and loin cloth of Jesus, the dress of Mary and the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist.

The entrance to the Cathedral is low-key. There were about 30 to 40 other tourists present: some Dutch, some German, some Asian. As a COVID measure, the benches in the central octagon have been replaced by a few chairs in order to keep distance between the churchgoers. Also, the stairs to the upper galleries were closed to visitors. Everything else was there as you would expect it – I especially liked the Ambon of Henry II (similar to a pulpit).  

Shrine of Charlemagne

I found Aachen Cathedral not an easy site to photograph. The exterior is a hotchpotch of different styles, the original romanesque core (which is the most interesting part) is fully enclosed by gothic and even later additions. The best views are from the Town Hall side. The real treasures inside the Cathedral, such as the Shrine of Charlemagne or the reliquary Shrine of Mary, are located far into the Choir. The area is not accessible and the gold of those shrines reflects in the glass boxes they’re encaged in. Nevertheless, Aachen Cathedral just oozes medieval history and even in the 21st century is a very pleasant place to visit.

Els - 31 May 2020

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Clyde 31 May 2020

Finally something interesting related to Corona!

Blog Connections

Bird Migration WHS

May 9 was world migratory bird day. I have never really liked birds, I even was afraid of them when I was a child. I still don’t like them fluttering around my head. But last year’s visit to a bird ringing station near Lake Baikal I found fascinating – those little birds that cover such large distances and are smart enough to fly around the lake. That, and the fact that I can relate to the OCD that often comes with the serious birder, inspired me to polish up our existing connection Bird Migrations.

Barnacle Geese in Southern Öland: long-distance migrants which breed in the Russian Arctic.

The connection’s definition is: “WHS that are key stopover sites for birds on one of the major flyways.” So far it has 48 entries, let’s make some sense of it:

What’s a Flyway?

Wiki says: “A flyway is a flight path used by large numbers of birds while migrating between their breeding grounds and their overwintering quarters. Flyways generally span continents and often pass over oceans”. It’s good to keep in mind that it is a human construct, a label to be able to manage bird populations better. It's not an exact route.

Do all birds migrate?

No, most woodpeckers and owls for example don’t. But the majority of the bird species do in some way or another. Not all use the major flyways though: some only move around to feeding areas a short distance away. Approximately 1800 of the world’s 10000 bird species are long-distance migrants (source). 

How many Flyways are there actually?

The answer to this varies with the source you consult. At the highest abstraction level, there are 3: Americas Flyway, African-Eurasian Flyway and East Asian-Australasian Flyway. These 3 are usually divided into 8 to 10 more precise flyways. BirdLife International, the global organization for the conservation of birds, distinguishes the following:

Which WHS derive (part of) their OUV from bird migrations?

No less than 28 of the 48 connected WHS attribute at least a part of their OUV to bird migrations. A further 6 mention birds in general, but they may be more focused on endemic species or those that ‘only’ are involved in regional migrations. Tikal and Iran’s Hyrcanian Forests are examples of the latter.

Notable omissions among the 28 are cultural landscapes such as Southern Öland and the Saloum Delta, which have been inscribed for their human interactions but also are important bird migration wise.

Are all flyways covered by WHS?

Yes, all 8 are. The Eastern Atlantic flyway, where birds migrate from their breeding grounds in Europe to tropical Africa, apparently is the busiest route. It also has the most bird migration WHS, with important stopovers like Banc d’Arguin, Donana and the Wadden Sea.

The Central Asian Flyway is the shortest, cut short by the Tibetan plateau. The Black Sea-Mediterranean (called Western Palaearctic in some sources) also isn’t well known, but does include our perennial non-favourite WHS Lake Srebarna.

Which WHS receives the most migratory birds?

According to the comparative analysis in the nomination dossier, the Dutch and German parts of the Wadden Sea yearly receive 10-12 million birds each year. It is seen as “the most important area for migratory birds, in the context of the East Atlantic Flyway”. So that would make it the busiest stopover on the most used route.

Cormorants stopping over in the Wadden Sea.

With a coverage of 48 out of the 1121 WHS (= 4%), bird migration seems to be a subject well-covered. It is also likely that more sites could be considered for this connection: all Ramsar sites for example (we have connected 94 of them) are known for their waterfowl habitats, though these might focus on resident birds or those on shorter migration routes (such as Aldabra and Socotra). The IUCN Gaps document from 2004, outlining underrepresented themes and areas on the World Heritage List, does not mention bird migrations and instead suggests to focus on Endemic Bird Areas. This is habitat-based bird conservation, the opposite of migratory bird conservation. However, we have 57 WHS with endemic bird species also already identified. So it seems that we have exhausted the potential for bird related WHS by now.

Do you know of any great birding sites that have been overlooked?

Els - 24 May 2020

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Clyde 24 May 2020

This blog post will keep me busy this weekend! Well done once again Els :)

I don't know whether you can actually pinpoint a particular WHS for the Bird Migration connection, but Macaronesia (Azores, Madeira, Canaries, Cape Verde) is a passage route and breeding region for migratory birds (Garcia-del-Rey 2011) which is not mentioned in the connection. 

