• Historic Centre of Vienna

Visit: 2nd, 3rd, 5th April 2017

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Vienna had stood out for a long time as a major European city I wanted to visit. The Easter break afforded Natalie and me an opportunity to spend a couple of nights abroad, so I decided to plan a four day trip to Austria. The idea was to visit Vienna and travel to the southern city of Graz for a night before returning to the capital for the flight home.

We arrived on a Sunday morning at a gleaming Flughafen Wien and took a bus into town, followed by a long, long walk (punctuated by pilsner) to our hotel. Our first action was to catch a tram into the centre of town and seek out one of Vienna’s main sights, the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

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This museum is one of Europe’s most important, and it did not disappoint. It has, I think, the finest collection of paintings by the Flemish painter Pieter Breugel – including many of his most famous works such as ‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’. One of the other highlights was the grand entrance staircase, leading to one of the more impressive cafés I have seen.

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After the KHM we walked towards Vienna’s centre as the evening drew in. I was impressed with its grandeur – it definitely has the aura of an imperial city, as befits the capital of the former Habsburg Empire. All around are imposing state buildings and Classical statues. Bill Bryson once wrote that if aliens were to land on Earth and seek out its capital they would surely assume it was Vienna.

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Vienna is not a crowded place, which feels odd coming from London. It is also not extortionately expensive to eat in. Since we were trying to keep the budget down we ate exclusively in Gasthauses, or Germanic taverns serving beer and food. The cuisine in this country isn’t haute, so you can find some of the best food at very reasonable prices. Dishes we ate included fried liver, schnitzel and goulash.

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Vienna Town Hall

The city’s cathedral, or Domkirche, is a masterpiece of the Gothic, with a spire that puts me in mind of the Sagrada Familia. Inside, most of the church was weirdly fenced off so we couldn’t get a proper look around.

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One of our main destinations during our time in Vienna was the Schönbrunn Palace, in the city’s southwest. But because that is a World Heritage Site in its own right it gets a separate post. Also covered separately is our one-night excursion along the Semmering Railway to Graz. When we came back to Vienna on the Thursday afternoon we had a little time to spare in the vicinity of the city’s main railway station. Fortunately one of Vienna’s major sites, the Belvedere palace, is within ten minutes’ walking distance.

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Located on a high point, the palace’s gardens decline gently into the distance toward a vista of the rest of the city. I preferred this palace’s exterior to that of Schönbrunn, probably because of its far more ornate Baroque styling. If I one day come back to this beautiful city on the Danube I shall have to give it a proper visit.

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• Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco and Other Franciscan Sites

Visit: 18th February 2017

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After two nights in Rome Natalie and I got up early to catch a train 90 minutes out of the city into Umbria. Our destination was the hill town of Assisi, a site of pilgrimage for followers of the famous 13th century monk St Francis. From the station it is a ten minute bus ride up to the town, where we had a hotel booked in the centre. I had expected hordes of tourists (like us) but it was strangely deserted our entire time there.

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We started out at the city’s main church, the Basilica of St Francis. It sits at the far west end of the town and the promontory on which the town is built. Inside, the basilica is split into two floors, which I found unusual. We entered at the lower level, which is adorned with frescoes – some of them painted by the early Renaissance visionary Giotto di Bondone. I got told off for taking the photo below, but it gives you an idea of what I’m describing.

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In a crypt beneath the basilica’s lower level are the remains of St Francis himself. In case you are unfamiliar with his story, St Francis was a born to a wealthy family but renounced his worldly possessions in order to devote his life to God. He travelled around Italy to preach and went on to form an order of monks who would live a life of poverty as he did. That order is still going strong today, so you see monks and nuns frequently in Assisi.

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Assisi was once a Roman settlement, as the Temple of Minerva (the same goddess once venerated in the City of Bath) on the town’s main square attests. Like the Pantheon in Rome, it probably owes its survival to its conversion into a church, which is Baroque in style on the inside. On the outside we still have the original Roman front complete with tall Corinthian columns.

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From the main square we walked uphill, passing through a multistory car park built among Roman ruins. At the town’s highest point is a castle keep – the command post for the walls that surround the whole of Assisi. I was able to clearly make out the city of Perugia some 20 kilometres away.

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That evening we had a decent meal, though not as good as the previous night in Rome. I ate the local dish of roasted pigeon, which, as the waiter informed me, is meant to be eaten with your hands. The following morning we had to make our way to Perugia San Francesco d’Assisi – Umbria International Airport from which we were flying back to Stansted. There are no bus links between the airport and Assisi so were were reliant on an expensive taxi service. The silver lining was that our driver offered to detour via the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli, located 5km from Assisi. This was fortunate because the building contains a very interesting artefact and is one of the ‘Other Franciscan Sites’ mentioned in this World Heritage Site’s title.

