Tag Archives: world heritage site

• 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.

• City of Graz – Historic Centre and Schloss Eggenberg

Visit: 4th/5th April 2017

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Graz – Austria’s second largest city – sits 150 km southwest of the capital. We travelled between the two via the Semmering Railway and spent one night in Graz after three nights in Vienna. After checking into a hotel near the centre of town we caught one of the city’s many trams to the suburbs, amongst which is located the Schloss Eggenberg.

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Although I had timed our visit to fall just after the building reopened for the spring its interior was unfortunately closed off because of an inconsiderate film crew. Graz is on the UNESCO list for its Baroque buildings, of which Eggenberg is apparently an example. It is described as the finest residence in Styria, the second largest of Austria’s nine states. But, as I say, we weren’t able to go inside and see what all the fuss was about.

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So we caught the tram back into the centre just as the heavens opened and the city was deluged with rain. Lacking umbrellas, we just rode until the downpour stopped, which meant a slightly longer-than-expected walk back to our hotel.

IMG_2347It meant we got to see more of Graz’s historic centre with its ornately-decorated medieval buildings. On reflection, it reminds me of three previously-visited World Heritage Sites:

  • The rebuilt historic centre of Warsaw – for the decorated buildings in what I’m going to describe as ‘autumnal’ colours
  • The city of Luxembourg – for its rapid changes in elevation and its prominent sleepy river adding to a pervasive sense of dampness.
  • Bern – for its squat pillars and arches – as in the ‘Swarovski’ building, above. And for being a fellow four-letter city.

About that elevation: the city is built on mostly flat ground around the river, but there is a steep promontory rising high in the centre. At the top is a clock tower, so the following morning we climbed the many steps to get a look at the view.

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The alien blob in the picture above is in fact not an apparition but a hyper-modernist arts centre. It looks hideously out of place, but I rather like it. Graz has always been an architecturally adventurous city, and it has clearly decided not to preserve itself in aspic – as is understandably (and rightly) the temptation at many World Heritage Sites.

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Shortly before leaving for the return journey I tracked down a local sight: this unusual double-spiral staircase in the regional government building, the Burg. There isn’t any practical purpose to building a staircase like this but it was a good way to show off the area’s wealth and impress visitors. We were certainly impressed by it, but were soon out of time. A relaxing trip on the Semmering Railway returned us to Vienna, where we stopped at the Belvedere Palace en route to the airport, and then home.

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• Semmering Railway

Visit: 4th/5th April 2017

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The Semmering Railway is one of a handful of railways listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the first one I have had the pleasure to ride upon. Travelling between the Austrian cities of Vienna and Graz we felt like Michael Portillo on a Great Continental Railway Journey.

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The railway made it on to the list because it is regarded as one of the greatest feats of engineering from the early days of steam. Built over a six year period in the mid-19th century, it is a mountain railway whose purpose was to cross the Austrian foothills of the Alps.

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The Semmering Railway winds for 41km across 145 bridges and through 14 tunnels. This was of course a time before tunnel-boring machines, so each of them had to be excavated with picks and explosives – sometimes at great cost in terms of lives.

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It isn’t cheap to travel on. We paid something like €120 for two return tickets, which was far more than I had been quoted online. So this is probably the most expensive WHS I have ever visited, though to be fair the journey did take two hours each way, in total.

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There are 57 railwaymen’s houses at intervals beside the track, formerly inhabited by signallers. These have been preserved in order to keep some of the original character of the railway. The trains, however, are not original – the Semmering is a mainline route served by modern rolling stock. Since there is little signage and no passenger announcements, most people would be oblivious to the fact that they are travelling along a WHS.

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In terms of similarities, this WHS can be viewed as an symbolising an evolution from the transportation method represented by Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Wales – built prior to the introduction of the railway, in 1805, when canals were at the cutting edge method of cargo distribution. Since railways can handle a moderate incline they were far more practical for getting around in hilly terrain, and the Austro-Hungarian economy was able to benefit as a result.

• Palace and Gardens of Schönbrunn

Visit: 3rd April 2017

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Schönbrunn, located in southwest Vienna, is a former royal palace used by the Habsburg emperors. The German language has the word Gesamtkunstwerk, which means a ‘total work of art’, or something that uses a number of different art forms to make up an overall experience. The term is commonly associated with Wagner, but it is also applied to the palace, gardens and zoo here at Schönbrunn. The colour of the palace is called ‘Maria Theresa yellow’ after the only female ruler the empire ever had.

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We set aside a day on our Austria trip to visit the site, catching a bus across town from our hotel. Entry is quite steep, at something like €18 per person for a self-guided audio tour. The palace was built in the 18th century in the Baroque style on the site of a hunting lodge that had been destroyed in the final Turkish siege of Vienna. This was as far as the Ottomans ever got to invading northern Europe – which was worryingly close for comfort to those in Germany and France.

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Most of the rooms were preserved living quarters, with only one room (the Great Gallery, above) really impressing us aesthetically. Here Mozart used to entertain the royal court, and it was also the site of the Congress of Vienna – in which Europe’s new borders were decided at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. After seeing something like 17 rooms our tour ended and we headed out into the grounds. Although nicely landscaped, they could do more with the gardens which, as you can see in the top photo, are not exactly bursting with colour. Also, the fountain was completely dry!

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We had been long looking forward to visiting the world’s oldest zoo, which sits in the grounds of Schönbrunn. Entry is not included with the palace ticket, but was reasonable at around €12. The zoo retains some of the old enclosures that were used in the past but which are not considered suitable for animals today. They stand next to the more modern enclosures and the contrast is notable. Below is a bear cage used from the 1890s to 1930s.

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The most exciting animals in our opinion were the rhinos, polar bears and sea lions. There is also an interesting giant ant colony installation in which a food source is separated from the nest by several metres of perspex piping, allowing visitors to see the ants travelling back and forth to collect leaves.

• Historic Centre of Vienna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vienna Town Hall

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

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

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

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• 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.