Michael Ayers 24 May 2020

I was going to suggest that Brazilian Atlantic Islands could be added to this connection. However, while it is an IBA, with one criterion being "congregations" (especially for the Black Noddy), the site's distance from shore places it outside of any "official" description of the Atlantic flyway, and I was not able to find any lists of important sites of that flyway that include it. So, it probably can't be in this connection.

On the other hand, it should be a part of the Endemic Birds connection, for its two endemics, the Noronha Elaenia and Noronha Vireo.

Nice to see you are coming over to the Feathered Side. ;-)

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The former Colonies of Benevolence will be on the agenda of this year's WHC meeting. This Dutch-Flemish serial transnational proposal had been referred in 2018 due to doubts about the selection of included sites. Subsequential discussions with ICOMOS and the World Heritage Centre, who advised to “take a little more time” than usually after a Referral, has led to a reduction of the proposed locations from 7 to 3. On the Dutch side, Ommerschans and Willemsoord are omitted and Frederiksoord and Wilhelminaoord are combined. In Flanders, only Wortel is left.

Small former farm in Wilhelminaoord

I had already visited the Dutch part (notably Veenhuizen) in 2011 and the Belgian part in 2016. With the full, amended nomination dossier now available I decided to have a closer look at the Frederiksoord-Wilhelminaoord component. It is also about the only (T)WHS related place which I have not reviewed before that I can reach at the moment – I am eagerly awaiting the lifting of the non-essential travel ban to Germany for example, for some more low hanging TWHS fruit.

I arrived early on a Sunday morning in Wilhelminaoord, where I parked my car to begin the 11km long “Monuments walk”. It nicely covers the Frederiksoord-Wilhelminaoord component and its main monuments. They are really prepared here for WH status and more international tourists: every building of some interest has an information panel in front of it. The panels give a comprehensive explanation of what you’re looking at, both in the Dutch and English language. Up until now, the area has only been popular with Dutch pensioners.

Frederiksoord-Wilhelminaoord was a so-called ‘free’ colony: poor city-dwellers were given a small farm and identical-sized plots of land. Communal buildings such as schools, churches and workshops were located centrally. Along the main road between the two towns, the Koningin Wilhelminalaan, many of the original small farm houses can still be seen. They often have been converted into cosy-looking family homes.

Civil servant houses in Frederiksoord

Wilhelminaoord has a well-preserved Colony Church. I was pleased to find it open – only 3 visitors were allowed in at the same time due to the Corona virus measures, but at this early hour there was noone anyway. This protestant church was built in 1851. Church attendance was mandatory in the Colonies, to promote moral standards among the poor. Furthermore, Wilhelminaoord has preserved a weaving mill, which offered alternative employment to colonists who could not do the hard agricultural labour anymore and also two homes for the elderly.

Frederiksoord was the town where the administrators of the Colonies lived. The lower-ranked among them lived in similar small houses in a row. The pretty mansion ‘Huis Westerbeek’ was used by the company director.

Forestry School (1887), Frederiksoord

The Nomination Dossier frames the Colonies as a panoptic institution – the colonists were permanently observed and disciplined. Alcohol was forbidden for example, and to prevent them from going to the next town the colony had its own currency which wasn’t valid in the outside world. The ‘panoptic’ approach apparently is visible in the landscape as well: roads and supervisors’ buildings were strategically placed to keep an eye on everyone. What surprised me however how forested this area is. The walk goes via forest lanes for about a third of its route – which makes it a very pleasant walk but I wonder how this former production forest fits into the story of permanent visibility.

Els - 17 May 2020

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Clyde 17 May 2020

Ah ok. Pity, though because the new museum really gives a good overall idea about the Colonies' importance. The official website and all the information boards in Belgium still include Merksplas. Guess they'll have to change them then, if they ever get inscribed.

Els Slots 17 May 2020

Yes I am sure about Merksplas. It is not part of the nomination dossier anymore. There are also news reports in the Flemish press about it (it was deemed not authentic enough):

Clyde 17 May 2020

Very interesting. Thanks Els. Are you sure Merksplas has been left out? Seems like Veenhuizen is the best one on the Netherlands side.

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Taking Travel Risks

On March 10 I got an e-mail from Tamar Cassidy, owner of Sangha Lodge in the Central African Republic. It read: “Are you still OK to travel?”. I was booked for a long-awaited week at their mammalwatchers lodge in Sangha National Park starting March 24. Four other tourists from Europe had confirmed as well and we were all still willing to go despite the conditions for international travel worsening by the day. People around me said “You surely don’t want to go there now, their health system is appalling”. But my thoughts were – I wasn’t carrying the virus, the virus had not arrived in the Central African Republic yet and they worry about worse things there anyway.

Dzanga Bai, one of the highlights of Sangha NP

The biggest new risk that I saw was not being able to get back home afterwards: the park is such an isolated place and the Central African Republic in general gets very few international flights. But what would be the damage if I had to stay there or in a neighbouring country? I would miss work for a few weeks, but I surely wouldn’t be fired and they’d probably find it a good story. I would need to pay for my own stay abroad and transport back home, but that’s always the case when you travel. Worst case I’d loose all my yearly holidays and travel budget in one go.

