• Abbey of St Gall

Visit: 10th March 2018


Following on from our morning visit to Bavaria’s Wieskirche the four of us drove across the Austro-German border to Bregenz, an Austrian city on the eastern shore of Lake Constance. Our primary purpose was to have lunch there and thereby save a little compared with eating in our notoriously expensive destination of Switzerland. There wasn’t much to see in Bregenz so we had a decent enough meal and moved on.


20 miles to the west lies the Swiss city of St Gallen, home to the second World Heritage Site of our weekend. This is a place with a long history as a monastic centre of learning, having played host for many centuries to monks who were particularly prodigious manuscript writers.


The monastery buildings are generally quite plain. This is not inappropriate for a monastery, but it stands in contrast to the Manueline majesty of Belém or Tomar in Portugal (you really should go to see the latter one). The highlight of St Gallen is the cathedral, which was rebuilt in the Baroque style in the 18th century.


The interior is wide and open, which pleased Gokul more than the relatively small Rococo church we had encountered in Germany earlier that day. I note that the colour green, which is the predominant theme in the ceiling, is quite unusual in church interiors – though I am not sure what the reason is for having used it here…


We spent a bit of time milling around St Gallen where highlights included:

  • buying the obligatory Swiss chocolates;
  • consuming the worst value-for-money bottle of water I have ever shelled out for (c.£3.50, warm and a taste like Hounslow tap water); and
  • experiencing an innovative but excessively spartan public convenience – in which the toilet itself doubles up as the handwash basin – eugh.

Following which we sped up a valley alongside the Rhine toward what would, for 3 of us (Nowell excepted), be a new country. Liechtenstein is only Europe’s fourth smallest state, but that says more about how small the Vatican City, San Marino and Monaco are than it does about how big Liechtenstein is.


Unfortunately the country does not have a single World Heritage Site, so we had little to do but spend the night in the small selection of local bars. I can’t say we did anything particularly Liechtenstinian, given that we ate pizza, drank beer and played pool.

Liechtenstein is one of only two doubly landlocked countries in the world (the other is Uzbekistan). It is host to no foreign embassies, it uses the Swiss franc and it is a member of the Schengen area – so getting in is easy. The capital, Vaduz, is not its largest city – but since nobody has ever heard of Schaan I decided we would stay in the capital anyway. Below is the view from our balcony, where the mountains in the background are in Switzerland.


When Sunday came it was time for us to head back to Munich to drop off Gokul and KC at their house and Nowell at the station. He was continuing on to India for a business trip, but since his flight was from Frankfurt he needed to take a train there first. That left me to fly back to London on my own, which I think is a first for a lads’ trip like this.

Many try to go the distance, few succeed.


• Pilgrimage Church of Wies

Visit: 10th March 2018


Last autumn two of my friends, Gokul and KC, moved to Munich to start new jobs. They joined Ross, Nowell and me in Bremen in January – but now it was time to meet them in Munich. The plan was not to stay in Munich but to hire a car and get out on the road, visiting four countries and two World Heritage Sites in one weekend.


We spent the first night in rural Bavaria, where the only bar within a 20 mile radius that was open past midnight was run by some gentlemen from Tennessee. The next morning we were up early to visit the Wies Kirche. Located in southern Germany close to the Austrian border and the Alps, it is an isolated church located apart from any town or village. This was I think done deliberately in order for it to benefit from the bucolic scenery that surrounds it.


Though small, the church is a fine example of the Rococo style. Built in the mid-18th century, this was a time when painters produced little of lasting significance, ceding the stage to architects and composers. The church was constructed as a site of pilgrimage after the area begun to be visited by people who had heard of the local statue of Jesus that wept. Originally made as an ordinary carving of Christ in chains, it was considered too graphic for the local community and hidden away. A local woman decided to store it in her bedroom (a little creepy?) but was shocked one day when tears emerged from its eyes. The church today houses the famous statue and has been visited by countless Christian pilgrims ever since.


Gokul declared himself “very disappointed” with the church on account of its size, and I suppose I can see where he was coming from. The ornateness of the carvings and the colour and detail in the ceiling make it quite special, though, even if it is more compact than most famous church buildings. Perhaps that was why we were the only ones visiting at the time?

After finishing at the church (which was free to enter) we got back in the car and headed on toward Switzerland, Austria and the Alpine foothills around Lake Constance.

• Town Hall and Roland on the Marketplace of Bremen

Visit: 12th-14th January 2018


Bremen, in northwest Germany, is a Hanseatic city that came of age in Medieval times as a centre of commerce. It was inscribed on UNESCO’s list in 2004 as a testament to the development of civic life and the autonomy and sovereignty of the city. To this day it has resisted being subsumed into one of the neighbouring German states. The city is technically its own state – the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen. With an area of 160 sq miles and a population of 670,000, it is the county’s smallest by both measures.

Ross, Nowell and I flew out on a cheap Ryanair ticket from London Stansted and were joined by some new lads trippers. Gokul and KC both went to business school with me and now live in Munich, so I invited them to join us for a weekend of beer and sightseeing.


