Blog WHS Visits

WHS #719: Trinity Sergius Lavra

The Trinity Sergius Lavra in Sergiev Posad is an active monastery and one of the most important centres of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is a Lavra – originally a term for a cluster of hermit’s cells (now only visible here at the gate church), but also a sign that the monastery is high up in the orthodox church hierarchy. It has been the seat of the Moscow Patriarchate until 1983, although it was closed during the early communist years (1917-1946). It’s also an educational center for young priests.

I visited Sergiev Posad on a day trip from Moscow by interurban train. The slowest trains cost 360 ruble (4,60 EUR) for a return trip and are very frequent. Just as Clyde noticed in his review from 3 years ago, there’s a constant coming and going of salesmen and -women through the carriages: advertising such necessities as woolen socks, glue, children’s books, ‘leather’ wallets and plastic toys.  

From the Sergiev Posad railway station, exiting to the right and following the road for about 15 minutes, it is an easy walk to the monastic complex. Taking this route, you’ll be presented with an exquisite panorama of the whole complex with its turrets and towers (see photo 1). It’s a very pretty ensemble, especially when seen from a distance. Up and close it comes across as a bit Disneyesque. Lots of what you see nowadays stems from 18th century (after a fire in 1746), so the baroque style is heavily present.

Currently there are separate entrances for Russians and international tourists: the Russians (all believed to be pilgrims) can enter for free, while the foreigners have to buy a 500 ruble ticket. There’s no additional fee for taking photos anymore and you are free to do so at most places. Like I experienced the day before at Kolomenskoye, it was very busy especially with Chinese tourists. In addition to Russian and English, there is even signposting in Chinese. Staff even held up signs saying “Silence please” in Chinese only for them!

The monastic complex lies within fortifications. There’s a refectory that looks like a European baroque palace, however it ends in yet another gold glittering iconostasis. Holy water can be tasted from the festive ‘Chapel-over-the well’. And there are several churches of course. The most interesting one to visit is the oldest, the Trinity Cathedral. In a corner it holds the relics of St. Sergius. The grounds are also home to two souvenir shops (one of them inside the Bell Tower) and a bakery.

The complex is sometimes dubbed the “Russian Vatican”, but the religious aspect wasn’t very palpable to me – the very few worshippers that were present (I visited on a Monday) were massively outnumbered by the foreign tourists. I did see monks rushing by in their black cassocks though, both grey-bearded ones and younger ones attending the seminary. Recent media reports found out that church authorities are planning to transform Sergiev Posad into something more grand: an open-air temple should be built just outside the walls of the Lavra to accommodate outdoor masses just like at the ‘real’ Vatican. The goal is to “cleanse the town of its Soviet legacy” and transform it into “the spiritual capital of Orthodoxy.” The project (also looking at Mecca and Jerusalem as examples) would occupy one-third of the city center, according to the Moscow Times.

Els - 15 September 2019

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Blog WHS Visits

WHS #718: Church of the Ascension

The Church of the Ascension in the Moscow suburb of Kolomenskoye was the first stop on my two-week trip across Russia. It is a relatively minor sight in this historic capital: when you look at any of those ‘Top Ten Things do in Moscow’-things, the Kremlin and Red Square, the Metro and the Novodevichy Convent will surely be in there. The Kolomenskoye Estate however will only turn up in longer lists of attractions or not at all. That does not mean that it is quiet however: when I visited on a Sunday morning around 9 a.m., several Chinese tour groups were already present too.

The site has been registered as a Single Monument without a Buffer Zone, so it’s all about this one ‘White Column’. Part of the compound are also a freestanding bell tower, the colourful entrance gate and what looks like the remains of another gate. There is no entrance fee, although you can get tickets to enter ‘six museums’ from the on-site kiosk. The tickets were free, I don’t if they always are or because it was a special day today (‘Moscow Day’).

One of the six museums actually is the interior of the Church of the Ascension. It is not in religious use anymore and now hosts a small exhibition on its architecture. There are two reasons to enter: to get a feel for how tiny it is inside ánd to see its original brick colouring. One of the distinguishing features of the Church as we now know it is its white colour: but the walls were only whitewashed leading up to the 1980 Olympic Games. When you look closer, the bricks become visible. Gathered from a photo shown inside the church, the original colouring was a red brick roof and greyish-blueish main structure.

Another museum is the ‘Kolomenskoye museum’. Its entrance is in the small building to the right of the entrance gate, standing with your back to the church. This looks like a minor thing seen from the outside, but the exhibition space actually goes all the way across the main gate to the other side. It spans 2 floors and a cellar.