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The artefact in question is in fact the very site at which St Francis is supposed to have received the word of God. It is a tiny frescoed church, barely large enough for a small group of people to gather in, housed within the more recent basilica. This was well worth coming to see, and – like the crypt in Assisi’s main basilica – felt like a very holy place, and in a different and possibly more special way than the grand cathedrals of Milan, Venice or Rome.

I enjoyed this WHS for its importance in the history of Christianity and its Roman connections, as well as the prettiness of the views over Umbria. We were lucky that it was so quiet when we were there, but I would recommend as a one-night excursion from Rome if you are interested in getting out into the Italian heartland.

• Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura

Visit: 17th February 2017

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This World Heritage Site really takes the biscuit in terms of name length. I don’t write these things – bureaucrats in Paris do. But the general theme of the site is sensible enough: it is the centre of Rome, the Eternal City. Since the Vatican City is located entirely within Rome, we were able to visit both in the same day (though a day is far from ideal for a city that has been at the centre of Western civilisation on and off for the last 3,000 years).

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After fuelling up on pizza in the Vatican we set off on foot to see the sights. In the WHS name you will notice the reference to ‘the Properties of the Holy See … Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights’. This is because the Catholic Church’s Holy See owns a set of buildings outside of the Vatican City proper which enjoy diplomatic immunity similar to that of an embassy. There are at least a dozen buildings dotted throughout the city, as well as a few others elsewhere in Italy that are not subject to Italian law. I planned our route from St Peter’s so we would pass a few of them – and now I will take you on a tour of some of them.

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Palace of the Holy Office – from which Catholic doctrine is promulgated and defended

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Palazzo dei Convertendi – former home of the painter Raphael

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Palazzo Pio – home of Canadian embassy to the Holy See

At this point we have reached the bottom of the Via della Conciliazione and are next to the Castel Sant’Angelo. This is not a Holy See building, but is a 2nd century cylindrical castle built as a mausoleum for the emperor Hadrian. He is becoming a recurring theme in my WHS visits, being the man behind the eponymous wall back home and the luxurious villa complex in nearby Tivoli.

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We didn’t go inside, but instead crossed the Tiber on one of its ornate footbridges. The next sight we saw was another Roman relic, bearing a certain resemblance to the castle, above. This, however, is not a castle but a temple-cum-church: the Pantheon. It, too, is a work of the Hadrian era and consists of a cylindrical structure with a porticoed front and a magnificent dome with a hole in the top.

It is quite remarkable that this building is still in such good condition, and that is due to the fact that it has been in permanent use since it was built in the second century. Originally it was a temple to the Roman gods, but following the decline of the Roman empire in the 7th century it was consecrated as a church and has been one ever since (meaning it is free to enter!). The dome is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. The hole in the top is known as an oculus and lets in the sunlight in a concentrated beam that sweeps through the interior throughout the day. The Pantheon was a hugely influential building – inspiring, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia that I visited five months earlier.

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Not far from the Pantheon is another extraterritorial building. The Palazzo della Cancelleria is a Renaissance palace that is nowadays the residence of a controversial former Boston cardinal (if you’ve seen the film Spotlight you’ll recall the scandal he was involved in).

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Palazzo della Cancelleria – home of the Papal Chancellery

We then walked via the Colosseum (which Natalie and I had both visited before) back to our hotel near the central station, stopping on the way at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore – which is another of the Holy See’s properties. This basilica is a fifth century church, its interior decorated with carved wood panels supported by Ionic columns.

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A day’s sightseeing thoroughly done, we were keen to have an authentic but inexpensive Roman dining experience. We were not disappointed by the place we found, located in a student district 20 minutes walk from our hotel. My highlight was a simple pasta primi piatto of pancetta and parmesan.

• Vatican City

Visit: 17th February 2017

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The Vatican City is quite an unusual place in many respects, not least for being the world’s smallest country. At less than half a square kilometre it is 2.6 x 10-8 the size of Russia, the largest country. Despite being so small, there is plenty to keep the visitor occupied.

Natalie and I had talked about going to Rome for a few years and, whilst both of us had been before, we had not visited the city since the Age of World Heritage Site Visiting began. We flew from Stansted to Rome’s low-cost airport, Ciampino, for a very reasonable price and caught a dangerously overcrowded coach into the city centre. We had arrived late at night, so we were able to get up and out into Rome’s rush hour by 9 o’clock the next morning.

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The famous Sistine Chapel is located within the Vatican Museums. I decided it was probably worth paying an extra €4 to pre-book tickets and avoid a seriously long queue, though in the event there wasn’t a massive line. The museums are filled with the Papal art collection, which is one of the finest in the world (quite possibly the best). The galleries and corridors contain masterpieces of the Renaissance and the Baroque as well as hundreds of Roman-era statues. Some of the most impressive include the Belvedere Apollo and the statue of Laocoön and His Sons.