By March 18, we did not need to decide anymore as someone had done it for us and closed Sangha NP. The reason was to “minimize the potential risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic to the people and great apes”. I felt mostly sad for the owners of the lodge, who have been running a succesful business in a country that for years has coloured red in foreign travel advisories with a warning against all travel. And I pitied their employees and those of Sangha National Park, as no tourists means no income.

Dutch Travel Advisory for the Central African Republic, before and during the pandemic

Preparing a trip to an expensive lodge in a far corner of the Central African Republic would be enough for most people to set alarm bells ringing, even outside of a pandemic. It’s not difficult to find horror stories: “Large areas of the country are controlled by armed groups who regularly kidnap, injure, and/or kill civilians”, malaria is endemic and the leading cause of death, and the country has "the second lowest level of human development, ranking 188th out of 189 countries”. At a closer look however, you’ll see that violence is most likely in the northern part of the country that borders Chad. Yes, there is a good possibility of contracting malaria but there are precautions that you can take. And widespread poverty does not per definition exclude tourism (as shown by also lowly ranked Gambia).

When I compare my risk appetite in 2020 with that from 20 years ago, a lot of boundaries have shifted: being a seasoned traveller makes you more comfortable with taking risks than the average person. As quoted from a recent NY Times article: “For the most part, we know that travel experience is related to perceptions of risk, and that the more people travel, the more they are exposed to different levels of risk and that they feel more equipped to be able to deal with it. So, their self-efficacy goes up and therefore their perception of risk goes down and their willingness to travel goes up.” 

I think this is a health warning

I felt (and still feel) at ease regarding to travelling to Sangha NP. I had bought malaria pills (not a thing I usually do as malaria risks are often overstated), I booked a one night stay in Nairobi beforehand to lower the chances of missing the flight to CAR and subsequent charter flight to Sangha, I relied upon the lodge to arrange my visa instead of trying to obtain one myself. I do not worry anymore about transferring large sums of money to foreign bank accounts - I'd rather give the money directly to the local business than hiring a European broker. I do not use traditional travel & cancellation insurances, as I find solely protection against ultra-high medical costs (including repatriation) is enough given my financial situation.

In general, and speaking from experience, my personal top Travel Risk Management tips would be:

  • Inform yourself – there are so many resources available for travellers nowadays, varying from official statistics to first hand accounts of other travellers. When you learn from others that have been in the same situation, it is easier to reduce the probability of a risk from happening.
  • Do your own risk assessments – only you can value what the possible consequence of a trip to XYZ is worth measured against your health, your finances, your relationship with relatives.  
  • Develop your life skills – you’ll fare better travelling when you have acquired decent life skills such as the use of foreign languages, budgeting, assertiveness, perseverance and problem-solving. I also have learned that my professional work has helped me with this, and vice versa that travelling has helped my professional career.

Els - 10 May 2020

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Durian 10 May 2020

In case you want to know, the picture of health warning broad is in Laos language and it is about tuberculosis, encouraging people who have fever for 3 weeks to visit hospital. All medical expenses to cure tuberculosis are free and supported by the government.

Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero 10 May 2020

I also have a few trip cancellations because of the pandemic, one of which was even a China trip for February. The week leading to the trip was troublesome as it was the time when the rest of China was following the Wuhan lockdown. Still wanted to go until I got the message from the accoms we would staying in that I was better cancel. The story got published here:

BUT, in the end, I found myself stuck in the island of Siquijor -- I'm now on day 61 here and already have a good collection of sunset photos. Hopefully can go back home after the 15th if there are no more extensions on the quarantines. The island is home to one of the baraque churches nominated as an extension to the world heritage-listed churches of the Philippines, the church of Lazi. Totally in support of any future effort to finally forward the nomination :)

Michael Ayers 10 May 2020

Great post, Els! Like you, I feel that many things that people often worry about, "official" government travel warnings, insurance, etc. are mostly a waste of time or money.

I would love to see CAR someday, perhaps a good location for the first post-pandemic Meetup? ;-)

Nan 10 May 2020

Sorry to hear you had to cancel.

It's hard to fathom why a country that has malaria as #1 cause of death (10% of the population seem to contract it each year, roughly 1% die each year) will cease operation due to Corona. Even more so when you consider their average age is (18) and their life expectancy (55). They are squarely outside the risk area.

Regarding risky travel, I am probably more worried than you, but less worried than the average. Questions I always ask myself:
* Is my life or is my money in danger. The latter I can cope with.
* Can I move freely if I behave rationally? I can live with no go areas and I will duly research where those are. But I wouldn't want to be locked down in the hotel.
* Can I rationally make the case to my mum that it's safe and that the picture in the media is overblown.

Final words re travel insurance: They rarely cover the cases that I would need them to cover (airline broke, country closed). Health insurance is mandatory, though. As is paying flights with a credit card as default insurance. And booking everything else as late possible (hotels potentially same day).

PS: Betting this will be one of those discussion inciting posts again :D

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