The highlight of Bremen for many visitors is the Beck’s brewery, now operated by global brewing behemoth ABI Inbev. Gokul was excited to see how its famously efficient main shareholders 3G Capital run a business from the inside – but unfortunately we weren’t shown the modern production area but rather some set-piece museum displays and a former brewing room. It ended well, though, with a couple of free beers each in the Beck’s bar. The locals drink something called Haake-Beck, which is more flavoursome than the normal Beck’s product known elsewhere.


We had cause to sample plenty of different beers on both the Friday and Saturday evenings. My favourite bar was in the vaulted halls of the Ratskeller, which is the basement of the city’s town hall on the UNESCO-inscribed marketplace.


The marketplace by day is very pretty, with its key sights being the Rathaus (above), the cathedral (below) and the the statue of Roland (top). Roland is a local mascot of sorts, found in a number of cities of the former Holy Roman Empire. Roland is said to have been one of Charlemagne’s warriors who died a hero’s death standing his ground against a Moslem ambush in the 8th century. The statue itself was erected in 1404 and stands 5.5 metres tall. The purpose of installing a statue of Roland in the square, his sword drawn and facing the cathedral, was to remind the powerful prince-archbishops of the church (one of whom burnt down the original wooden statue of Roland) to respect the freedom of the city.


This was the third Hanseatic WHS I have visited since October. There are several more  on my to-do list, but before I get Hansa fatigure I think it’s time to give the theme a rest for a while. See:

• Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct

Visit: 17th December 2017


This December I was invited to Spain to attend my new company’s Christmas party. It was held in a small town in the hills of Castile and León, known for its connections with the Spanish royal family. I spent four days working in their office in Madrid before we were bussed north to La Granja where we enjoyed dinner and drinks followed by a traditional lunch of cochinillo (suckling pig) the next day.

Knowing that La Granja – which features a Baroque palace with gardens modelled on Versailles – is just a few miles from the World Heritage city of Segovia, I delayed my return home by a day to give myself time for a visit.

I arrived in the evening by taxi and checked in to my hotel to find the view from my room was both festive and historic – being situated very close to both the city’s famous aqueduct and a temporary giant bauble.

The aqueduct was built by the Romans and was the highlight of my visit. It is, with Pont du Gard in France, one of the two best-preserved Roman aqueducts in existence and spans a remarkable 813 metres at a height of 28 metres. It is quite incredible to look up at the 20,000 granite blocks and to realise that it is not held together by any sort of mortar or cement. Using the principles of the arch – as discovered by the Romans – it is gravity that holds the structure together, with the blocks pressing in on themselves. The aqueduct remained in use until the 19th century.


It was a quiet, cold Sunday morning as I walked uphill from the hotel into the city’s medieval streets. Interesting buildings abound, such as this one covered with spikes that were – according to the sign – meant to be part of some sort of defensive system.

After some coffee and a couple of apple pastries I continued to the main square, where I found the city’s 16th century cathedral. An impressive sight, it was one of the last to be built in the Gothic style (at a time when the Renaissance had begun to take hold elsewhere).


I went inside and saw that the only way to get up the tower was to take a guided tour – of which there were only three a day and the first was about to start. So, not realising that it would be conducted entirely in Spanish, I signed up and spent a full 90 minutes walking up spiral staircases and not really understanding what was going on. There was at least a video that had English subtitles, so I was able to glean that the tower is taller than that of Toledo Cathedral and that a fire caused by lightning destroyed its spire not long after its completion.

With eight World Heritage Sites the ‘autonomous community’ (bureaucratic speak for province) of Castile and León lays claim to having more than any other subnational region in the world. Tuscany and Lombardy – both strong contenders – each have six. Update: Tuscany now has 8 and Lombardy 10, so Castile and León are no longer world record holders – thanks to reader Thomas for pointing that out!

Leaving Segovia for Madrid I bought a ticket on the slow train which wound its way through the mountains for two hours. After failing to make my way through the world’s most confusing train station (the unsigned labyrinth of Chamartín) I gave up and took a taxi to the airport for my flight home. This gave me a chance to reflect on my World Heritage Site travels of 2017. Whilst not a record year (that was 2015), I managed to visit 15 sites in 9 countries – all but one of which were in Europe. My companions included Natalie (9), Nowell and Ross (2 each), plus various university and business school friends in Riga and the Lebanon. Of the sites, my favourite was probably the Vatican City, followed by either Rome or the Norwegian Fjords. The city of Le Havre deserves a mention, too, for surprising to the upside.

The count now stands at 118 – Merry Christmas and let’s see what 2018 will bring!