I was really glad that I decided to enter – while the tourist masses covered the field around the church, almost no one visited this museum. It felt a bit stiff at first – with in each room a stern looking Russian lady keeping watch  – but there are several good icons on show and other memorabilia from the former Royal Estate.

During the preparation of my visit, I noticed that the ICOMOS evaluation text suggests that originally the whole Kolemenskoye Estate was nominated 2 years earlier. It then was revised into this narrow scope for inclusion in 1994. Besides this hint in the AB evaluation I have not been able to find further evidence whether this indeed was the case. The former Royal Estate now is kind of an open air museum of wooden buildings, brought there from other places in the country. It has a lovely setting along the Moskva river and is a pleasant place for a lazy Sunday morning, but the Church of the Ascension really is the only exceptional building here.

Els - 8 september 2019

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Els Slots 10 September 2019

Thanks for the research, Solivagant! I will update the site history of each of the 3 individual WHS.

Solivagant 9 September 2019

@Els "I noticed that the ICOMOS evaluation text suggests that originally the whole Kolemenskoye Estate was nominated 2 years earlier. It then was revised into this narrow scope for inclusion in 1994. Besides this hint in the AB evaluation I have not been able to find further evidence whether this indeed was the case."
Indeed it was. The July 1992 Bureau in Paris reported that "it deferred examination of this nomination to allow the competent Russian authorities to reformulate the proposal so as to include only the Ascension Church. Furthermore the Bureau requested that the new nomination comprises detailed documentation concerning the authenticity of the property".
Presumably this was done on the basis of the ICOMOS evaluation, but we have no detail as to why ICOMOS was against including the entire Estate.
The original Nomination was Ref 634 and was titled "Architectural, archaeological and natural ensemble of Kolomenskoye". The revised nomination in 1994 was given Ref 634rev and was titled simply "The Church of the Ascension, Kolomenskoye. The original title might imply that the site was originally nominated to include Natural values - but there is no evidence that this was the case since it appears solely in the "Cultural nomination" list.
At that same Bureau, however, the Solovetskiy Islands WERE nominated as a "Mixed" site titled "Cultural and natural historic ensemble of the Solovetskiy Islands" , This shared nomenclature to include the word "Natural" seems strange when one use was, apparently, NOT as a mixed site and the other WAS! In fact the Solovetskiy Islands were REferred simply with the request for the "competent Russian authorities to reconsider the title of this property which could be modified as follows " Cultural and historic ensemble of Solovetskiy" In fact the word "Islands" was retained. Despite the documents labelling it as a "mixed" nomination it doesn't appear that it was ever evaluated as such since ICOMOS stated " It is of the opinion that the word "natural" should
be removed from the title, since the historical and cultural importance of Solovetskii far outweighs its natural interest. It recommends that IUCN be requested to consider this aspect of the site." - it never did!! In fact it was sorted out in time for the WHC in Dec 2012 so a formal "Referral" never took place.
However our "history" for 3 Russian nominations that year are incomplete
a. Kolomenskoye was DEFerred" from 1992 to 1994
b. Solovetskiy was nominated in 1992 as a mixed site and was recommended for a REferral but a name change got it inscribed in 1992
c. Vladimir and Suzdal were nominated in 1992 separately as "Monuments of Vladimir" and "Monuments of Vladimir" with separate Ref Nos. A DEferral was recommended at the Bureau to bring them together but this too was sorted out by the time of the 1992 WHC!!

Blog Connections

Railway WHS

WHS connected to Railways – apparently there aren’t enough of them yet, as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Peru have put new proposals on their Tentative Lists in recent years. As I am about to take a trip on the Transsiberian Railway shortly, I thought a closer look at objects related to trains might be of interest. That famous Russian railway system is on the 17th spot of our current Missing List by the way. It is so extensive and so much in use that I doubt that it will ever be brought forward to be included in the real List. As a magnificent feat of engineering that opened up Siberia, OUV would not be in dispute however.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai

Station buildings

Our current 50 entries in the ‘Railways’ connection comprise of about 13 ‘stand alone’ station buildings and 37 railway complexes including tracks and assorted buildings. The station buildings are mostly of interest because of their architectural features. Some notable examples include:

  • Kaiserbahnhof Potsdam: only in representative use nowadays, it was constructed in 1909 in the English cottage style (to resemble an English country house). The German Emperor had his own private stairway to access the railway tracks. During the Second World War, it was used for the special train of Hermann Göring.
  • Bath Spa Railway station: built in 1840 in an asymmetrical Tudor style with curving gables. The station is still in use. It was part of the Great Western Railway system, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel - an English mechanical and civil engineer who is considered "one of the greatest figures of the Industrial Revolution”.
  • Santa Maria Novella railway station in Florence: this was constructed between 1932 and 1934, actually replacing an earlier station built by the I.K Brunel of Bath station fame. This modernist one came about after an architectural competition was won by a group of famous architects. A beautiful component is its “glass waterfall” window that illuminates the whole station.
  • Grand Canyon Depot: built in 1909/1910, it is one of three remaining railroad depots in the United States built with logs as the primary structure material. It was built by the Santa Fe Railway to stimulate rail traffic for tourist purposes.

