Tag Archives: history

• Medieval Town of Toruń

Visit: 30th September 2018


Toruń was the second WHS of our weekend lads’ trip to Poland in late September. Having visited Malbork Castle earlier on the Saturday we took a train 2 hours south, tracking the Vistula river. Toruń was built in the Medieval period (c.12th-14th centuries) by Teutonic knights spreading Christianity through eastern Europe. Malbork was a Teutonic castle, and Toruń once had a notable castle too – but, as you can see from the picture above, there is not much left of it.


Toruń later became an important city in the Hanseatic League. I am losing track of the number of Hanseatic cities we have visited in recent years, but this one is slightly unusual in not being by the sea. Instead, its position on the Vistula gave it access to international markets. It also provided a formidable natural defence on the city’s south side.


Located in the heart of the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Province, halfway between Gdańsk and Warsaw, it is a little off the beaten track for most visitors to Poland, which was reflected in the emptiness of the streets when we arrived. On the Sunday, however, there was a military parade going on – which we watched from the base of a statue of Nicholas Copernicus.


With his name you would not expect him to be Polish, but he is Toruń’s most famous son and is known in Polish as Mikołaj Kopernik. He is best known for postulating that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not vice versa – which at the time was a controversial idea. Galileo spent the latter part of his life under house arrest for his endorsement of the idea, and was forced to recant his views under threat of torture by Pope Urban VIII.


The food was not bad on this trip to Poland. Having had a fairly grand dinner in Gdańsk, in Toruń we ate at the Jan Olbracht brewhouse, where goose is the most prominent dish and traditional alternatives include carrots with bacon or bread with lard. We did not have a heavy night, so were up early for sightseeing on Sunday before it was time to head home. Gokul and KC sped back to Gdańsk in a taxi to catch their flight back to Munich, whilst Ross, Nowell and I had a more leisurely time eating their abandoned potato pizza before travelling to the nearby airport at Bydgoszcz.


Poland boasts 15 World Heritage Sites, with most of them located in the south along the Czecho-Slovak border. Ross, Nowell and I visited Warsaw in 2015, and with this trip we have now been to three of the four WHSs in the northern half of the country. The remaining one is the Białowieża Forest, a transnational WHS on the border with Belarus – but I have a feeling it might be a while until we have ticked that one off, too.

Lads’ trip to Belarus, anyone?


• Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork

Visit: 29th September 2018


After two successful lads’ trips in the first half of 2018 (to Bremen in January and the German-speaking Alps in March) pressure built once again to organise a trip in the latter part of the year. Poland was the chosen destination, since I at least had only visited it once before (Warsaw, in 2015). The plan was to fly to Gdańsk and spend a night there, then travel via Malbork Castle to Toruń before flying home from Bydgoszcz. Joining me on this occasion were longtime attendees Ross and Nowell plus more recent converts KC and Gokul (who flew in from his hometown of Munich).


Whilst not inscribed as a WHS, Gdańsk is an attractive and historic city. Known in German as Danzig, it was a Hanseatic trading city of significance in the Middle Ages. Like Warsaw, it was occupied and brutalised by the Germans in WWII, and hence most of the historic centre had to be rebuilt. In the case of Gdańsk, the emphasis was apparently on expunging any memory of the Germanic architecture that was formerly characteristic of the city (it lies fairly close to the German border and had long been a place of cultural mixing). So the buildings today are more in the style of a Dutch or Belgian city than the pre-war Gdańsk.

After Gokul’s arrival on the flight from Munich we had a hearty meal at former president Lech Wałęsa’s favourite restaurant and drank Polish lager well into the night. Gokul had neglected to bring a jumper or a coat, but was saved by the bar’s in-house blanket service.


The next morning, having failed to comprehend the city’s train system, we caught taxis 40 miles southeast to Malbork. Inscribed in 1997, it is the largest castle in the world by land area. It is also one of the largest brick buildings in Europe, which put me in mind of fellow WHS Roskilde Cathedral, in Denmark. The castle was built by the Teutonic Order of knights in the 13th century to exercise dominance over the conquered area of Old Prussia (I wonder if they called it ‘old’ at the time?).


