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Unusual Entry Requirements

In February I visited the Font de Gaume Cave in the Vézère Valley. The number of visitors per day here is strictly regulated and they handle this in an old school way: on a strict in person first come first serve basis. They have painted numbers on the benches outside the entrance (unprotected against wind and rain), where you are supposed to sit. You cannot hold a seat for another person. So if you are willing to get up early, physically able to sit on a hard bench for at least 1.5 hours and brave the weather - you will get the privilege to buy a ticket.

And of course there are WHS with health and environment related restrictions. Or sites that have limited access to followers of a specific religion or gender. We do have a connection for the more serious cases of unusual entry requirements though: WHS which, either permanently or on occasion, require intending visitors to pass "tests" before entry is granted. Sometimes they ask you to do real odd things:

Bahá’i Gardens in Haifa (Israel)

In the Bahá’i Gardens visitors are allowed only to descend the terraces and not to ascend them, an act reserved to Bahai worshippers alone. The visitors are accompanied by guides who make sure the visitors follow this rule. This ‘rule’ is confirmed by reports of visitors and some websites, but I could not find it on the official website of the gardens. It may also have to do something with segregating the tourists from the worshippers and allowing them only to use the upper entrance.        

Altamira Cave (Spain)

Most original caves with prehistoric paintings in France and Spain have been closed to visitors due to conservation measures. Since a few years however, the Altamira Cave offers entrance to 5 visitors a week. They are selected by a lottery, which takes place every Friday at the Altamira museum. Between 9.30 and 10.30 a.m. you can fill out a form with your name and details, and toss it into the lottery box. There have been rumours that this opportunity would be discontinued, but the Altamira website shows the names of lucky winners until March 2020.

Saiho-ji Temple, Kyoto (Japan)

The oddest of all for sure is the Saiho-ji, a Zen Temple in Ancient Kyoto. It is also known as the Moss Temple, and for the looks of its garden the number of visitors increased significantly. Already since 1977 a system has been in place to only allow reservation by postcard. How to do this is explained wonderfully at this website. It involves Japanese etiquette to the max (“The ofuku hagaki is a set of two postcards one of which will be used by Saihoji to reply”). 

However, once you’re in the fun continues: you will be strongly requested to copy a Zen Buddhist sutra in the reception hall before entering the garden. This takes as long as it takes you to master this. You should bring your own brush-pen for this (or you can buy one at the spot).

Have you experienced any similarly unusual requests before gaining entry to a WHS?

Els - 29 March 2020

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Els Slots 3 April 2020

@Zoe: there is a separate connection for those kind of measures, "Biosecurity rules for tourists"

Zoe 3 April 2020

Visiting the Wake atoll required massive disinfecting of the boats, I'm guessing similar to visit some other places, Wrangel?

Caspar Dechmann 2 April 2020

@Durian: thanks, that is very interesting. I thought there was little logic in the selection. Do you have any article about the process or about the original list?

Durian 1 April 2020

@Casper, during the nomination the idea of WHS was still not clear with many temples' head priests. So many famous temples declined to participate, one of them was Daitokuji!

Caspar Dechmann 30 March 2020

I offen wondered about the selection of the Kyoto temples: it is really too big a bunch to be only the “crème de la crème” but they clearly left some of the best out! I miss most the important villa, which was probably my favorite Site in Kyoto but also temples like the Daikaku-ji!

Tsunami 30 March 2020

I looked at the website Els mentioned above, and it says, “Also from June 1, 2019 all visitors must be over 12 years of age.” This is probably because they don’t want young children to inadvertently go off the designated stepping stones and to step on the ever-important living moss. It was the same at Katsura Imperial Villa. But my mother, over 80 of age at that time, inevitably slipped off a stepping stone and trampled on the moss. If they don’t want this to happen, they should also ban people over 80.
BTW, why the Kyoto Imperial Palace and the Katsura Imperial Villa are nowhere to be seen on the WH list is anybody’s guess. Perhaps it’s the same reason why Ise Jingu, the single most sacred place in Japan, is not on the list.

Caspar Dechmann 29 March 2020

I visited the Saiho-ji Temple in 2013. I still remember that the reservation process was very laborious and expensive but the garden is certainly special enough to make it worth. You had to arrive at an exact time as part of a group who could enter the garden in this time window. After a while we were asked into a temple hall with rows of little desks. Then we were given a Japanese text, some kind of paper, ink and pen and we should copy the text. The text was very long but it was getting more and more fun to figure out how to use the pen correctly to get the right kind of lines for our letters. After 20 minutes or so a monk came and said it was enough, we might enter the garden. At that point I was in kind of concentration flow and rather disappointed that they didn't let us finish the task. But on the other hand it gave us more time in the gardens and you can be sure that I used it up to the last minute after the big effort of the application. Very much recommended!

Tsunami 29 March 2020

Although the entry requirement at Saiho-ji may feel unusual for foreigners, it is not at all for the Japanese and is completely normal. The O/hin-Huku/zurück-Hagaki/karte has existed in Japan ever since I was born there.
I remember back in 2009 when I took my mother to Katsura-Rikyu (Katsura Imperial Villa) in Kyoto as one of her last trips in her life. Katsura-Rikyu is known to have the single most beautiful and important garden in Japan, and my father once said to me, “You have to go there at least once in a lifetime.” So I was determined to take my mother there, as she (or I) had not been there before, and went through all the procedures religiously. So when I was in Japan in 2008, I bought an ohuku hagaki and additional stamps and brought them back to Los Angeles where I lived at the time and sent it to the Imperial Household Agency in Tokyo when I knew the date of our visit. Lo and behold, the return card arrived back in LA without incident. Nowadays, however, I believe you can make an appointment online for Katsura.