Along the Nilgiri Railway

Railway construction history

Following the history of railway construction, we encounter the first WHS in the 16th century: possible the oldest operational railway is at Hohensalzburg Fortress. The line originally used wooden rails and human or animal power through a threadwheel.

Metal rails were introduced in the 18th century. A good example of that phase can be found at Blaenavon, where the Blaenavon Hills Tramroad was completed in 1817. It used horsedrawn carriages on iron rails.

The railways however really hit it off with the invention of the steam locomotive (1804). An interesting one is the Ffestiniog Railway , part of Welsh Slate Industry TWHS. Its steam-hauled narrow-gauge railway was adopted on a significant scale throughout the world. The Festiniog Railway Company which owns the railway is the oldest surviving railway company in the world. The line was constructed between 1833 and 1836, steam engines were used from 1863.

Another development in the 19th century was the construction of mountain railways. Semmering was the first (1854), the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in 1881, the Jungfraubahn’s construction started in 1896 and the Rhaetian Railway in 1908.

Ffestiniog Railway

The Future

So what about the future of Railways and WHS? There’s a (smallish) thematic study available from ICOMOS called ‘Railways as World Heritage Sites’ (1999). The author sees railways above all as socio-technical systems, where it is “impossible to separate out the ‘social’ and  ‘technical’ aspects”. Focus of future nominations could be on the remains of early railways (before 1830) and on technological innovations.

Possible candidates included in that study are the Moscow Underground (symbol of the modernization of Russia under the Soviet regime), the Great Zig Zag in Australia (the first railway to penetrate into the interior of Australia & the two zigzags on this line were the first such structures in the world) and the Japanese Shinkansen (exemplifies the international technology transfer in the modern period ..”it was to be a decade before anything like it would be emulated outside Japan”). Some great candidates for a 2019 Missing List here!

Els - 1 September 2019

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Jay T 1 September 2019

Also, to add to the WHS Connected to Railways, Ombilin Coal Mining Heritage, which was inscribed this year, also includes the “ingeniously engineered” railway network linking the mines to the port.

Jay T 1 September 2019

Quite an awesome topic; I love traveling by rail, and there are many railway journeys I’d still love to travel. I hope you enjoy the Trans-Siberian!

It’s been brought up before in the forums, but another potential recognition for railway architecture would be railway hotels. Canada is particularly well-known for these, with a series of urban and national park-based hotels built by the Canadian Pacific. Indeed, some of these are already included in other Canadian WHS, such as Quebec City and the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks. The US has some of its own railway hotels in national parks, with their own style of “parkitecture”, though many of these are included with national parks already inscribed on the list, to include Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite, Olympic, and Grand Canyon.

Els Slots 1 September 2019

Thanks for highlighting Ironbridge, Caspar. I already thought there must be something rail related there. Will add it to the Connection.

Caspar Dechmann 1 September 2019

Thank for this interesting article! As a predecessor to the bleanavon railway I find the much older rails at the Museum of the gorge in Ironbridge very interesting. They are plateway grooves for unflanged wheels, set directly into the paving of the wharf and used for horsedrawn carriages to transport goods from the wharf to the factory.

Blog TWHS Visits

Staigue Stone Fort

Staigue Fort is one of five early medieval drystone enclosures that make up the Western Stone Forts, a site on the Irish Tentative List. It is located along the touristic route known as the Ring of Kerry, a few kilometers off the main road at the end of a narrow way. I visited it on my way back to Cork Airport after an unsuccessful hit at Skellig Michael (BTW - I did see the island so well from the Kerry Cliffs that I was tempted to count it as a ‘visit’! If it had been inscribed on natural criteria as well, I would have).

Back to Staigue Fort: it lies in a lovely location, against a hill and due to its massive size (up to 5.5m high and 27m in diameter) it can be seen from afar. There were two other cars at the parking lot when I arrived, plus a shepherd and his two dogs. At the entrance gate they want you to put a 1 EUR coin into a moneybox as a “Land Trespass charge”, though there’s no one to enforce it. The trespassing sign may indicate that this land is in private ownership, which limits its chances of ever getting inscribed as a WHS.

