Tag Archives: religion

• 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.

• 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.

• 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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• 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.