Nan 29 March 2020

Mount Athos and the Diamonitirion come to mind.

Jay T 29 March 2020

I’m not sure if this counts, since the entry requirements are for the entire island, and not just the World Heritage Site, but Easter Island in Chile is now requiring travelers to have an official invitation of entry before they can board flights to the island. In order to get the invitation, travelers must fill out an online form ( acknowledging they have a return ticket and approved lodging for all nights of their trip. Once the form is approved, the invitation will be sent to the traveler’s e-mail address, and must be shown to the gate agents at the airport.

Blog TWHS Visits

New Dutch Waterline

The “Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie” (New Dutch Waterline) is a proposed extension to the Defence Line of Amsterdam, which will be discussed at the 2020 WHC. It comprises another series of defense works, stretching out a further 85km from the southeast of the Defence Line of Amsterdam across the province of Utrecht into Gelderland and Noord-Brabant. Both used water – a 50cm layer of it, “too shallow for ships and too deep for men on horses” - to keep invaders out. The new name of the combined WHS shall become: “Dutch Water Defence Lines”.

The New Dutch Waterline actually is the better known part of the two among the general public. I had visited one of its components before – Loevestein Castle, one of the most interesting castles in Holland – but last week I headed out for a hike in the area of Fort Ruigenhoek. Ruigenhoek and 3 other forts in the vicinity were especially built to protect the city of Utrecht, which established itself more and more as a railway infrastructure hub in the 19th century. These forts replaced an earlier defence line which had become too close to the city due to its expansion in the 1860’s; hence the “New” in New Dutch Waterline.

Ruigenhoek lies so close to the city of Utrecht that it attracts lots of visitors at any moment. With all schools closed and so many people working from home due to the COVID-19 crisis, even during the weekday afternoon that I visited there were dozens around. The area has been turned into a “recreational space”, with bike paths, hiking trails and a large playground for kids. I must say that this purpose is much more prominent than the monumental heritage, for which it would become part of a WHS.

I do quite a lot of short to medium length hikes in the Netherlands and there are a few things that I then hate to encounter – cyclists and hikers sharing the same (paved) path and inadequate signage are among the worst. Both occur here, so it was not a particularly pleasant hike. Also, the typical polderlandscape (you’ll remember it from Beemsterpolder) creates boringly long and straight stretches of road with no protection from wind and weather.

The interesting thing about these Water Defence Lines I find is that they had and still have a lot of impact on the visual landscape of the Randstad, but that they were rarely used. Here at Ruigenhoek especially the numerous ‘bunkers’ stand out. These are concrete shelters built for small groups of soldiers, where they could hide when the going got tough outside in the fields. They were constructed just before WWII, but never used. The deliberate flooding of the polders in the New Dutch Waterline also was only used 3 times in history.

This extension will be proposed as a ‘significant boundary modification’ to the existing Defence Line WHS. The list of included locations will also be updated. A few of the locations of the current WHS will be dropped, leaving 1 huge continuous core location plus 8 separate satellite locations. The nomination dossier and its appendixes are available online and I found them quite an interesting read.

Els - 22 March 2020

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WHC 2021: The Slate Landscape

The Slate Landscape of Northwest Wales is the UK’s nomination for 2021. It will be a serial site with 7 components. Each of the components consists of a number of ‘elements’ – the most noteworthy “physical features which embody the attributes of Outstanding Universal value”. That value is to be found in (ii) the technology transfer to continental Europe and the USA, (iv) the dramatic impact of large-scale exploitation of natural resources and (v) the legacy of the industrial workers and their settlements. Its official name has been changed from “Slate Industry ..” to “Slate Landscape”, obviously emphasizing the cultural landscape approach.

I visited one of the components, the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, on my way to the Gwynedd Castles in 2011. I’ve got a couple of photos left, but I must admit that I did not write up anything about the side trip and I can remember almost zero. What I see when I look at those photos again is a town that could only be in the UK: straight rows of similar stone houses (cheap housing for the quarrymen), a fish and chip shop, an Anglican church (they call it “Church of Wales” over here), a WWI memorial. It is surrounded by steep natural hills and man-made waste dumps. All photos appear to be taken in black-and-white as grey is the prominent colour of it all (including of course the slate roofs).

At the center of the town lies a railway station, which is the terminus of a narrow-gauge heritage railway. It was originally built to connect the quarries with the sea. The railway tracks and the “sense of arrival” (when doing so by train) are prominent features in the WH nomination. Most of the photos that I still have are railway related, so it must have been the town’s most impressive sight. In hindsight, St. David’s Church (now advertising bilingual services but in the past all churches preached in Welsh) and the market hall with interesting architecture might have warranted a closer look.

Desk research in 2020 reveals that there is a (slightly outdated?) nomination website available in Welsh and English, and the Management Plan can be found online as well. It is all well-presented and I don’t think there will be many objections getting it inscribed. But just as with my short visit, the presentation does leave an aftertaste of “Is this special enough?”. There was no element mentioned where I’d would be really interested enough to go back for a ‘proper’ visit. There’s the social history of course and the exploited landscape - this recent work might be an interesting read to get a better feel for the Welsh Slate history. Excerpts are readable for free online.

In ICOMOS’s Filling the Gaps document of 2005, that had the goal of identifying under-represented categories, post-Industrial Revolution technological properties located in Europe and North America were considered “overwhelmingly” present already. However, in the years since several more have been added to the List. Among those is for example the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape which is geographically and thematically close to the Welsh Slate Industry Landscape. One of its arguments in the comparative analysis was that tin mining was not represented yet, and – indeed - slate mining also isn’t. But do we really need all imagineable resources represented?