The dates and function of these Western Stone Forts are all very unclear. Wikpedia has it that the one at Staigue was built somewhere between 300 and 400 AD, as a defensive stronghold for a local lord or king. The sign at the site itself says “in the early centuries AD” and the “home of a very wealthy landowner or chieftain who had great need for security”. The description at the UNESCO website mentions a period of 700-1000 AD for all and them being “the principal residences of the kings or sub-kings of various Early Medieval dynastic groups”.

Well, whatever. It is a fine piece of drystone construction. What remains is only the outer wall – the people would have lived in huts inside the perimeter. Somehow it reminded me of the Fujian Tulou. It’s a mystery why there are so many stairways on the interior to get to the top of the wall. Was it to defend it from invaders coming from all angles?

Three of the other Stone Forts stay unreviewed on this website til this day. I only just added their approximate locations to the map. The ones for Benagh and Cahercommaun are unsure to say the least. Caherconree Promontory Fortress on the other hand may be worth checking out in the future by someone stuck at Portmagee waiting for a boat to Skellig Michael. There is a 2 hour return hike towards it on the way to the summit of the Caherconree. Details on the trail can be found here

So what will come out of the Irish Tentative List in general? In January the Irish Minister for Culture has called for applications to a new Tentative List, which should cover the years 2020-2030. From the current list the one likely to remain is the Royal Sites – they are slowly making progress, but component parts in private hands and one possible location in Northern Ireland makes it difficult going. Regarding the Western Stone Forts, the 7 stone forts on the Aran Islands (although it’s unclear which ones would make up the 7 in total) may be a better choice in general than the scattered bunch which are now part of the selection.

One of the likely new additions is Valentia Telegraph Station, a transnational site with Canada’s Heart’s Content Cable Station. This is also an easy visit while you’re waiting for Skellig Michael boats to leave: Valentia is just across the bridge from Portmagee. There are 2 small monuments on the shore at the spot where the telegraph cable began. Also the original Cable Station has recently been handed over from private hands to the local community, probably to be turned into a museum / interpretative center. Not too far away, Cork seems to have plans for its harbor as well to become a site on the new Tentative List. 

Els - 25 August 2019

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Nan 25 August 2019

Would be really surprised if the Aran Islands would not include Dun Aonghasa. Stellar.

Generally, not sure what the Irish plan, but the Monastic sites should also be put forward.

Blog TWHS Visits

The Royal Sites of Ireland: Cashel

Just 3 weeks after the St. Kilda failure, I went on my way to another Atlantic Island WHS: Skellig Michael. Months before I had booked a tour for Saturday the 17th of August, but already on Friday morning it was clear that boats would not sail either on Friday, Saturday or Sunday because of rough seas. So I tried to make the most of my time and have a closer look at the Irish Tentative List. The country so far has only 2 WHS. And although the island isn’t exactly dotted with highlights, there must be some more potential. My first stop was in the town of Cashel, where I visited one of the Royal Sites of Ireland also known as the Rock of Cashel.

Cormac's Chapel stands out

The Royal Sites TWHS comprises 5 locations, mostly in the Dublin area. Cashel however lies about an hour north of Cork, where I had flown into. They were sacred sites and places of royal inauguration for the medieval kings of the Irish provinces. Cashel was the place of the kings of Munster. Like the others, it “is strongly linked to myth and legend and are associated with the transformation of Ireland from paganism to Christianity and Saint Patrick”: Cashel is reputed to be the site of the conversion of the King of Munster by St. Patrick in the 5th century.

The historical remains of Cashel lie on a prominent rocky outcrop, just above the modern town of the same name. The best views on it as a whole can be had from the other side however, from the road leading out of town and into the countryside. I involuntarily drove that route twice while looking for a parking space. There is a large car park at the foot of the Rock, but somehow I missed its entrance from the town center. So I ended up parking in the streets in the outskirts of town. This costs 2 EUR (coins only) for a limited 2 hours. Those 2 hours proved to be just enough: I had lunch in one of the cafés and wandered around on top of the Rock for about 1.5 hours.

Some of the mysterious head sculptures

Although it may ‘only’ seem to be a minor location of a TWHS with an unsure future, the Rock of Cashel is a hugely popular tourist attraction. When I arrived around 12.30pm, I even had to queue for a little bit to get my tickets. The entrance fee is 11 EUR and that includes a guided tour of Cormac's Chapel. This early 12th century Hiberno-Romanesque royal chapel has only reopened last year after a 9 year long restoration period, during which it was left it in scaffolding and under cover (you can see that in the photo attached to Ian’s review of a visit in 2009). Nowadays it looks so great that it seems to be the newest building at the Rock – but it is the second oldest.

