Blog TWHS Visits

Mértola

Mértola, a possible WHS for 2022 or 2023, was the last stop on my short trip by rental car through the north and center of Portugal last month. The town is located just like Vila Viçosa in the Alentejo region. I drove there via a quiet back road, where you’re allowed to drive 90 kilometers per hour. The largely uninhabited landscape is pretty with its cork oaks and olive trees, with some cows here and there that apparently can tolerate the heat.

On the last kilometers before Mértola I suddenly saw a remarkable warning sign: beware of devils? Of bats? A bit further on there was a textual  explanation: the animal head represents a Lynx. It turns out that Iberian lynxes have been reintroduced in this area in recent years. The life of one of those already ended under a car and local authorities apparently wanted to prevent further damage. Not that it kept the Portuguese drivers from speeding though.

Mértola used to be an important river port. Already in ancient times it was inhabited by Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans. They took advantage of its strategic hillside location on the navigable Guadiana River. It held this position when the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. The Muslims built a castle and a mosque there. For a long time, Mértola was an independent Islamic empire that had to defend itself against Arab and Christian neighbors.

The mosque dates from the 12th century and later was converted into a Christian church, keeping its original architecture. I visited the town on a Sunday afternoon, unfortunately then (and on Mondays) the castle and the mosque-church are closed. There are also excavations to be seen from the Roman and Arab times. From behind the fence they looked very limited, there are a few fragments of mosaics which might be of interest.

The area reputedly is also very good for hiking, but in mid-July when I visited it was much too hot for that. Even at 6pm, it still felt like walking into a suffocating blanket. I spent the afternoon at the pool of my hotel, from where I had a good view of life on and along the river. I saw a man walking his goats and a single speedboat raced across the water. Freight transport no longer seems to be using this river.

http://www.worldheritagesite.org/img/blog/Mertola3.jpg

In the absence of other entertainment I joined 7 Portuguese at 10am the next morning to make a one hour boat trip on the river. That was of course much too late to see any activity of birds or anything else. But we did see a few overjoyed pigs that were allowed by their owner to dive into the river. The best thing about the trip on the river however was the approach to the town of Mértola, with its imposing castle that protrudes above everything. In earlier times, skippers must have really had the feeling that they arrived at an important place.

Els - 5 August 2020

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Blog TWHS Visits

Vila Viçosa

Vila Viçosa, which may be up for nomination in 2022, is a town in the south central Portuguese region of the Alentejo. It lies close to the Spanish border, in the sweltering interior of the Iberian Peninsula. All the houses and many of the other buildings here are painted white, the streets are narrow. When I arrived in the afternoon the temperature was 38 degrees Celsius and there was no one to be seen in its streets: the locals know better and there were no tourists.

In the evening I had to leave my airconditioned hotel room to find something to eat. There aren’t many restaurants and nothing opens before half past seven. I ended up at the hippest place in town: Craft BBS - here they sell home-brewed beers and luxury burgers. I was able to get the last table inside, the rest of them both inside and outside were already reserved. Due to the mandatory distance between the tables, they cannot accommodate many guests at this time.

The next morning I tried my best to get to know Vila Viçosa. As a possible future World Heritage Site of Portugal, it is framed as a planned city based on Renaissance ideals. It was the seat of the House of Braganza, which supplied the country with 15 Portuguese kings and 4 Brazilian monarchs until the early 20th century. It has a 14th century castle, from which you have a beautiful view of one of the 2 city’s central squares and the eye-catching St. Bartholomew's Church.

Vila Viçosa is also known for its marble. Many of the buildings, including ordinary houses, have marble decorations. These are the visible manifestations of the prosperity that the House of Braganza brought to the city. The marble is extracted, processed and exported in this region.

The largest square is the one in front of the Ducal Palace - and of course it has an equestrian statue (of Joao IV, the first Portuguese king in the Braganza dynasty). The palace itself has a long, sleek facade. One can enter with a guided tour, but I did not have to convince myself for long to skip that. At the other 3 sides of the square are a former monastery, a church and the gardens of the palace.

In a side street when you walk out of the palace garden you'll see a striking gate: the Knot Gate. It is a remnant of the 17th century palace wall, the knot is the coat of arms of the Braganza family or - according to other sources - the symbol of the breaking of ties with Spain.

Vila Viçosa is a neat and well-kept city. Rows of orange trees decorate the sidewalks and also provide some shade. I had doubts beforehand whether it would be worth stopping here at all, but I did not regret it. However I found it not special enough for WH material, being located in region which already has Elvas and Évora designated (they lie within 30 and 65 kilometer respectively). With Vila Viçosa, Portugal also seems to continue its trend to propose sites that are especially important to its own history (the link to the House of Braganza in this case) and stay on the conservative (already overrepresented) side regarding the subject category.

Els - 2 August 2020

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WHS #734: Bom Jesus do Monte

Bom Jesus do Monte is a Catholic shrine located just outside the pleasant Northern Portuguese city of Braga. It is located on top of a hill, the route to it is shaped by a zigzagging staircase that symbolizes the way taken by Christ on the day of his crucifixion. The entire complex is built of granite and is decorated with fountains, statues and other ornaments. The shrine is visible in the far distance from Braga's central square, but it lies some 6 km away.

At half past eight in the morning I put my rental car in the free parking lot at the bottom of the hill on which the sanctuary is located. From there you can walk up, almost 600 steps have to be climbed on the long wide staircase. I didn't see any other tourists yet, but there were lots of local joggers around for whom this climb apparently fits perfectly into their daily or weekly sports routine. This lower part runs through a forest and is therefore pleasantly shaded. A chapel can be found in every hairpin bend, containing somewhat primitive portrayals of scenes from the last days of the life of Christ.