Els - 15 March 2020

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Els Slots 16 March 2020

Re: "(“WHC 2021: The Slate Landscape”) implies that it is the first of a series of “retrospectives” on upcoming nominations" -> no it isn't, I have used it before as a label to identify a TWHS review that is close to inscription. Do not plan more. I have 1 unreviewed TWHS in the pipeline and for the remaining weeks I indeed plan to fall back on thematic posts (meta blog posts as Nan calls them).

Nan 15 March 2020

I skipped past it when I tackled Wales, but Snowdonia and Anglesay seem like nice places, that I might squeeze a visit in if inscribed.

Re Cornwall: For me, this belongs on the list and it should have been submitted earlier. My only critique: The inscribed site is just too broad and should have been more focused.

Re future blogs during travel ban: Personally, I like the discussion and meta blog posts best. Those also seem to be the ones that gather the most discussion/community feedback. On the other hand, I did not expect this post to gather this level of feedback.

Re future nominations: I agree that the overall pipeline is less than stunning. So much so, that I am wondering if I shouldn't travel with the List 2020 as fixed goal.

The problem, though, is not that there aren't any worthwhile tentative sites out there. It's more that it's always the same countries submitting, most of them having exhausted their list or being too single minded.

For Germany, I really don't see any reason to keep submitting that many sites. I think it would be good to simply stop. Maybe Spas und Neuschwanenstein and stop.

For the UK, do you really need more mines and industrialization sites?! Scotland, meanwhile, would offer way better opportunities.

On the opposite, is Ireland who have great sites but seem not at all interested in submitting them. And other (more often than not poorer) countries don't make any efforts.

Solivagant 15 March 2020

Hi Els
I don’t know if your title for this Blog (“WHC 2021: The Slate Landscape”) implies that it is the first of a series of “retrospectives” on upcoming nominations. With new travel likely to be very restricted for some months to come, that may indeed be the only way of finding “new” blog subjects!!

I don’t normally leap to the “protection” of negatively reviewed sites (especially not those from UK which might smack of “special pleading”!) but do fear that a review of a visit which only “saw” a railway station (apparently with no trains!), some “cheap housing”, “waste dumps”, a fish and chip shop and a landscape dismissed as “grey”, might not give a fair impression of the site and might lead some visitors to miss/not seek out what it does offer! (Naturally) I would suggest looking at my own review which encompasses rather more of the site! That said, the site certainly isn’t a “great” one or worthy of our “Top 50 missing” - I will probably give it 2.5 stars if it is inscribed – my “WHS average” but ahead of many other mining sites.

Perhaps more interesting is your comment that it lacks originality or novelty since, even if slate mining isn’t currently represented, then many sites covering the sourcing of other resources are (“…but do we really need all imaginable resources represented”?). This led me to look at other upcoming nominations for 2021 (no doubt the same could be done for 2019 and 2020 with similar conclusions).

There are 38 (including 1 other mine at Roșia Montană) - but how many would pass a strict “originality” test? In fact nearly all of them are “repeats” - mosques, missions, mediaeval town centres, mountains etc. A few hit the button of also being reasonably “iconic” in World terms – if not at the highest level (Sarnath). Some are incredibly convoluted in their attempt to identify a new “slant” on an old theme (Ljubliana, Nice, the SHUM cities.). All that can be said is that there isn’t a vineyard CL this year!! Among them I wouldn’t pick out the Slate industry nomination as being the most egregious example of “me too-ism”!!! Indeed the ONLY really novel nomination is the one which causes the most controversy and is most likely to be rejected – the WWI Funeral Sites.
The reality is that the entire WHS nomination system now is sclerotic with most nominations being variations on a number of standard themes, each trying to identify a USP to differentiate it from its near “relatives".

Returning to the Slate Nomination and “greyness”. Anyone with access to BBC might be interested in seeing the murder/detective drama “Criath” in Welsh (sub-titled “Hidden”). This makes Nordic Noir look like a comedy show and series 2 centres on Blaenau Ffestiniog! I quote from a couple of reviews “A Nightmare for the Welsh Tourist Board…… So this is Wales? It never gets fully light in the day. It's always raining. Everybody is depressed. Everybody is on drugs. Everybody has a dark past. Horrible feral kids murder people & stab each other. Feral dogs bark all the time.
Nobody smiles.” And “...this is downright depressing. A whydunit rather than a whodunit we are besieged with bleak shots of bleak lives in bleak Welsh villages. Even the beautiful countryside is shot to highlight its bleak and barren features.” Sounds like it had that impression on you too Els!!!

Ilya Burlak 15 March 2020

Thanks to your post, Els, I also realized that I may "have been" to another TWHS. Back in 2008, while living in London, we took a week-long trip around Wales, and specifically stopped for a tour of Llechwedd Caverns in Blaenau Ffestiniog. My notes suggest that the tour was fairly disappointing - although the kids, as I recall, enjoyed it well enough - and we did not actually stop in or saw much of the town. A borderline visit by any definition, although I suspect that if it ever makes it to the list, the actual mine has got to be part of it.

Tsunami 15 March 2020

I realize I have been to the train station of Blaenau Ffestiniog. After visiting the Conwy Castle and staying over at Betws-y-Coed in 2009 I took a train (or a bus) to Blaenau Ffestiniog in order to take a bus to another train station on the coastal railway (I also saw the Harlech Castle from the train.) that connects to Shrewsbury. The reason I suddenly remembered this is because of the stone monument in the Els' first photo here. I was just able to dig up my photo of the monument (with a plate) from a different angle. I did not even know what it was for at that time (The nomination was announced in 2012). But the plate in my photo seems to say "This Slate Fountain was donated to the town by the Ffestiniog Chamber of Trade." So was it a fountain? All I remember is that it reminded me of the monolith in Kubrick's 2001, especially because of the angle I took my photo.