The tour took some 50 people, so it was hugely crowded, but the guide managed to make himself heard and get some 10-15 minutes basic history and architecture lesson delivered before entering the doors of the church. The story of its restoration really is a remarkable one: this is the only construction on site made out of the more expensive but also more porous limestone. So the restoration started with covering it all and let it dry out for a few years!

The remains of Scully's Cross

The interior of the chapel makes you feel like you’re in Spain or Italy. Although it is empty inside, the sculptured wall decorations are still there – these are decorated pillars and sculpted ‘heads’ of people and other beings. These heads stick out from the walls and are in an excellent condition. Don’t forget to step out at the backside where you can see its original doorway, with a carving of a centaur attacking a lion with arrows. The area around the altar used to be fully covered with religious murals, but these haven’t survived the test of time and the whitewashing well.

The rest of the top of the hill is also worthwhile to visit. It includes the ruins of the large Cathedral and many stone crosses, all dotted on a grassy plain with views on the classic green Irish countryside.   

Els - 18 August 2019

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Jay T 19 August 2019

Ah, I should have looked at the site page to see your thumbs up, Els! I look forward to seeing the continuation of your Irish Tentative List reviews next week. I’m really sorry Skellig Michael didn’t work for you; boat trips can be so unpredictable.

Ian Cade 18 August 2019

I look forward to that, though I'm in agreement with Nan, I would throw in Glendalough (Early Medieval Monastic Sites) as a worthy inscription as well.

Els Slots 18 August 2019

I will write more on the Irish T List in next week's blog! (cliffhanger...)

Nan 18 August 2019

>> And although the island isn’t exactly dotted with highlights, there must be some more potential.

I think there are plenty of potential sites dotted all over Ireland. It's just that Ireland doesn't seem to be making much of an effort of moving tentative sites to inscription.

Of the current T-list, I would rate Clonmacnoise and Dùn Aonghasa (Stone Forts) as great additions to the list. Good additions would be Tara (Royal Sites) and Dublin.

Ian Cade 18 August 2019

The restoration looks good, just to flag up my review is from 2009 but my visit and photo were from 2005! So that restoration has been a long process.

Els Slots 18 August 2019

I gave it a thumbs-up!

Jay T 18 August 2019

Wow, the chapel looks good! Glad it was open for you; it looks a lot different with the scaffolding removed. So what are your thoughts on whether the Royal Sites should be a World Heritage Site, or are you reserving judgment until you see other components?

Blog TWHS Visits

Hospital of Our Lady with the Rose

The Hospital of Our Lady with the Rose has been added to Belgium’s Tentative List earlier this year. The hospital of medieval origin is located in the Walloon town of Lessines, a municipality of 18,000 inhabitants best known as the birth place of painter René Magritte. I visited it on a stormy Saturday as a day trip by car from my home.

View on the medicinal garden

The site would become another addition to the Brussels Hotspot – it lies some 55 km south of the Belgian capital. The building is only open in the afternoon, from 14-18.30h, every day except Monday. As Zoe indicated in her review, there is parking right in front of it in a dead end street. However this was full when I arrived, so I ended up at a large (free) public parking just beyond the market square and within walking distance of the hospital.  The hospital / museum complex has an informal restaurant on site, which opens already at 12. Entrance to the buildings / museum / gardens costs 13 EUR. French, English and Dutch are all spoken well by the reception staff and most information panels are in those 3 languages as well.

The Hospital of Our Lady with the Rose was founded in the 13th century as a charity to accommodate the homeless and poor of the town. It formed a completely autarkic system: it had its own gardens, was a large regional landowner and handicrafts from the those living there were sold to generate income. The hospital was run by nuns and thus had a strongly religious approach. Most of the buildings that we can visit now were rebuilt in the 16th/17th century.

The library held mostly religious books

It may not yet be a well-known site globally (I had never heard of it before it became a TWHS), but it is a major attraction in Wallonia. There are huge signs advertising it already from the highway. The reception area is worthy of a popular museum and there is a museum shop as well. There were dozens of other visitors already present just after 2 pm.

After paying the entrance fee you receive an audio guide and can further explore the complex on your own. There seems to be no clear order in the route through the rooms and the rest of the complex, or maybe I took a wrong turn early on. The audio guide also is of no help – it does not tell a coherent story but enlightens individual elements and histories. So I just walked from room to room – there certainly are many of them. The hospital got wealthy due to the revenue from its farmlands and also from the dowries it received when a nun entered her religious life. There’s a lot of art and historic furniture to see, although none of it did really appeal to me.

Remarkable is the hospital room that opens up to the church, so that the patients could follow the service from their beds. There’s a small library as well, a pharmacy and a separate hospital room for when the nuns fell ill themselves. Worthwhile is a short visit to the adjacent garden with medicinal plants, also still in its original location.