After about 300 steps I reached the first main plateau, from where you have a wide view over the city of Braga and you are at the foot of the most beautiful part of the stairs to the sanctuary. Unfortunately, early in the morning is not the best time to take pictures of the church and its zigzag stairs from here: the sun rises from right behind the church. Continuing upwards I noticed the locals alternating between the left and right staircases on every intermediate plateau. Those plateaus have a fountain each. The most beautiful I found those that symbolize the human senses: the water flows from ears, eyes, nose, mouth and hands.

When you finally arrive at the top, you are in front of the church which is located in a landscaped park with flowers. Like the chapels along the way, the church itself has a Baroque interior, with a busy spectacle of soldiers and other protagonists from the Crucifixion displayed at the altar. As beautiful as I found the granite fountains and statues outside, this setup seemed so primitive.

I was the only visitor in the church: the rest of the dozens of people present on site were only there for the sporting aspect and ran down again quickly after catching their breath. There is also a funicular that you can take to bridge the 116m difference in altitude between the city and the sanctuary. But I walked down as well, enjoying the views and statues some more.

In all I spent only about one hour at the site (which has free entry by the way), including the walks up and down. It's not really a unique WHS - you can also find such recreated sacred mountains in Italy, Poland and Brazil for example - but it looked monumental and impressive enough to me to justify inscription.

Els - 26 July 2020

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Works of Álvaro Siza

Álvaro Siza Vieira is a contemporary Portuguese architect, who has been productive since the 1950s. His works can also be found abroad: in the Netherlands, Brazil, Italy and the USA for example. However, he built mostly in Portugal, in the region around Porto where he was born. A broad selection of his work is on the Portuguese Tentative List as “Ensemble of Álvaro Siza's Architecture Works in Portugal”. So during my recent trip there I interrupted the long drive between Braga and my next overnight stop Vila Viçosa with a visit to two of his built works.

The first one that I chose to visit lies in Vila do Conde, a small seaside resort between Braga and Porto. I had to go to the city center, where there is a branch of the Borges & Irmão Bank which was designed by Siza Vieira. Parking closeby did not work on a busy Saturday morning, but I found a spot a few blocks away for 0.45 EUR per hour.

Siza’s building is not difficult to recognize, it is something white and Le Corbusier-ish with many windows in a street with mainly traditional buildings. That contrast with its surroundings is conscious: “a dialogue with and distance from the urban fabric”. You actually have the best view of the building from the sidestreet, it shows the intriguing all-glass elevator shaft. Much more is not visible from the exterior. As it is a public building, one could go in posing as a customer but the bank seemed closed to clients on a Saturday. The bank building and its architect were the 1988 winners of the Mies Award, an European architecture award.

The second structure lies about 5 kilometers away, in Pavoa de Varzim. I drove there along a coastal road and noticed beaches packed with people. With a bit of puzzling on Google Maps I gathered how to find the Casa Carlos Beires. It is located in a residential area with more interesting modern buildings. It lies in a very ordinary street and the neighbors watched me when I got out of the car and walked over to the house. I had seen pictures of the yellow building beforehand, otherwise I wouldn't have recognized it. The address is Rua Doutor Alberto Pimentel 43 but there is no house number visible.

This Casa Beires is one of Siza’s earliest and most defining works. It is a family house with a courtyard and walls partly made out of glass. However, one wonders what has happened to it: the large trees in the garden obscure the view from the street and you cannot walk around it (it is fully surrounded by neighbouring plots). I found the gate closed, but there is a bell and a letterbox so it seemed inhabited. Recent photos of the courtyard shows it looking very run down. However, apparently an over 90 year old lady still lives there among her memorabilia and old furniture.

Álvaro Siza Vieira is seen by some as one of the greatest living architects. Despite the fairly recent deaths of contemporaries IM Pei and Zaha Hadid, he still has to beat the likes of Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and Moshe Safdie to receive that honour. He won the prestigious Pritzker Prize already in 1992. But I find it doubtful that his reputation would be enough for a WH recognition: what has his influence been on the work of others for example? And which of his works do really stand out? Certainly the current list of 22 possibly included works would need a lot of trimming to be convincing.

Els - 19 July 2020

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meltwaterfalls 19 July 2020

I’m not sure that 22 sites would be the number involved and half of them are just educated guesses, but having looked back over the nominations I would still stand by that list.

I think it would take quite a fair wind for these to end up being inscribed, as enjoyable as Siza’s work is I wouldn’t put him in the same category as the 20th/ 21st century architects that have already had buildings inscribed.


Els Slots 19 July 2020

While writing, I also was a bit in doubt about the 22 locations and how we reached to that conclusion. The description on the UNESCO website mentions 14 different towns/regions, so 22 might not be a bad guess. Our list of 22 was compiled by meltwaterfalls when we were adding locations to all twhs: check this forum link (I will add a link to it in the blog text).


Rafabram 19 July 2020

I didn't know this nomination has 22 components. I just did my count and I visited 8 of them. I have very mixed feelings about this TWHS. For sure they chose too many buildings, and a lot need to drop off. Also I think there's a time question, some of his most relevant buildings are very recent and it's just too early to consider most of his work as a WHS. My opinion is they should focus on Matosinhos buildings (Boa Nova tea house and Piscinas das Marés), his early works, and I can see more clearly the OUV of this "complex": it was a very peculiar approach of modernism, with an influence that still remains today.


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

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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