Blog TWHS Visits

Sarlat at Night

The Historic Center of Sarlat has been on France’s Tentative List since 2002. It lies in the Dordogne, in the same general area as the already inscribed Vézère Valley. Sarlat is considered to be one of the towns most representative of 14th century France, as modern times largely have passed it by and its historic district was ‘saved’ from destruction in the 1960’s by then French Minister of Culture André Malraux.

My visit was a very short one: I stayed there overnight during my visit to the Vézère Valley, but had little time to explore Sarlat itself. I did a quick dash into the city center on Saturday evening, just to get a feel for it and search for a restaurant. I wasn’t succesful with the latter: about half of the restaurants were closed for winter season and the other half were fully booked. The regional specialities here are duck breast and foie gras (the town even boasts a statue of 3 geese), so I can’t say this was really a disappointment as both food options do not appeal to me much.

What stood out was how dark the historic centre was. Except for the main shopping street, the other streets in town are barely lighted (they use fake / vintage gas lamps for this). The medieval stone town houses are mostly high and narrow, adding to the somewhat spooky atmosphere. One can surely film a medieval costume drama here, or a historic detective series.

Sarlat’s notable sights include the Cathedral, several Maisons (town houses) and a so-called ‘Lantern of the Dead’ (dating from the 12th century) – a “small stone tower pierced with small openings at the top, where a light was exhibited at night to indicate the position of a cemetery”. Unfortunately I missed out on that one while I wandered around in the dark! It may have been a "lantern of the Moors" instead of "lantern of the Dead" anyway

The TWHS has a very short description on the UNESCO website, as if it would be clear enough why Sarlat should become a WHS. But it’s not the “cute small town with medieval roots” where the focus lies. Criterion vi (the link with events and living traditions) features prominently here; for its theatre festival and even being a “laboratory of democracy in our country” thanks to the French humanist La Boétie. I had never heard of the guy, but apparently we should remember him as “one of the earliest advocates of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance” (wiki).

As a conclusion I give it a ‘Thumbs down’ – it is pretty but what does it add to what’s already on the List? Some of us have already expressed our doubts about Provins and this feel similar in value. Sarlat also already draws huge numbers of tourists in summer, so it’s not that it needs the extra attention. To my knowledge France never has seriously considered bringing it forward - in the long run I see this being dropped from a cleaned up Tentative List.

Els - 1 March 2020

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WHS #732: Vézère Valley

The Vézère Valley was my last WHS ‘to do’ in mainland France. In preparation I found it difficult to get a good overview of the Vézère locations, especially for a visit out of season. So I made a spreadsheet to come to terms with the different access policies. It turns out that 2 out of the 15 locations are permanently closed to visitors, 6 aren’t open during winter months and the others … well, lots of oddities there as well. A general warning: always check the opening hours on the French section of the respective official website, as they may not always update the English version.

Fence around Lascaux I

I started my visit with a pilgrimage to Lascaux I – the original Lascaux cave. It has been closed off to visitors since 1963, but on Google Streetview I noticed that a paved road runs along its entrance. I left my car at the entrance to Lascaux II and went on further exploration on foot. The whole area was eerily quiet and there are a lot of No Entry signs, but accessing this road seems to be OK. What you’ll find in the end is only a fence and a gate of course, but it has a UNESCO sign!

I continued with attending the last tour of the day at Lascaux IV, the 2016 replica. The tour is already well-described in earlier reviews; I found it disappointing. Especially the audiovisual experience at the end is awkward. With a 20 EUR entrance fee, I’d say skip Lascaux IV and go for one of the original locations.

The next morning I got up early for a special reason: to get inside the Font de Gaume cave, the only original painted site that still can be visited. Tickets cannot be booked in advance: you have to secure one of the numbered seats in front of the ticket office before the opening hour of 9.30. In the busy summer months you have to be there by 7 a.m., on a Sunday in February I guessed 8.15 would be fine. It turned out I was the first of the day. Eventually 12 more visitors showed up. We were all able to join the first scheduled tour at 10.00.

Entrance to the Font de Gaume cave

One can enter this cave for 30 minutes only with a guide. There is a narrow passage through the cave and you have to be careful not to scrape along the walls with your clothes: it is all very fragile. The only modification made for modern visitors is the addition of electrical lighting. As in Lascaux, the light-colored calcite walls are decorated with images of animals. We saw (many) bison, mammoths, reindeer and horses. Black and red (brown) are the most used colors here.

At the beginning of the cave, the paintings are unfortunately damaged by graffiti from early visitors. Deeper into the cave system the scenes get more and more beautiful: two reindeer standing head to head, a male deer licking a female and a row of 5 fully colored, clearly distinguishable bison. This cave is surely worth the early rise and waiting outside for an hour in the cold!

Licking bison ornament found at La Madeleine

Also in the town of Les Eyzies, the National Prehistoric Museum holds finds from the caves and other regional prehistoric sites. One of the most special is an oil lamp found in Lascaux - 17,000 years old and shaped like a large spoon. It used to be filled with animal fat. From La Madeleine, they show an object cut from reindeer antlers: it represents a bison licking itself. The archaeological site of La Madeleine is unfortunately closed in winter. I drove there anyway, hoping to see something from a distance, but it is well closed off. What rests is a view of the Vézère, the river that meanders like a thread through this prehistoric valley.