Gokul in front of a ‘wide moat’ (Warren Buffett reference)

The knights at the castle monopolised the trade in amber, which was found locally and coveted for use in jewellery. This enabled them to fund their autocratic ways, which abruptly ended in the 15th century when they were defeated in battle by a Polish-Lithuanian coalition. Malbork was subsequently utilised by various Polish kings and during the 1930s it was used as a summer retreat for the Hitler Youth. In 1945 it sustained extensive battle damage and not until 2016 was the restoration completed, leaving us with the fine building we are able to visit today.

It was mostly empty inside, and lacking in signage. We had neglected to pick up audioguides so wandered around for a while before taking lunch at the castle’s restaurant. We then caught a sort of golf buggy taxi to the local station, just in time to catch the train southbound for Toruń.


• From the Great Saltworks of Salins-les-Bains to the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans, the Production of Open-pan Salt

Visit: 23rd June 2018


This WHS, at 101 characters, is France’s entry for “needlessly long and descriptive official name”. By my reckoning that puts it in fourth place, behind the 108-character Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura, the 109-character The Historic Centre (Chorá) with the Monastery of Saint-John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse on the Island of Pátmos and the mammoth 137-character Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis: San Ignacio Mini, Santa Ana, Nuestra Señora de Loreto and Santa Maria Mayor (Argentina), Ruins of Sao Miguel das Missoes (Brazil).


So, that’s exciting. But the reason for our visit wasn’t to tick that box. Natalie and I were our first weekend away to the Continent in quite a while. We flew, cheaply, to Geneva on a Friday night, hired a car and immediately left Switzerland for the small town of Divonne-les-Bains just across the border in France.



There we spent the night in order to wake up early and participate in an extension of a new hobby: parkrun. Every Saturday in many hundreds of parks primarily in the British Isles, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Poland there is a free, timed 5 km run. There are only a handful in France, but the Lac de Divonne parkrun happened to be right on our route for the weekend, so we ran it. An out-and-back around a beautiful lake, it is also a fast and flat course – leading to a new PB of 22:09 (six parkruns later I am still yet to beat that).


Lake Geneva from the Jura

With the run complete we drove a hairpin-riddled road north across the sub-Alpine Jura Mountains into the province of Franche-Comté. The plan was to spend Saturday night in the Burgundian city of Dijon, but first came a visit to the two components of a salt-production World Heritage Site.


Salt was known as ‘white gold’ in the Middle Ages because – long before the invention of refrigeration – it was one of the only ways to preserve food (in particular meat). Since it was not easy to produce salt the commodity was very valuable. The word ‘salary’ comes from the the Latin for salt, because the Roman army used to pay its soldiers a monthly allowance of the mineral.

There are basically three ways to produce salt:

  1. mining rock salt
  2. solar evaporation of salt water (only feasible in very hot climates)
  3. using fire to heat and evaporate salt brine found underground

Salins-les-Bains and Arc-et-Senans employed the third technique, known as open-pan salt making.


Our first stop, Salins-les-Bains, is the older site – established in the Middle Ages. It is located in the hills near a natural brine (saltwater) deposit. The brine was pumped out of the rock and siphoned into metal trays, which were then heated until the water evaporated and only salt remained.


Evaporation trays at Salins-les-Bains

The salt was so sought after that Salins-les-Bains became wealthy and a strong wall had to be built around it to deter raiders. Over time, though, the site began to suffer from a lack of access to wood – essential to fuel the fires that heated the evaporation trays. So in the late 18th century a 21 km wooden piping system was installed to link the boreholes at Salins-les-Bains to a new, purpose-built evaporation facility at Arc-et-Senans.


Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans

This factory, sited near the Forest of Chaux, was designed by a prominent Parisian architect and built at great cost to the public purse. His intended his buildings to inspire the workers each day with its Enlightenment neo-Classical features – but also to create a Panopticon-like effect whereby the manager could see practically every other building on the grounds from his grand headquarters (above right). The large halls either side of it contained the evaporation pans, just like at Salins-les-Bains but on a grander scale.