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These are some of the most admired pieces of art the Classical period left us, and they sit perfectly in a small open courtyard in the Vatican. I wondered if the Pope ever walks around on his own after the tourists have left and takes in the magnificence of his domain.

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The closer you get to the Sistine Chapel the more crowded it becomes. For the last half an hour or so we were filing through narrow corridors with thousands of other visitors, traipsing inexorably toward one of the most famous sights in the world. In the process it is easy to miss the fine collection of 20th century artworks, including pieces by Chagall, Dalí and even Francis Bacon.

The chapel itself is well-known enough I needn’t describe it here. As part of Michelangelo’s greatest masterpiece, the panel in the ceiling where Adam touches the hand of God is smaller than I expected, but the huge Last Judgement scene on the wall is just as impactful as it could be. Unlike the Last Supper in Milan there is no atmospheric control system, so tourists file through the chapel in perpetuity. If they were to start sending people through in carefully-controlled batches I’m sure the chapel would become almost impossible to visit.

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The gardens of the Vatican deserve a mention. Visitors are allowed in only a small portion of them, but it is easy enough to take in views of most of the rest of them through various windows.

After the Sistine Chapel we foolishly exited the museums in order to join the queue for St Peter’s Basilica in the famous (circular) square. My mistake was not to realise there is a way of getting into the basilica from the museum complex, bypassing the slow-moving line. When we eventually made it inside (there is no entrance charge) we found ourselves inside the world’s largest church. I found it hard to really appreciate the magnitude of the building, as when something is built in the right proportions its size is not necessarily as obvious as you might think. Inside the entrance is Michelangelo’s marble Pietà statue, which is something I have wanted to see for some time.

One of the basilica’s most notable features is its enormous dome, which greatly influenced Sir Christopher Wren’s design for St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Standing beneath it, looking up at the tiny people walking around the inside of the dome finally brought home to me how large the building really is.

Of course it is not just its size that sets the basilica apart. The whole interior and exterior is of a level of ornateness that surpasses most other churches. This is why it is widely acclaimed as the greatest church in all of Christendom.

• Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus

Visit: 28th/29th January 2017

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My first World Heritage Site of 2017 was in Hamburg – though you wouldn’t know it from the title. The Speicherstadt district of the city is an area of waterside warehouses similar to Liverpool‘s centre. It is not the most exciting of places so I needed an exciting companion, who took the form of Teutonophile and former Hamburg property-owner Peter Nowell.

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Our plan was simply to spend one night in Hamburg and then go home again. This being Germany the plan centred around drinking beer, but upon arrival our first move was to stop at local favourite the Mö-Grill for an oversized sausage in an undersized bun.

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I had chosen us a hotel in the Speicherstadt district as I like to stay as close as possible to the WHS itself and preferably within its limits, if possible. The water in the photographs is the Elbe river, and the warehouses that sit on its islands and banks were originally built between 1885 and 1927. The buildings, which display a coherence of style that impressed UNESCO when it was inscribed in 2015, stand testament to the development of large-scale international trade in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

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Significant damage was inflicted in the Second World War, leading to a a general reconstruction of the area in the 1950s and 60s. Today many of the warehouses seem still to be tenanted by import/export businesses. Interestingly, most of the proprietors’ names written above the doors are of Islamic origin.

32276371670_c4b2277a1c_b Also included in the WHS inscription is the Chilehaus, which is a Modernist office block just across the water from most of the warehouses. To me it has a more obvious architectural merit than the warehouses, though I believe Nowell prefers the latter.

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Our night out in Hamburg was quite enjoyable, basically consisting of drinking from early-afternoon onward. We started at a Bavarian brauhaus drinking out of one-litre steins but we came to realise that the Hamburgers do not do it this way – preferring more sensible half-litre glasses for their beers.

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I had half-planned for us to visit another WHS in the nearby Heanseatic city of Lübeck, but our late night put paid to that. My overall impression of Hamburg (which is also Hanseatic, just not obviously so) was of a pleasant enough city but not a terribly exciting World Heritage Site compared with others. As it is the second largest city in Germany is it fair to call it the Birmingham of Germany? Birmingham doesn’t have a WHS (yet…), but whilst Hamburg has a claim to the Beatles I’ll take ELO over the ‘Fab Four’ any day.

• Historic City of Toledo

Visit: 10th/11th December 2016

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Toledo was the last WHS of my Portugal/Spain trip in December 2016. After touring Alcalá de Henares on my own I met Natalie at Madrid’s airport and the next morning we caught a coach from Spain’s current capital to its former one.

Toledo is a hilltop medieval city that bears witness (as so often in Iberian World Heritage Sites) to the meeting of cultures – successively the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians, with Jews also present pretty much throughout.