Sites visited in 2017

Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus (Germany), January
Vatican City (Holy See), February
Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura (Italy, Holy See), February
Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco and Other Franciscan Sites (Italy), February
Historic Centre of Vienna (Austria), May
Palace and Gardens of Schönbrunn (Austria), May
City of Graz – Historic Centre and Schloss Eggenberg (Austria), May
Semmering Railway (Austria), May
Byblos (Lebanon), May
Paris, Banks of the Seine (France), June
Le Havre, the City Rebuilt by Auguste Perret (France), July
West Norwegian Fjords – Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord (Norway), October
Bryggen (Norway), October
Historic Centre of Riga (Latvia), November
Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct (Spain), December

• Historic Centre of Riga

Visit: 11th-12th November 2017


Riga, capital of Latvia, was the destination of our only full-size lads trip in 2017. Earlier this year I travelled with Nowell to Hamburg and with Ross to Le Havre, but since there were only two of us each time they don’t really count. This time around we had Nowell, Ross, Chirag and – having not joined us since the trip to Germany in 2012 – David.


It was mid-afternoon and already going dark by the time we checked in to the hotel, so that left little to do but our favourite activity – drinking, eating and then drinking some more. The hotel featured a smoking room, which would probably not be allowed in Britain today and felt like a portal into the distant past.

The next morning we stepped out to explore the city. Riga was put on the UNESCO list as a result of its Hanseatic history – much like Bergen, and several other cities in the region.


The Latvians are a patriotic people, judging by the number of flags that fly in the streets. They achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 as the era of Communism came to a close. One of the highlights of our Saturday sightseeing was the tower of St Peter’s Church, which gives a good view of the cityscape and the Daugava River.


We later walked out from the centre to find Albert Street, which is known for its collection of Art Nouveau buildings. Many of these were designed by Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein – father of the film director, Sergei.


Being located on the North European Plain has meant Latvia was often subject to the machinations of its powerful neigbouring empires. In the 17th century Riga was a significant town in the Swedish Empire, which covered much of Scandinavia and the Baltics. The Germans and the Soviets both controlled it in the 20th century, but nowadays it is a proudly independent member of the European Union.


• Bryggen

Visit: 23rd October 2017


After spending a tranquil night at the fjords we drove westward toward the coast for the city of Bergen. The second city of Norway, Bergen is a base for the offshore supply industry, servicing the oil and gas platforms that sit between Britain and Scandinavia in the North Sea.


Its history has always been as a maritime trading centre, and the city’s World Heritage Site bears testament to this. The Bryggen is the name given to the colourful collection of buildings you can see in the first photograph above. Although today it houses only shops selling tourist paraphernalia, for hundreds of years it was occupied by merchants of the Hanseatic league.


The league, which ran from the 14th to 17th centuries, was a an organisation somewhat akin to the later East India Company. Headquartered in Lübeck, it was powerful enough to bend governments to its will and spread its reach throughout the Baltic Sea and beyond. Here in Bergen it was granted a monopoly over the right to trade herring – caught in the seas off Norway’s northern coastline – for grain grown in in the Baltic states on the North European Plain.

The league sent young men up from Germany to apprentice in Bergen, graduating to become merchants and spending their time there in strict (supposed) celibacy. This austere lifestyle was at least well-paid, so becoming a Hanseatic merchant would have been a sought-after position.


Although Norway is known as an expensive destination we managed to find some reasonably priced food in Bergen, eating broccoli soup for lunch and a hearty stew in a pub in the evening. The approach to the city’s airport was one of the more picturesque I have experienced, giving a great view of the rocky coastal landscape of western Norway.

• West Norwegian Fjords – Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord

Visit: 21st-22nd October 2017


The West Norwegian fjords inscription consists of two fjord systems located 75 miles apart. My first new World Heritage Site visit in three and a half months started with a flight into Bergen and a drive several hours inland to the village of Aurland, located on the Nærøyfjord.


Fjords are one of nature’s greatest works of art, formed 10,000 years ago as melting glaciers carved their way through the rock. Up to 1,000 metres deep and as narrow as 250m at some points, the dramatic dimensions of these inland waterways gives them a majesty seen in few other parts of the world. Driving east from Bergen, each time the road emerged from one of the innumerable tunnels we were treated to a fresh view of this landscape.


On a hilltop above Aurland we found a dramatic viewing platform. It is one of several dozen around the country built by the Norwegian government to bold designs.


We spent the night in a small hotel in the village, breakfasting on the Sunday morning with pickled herring, fish paste and homemade jam.


On a separate ‘spur’ of the Nærøyfjord we drove through a single-lane tunnel (traffic-light controlled) to the village of Bakka. Home to only 13 people, Bakka was one of the last settlements in Norway to be connected to the road system. Prior to the arrival of asphalt the only way in and out was by boat, which illustrates the minimal impact that human habitation has had on the wilderness.


Aurland is located at the western end of the world’s longest road tunnel. Measuring over 15 miles, the Lærdal tunnel was constructed in the 1990s to provide the first reliable road link between Bergen and Oslo. Having endured the 7 mile Gudvanga tunnel the previous day we didn’t much feel like a 50km roundtrip through the Lærdal just to say we’d done it, so we gave it a miss and instead headed back to Bergen to spend a night there and explore its historic centre.