Franche-Comté (Free County) regional food in Salins-les-Bains

After opening in 1790, the site only operated for about a century as the rapid innovation of the Industrial Revolution soon rendered it out-of-date. In the 20th century it was still owned by a salt company which, worried that modernisations would soon be prohibited by its imminent inclusion on a list of heritage properties, attempted to blow it up with TNT! They were unsuccessful, however and it was protected by the French government. In 1982, as a result of a campaign by a UNESCO official who happened to be from the local area, the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans were inscribed as the first ever industrial World Heritage Site. The Saltworks of Salins-les-Bains were added to the inscription in 2009.

• Angkor

Visit: 4th-5th April 2018


This year was my dad’s 60th birthday, and to celebrate this milestone he had the idea of getting the whole family together in Thailand, choosing a tiny resort on the island of Ko Jum, near Krabi and Phuket in the country’s south.


Six of us (Mum & Dad, Joe & Shaz, Natalie & I) spent five days together, travelling around the small island of maybe 1,500 people on rented scooters. Highlights included a cookery class, a fishing trip and of course Dad’s birthday party thrown by our generous host Kitima.



There are no World Heritage Sites on the island of Ko Jum, however, and as you can imagine I could not travel all the way to Asia without shoehorning some WHS-visiting into the trip. The most exciting one in Southeast Asia to my mind was always going to be Angkor, in Cambodia, consistently rated a top 10 WHS for those in the know. Natalie and I bade farewell to the others and caught a flight on local budget carrier Air Asia from Krabi via Bangkok Don Mueang to Siam Reap.


We arrived by night into a surprisingly modern but unsurprisingly bureaucratic airport at which we were required to pay US$30 each for visas on arrival before sharing a car with an Australian couple to our hotel in the city. Through the hotel I arranged a tuk-tuk for the next day to take us sightseeing, which is really the only way to see this enormous temple complex of some 400 square kilometres.


Day 1

The next morning we hit the road and, after buying a 3-day pass at US$62 each, headed first for the most famous of the temples, Angkor Wat.

To give a sense of perspective, click on the map below. Below and left of centre you can see the airport with its 2.5km runway for scale. The square in the centre and that one beneath that are the moated land sites of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. The rectangular reservoirs of West Mebon, Preah Khan (both still water-filled) and East Mebon (now dry) are enormous. They are called barays and nobody really knows how the 12th century Khmer people managed to dig them. Their purpose was probably part practical, in order to store water for the many people who lived here, but it is likely there was also a spiritual element.


Angkor Wat

The many dozens of different temples located at Angkor are the product of the ancient Khmer civilisation and were built mostly in the 12th century. Angkor Wat is 2 square kilometres and is more of a city itself than a mere temple.


The central temple comprises a pyramid of three levels, surrounded by two concentric galleries that contain statues and wall carvings known as bas-reliefs.


Although there were probably several thousand tourists at this single temple, its sheer size meant it did not feel very crowded. Most of our fellow visitors seemed not to notice what to me were the highlights of the visit: the bas-reliefs.


Maintained in remarkably good condition, these 50 metre-long carvings depict epic scenes from Hindu and Khmer mythology and history, such as the Procession of Suryavarman II (above). This procession takes place across three different levels, and depicts the very king who oversaw the building of Angkor Wat with his thousands of men and beasts.


My favourite bas-relief was the Churning of the Sea of Milk (below). In this tale 92 asura gods pull alternately at either end of the giant snake Vasuki, which is coiled around Mount Mandara. This causes the hill to rotate, churning up the sea of milk for 1,000 years to produce the elixir of immortality. I especially liked the small details, like the fish in the bottom right of the picture below that have been chopped to bits by the ferocity of the churning!


Angkor Thom, South Gate

The second place our driver took us was the enormous ancient city of Angkor Thom. Today much of its area is wooded, but in the 12th century it was a bustling metropolis. A square with edges of 3km in length, it is surrounded by a wall and a moat. The best-restored gate is the south entrance, where the bridge across the moat is flanked by statues of gods and demons churning the sea of milk – just as depicted in the bas-relief back at Angkor Wat.



