Blog WHS Visits

WHS #723: Lake Baikal

There are dozens of ways to ‘do’ Lake Baikal. Previous reviewers already have highlighted the views from the Transsiberian Railway, its winter attractions and Olkhon Island. On my first day in the area I did the touristy thing by taking a ‘Raketa’ ferry from Irkutsk via the Angara River to Listvyanka, walking on the boulevard along the lake, eating fried omul in the recommended Proshly Vek restaurant and visiting the Baikal museum. I actually had wanted to take the ferry all the way to Bolshie Koty (an isolated village only accessible on foot or via the lake), but that would have meant another 5 hours of entertaining myself without access to food or obvious attractions, something I did not look forward to after just finishing a 49 hour train ride with the same characteristics.

For the main part of my visit though, I focused on 1 of the 5 nature reserves that surround the lake and are part of the huge core zone as well. I had booked a tour to the Baikalsky Nature Reserve near Tankhoy, which meant a drive along the south side of the lake for some 250km. The lake is fully surrounded by mountains, so our first look at it was after crossing a mountain pass. From a vantage point near a restaurant we did not only see the lake but also two railway tracks: one of them was the historic route around the lake and the other (the one higher up) the modern one. Next stop was Sable Mountain, a winter ski resort; here we took the chairlift up to get some more views. Ski tourism is promoted here to replace the local jobs that were lost after closing of the notorious paper factory in 2013. 

After leaving the Irkutsk region, we arrived in the Republic of Buryatia. Near the town of Tankhoy we found the main destination of this day: the Bajkalski Biosphere Reserve. It encompasses various separate locations (all signposted from the main road). We first took a hiking trail of a few kilometers through the woods and a swamp area. It has information panels every few hundred meters in English too. This forest consists mainly of the Siberian pine. You also see many curved willows that have become crooked in winter due to the thick layers of snow. Siberian chipmunks live among the pines. The swamp area offers open views of the surrounding mountains, it is really beautiful here. There were only a few other hikers, some were picking berries - they are sold along the side of the road.

A few kilometers away lies another part of this nature reserve, a site with a large visitor center. In cages at the entrance 2 sable martens are kept: this local animal species in the past was much in demand because of its good quality fur. They are mainly nocturnal animals and even in captivity, they were difficult to find late in the afternoon. We finally found one of the two under a tree trunk – but I only saw its fur and one ear (here's a recent, better photo taken at the same spot). When at the visitor center, don’t miss the reconstructed old station building next to it. A very nice scale model has been made of how train traffic around Lake Baikal proceeded around 1900. The train went on a ferry at Port Baikal, was transferred across the lake and then came ashore here at Tankhoy.

Finally we went to the Baikal bird ringing station. We first had to pick up one of their volunteers and then drive 30 kilometers further east towards Ulan Ude. Via a dirt road full of holes and mud we reached the edge of Lake Baikal again. There is a historic bird ringing station there, where statistics about birds around Lake Baikal have been kept for decades. Volunteers are permanently at work to check the nets every hour for birds that have been caught. It is apparently a good spot as the Lake is too wide for small birds to cross, so they fly along its edges. We arrived a little after 5 o'clock and the yield of this hour was only moderate: one red-flanked blue tail. It was a small and somewhat stupid bird - 2 hours before it had also ended up in the nets and was counted (he already had a ring from being caught before). So we could not experience the real 'ringing' of the birds due to a lack of birds, but the volunteer explained well how everything works. We walked past some of the nets around the station to look for 'fresh' birds, but there were none.

Overall, my visit to Lake Baikal was a very satisfying one and the highlight of my Russia trip. There are so many interesting things to discover about this lake, its natural environment and its human history, that it continues to fascinate. You can certainly enjoy yourself there for a week and I wouldn't mind going back for a multi-day tour or long hike.

Els - 13 October 2019

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WHS #722: Sviyazhsk

The Assumption Cathedral and Monastery of the town-island of Sviyazhsk is the most recent addition to the trio of WHS in and around Kazan. Probably because of that, a very low number of 20 community members so far have visited it before me (it ranks 961st out of the 1121 WHS based on visitor numbers). I went there on a half-day trip from Kazan by taxi – the drive there takes about an hour. I had arranged for a 2 hour waiting time so I could visit the site and return with the same driver.

The drive was quite uneventful and certainly not as scenic as the one to Bolgar. It lies in a much more built-up area near Kazan. Sviyazhsk itself is a former island which nowadays can be accessed via a bridge. It all ends at a large parking lot, from where a series of steeps stairs will take you up to the historic zone. But first you have to get yourself a free ticket at the desk of the Tourist Office, in the building to the right of the stairs. With that ticket the turnstiles will open that give entrance to the site.