Els - 23 February 2020

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Els Slots 25 February 2020

Lascaux I is much bigger than Font de Gaume, with a lot more paintings. So in that way it is special.
Both have polychrome paintings, while the Grotte de Niaux 'only' has black-outlined drawings.
Whether Lascaux I is better than the Chauvet Cave (Pont d'Arc), which was discovered much later, I couldn't say.

Dennis Nicklaus 25 February 2020

I haven't ben to Lascaux (yet!), but maybe some of you can tell me why Lascaux I is the most pre-eminent "cave man art" cave? I feel it is the only one that would have any name recognition in the general public. Are the drawings there that much better or numerous than what you saw in Font de Gaume or others saw at Rouffignac? I haven't been to Lascaux, but I feel incredibly privileged to have gone inside Grotte de Niaux near the Pyrenees a couple years ago and to see the prehistoric art there. Your description of the paintings in Font de Gaume makes them sound better than Niaux, but maybe you're just a better writer. Is Lascaux even better? Or was it just the first to become famous and is shorthand for the entire region?

Clyde 23 February 2020

Yes indeed. I'm glad it's still possible to visit, but like Tsunami I have no photos of the interior.

Zoë Sheng 23 February 2020

Yeah that hall at the end with the visual/audio stuff using the tablet is just plain waste of time, to make us think the entrance cost is worth the money, right? The guide was always saying the art would "blow our minds" but well...I could have seen it in 5 minutes and it took him 20min to get us all excited instead.

Els Slots 23 February 2020

Indeed, photos are not allowed in Font de Gaume. You cannot bring anything into the cave and you even have to tuck your hoodie into your jacket/coat to prevent scratches onto the rock surface (it is very narrow and dark inside).

P.S.: according to your review you have visited Font de Gaume as well (albeit some years ago), Clyde?

Tsunami 23 February 2020

I think it was also in February in 2009 when I visited the Font de Gaume, staying overnight in Les Eyzies and walking to the cave entrance early in the morning. The fact that I have only a photo of the entrance to the cave (just like one by Els here) makes me think no photos were allowed inside, which makes sense. But the main thing I remember is that I bought a T-shirt with some paintings from the cave, but it was lost in mail from France to LA.

Incidentally, a few weeks ago this February when I was in France, I missed out on going to Grotte Chauvet from Avignon, due to the lack of proper prep and the lack of public transportation in winter. Hope to go back to France this summer.

Clyde 23 February 2020

Seems like the new Lascaux IV replica is quite disappointing. Not only is it more expensive but it's not a cave replica like Lascaux II (14e entrance) but a replica of the wall paintings hanging in the air.

Font de Gaume seems worth visiting. Is photography not allowed there?

Blog TWHS Visits

Unreviewed TWHS: Tansen

When you would have asked me 15-20 years ago what my favorite country was, I certainly would have answered: “Nepal”. I loved its mountainous setting, its chaotic but colorful towns, the sense of adventure in the air. In 2001 I spent a month backpacking all across the country, after having made an inaugural visit in 1993. One of the stops on that one month trip was the town of Tansen: little visited by foreigners at the time and still off the beaten track in 2020. It has been lingering on Nepal’s Tentative List since 2008 under the title of ‘The Medieval Town of Tansen’ and has since been unreviewed.

Bhagwati temple

Tansen was the capital of the medieval kingdom of Palpa, an important place during a period when Nepal was not unified yet and its current territory was covered by separate kingdoms. Later on, in the 18th century, it became an important Newari bazaar town on the trade route between India and Tibet. It was only incorporated into the unified Nepali kingdom in 1806.

It lies in southwestern Nepal and in 2001 I reached it by public bus from Lumbini (via Butwal or Bhairawa?). The bus ride was the best one of that trip. And the one with the worst road conditions. The road slowly gains height, passing steep cliffs: that was a very different view from what I had experienced the week before in the lowlands of the Terai.

Baggi Dhoka (Mul Dhoka), Gate to Tansen Durbar (the Palace)

The town is built on a slope. I found many more streets than were indicated on the map of my travel guide. From the large field (with a helipad) I had a beautiful view of the village and the valley. Its narrow streets were full of school children in uniform. Walking around Tansen, although quite a climb, was very pleasant. It was a quiet town almost without motorized traffic. And no salesmen or "guides" approaching you, only small children calling out a "Namaste" or "Hello".

The mountain that Tansen faces is called Srinagar Hill. Its summit can be reached via a hike through a pine forest. I sat there talking with a Nepalese boy for a while. He told me that a trip to Ranighat, an old palace, is the best thing to do from here. But that would be a 3-hour walk, and 4 hours for the return because then it is uphill.

The octagonal Sitalpati Pavilion

There has never been any indication that Nepal seriously considered to nominate Tansen for World Heritage status. It is briefly mentioned in a 2016 report on a prospective serial nomination for the Silk Roads in South Asia, but discarded (“has already lost much of its significant historical fabric”). Nepal seems to have some plans for the archaeological site of Tilaurakot instead, but the problem with Nepal is that it always lacks money and it is struck by disasters (mostly of the natural kind) with a certain regularity so they have to start all over again. Tansen has also not been free of this: in 2006, the main palace complex and adjacent buildings were destroyed by fire during an armed conflict with Maoist insurgents. Reconstruction has restarted immediately and apparently it looks fine again. 

Els - 8 March 2020

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Solivagant 8 March 2020

So - c 45%.:
Less than I thought we might have had, but not bad I suppose given the obscurity of many of the sites. Just starting with the "A" countries - Zero out of 13 from Angola for instance! They would take some getting. If one actually overcame the visa and logistical difficulties of getting there would one really want to spend time chasing after 7 forts and 3 churches! But others are doable now. I could do 2 of the 4 missing from Algeria for instance - but find it difficult to think of much to say! Anyway - this may stimulate a few more.

