Tag Archives: history

• Pilgrimage Church of Wies

Visit: 10th March 2018

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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.

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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.

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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 Originally made as an ordinary carving of Christ in chains, it was considered too graphic for the local community and hidden away.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.

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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.

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• Town Hall and Roland on the Marketplace of Bremen

Visit: 12th-14th January 2018

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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).

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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

• Bryggen

Visit: 23rd October 2017

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

• Le Havre, the City Rebuilt by Auguste Perret

Visit: 2nd July 2017

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Le Havre is a city in Normandy that was heavily bombed during the Second World War and subsequently rebuilt in concrete in the 50s and 60s. It was the final stop on a cycling trip I took in early July with Ross (Chirag having organised the trip and then dropped out on the day of departure!).

 

We started by ferry from Portsmouth to Caen – a six hour voyage that gave time for a long lunch – before beginning our ride west along the coast toward Bayeux. The route took us along Sword beach, which was one of the sites taken by the Allies in the 1944 D-day landings. Sword was assigned to the British, whilst the Canadians had nearby Juno and the Americans Omaha and Utah.

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The ride was enjoyable as we turned inland, leaving behind coastal headwinds for the quiet country lanes of Normandy’s interior. After a while though we began to flag, resorting to my packet of prunes for a final burst of energy as we finally rode into Bayeux.

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The annual medieval fayre was taking place on the day we arrived, so we feasted on roasted meats and watched the townsfolk process by in a wide variety of strange costumes.

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Bayeux is best known as the home of the eponymous tapestry. This was the main reason for our detour to the city, though I was very impressed with the quality of its cathedral.

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We went to see the tapestry the next morning. It is 60 metres long and depicts the Norman version of events leading up to and during the 1066 Battle of Hastings – the last time anybody successfully invaded Great Britain. After Harold Godwinson reneged on a promise to let him take the throne of England, William of Normandy sailed across the channel and defeated Harold in battle. The Normans’ use of longbows is credited with giving them the edge, and Harold was supposedly killed when an arrow, fired high into the air, landed in his eye. Entrance to the museum comes with an audio guide that autoplays, keeping the flow of visitors moving along the tapestry as well as describing the events depicted in a way that really brings them to life. I would certainly recommend a visit to anybody visiting the area – it is one of the most interesting artefacts I have seen on my travels (and is not a World Heritage Site, by the way).

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Unfortunately the previous day’s cycling had taken its toll, and I was too saddle-sore to complete the planned 40 mile ride east to Deauville. So we took our bikes on the train, first travelling to Caen – where we ate lunch and looked around the castle – and then on to Deauville. A resort town on the coast, Deauville was our second night stop.

 

 

The next morning was the final day of our trip and I was ready to get back on the bike. We set off for Le Havre up an enormous hill, and stopped off in Honfleur for lunch (above). We then rode across the wide river Seine and past the large port of Le Havre before arriving into the rebuilt city mid-afternoon.

 

After being almost totally destroyed by bombardment in WWII the responsibility for its reconstruction was given to an architect by the name of Auguste Perret. Setting out his vision in the 1950s he was an early proponent of concrete. He designed a layout featuring wide streets and generally low-rise residential blocks, punctuated by a few taller towers. The tallest building is St Joseph’s Church, built as a memorial to the dead and designed to resemble a lighthouse.

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Unlike much British post-war development in concrete Le Havre is a pleasant place to be. It has not been allowed to slip into decrepitude through the familiar pattern of failed social policies and neglect, so still feels bright, open and forward-looking. There was very little left of the town following the war, but one building that did miraculously survive was Le Havre’s cathedral – a Baroque building from the 17th century. Like St Paul’s in London, with bombs falling all around it the cathedral somehow remained standing.

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We only had a couple of hours in Le Havre before our ferry was due to depart for Portsmouth. So, with that, we rode across to the terminal and boarded with the other cyclists and motorbikes and settled in for the longish journey home. I passed the time reading the Economist whilst Ross paid £6.50 to watch Baywatch II in the onboard cinema.

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• Paris, Banks of the Seine

Visit: 20th June 2017

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This was not my first time to Paris, but it was the first time I have visited in the Age of the iPhone, meaning I now have photographs of it that I won’t lose track of. I have been to the city’s historic centre on three occasions, so I feel comfortable counting it as visited despite the most recent trip being for less than two hours. I went to Paris for primarily to attend the biannual air show in order to research an investment idea. There were some exciting displays such as an F-35 fighter doing aerobatics, but most of my day was spent in the conference halls talking to people about structural components.

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At Le Bourget airfield it was extremely crowded and extremely hot, so when I finally escaped the crowds after the show was over it was a breath of fresh air to have some down time by the banks of the Seine. This was my first time using mobile data abroad – since the hated EU have recently banned phone companies from charging their extortionate roaming fees – and it was extremely useful to be able to navigate around using Google Maps.

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This World Heritage Site covers an area around the Seine as it runs through central Paris – stretching from the Eiffel Tower in the west to Notre Dame in the east. I opted for the eastern end, heading first to the facade of Paris’s famous cathedral, above. This Gothic masterpiece feels similar to the cathedral in Amiens, particularly because of the huge number of figures depicted in miniature statues above the front doorways.

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Two natural islands sit within the Seine – Île de la Cité, on which stands Notre Dame (above) and Île Saint-Louis, where the top photograph was taken.