The town-island of Sviyazhsk is a popular tourist get-away with bits of everything: there’s a museum, you can ride horses, taste the Sviyazhsk bread or just wander around in the village. The core zone of the WHS though is limited to the grounds of the Assumption Monastery, which lies directly to your left after having conquered the stairs from the parking lot. It is apparently considered holy enough to make you wear a skirt and headscarf (both provided at the entrance).

The whole monastic complex has been exquisitely restored, including some recent whitewashing of the bricks. At the ‘Brethren building’ (once used as prison and lunatic asylum) there’s a 'before' and 'after' photo, which shows how much especially that building had been ruined. The cathedral and the bell-tower are the most eye-catching monuments of the monastery. The cathedral is in the Pskov-architectural style – known because of this year’s new WHS Ancient Pskov.

The architecture of the buildings may be quite lovely, the OUV of this WHS solely lies with the Eastern Orthodox mural paintings inside the Cathedral. These are said to be part of a unique missionary program and “reflect the interaction of the Christian-Orthodox and Muslim cultures”. The only problem is: the interior of the Cathedral is closed to visitors! This seems to have been the case for years already. And so few photos of the mural paintings exist: the 376 page long nomination file has only 2! I tried to get a look at them via peeking through the windows and was successful with a glimpse via the door at the back (where I even managed to snap a photo of ‘a’ mural painting). I can’t really say however that the idea to convert Tatar Muslims to Christianity via paintings has become clear to me now.

To console myself a bit from this disappointment I paid the 100 ruble entrance fee to the bell-tower and church next door, reportedly the ‘second best’ part of the WHS. Even this mere sum was too much – the church was closed as well, you could only climb the bell tower and visit ‘Herman’s Cell’ – that’s where the monastery’s founder lived (the room is so fake that even an electric light switch is visible). On my way out I noticed a paper with time schedules posted at the gate church. A copy of it is here and if I translate it well it seems that there are specific opening hours for individual visitors to the Cathedral – but I was there at 15.00 for example and nothing happened... So the mystery remains and I hope this will be resolved by a future reviewer.

Els - 6 October 2019

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WHS #721: Bolgar

A trip to Bolgar is just what ICOMOS did not want it to be: an introduction to the Volga Bolgar civilization. It was an uphill struggle to get this site inscribed as a WHS: only at the 4th try it succeeded and with a significantly limited OUV statement. However, for the Tatar Republic and especially the Islamic Volga Tatars this is so much more – nothing less than the heartland of their civilization. Volga Bulgaria (c. 700–1238), the earliest known organized state within the boundaries of Tatarstan, was an advanced mercantile state with trade contacts throughout Inner Eurasia, the Middle East, and the Baltic.

Getting there is a bit tricky because it is in a remote location not close to any sizeable town; see this Forum post for transport options. I visited Bolgar with a Russian group tour by bus, organized by Hotel Tatarstan. This only cost 1899 rubles (26 EUR), including lunch and entrance fees. The normal admission price is 400 rubles (EUR 5.50). It was a full day trip from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m, of which we spent 5 hours at the site itself. The site is very extensive, we were transported by bus between the various museums and monuments. There are bikes and golf carts for hire at the entrance if you make it here under your own steam.

The drive up to Bolgar is already worth it: good, quiet roads lead through a rolling green landscape. There were many sunflower fields along the road. We also crossed the impressive Kama River, a tributary of the Volga River that is more than 1,800 kilometers long (I first thought it was a lake – that’s how wide it is). At Bolgar itself, the wooden houses of the current inhabitants stand among the monuments. There will probably be many tourists here in the summer season, as can be seen from the number of souvenir stalls. Many of them were now (mid-September) closed. In addition to our bus, there was only one other bus with Russian tourists present.

We started our tour at the museum. It looks new and we had to put plastic covers over our shoes. The history and excavations from Bolgar and the surrounding area are exhibited here on 3 floors. Explanations are written in Russian, Tatar and English. The archaeological findings on site have been numerous, which should do away with any doubts about the importance of the site. They especially found a lot of handicrafts, made from clay, glass and bones. Most are utensils, there are no real top ornamental pieces.