Els Slots 8 March 2020

I have put the TWHS reviewed counter at the Tentative List page ( Will see whether I can move the data to the front page as well.

Solivagant 8 March 2020

Could we have an ongoing visible count of the number of T list sites reviewed out of the total - as per inscribed sites?
The logic presumably can easily be cloned but whether you want to put the result on the home page below the inscribed count or somewhere else (T list home page?) I don't know. I don't see why not even though the percentage covered isn't going to be as "impressive".

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Tips for travelling to Colombia

In late December and January I spent 3 weeks travelling across (parts of) Colombia by public transport. I covered 5 WHS, 5 TWHS and some places of interest in between. I found a country that often reminded me of what Cuba could have looked like without having taken the communist path. Find below my top tips for travelling to Colombia as a World Heritage Traveller.

My favourite WHS in Colombia: San Agustín

1. Only 5 out of the 9 WHS are fairly accessible

Colombia to date has gained 9 WHS, of which only 5 can be viewed as "accessible" (and even of those Mompox and Tierradentro require some off the beaten track travel). Qhapaq Nan as a serial transnational site may easily be picked up in another country, but the locations in Colombia are in a remote zone near the Ecuadorian border. Chiribiquete NP is closed to all visitors - I may have counted the fly-over tour if I had been lucky enough to secure a spot, but all spaces were filled when I inquired 3 months before. Malpelo seems to be only accessible by liveaboard dive trips and has so far only been visited by Don Parrish, a.k.a. the most travelled person on the planet. Los Katios finally is closed to general tourists as well, although one or two people have peeked (and sneaked?) in from the adjoining river.

2. Be prepared for logistical mishaps

Especially when travelling by public transport, add a spare day or two to your itinerary because logistics will not go 100% according to plan. On my first transfer within the country - a domestic flight from Bogota to Popayan - we ended up at Cali airport instead. Which meant finding your own transport for the final 3 hours late at night. My trials about reaching Tierradentro I have already described in that site's review. Transport is slow in general, on average only 30-40 km an hour is possible. On the plus side, there are many (mini)buses and shared taxi's available - much more than you would gather from web searches. People are also always willing to help out, so chances that you will be stranded anywhere are slim.

Road to Tierradentro, January 1 2020

3. Don't focus on the big cities

The big cities were probably what I liked least of Colombia. Beforehand you may try to shape your itinerary around Bogotá, Cali, Medellin and Cartagena. I somewhat enjoyed Bogotá, it undoubtedly has the best museums in the country including the unmissable Gold Museum. The historical center of this old city (founded in 1538) however has been fully demolished as a result of the various spells of Civil War. Cali I did not like so much, it probably suffers the most from homeless people and crime. Medellin I did not visit and Cartagena is a story in itself. The bigger cities in general are less safe and less well-preserved than other parts of the country.

4. You can do some old-fashioned, hardcore backpacking here

Like that feeling of taking public buses by standing by the roadside and raising your hand? Of being given the choice between a 3,000 or 5,000 peso (0.80 or 1.35 EUR) potato for your salchipapas? Or discovering an 8 EUR private room with own bathroom + perfectly fine wifi next to the ruins of Tierradentro? Especially the triangular area between Popayan, San Agustin and Tierradentro is well-suited for this travel style. You'll also meet few other foreign travellers in this region, so you can nurture that explorer feeling.

Tourist police in Cartagena

5. "Don't mention the war"

As a casual tourist, it is hard to make sense of the current security situation in Colombia. Locals tend not to talk openly about the past decades and there are no visible reminders. Its recent make-over from dangerous narcostate has at least turned out well superficially: the country feels totally safe and friendly (I found its people generally warm-hearted, polite and helpful - not only to tourists but also to each other). Under the radar though, a lot of things still are wrong (Bogotá's elite lives far away from the poor countryside which is lacking decent infrastructure) and the situation can take a turn for worse quickly. The cities have a huge police presence, I think there was some kind of security person on every street corner in Bogotá. Military police also have checkpoints at strategic roads around the country and I even met them fully armed on the way to the overly popular Valle de Cocora with its wax palm trees. 

Els - 16 February 2020

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WHS #731: Cartagena de Indias

A visit to Cartagena does leave you with mixed feelings. On the one hand it is Colombia’s most vibrant city which also has preserved its historical core. On the other hand it is so fully geared to tourism that sooner or later you will get fed up with it, trying to fend off the stream of sellers of water and hats and avoid the ubiquitous tour groups. I had about 2 full days there, which I found a good amount of time. When you walk away a bit from the clock tower area and the busiest parts of the historic center, it certainly gets enjoyable. The city also has an accessible and low-key airport with long haul connections, for example to Amsterdam, New York and Lima. 

Church of San Pedro Claver

The town’s OUV mostly is about its military fortresses and port. So on my first morning in the city I walked via the bridge from the center to the big fort on the other side of the bay. The Fort San Felipe de Barajas opens at 8 a.m. and I was one of the first visitors of the day, so it was very quiet. It is a fort built by the Spaniards in 1536, intended to expel the English from the Colombian coast.

Reportedly, it is the largest fort in South America. But only a small part dates from the 16th century, in the 17th and 18th centuries the structure was significantly enlarged to the large, bulky mass that it is now. There is a system of tunnels under the entire complex. In the former hospital you can watch a 20-minute video explaining in detail how the Spaniards defeated the English fleet. It's already worth going in there for the strong airconditioning.