At the centre of Angkor Thom is the Bayon, which was the State Temple of King Jayavarman VII. Because it is located right in the middle of the city – which is the most auspicious place – later kings, instead of building their own state temples, added to the Bayon. For this reason it is a highly complex hodgepodge of a building of great interest to historians.


The most striking features of the Bayon are its many ‘face towers’, smiling serenely at all angles.


Elephant Terrace

Leaving Bayon, we continued to Ta Prohm, stopping off on the way at the Elephant Terrace and the Leper King Terrace in the north of Angkor Thom.

These once formed the bases of two ‘royal pavilions’. These were apparently the only structures we saw at Angkor that were not religious in purpose.


Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm – our final temple for day 1 – has been left in the state of decay in which it was originally discovered. This was the idea of Cambodia’s former French colonial administrators and I think it was a stroke of brilliance. Not only is it picturesque to see the crumbling walls dominated by great trees, but it also reminds us that most of these temples have undergone a great deal of renovation since their ‘rediscovery’ in modern times.


The strangler figs and silk-cotton trees that have grown so large were probably dropped as seeds by birds. The roots then worked their way through the masonry to the ground and as they grew they split and crumbled the temple’s walls to their present state.


Back in Siam Reap that evening we went out for dinner on ‘Pub Street’ where the beer was cheap and Natalie managed to find a dish containing potato and cheese (not ingredients you come across often in Southeast Asia!).


Day 2

Preah Khan

Having taken the ‘Small Circuit’ tour the previous day, this morning we hired the same driver and set off on the ‘Grand Circuit’, which takes in different temples but didn’t seem noticeably grander (how could it be?). We zipped past Angkor Wat, in through Angkor Thom’s south gate and out again through its north before arriving at the temple of Preah Khan.

Thought to have been a Buddhist university employing 1,000 teachers, it held special significance because it is thought to be built on the site of a major battle won by the Khmer when they recaptured Angkor from their arch-rivals the Cham (a people whose heartland at the time was in modern-day Vietnam).

Buddhism and Hinduism have much in common, which is why we see so many Hindu references at the site of a Buddhist civilisation. One of the most interesting things about Angkor is that when much of it was built, under Jayavarman VII, the Khmer civilisation was in a period of transition from Hinduism to Buddhism.


Neak Pean

The next site was unique in being a water shrine, consisting of a cruciform pond arrangement with a central tower, itself situated in the middle of a great baray that has been recently refilled with water.


It was inspired by the mythical Himalayan lake Anavatapta, which is known for its healing powers and is the source of four great rivers.

Neak Pean is accessible via a long boardwalk to the centre of the baray with no fencing to keep you from falling in!


Ta Som

Another temple that has been left in the state in which it was discovered, Ta Som was referred to by the 12th century Khmer by the poetic name ‘Jewel of the Propitious White Elephant’.


East Mebon

This temple has little in the way of surrounding buildings because it was originally located in the middle of a huge 7.5 x 1.8 km baray some 5 metres deep. The baray is now dry and it is impossible on the ground to get a sense of what it used to be like, but if you look on satellite imagery you can still make out its outline.


Pre Rup

The final temple of our visit, Pre Rup was the State Temple of King Rajendravarman, who came a little later than Jayavarman VII.


By this point we had seen quite enough temples for our short time in Cambodia and it was time to start making our way back to the airport.

Visiting Angkor can be a slightly overwhelming experience on account of its sheer scale. But it must be one of the most awe-inspiring World Heritage Sites and one that could occupy a great deal of time if you had the luxury of several weeks there.

Although a more recent civilisation than the Egyptians and the Romans, it is still incredible to consider what these people built with the basic tools that would have been available during what we would call in Europe the Dark Ages. In fact what impressed me the most, on reflection, is not the temples themselves but the sheer scale of civil engineering required to dig out millions of cubic metres of reservoir for the grand, mysterious barays.

• 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