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The city’s cathedral, above, was for a long time the centre of Spanish Catholicism. As the Protestant Reformation swept Europe in the 16th century the Catholic authorities sought to retain believers by commissioning artists to paint vivid scenes from the life of Christ. One of the most famous of those artists today was the travelling Greek painter known as El Greco. He lived in Toledo for 38 years and left a legacy of paintings that justify a visit on their own. El Greco is known for his use of shimmering bold colours that seem to burst out of the canvas, combining elements of Byzantine art with Western painting. In the El Greco museum there is a collection of Jesus and the 12 Apostles which I found really impressive.

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Toledo is defended on three sides by the Tajo river, much as Durham is by the Wear. We reached our hotel from the bus station by walking up the hill’s steep approach and then went out for lunch. Here follows a top tip: if you ever visit Toledo and enjoy informal but excellent dining, go to the newly-opened Mercado de San Agustín. It is a five-storey food court where you can choose from a range of options and get some really delicious tapas-style Spanish food. We enjoyed it so much we ate there twice. It was similar to the Time Out Market in Lisbon, where we had a great time in March 2015.

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Toledo is a maze of narrow alleyways – like Venice without the canals. Local vendors play on the city’s medieval past of course, meaning disconcertingly many shops are packed to the gunwales with swords and daggers for sale. On Sunday morning the weather had changed from the blue skies in the picture of the cathedral, above, to a total white-out caused by thick fog. We set off for a walk to the Jewish quarter and the city’s other cathedral.

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Natalie and I realised then that neither of us had ever been in a synagogue. We have been in plenty of churches and the occasional mosque (in my case only in Istanbul), but never a Jewish place of worship. So we took the opportunity to have a look around a former synagogue that is no longer in use here in Toledo.

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I liked all the columns and the gold, but it did lack some atmosphere due its not being in active use. Hopefully we’ll get to see a working synagogue eventually.

And that was really the end of the visit. We caught our coach back to Madrid and then the Metro to Barajas airport. My 10 day trip to Portugal and Spain that had begun with the laurel forests of Madeira had come to an end, with a respectable 8 World Heritage Sites visited. I only have a few more to visit in Portugal (in the north and in the Azores), but plenty left to do in Spain, which is a real gold mine. This trip saw me cross the 100 mark (I think that was at the Monastery of Batalha in Portugal), putting my total after Toledo at 104. With 1,052 in the world at the time of writing, that’s just another 948 to go!

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• University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares

Visit: 9th December 2016

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Following a successful road trip around southern Portugal I had two more nights abroad before I was due to return home. I caught an Iberia flight from Lisbon to Madrid, where I would spend one night alone before Natalie joined me for two more nights. On landing at Barajas airport I took a local bus to Alcalá de Henares, a small city to the northeast of Madrid.

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Alcalá, as the locals seem to call it, was the hometown of Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes (though I have to admit to not having read the book). He is one of the most significant figures in Spanish literature. Catherine of Aragon was born here too. The UNESCO inscription, however, cites the fact that is was the world’s first “planned university city”. There are quite a number of ‘urban planning’ World Heritage Sites, and they can be a little underwhelming to the layman (of which I count myself as one). I spent the night of my arrival in an Irish bar where I teamed up with a baggage handler and an academic to take part (and score poorly) in a pub quiz.

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The next day was devoted to sightseeing, all on my own. This would have been an ordeal if I hadn’t had my Kindle with me. Although this is still an active university city there wasn’t a lot to do on an overcast weekday in December. I took a look around the archaeological museum and the main university building, which features the quadrangle above.

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One of my highlights was having lunch in a renowned local bar/restaurant. These mushrooms in garlic butter are a local speciality.

The most memorable thing about Alcalá de Henares, however, must be the huge number of storks that call the city centre home. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that a stork was nesting on on top of every tall building. Enlarge the picture below and see how many storks you can count on a single building.

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Alcalá de Henares is not the first university city WHS I have visited. Others include Coimbra, in Portugal, and Padua, in Italy. Coimbra wasn’t terribly interesting either, but for me Alcalá is the least interesting of the three. Padua is great, though – go there!

At the end of a relaxing day of sitting around in cafes and counting storks I journeyed into Madrid to visit the Prado gallery. I had attempted it the previous evening, too, but had been stymied by its early closure due to it being a public holiday. This time it seemed I would make it, but I arrived to find a queue snaking round the block. The museum is free after 6pm, which is when I turned up. I queued for half an hour but it was going nowhere fast, so reluctantly I gave up. Our galleries in Britain are free, yet we don’t seem to have this problem. The Spanish are obviously a very cultural people and hats off to them, but next time I’m going to have to bite the bullet and pay up to enter during the daytime if I’m ever going to see the collection of Velázquezes and Bosches that the Prado is famous for.