Some early drugs

So will this ever become a WHS? The tentative site description gives us two clues on which approach the Belgians aim to take: (1) the site in Lessines should become part of a serial transnational WHS, and (2) they state that hospitals are underrepresented on the current WH List. First I have no idea with which other sites they are trying to team up to create a transnational site. Paimio (a Finnish TWHS) and Zonnestraal (not even on the Dutch Tentative List anymore) are mentioned as comparisons, but although these buildings were used as health institutions they are more valued as representations of modern architecture.

And although the Belgians say hospitals are underrepresented, we count 68 of them in our 'Hospitals' connection already. Notable ones include Santa Maria della Scala in Siena (was one of Europe's first hospitals and is one of the oldest hospitals still surviving in the world), the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris (another candidate for the oldest worldwide still operating hospital), the Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy (a very similar site to the one in Lessines, one that I found prettier and less museum-ish), the San Juan de Dios Hospital in Mompox (founded in 1550 and considered to be oldest hospital in America still functioning in its original building) and the Divrigi Mosque & Hospital. I doubt that The Hospital of Our Lady with the Rose is seen as equal to those prominent examples on its own merits – Wiki’s elaborate History of Hospitals makes no mention of it for example.

Els - 11 August 2019

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Els Slots 11 August 2019

Thanks for the additions, Solivagant. I will try and clean up the current entries a bit as well.

Solivagant 11 August 2019

Valletta - The Sacra Infermeria, Built late 16th C. also called Brand Hospital and Station Hospital. Ceased being a hospital in 1918 - now the Mediterranean Conference Centre. See -

Solivagant 11 August 2019

I suspect that there are quite a few more "connections" we could find -
Mexico City. Hospital of Jesus Nazareno. Built by order of Cortez. now a major active hospital but still including the early building. See -ús_Nazareno.

I see that the Connection has no definition and the word hospital" can include "hospices" merely for stopping at. - might be worth including
a. For medical treatment
b. Of Historic value contributing to the OUV.

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WH Travellers meeting 2019

The WH Travellers Meeting of 2019 was an odd one: we did not visit a WHS! Not even a TWHS. We gathered at the Scottish island of Skye for what would have been an epic trip to St. Kilda. Unfortunately the boat trip out there was cancelled for both the main and the spare day. More on what we learned about the logistics of getting to St. Kilda later in this post. What was left were 24 international travelers roaming about northern Scotland and its islands.

St. Kilda paraphernalia in Dunvegan Castle

The 25th and 26th of July 2019 went into the weather record books of Northwest Europe as the hottest days ever. Even the island of Skye, from where we were supposed to sail to St. Kilda, was sunny and dry at 22 degrees Celsius. Our trip however was cancelled by the cruise company due to the wind being “in the worst possible direction”. It was bitter to know that the trips just the day before and after we were scheduled did go on.

In hindsight and after talking to the locals on Skye, a departure from the island of Harris would have been better. Two companies do make the trip from there, which is about an hour closer to St. Kilda - so the tour is cheaper, has less time on a rough sea and more time on the island. Both Harris companies seem to be more established as well: they have better terms&conditions regarding pre-payment, weather cancellation penalties and age limits.

Part of the WH Travellers in front of Old Man of Storr

The cancellation had various effects on the group members. Some whisked away immediately to the Orkneys, another island group a day away with the Neolithic Orkney WHS to tick for those who hadn’t been there before. Thomas was sad that he did not make it to the Outer Hebrides region and I desperately wanted to see puffins. Others went through a number of stages of grief and depression, leaving them doing not much at all. 12 of us ‘did’ Skye’s tourist destination #1: a hike up to the Storr. It’s a short walk (about 2 kilometers), but steep. Climbing from the start - just like for some Tour de France cyclists – does not fit me. So I eventually settled on a nice vantage point overlooking the sea just below the rock pillar called Old Man of Storr.

We were blessed with having Allan as a semi-local guide with us. At least he knew how to pronounce place names like Uig! Just as in Bulgaria last year we took the approach of pooling cars, so that we were all flexible and had different people to talk to. Others already had met up over the last week on the way up north, ticking some TWHS and WHS on the way. I took off some time to do a 3hr cruise near Skye's Trotternish Peninsula and the Ascrib Islands to see lots of seals and their babies, dolphins and the long-awaited puffins.

Seals at Skye's Trotternish peninsula

For myself, travel wise it was a bit of a waste of 2 precious holidays. On the plus side however I did get to know some WH travelers better, such as Canadians Craig & Lara who were in my car for over 6 hours! ‘New’ faces included Americans Jacob and Jay.

