• 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.

• Cultural Landscape of Sintra

Visit: 7th December 2016

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Not far to the west of Lisbon in the forested hills lies what UNESCO describes as the ‘Cultural Landscape of Sintra’. This refers to an area of grand palaces built as summer houses for Portugal’s nobility in the 19th century. My family and I drove to this World Heritage Site from Alcobaça after having been to three monasteries, two historic cities and one volcanic island on a five night tour of southern Portugal. The first site we saw when heading for our hotel was this 11th century Moorish palace.

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We had arrived in the early afternoon so, although this site consists of a number of palaces and a Moorish castle, we only had time to visit one – the Pena Palace. This eye-catching edifice perched right on the top of a series of jagged hills takes some getting to, being accessible via a bus that winds its way up hairpins so tight it has to stop and do a three-point turn in order to get round one of them.

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The Pena Palace was built by King Ferdinand II as a summer retreat. His architects turned this former monastery into a wild pleasure palace that prefigured Gaudí and Lluís Domènech i Montaner of the Art Nouveau movement (whose buildings in Barcelona have their own places on the UNESCO list). The Palau de la Música Catalana, for example, was completed in 1908, whereas the Pena Palace had been around since 1854.

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It is described as being of the Romanticist style, and features as one of Portugal’s ‘Seven Wonders’ (apart from Óbidos Castle, the others are all World Heritage Sites and places I’ve visited: Guimarães castle, Batalha, Alcobaça and Jerónimos monasteries and the Tower of Belem in Lisbon). It is certainly eclectic and exotic. They say that Disneyland was inspired by the Pena Palace.

Sintra is popular with tourists as it is easily done as a day trip from Lisbon (or at least, it is easy to see parts of it in a day) – and it is priced accordingly. We lost the crowds, however, as we walked down from the Pena Palace through its charmingly landscaped grounds where even the waterfowl live in castles and where we experienced what can only be described as a ‘black swan event’.

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• Monastery of Alcobaça

Visit: 7th December 2016

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This was our third Portuguese monastery in two days and we were starting to develop ‘monastery fatigue’ (a related condition to ‘Gothic cathedral fatigue’ – both common maladies for WHS visitors). So it was again only Dad and I who looked around this site, in Alcobaça, central Portugal (Mum and Joe went shopping).

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The monastery was built in the 12th century under early king Alfonso I on land that had been laid waste during the battles against the Moors. The Cistercian monks who were given stewardship of the area were to become adept at turning the land back to productivity and also at building an efficient, modern institution for the 1,000 brothers who were to live there.

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The kitchen is a practical but impressive room at Alcobaça. This enormous oven was used to cook six cows at a time. The monks also installed running water that fed huge sinks to do the washing up in.

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The style of Alcobaça, exemplified by the nave, above, is of the austere Cistercian Gothic. It couldn’t be more different to the monasteries we had visited the previous day at Tomar and Batalha. The intent was to avoid the trappings of ornate decoration then so popular with ecclesiastical builders so that the monks could focus on the things that really mattered. It feels more like some sort of Protestant denomination building, though of course Protestantism hadn’t been invented when Alcobaça was constructed.

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• Monastery of Batalha

Visit: 6th December 2016

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The Monastery of Batalha in central Portugal was the second of three we visited in a two-day period. Unlike the Convent of Christ in Tomar, it was never used as a castle so has no fortifications, sitting instead in the middle of a large town square.

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Batalha means ‘battle’ in Portuguese. The whole monastery in fact was built to commemorate the 1385 Battle of Aljubarrota in which the nascent Kingdom of Portugal defeated the numerically superior Crown of Castile. It is therefore of great significance to the Portuguese people as a symbol of their independence as a nation.

Led by their king John (or João) the First, 7,000 Portuguese troops outmanoeuvred John (or Juan) the First of Castile’s 30,000 man army. To mark his victory, João ordered the building of a grand Gothic cathedral and monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary – to whom he had prayed on the eve of battle. João’s wife, Philippa of Lancaster, was buried here (she was the daughter of English nobleman John of Gaunt* – whose heirs male included kings Henry IV, V and VI).

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The site is still of major importance to the country’s armed forces, where a constant guard is kept over an eternal flame in memory of the war dead.

When the Manueline style emerged in the 16th century the monastery was extensively redecorated in it. I think of that style as being like textile patterns made with stone.

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After 150 years of building works the nation eventually ran out of money – or patience – and one of the major chapels was never completed. Known today as the Unfinished Chapel, it lacks a roof, leaving the ornate World Heritage architecture of its interior a home for pigeons. You can see in the pictures above and below that the intricately-decorated columns simply stop abruptly.

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We drove on from Batalha to our destination for the night in the nearby city of Alcobaça. This being in the dead of the off-season, we turned out to be the only guests in the hotel (apart from a solitary Italian businessman).

* Everybody was called John back then.