From the highest point of the fort you have a good view of the city of Cartagena. What is striking is how many high-rise buildings there are - when I came flying in from Bogota it seemed as if we were landing in Dubai. The historic center within the city walls has also not escaped the more modern, higher buildings. They now often keep only the historic façades  and build entirely new hotels and shopping centers behind them.

Fort San Felipe de Barajas

One of the best things to do in Cartagena is walk the city walls. They still are about 70% intact and you can walk on it for most stretches. At sunset I walked the full loop, it is nice to see the city from different angles in this way. I for example discovered the former monastery La Merced and the theater next to it, two fine Italy-inspired buildings.

Another area worth exploring is Getsemani. This is the neighborhood, outside of the city walls but inside the WHS core zone, where the poor people of Cartagena used to live. Here also the uprising against the Spaniards and for independence began. For these people it has now become unaffordable - just about everything here has been converted into guest houses, restaurants, shops and cafés. It is a nice area to stroll through though. Bits of Coral Masonry can still be seen in the walls. I visited it on a walking tour with a small group, but you can easily do it on your own.

Church of the Third Order (1730) - Getsemani

There are a number of churches and museums as well in the historic center, but I found them overpriced. The entrance fees that you pay here in Cartagena are a lot higher than in the rest of the country. It generally costs 20,000 - 25,000 pesos per attraction (around 5-7 EUR). I entered 2 churches (the Cathedral and the Church of San Pedro Claver), but as in general in Colombia I found the interior of the churches to be not very rich. No comparison to Quito for example! I also visited 2 museums: the Inquisition building and the Maritime Museum. Both are located in beautiful historic buildings and for that you actually have to go inside. There aren’t many original items among the exhibits however, most of it consists of information panels.

Els - 9 February 2020

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WHS #730: Mompox

Mompox is a bit of logistical nightmare (not the only one in Colombia). I studied different routes beforehand, but in the end I couldn’t think of anything better than taking a bus there from Cartagena and take the same one back 2 days later. The Unitransco bus turned out to be the most luxury one of my Colombia trip – with comfy reclining seats, wifi, toilet and no stops other than in 2 or 3 towns to pick up/drop off passengers. The ride took about 6.5 hours. Google Maps and totally lost track of the route in the maze of swamps and (former) islands, spitting out various incorrect times of arrival. For the last 1.5 hours the bus takes a really minor road.

Colombia does not have many well-preserved Spanish-colonial remains. But Mompox surely is one of them. It was founded in 1537, less than 40 years after the first Europeans set foot on the South American mainland. Its historic center is beautifully restored and very cozy. It does attract its fair share of tourists, but it is geared more to the boutique style visitor than to backpackers or mass tourism.

When you say that the historic center of Mompox consists of only 3 streets, that seems like a very small area. But these streets are about 2km long and it took me 3 hours to cover it all (with some stops in between on a bench or on a terrace chair to recover from the heat). The part parallel to the Magdalena River is forbidden to cars, so you can walk nicely and quietly. There are various cafes and restaurants, and a huge number of benches to sit on the waterfront. If it gets warmer during the day you can also see large iguanas sunbathing here.

There are 3 squares on the river street, each with its own church. The large yellow Santa Barbara church, with its octagonal tower (see photo 1) is the icon of Mompox. In addition, there are the large La Concepción church and the red San Francisco church (photo 2). There are also several other churches in the streets further from the river: in the 17th century, Mompox had 10 churches, all built by different Spanish monastic orders.

All major churches have their origins in the early Spanish colonization period. What you see now dates from a later date, the first churches were made of wood and much simpler in design. The current churches are brick on the outside, but the interior is wooden in all cases. The carved wooden ceilings are executed in the Moorish style of the Spanish Andalusia. I did my round of Mompox on early Saturday morning. At that time all churches were open - women were busy dusting the banks or putting extra waxes on them, in preparation for Saturday evening mass.

One of the most appealing buildings in the city is the old market building. It has a long veranda at the back, which borders the river. At the front it lies on the main square with the largest church.

I found the hotel and food options especially good in Mompox. I stayed at the service-oriented Casa Amarilla (which goes one level beyond the general Colombian helpfulness). I had good fish meals at the Ambrosia and Comedor Costena. And for a coffee or a drink there are the atmospheric Cafe1700 and the tiny coffeeshop Sol de Agua.

As other reviewers have noticed as well, Mompox does have a more shady side – the modern town seems very poor and there were young children selling snacks when the buses arrived and left between 5 and 6 in the morning. It was even more visible at the village where we had a short stop during the 3 hour boat tour that is offered from Mompox center - a concrete tourist boulevard with viewpoint on the Cienaga de Pijiño has been built there, but the local people are still waiting for the promised paved road. A grim reminder that Colombia can feel very developed and economically prosperous, but many people are left behind.

Els - 2 February 2020

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WHS #729: Coffee Cultural Landscape

It is really telling that the 5 reviews of the Coffee Cultural Landscape so far focused fully or at least partly on the boundaries of this WHS. It reminded me of a WH travelers group T-shirt suggestion (made by Samuel) that promoted the slogan “Are we in the core zone yet?”. Well, I will focus on the coffee production instead as the ‘tick’ should consist of having seen/experienced the OUV in addition to setting foot in a certain area.

What makes Colombian coffee farming (especially in and around the selected areas) different from others? Most farms are small scale family operations using manual labour, shade grown coffee is the traditional system and there is a strong community focus on coffee production in all aspects of life. I decided to look for these characteristics south of Salento, in an area called Palestina. Here there are a number of coffee farms that open to visitors. The biggest (which even needs pre-booking) is El Ocaso, one of the most popular among English-speaking tourists is Don Elias, but I went for the more low-key El Recuerdo. I hiked there in just over an hour from Salento on a pleasant path, where the coffee plants that had been absent so far on my travels in this region became more and more prominent in the surrounding landscape.