On my last morning at Skye I finally did see a few glimpses of island life on St. Kilda: I visited Dunvegan Castle, home of the Scottish clan of Macleod. For over 500 years they were the owners of St. Kilda and taxed its poor inhabitants. Two showcases in their quite ugly 19th century castle display a few items from the island plus photos of brave men rowing in high waves. And there is a stuffed puffin too…

Els - 4 August 2019

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Jay T 4 August 2019

Even though St. Kilda didn’t work out, I had a great time meeting everyone and exploring Skye. Glad you got to see puffins, Els!

Nan 4 August 2019

Thanks Els for the summary and organising! No more boat trips; at least if the Rucek's are joining :)

Blog WHS Visits

WHS #706: Tokaj Wine Region

The Tokaji Wine Region represents a distinct wine-growing tradition that has existed for at least a thousand years and has been preserved intact to date. The region is known for the Tokaji Aszú, the world's oldest wine that uses a process of 'noble rot'. The volcanic subsoil and the microclimate of the area are ideal for this type of viticulture. I visited the region as the last WHS in a series of 3 during my recent short trip to Hungary.

Wine cellar in Tokaj town center

From Hortobagy, it takes an hour and a half of driving to arrive in the heart of this wine region. I did not expect too much from it: the site is in the bottom 100 of our rankings & well, it’s about wine again and I don’t drink that. Daydreaming along the way in the car, I just hoped to be able to sit in the sunshine on a terrace in Tokaj with a cappuccino and preferably also a piece of cake. That may seem like a simple wish, but something like that is certainly not a given in eastern Hungary.

The town of Tokaj turned out to be small but also somewhat livelier than the places I had seen in the days before. They also had a couple of terraces in the well-kept center, and I had a cappuccino with a piece of plum pie. A plus for Tokaj!

Vines in neat rows

In addition to the usual wine cellars that can only be visited by appointment, they also have a 'World Heritage Wine Museum' here. It has only been open since 2016. Entrance to it costs 1,000 Hungarian forints (3 EUR). Photos and texts about other wine-growing areas on the World Heritage List are on display. You can also learn more about Tokaj's wine-growing tradition via interactive screens. Unfortunately, they do not have many items that were / are being used for viticulture here in the region in their collection.

The inscribed wine region covers an area of ​​132 square kilometers. To see some of the vineyards I drove 18 kilometers from Tokaj to Mád. Wineries are certainly prominent here and they also advertise along the road for sale. The vines are planted in neat rows against the mountain slopes. The cultural landscape is not very spectacular however.

The exterior of Mád synagogue

After arriving in the very modest town of Mád I had one goal: a visit to the synagogue. The role of Jews in the Tokaji wine history is an interesting sidenote: Jews settled in this region in the 18th century and started producing and trading kosher wine. From that time there was also a synagogue in Mád and a Jewish cemetery. With foreign funds that synagogue, one of the oldest in Hungary, was restored in 2004. It is signposted well from the main street. Unfortunately I found it closed though some foreign Jewish visitors were also present. I left without any clue when it can be visited (I was there on a Sunday morning).

Els - 28 juli 2019

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Szucs Tamas 31 July 2019

The synagogue is officially open every day from 9 am to 4 pm, if not, you should call +36309251808

This is the mobile of the keeper of the synagogue. He is not a jew, none of htem remained in the town, but knows practically everything about the history of the local Jewish community.

As an alternative you can make an appointment by email

I do not know which languages are available for the guided tour but I am quite sure that the is an opportunity of an English ione. (Of course for us Hungarian was ok.)

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WHS #705: Hortobagy NP

Hortobágy National Park - the Puszta is a steppe landscape where man has left only temporary structures. Shepherds graze their horses, cows and sheep (species adapted to local conditions) here on the barren land. Fishponds were built in the early 20th century to vary the land use more. The park is also known for its variety of bird species. I had planned to focus mainly on the park’s natural features (though it’s a cultural site on our List) and I even brought a travel guide book to make the most of it. 

I had 1 full day here (stayed for 2 nights) and focused on Route 1 described in the guide book. This is an all-day circuit by car, with stops and short walks along the way. Officially you do need a permit to visit any site in the national park that lies off the main road, but since the Visitor Center wasn’t open yet at 8 am when I went out I decided to start without one (in the end I never encountered any controls).

The route first goes eastwards from the town of Hortobagy, on the busy road B33. There you’ll find 3 lookout towers. I climbed 2 of them – they provide wide views over the plains but you actually don't see anything of much interest. Afterwards you turn left off the main road and make a full loop via the northern side of the park. Here too the road is busy at first and there is a town with traffic lights, supermarkets and people who are just doing their daily things. The whole ‘steppe’ thing feels pretty small-scale if you have ever been outside of Europe.