Next to the museum there is something at the waterfront that looks like a large mosque. However, it is a museum dedicated to the Koran. The largest printed Koran in the world is stored in the central part. It was made by a group of Italians and Slovenes, and was donated to the Republic of Tatarstan in 2011. So nothing historic and very kitsch. The Volga Tatars (of nomadic origin) converted to Islam in 922 and this is commemorated here. The old nomads by the way had chosen a beautiful place to put up their tents permanently: Bolgar lies at the banks of the Volga, at a strategic point where you can look up the river for a long way. It all seemed peaceful now, only a single fisherman was rowing on the river.

After lunch in the “Bread Museum” (at the far end of the historic complex) we made a quick dash into the "White Mosque", a new addition to the Bolgar landscape (from 2012). The huge mosque in Moghul style is in religious use - we heard the call to prayer and saw the imam walking by with a number of guests – but I doubt many believers will make it out here.

The most historic part of Bolgar was left for last at the tour. This is a small cluster of monuments near the Volga, enclosed within the remains of a wall – the part you see in most photos of Bolgar. Under these mostly reconstructed buildings lie the remains of medieval Bolgar. We started with what is left of the 13th century mosque. Only the contours on the ground can be seen. Next to it is a beautiful minaret - a 21st century copy of the original that collapsed in 1841. Behind the mosque lies an 18th-century Russian Orthodox church. Tombstones with Arabic inscriptions from the historic Bolgar were used for the foundations of the church and are still visible.

The most interesting I found the former burial monuments of Bolgarian noble families, of which the interiors can be visited. One of them was used as a Christian church in later times. Now pigeons have nestled there.

Bolgar is still a wonderfully secluded site which gives insights in an ancient civilization that I didn’t know about. Yes, some parts of the complex are very kitsch and fake, but its history and beautiful location on the Volga river bank make up for that.

Els - 29 September 2019

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WHS #720: Kazan Kremlin

Kazan had been on my travel radar for quite a few years, so I knew I had to make a southern detour there during my Russia-by-Rail trip. Not only is it a mini-hotspot with 3 WHS within easy reach, it is also the capital of the Federal Republic of Tatarstan (which sounds kind of exotic). In reality it is a modern, Russified city. It is very clean and I liked that every car stopped in front of zebra crossings when a pedestrian approached! I stayed for 3 days and started my explorations with the oldest Tartar fortress that still exists in Russia: the Kazan Kremlin.


From the Kazan railway station it is only a 20 minute walk to the Kremlin. It is not difficult to find the fortress: there are signposts everywhere, also in English. Kazan was one of the host cities of the Football World Cup last year, and they have retained an international touch. This year they organized the World Skills Games: an international competition among young artisans, from gardeners to tilers. The logos of these Games, which ended late August, can still be seen everywhere in the city.

Just like the Kremlin in Moscow, the Kremlin in Kazan is the place where you will find the important and oldest buildings of the city. The slightly leaning, brick Söyembikä tower for example. The President of Tatarstan lives in the green palace next door. Federal republics like Tatarstan have their own constitution, their own president and may also use their own language in addition to Russian. Official inscriptions here in Kazan are mostly both in Russian and Tartar.

Inside the mosque

In the streets of the Kremlin there are also a few small museums in addition to government buildings. I visited an exhibition about the Golden Horde in the Hermitage Kazan for example - a (very small) branch of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

The most striking building within the walls of the Kremlin today is the Qolşärif Mosque. It was opened in 2005 and is the largest mosque in Russia. It stands on the site of Kazan’s most important mosque of the 16th century. As a tourist you are not allowed to enter the prayer area, but there is a special balcony on the second floor from which you have a nice overview. The mosque has room for 6,000 believers, but the question is whether there will ever be so many. When I visited, a cleric was giving a tour to a group of local women and you can see from the wear of the carpet that it is in use. Its presence seems to be mostly symbolic though – for a more authentic Islamic feel in Kazan you need to go to the area around the central market, on the road between the train station and the river port. The Islamic Volga Tatars make up just over half of the current population of Tatarstan and even they have been Russified for centuries.

Spasskaya Tower, the main gate

During my stay I walked through the Kremlin every day. It is beautifully illuminated at sunset and the whole architectural composition within the fully rebuilt fortification walls, towering above the modern city, is its particular strength. There’s not much to linger on though and within an hour you will have seen most of it. None of the times when I visited it was busy with tourists.

Els - 22 September 2019

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Jay T 22 September 2019

Wow, Kazan sounds fascinating. I really like the pictures of the mosque interior and sunset over Kazan. Hope you enjoyed your Trans-Siberian trip, and I look forward to seeing more of your reviews from this adventure!

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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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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.

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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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