El Recuerdo is a small, organic farm that applies polyculture. Besides coffee, they grow fruits and herbs for their own use. They adhere to the principles of the Rainforest Alliance for sustainable farming. I was assigned a young biologist as a guide and we could start the tour right away. They usually see only a handful of tourists a day.

The tour started with an explanation how coffee growing came to the region. This was relatively late into the whole expansion of coffee production around the world: Jesuits brought it with them from Venezuela in 1732. First to the region around Medellin and in the 19th century it spread further around Colombia due to internal migrations. We then moved on to have a look at the herbal garden – it even holds one original Colombian coca plant (“It’s not the plant’s fault what happened…”).

In contrast to many other farms in the region, this one still produces shade grown coffee. This essentially means that the coffee plants are planted within a thin forest of trees. The trees provide shade, but also fertilize the ground through their leaves and attract insects and birds. At other places the trees have all been cleared to increase productivity (more coffee plants per square meter), a practice that attracted a sour remark from IUCN (“They can’t be included, can they?”). Among the plants in the forest of El Recuerdo are various kinds of citrus fruits. And the guide showed me a beautifully woven hummingbird nest with 2 eggs.

In general in Colombia, the coffee farmers only produce dried coffee beans which are then sold to the cooperation which in its turn sells it often to roasters abroad. This farm cut out the middlemen, uses a private roaster near the town of Armenia and sells its coffee in its own shop at the farm and in shops in nearby towns.

I had been to a small coffee farm once before, that was near Matagalpa in Nicaragua. The process used there is exactly the same as far as I can see as a non-expert. The farm used polyculture as well. There I also enjoyed the bustle of a coffee market town, with sacks of coffee beans being transported in various manners. They do also have larger factories (processing plants) there. This transport & trade aspect I missed here in the Armenia/Salento region, but it must be said that I arrived outside of the coffee harvesting season which takes place yearly in May/June and October.

Els - 26 January 2020

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Solivagant 28 January 2020

Just to clarify that further investigation confirms that the Coffee Finca El Recuerdo visited by Els is outside both the core and buffer zones of the CCL (as are all others in the Salento area). This of course in no way detracts from the value of Els’s visit and her observations both for her personally and for the rest of us. In fact, in my mind, it re-emphasises the “weakness” of this entire WHS as inscribed. If there are examples which are just as good (or even better?) outside the inscribed site then what is the inscription achieving?
Some might say that the fincas inside the inscribed area are going to be subject to stricter control in the future and are therefore being “preserved” by inscription in a way which those beyond are not. I very much doubt this and would foresee an increase in inscribed areas being “technified” in coming years since such development has actually been cemented within the current OUV (Adaptation process…. which has continued to this day” – UNESCO) ! Indeed it could be that many of the best examples of small scale, family run, eco-friendly coffee production could finish up being the specialists operating outside the inscribed area!!
Another argument could be that the inscribed area is only supposed to be “Representative” and that non inscription doesn’t imply “non value”. (“An exceptional example of a sustainable and productive cultural landscape that is unique and representative of a tradition that is a strong symbol for coffee growing areas worldwide”- UNESCO) This might have more weight if the inscription had limited itself to the “best of the best” - but it clearly hasn’t. This is particularly true of the urban areas – “mainly situated on the relatively flat tops of hills above sloping coffee fields, are characterized by the architecture of the Antioquian colonization with Spanish influence” and containing “very few contemporary incongruous additions to its traditional architectural and landscape patterns, and no substantial modifications to the small towns located in the property as well as in the buffer zone” - (UNESCO). Not true – viz Chinchina and Neira have been included with no (Chinchina – all concrete buildings, fly-overs and factories!) or very little (Neira) “Traditional architecture”. Whilst Salento has been excluded! Whatever one might think of what that town has become in terms of being a tourist honey pot, it at least contains a significant number of such buildings.

Els Slots 27 January 2020

No, I did not ask about that and it did not come up during the 2 hour tour.

Purely speculating here, but what may have been a factor is the (non-)alignment of these Salento farms with the 'National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia'. That Federation is a big player in the marketing of Colombian coffee and also worked on the nomination file. The specific farm that I visited did not agree with many of the 'improvements' suggested by the federation.
Another possible factor may be that the Salento coffee farms are more 'show farms'. They do still produce coffee (most of them), but not for the generic Colombian export. To what extent that already was the case in 2010 when the nomination file was written I do not know, the fulfillment of the tourist potential of Salento is fairly recent.

Solivagant 27 January 2020

During your finca visit were you able to establish anything more about why the boundaries of the Nominated site were set as they were? It would seem from the infamous map, that El Recuerdo was inside the Buffer zone just to the east of the Rio Quindio (though it might have been inside the small portion of Salento Municipaility which is inside the core Zone) - correct? As you say – it would seem to possess exactly the same attributes which allowed other fincas to be included in the Core Zone (“ small scale family operations using manual labour, shade grown coffee … and … a strong community focus on coffee production in all aspects of life”). Indeed one would have thought that nearby Salento itself and the fincas in between would have been a “shoo in” for nomination. Did the Finca care? Was it politics? Did the area not want the potential restrictions of inclusion? Did they claim inclusion from simply being in the Buffer Zone?

Establishing the boundaries of this (or any other) WHS isn’t of course just a matter of getting a tick for entering them - it is part of understanding the site itself. You correctly highlight the attributes of small scale, shade grown etc – but, as per my previous review, quite large parts of the WHS do not demonstrate these attributes at all and the nomination makes a virtue of them not doing so (“Technification”)!!

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