The best part of the route lies along the road between Telekháza and Hortobagy. This road is full of potholes, but that does make people not drive so fast (and they probably avoid it as well). For me it was handy that I could just stop the car at the side of the road when I saw something interesting. I was mainly looking for a sozlik, a ground squirrel that only occurs on the steppes of Eastern Europe. They like to stand on their hind legs and I thought I found one in front of a row of straw bales. However, when I zoomed in closer, I noticed its large ears so it must have been a hare.

Still from the same road I saw an old burial mound (known as kurgan). They were made by nomads and date back to the Stone Age. A bit further on I got out for a walk to one of the fish ponds. The walk starts at 2 rusted water towers - you follow the path first to the right and then to the left at a metal shed. The path runs between 2 fish ponds, but the shores are so overgrown with reeds that you cannot see anything of the ponds. After 15 minutes walking you arrive at a wooden watchtower. Just like the others I climbed on this day, it is not exactly in perfect condition - there is always a beam loose or a hole in the wood. However, here the climb is well worth it because it gives you a view on both fish ponds. The trail is not signposted, so that does keep it exclusive and there were no other visitors present.

Later in the day I ticked off some more sights in the area, such as the Shepherd’s Museum and the Nine Arch Bridge. I had eaten at the historic Hortobagy Csarda the evening before, although I found better food next day at the Tiszacsege fish csarda. I even bought a permit (1000 forint / 3 EUR) at the Visitor Center to check out some more fish ponds. I tried hard to enjoy it all, but there are so many annoying things that keep distracting you from a satisfying visit. The permit system, the lack of information, the limited parking possibilities (or when there is, the payment for it), the busy roads and speeding locals. My best memories comprise encountering the shepherds and their herds in the fields early morning and late afternoon light.

Els - 21 July 2019

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WHS #704: Hollókő

Hollókő is a traditional agricultural settlement of the North Hungarian Palóc community. The village consists of whitewashed half-timbered houses, which originated in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was completely rebuilt after a fire in 1909. The town was the first stop on my long weekend to Eastern Hungary, where I aimed to tick off 3 suspiciously low-ranked WHS.

I had some difficulty getting there. It should only be an hour's drive from Budapest airport, but there were lots of impediments:

  • my flight already arrived with a delay of 10 minutes,
  • the rental car parking space had moved to a far away place beyond the Ibis hotel,
  • I lost my ticket to exit the parking so I had to go back to the Hertz counter for a new one,
  • there was no satnav in the rental car, so I had to use my phone…. for which I forgot to bring the charger! 
  • using GPS for navigation the phone battery doesn't last much longer than a few hours, so I was already thinking of buying an old-fashioned map at a gas station; luckily I passed a large shopping mall where they actually had an Iphone charger for sale,
  • Waze for some unexplainable reason sent me on minor roads (I even drove on a parallel road next to the highway ...).

But in the end I got there, some 2 hours later than planned. Hollókő presented itself as a small village with a very large parking lot. You have to pay for parking here, but that is only possible with forint coins or via a Hungarian phone number. Fortunately, I had received some change in the mall and had brought coins from an earlier trip. I was able to fund a visit of just an hour (400 Hungarian forint / 1.25 EUR).

This not-so tourist friendly attitude I found quite common during this short trip through Hungary, as if city planners & authorities have difficulty in placing themselves in the shoes of foreign visitors (who do not understand the language, do not know the way without signposting and do not walk around with Hungarian coins in their pockets).

That hour turned out to be more than enough to walk up and down the 2 streets of the old village. Or actually it is only one that forks about half-way. I was joined by 2 busloads of Japanese tourists and some Hungarian day trippers, but it did not feel crowded (more sleepy or even boring). Most of the old houses are now turned into some kind of “museum” or a café. According to the documentation most people still live from agriculture, but it doesn’t look that way. 

The only building that I entered was the village museum. It consists of 2 small rooms with old things – other sources say "3 rooms" as the entrance also is kind of a room where a lady sits to sell tickets. The entrance fee here is also 400 forint. In the end I spent 45 minutes in town. It’s quite picturesque but there is so little to see. If I hadn't lost so much time in getting there, I would also have stayed for lunch.

Els - 14 July 2019

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Szucs Tamas 14 July 2019

Waze normally knows the actual situation very well. On M3 motorway between Gödöllő and Hatvan road accidents are very often, that can cause long traffic jams. In this case the parallel road (30) is better, and from there the minor roads are more convenient. We live here - between Gödöllő and Hatvan - and if we want to visit Hollókő (one a year normally we go there for family occasions) we take these minor roads.

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