There has been a settlement in Paris since prehistoric times, but it was during the 17th to 20th centuries that it really developed into what it is today. The wide avenues and carefully laid-out street patterns were the result of deliberate planning by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century. This was to be the model for a number of New World cities, particularly in Latin America. I noticed that Parisian feeling for sure in Buenos Aires, which is the only major Latin American city I have visited.

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Since the great ‘renovation of Paris’ the city government has enforced regulation to protect dozens of specified views throughout the city. Like London’s protection of the view of St Paul’s from various angles, this means no new buildings may be constructed that spoil parts of the urban vista. The developers of the skyscraper district La Défense, however, got around the protection of the view of the Arch de Triomphe from the Place de la Concorde by building outside city limits, but going taller than any Victorian-era planner had ever envisaged.

These photos of/from the Eiffel Tower are Natalie’s from her visit this January. I went up the tower years ago and enjoyed the view. From up here you can really appreciate Haussmann’s layout of the streets and also the sheer size of the city.

I have not yet been to either Paris’s main art galleries – the Louvre and the Orsay – or the WHS-inscribed Palace of Versailles – so a proper revisit is definitely on the cards.

• Byblos

Visit: 25th May 2017

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One of the best aspects of my year at business school has been the new friends I’ve made and the diversity of their nationalities. So when two of my coursemates from Lebanon offered to show a group of us their country I was intrigued. I think it’s fair to say that this is not a country I would have gone to off my own bat, so when I heard there was a trip on it was clear that I should seize a rare opportunity to visit this region with the aid of local knowledge.

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So about a dozen of us booked flights to Beirut and 5 nights in an Airbnb. Our hosts, Bassam and Hala, arranged for us a minibus and a programme of sightseeing/partying. Byblos – the only World Heritage Site we were able to visit – came early on in the trip. It is located on the Mediterranean coast about and hour’s drive north of Beirut. We travelled there via a beach and a fantastic winery, where we had a classic Lebanese lunch including fateh, hummous and batata harra.

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That’s not our whole group there because amusingly unfortunately Jason, Walter and Dayo had missed our flight out the previous day after leaving too late for the airport and getting stuck in traffic. They were able to talk BA into letting them onto the next day’s flight for no extra cost, but it was a shame they missed out on this first day.

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We got to Byblos in the early evening and walked in along an ancient entrance route lined with Corinthian columns. When I mentioned this was an old city, what I meant is it has been continuously inhabited since the Neolithic era (7 or 8,000 BC), making it definitely one of the oldest cities in the world. It was under the Phoenicians – a Mediterranean civilisation centred around modern-day Lebanon – that it rose to prominence. The name Byblos comes not from Phoenician (in which it was called Gebal) but from the contemporaneous Ancient Greeks. Meaning ‘book’, the name’s origin comes from the importance of the city in trade with Ancient Egypt, from which it imported large quantities of papyrus paper.

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The picture above is of the citadel in the heart of ancient Byblos. This dates from the Crusades, when it was built by the Christians using stone from the remnants of the Roman garrison that had previously been set up here. This area, on an outcrop sticking into the sea, has not seen modern building work on top of it. The currently-inhabited part of the city is visible in the background, rising up into the hills that run down the length of the country.

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Lebanon is a complicated nation, governed by a constitution that delicately ensures an even distribution of power among the various ethnic and religious groups who were so violently opposed to one another during the country’s civil war in the 1970s and 80s. From its independence from France in 1943 until the outbreak of war in 1975 Lebanon was a glamorous destination for the internationally mobile. Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando used to take their yachts into Byblos harbour and Beirut was the Dubai of its day. Since peace was restored in 1990 the country has never managed to restore its allure to the outside world, which of course is a shame because it has much to offer.

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Lebanon contains the largest remaining community of Christians in the Middle East, and they coexist peacefully with the Sunnis, Shia and countless smaller sects such as the Druze. This boy, celebrating his first Communion, was a good reminder of that. The country has seen more conflict since the Civil War ended, when Israel severely bombarded it following rocket attacks in 2006, but the system did not fall apart.

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Beirut, many of its buildings still scarred by bullet holes, was a charming city to spend most of our time in. Although it has its no-go areas (in particular, the Foreign Office warns against travel into the southern neighbourhoods controlled by Hezbollah), it has plenty of nice parts. We toured the campus of the American University of Beirut (set up by Americans but no longer run by them), the marina, the student neighbourhood of Hamra and the bars of Gourard Street.

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Beirut’s main Sunni mosque is an exquisite building, particularly on the inside. Since Islam does not permit depiction of the human form Islamic art focuses instead on geometric patterns and Arabic script.

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Our other day’s excursion Hala took us far up into the hills to track down Lebanon’s national tree. The cedar features on the country’s flag and its banknotes, and has long been prized for its properties as a building material. The tree flourishes in cooler, damper conditions than prevail down by the coast – which is why it is quite often seen here in England too, nowadays.

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Like when I visited Madeira last December it was hard to believe, up here in the cool mist, that it had been warm and sunny only a few hours earlier down by the coast. Our guide in the cedar forest showed us ‘the actual tree’ upon which the flag design is based, though I was a little sceptical myself when I saw it.

When all was done we felt sad to have to leave Lebanon. The country had been very hospitable and fun to spend time in, and all excellently organised by Hala. Lebanon has four other WHSs, but unfortunately they are in areas that are a little riskier for Western tourists (though Bassam would contest that!). If the war in Syria is ever resolved and the region becomes a little less volatile I would love to return to Lebanon and see the rest of it – but for now, I have seen plenty enough to know that I like it.