Tag Archives: World Heritage Sites

Ireland, Research and Knock Airport

Ireland 03

There is a simple pub quiz question that comes up regularly and which I always get wrong.  The question is ‘what is the nearest country to the United Kingdom’ and the answer of course is Southern Ireland or Eire but I always forget about the border with Northern Ireland and blurt out ‘France, it must be France’.

If the Scottish Nationalists ever get their way then there will be two correct answers to the question which is likely to cause a lot of bar-room arguments!

I suppose I have always been a bit hesitant about travelling in the British Isles because being English I have always been rather conscious that we are not going to win many popularity contests with our nearest neighbours.

A lot of Scottish people seem to hate us and the Scottish First Minister, the Anglophobe, Nicola Sturgeon, desperately wants a vote in favour of independence. Until quite recently the Welsh used to burn down our holiday homes and the last time I went there I got a speeding ticket which I am convinced was issued only on the basis that I had an English registered car.  So I was a little concerned about visiting a country who apparently regard the English responsible for all their recent disasters from the Irish Famine to the failure to qualify for the Football World Cup!

On a more positive note, although it is a thousand miles away or so, Gibraltar seems to like to retain its British connections even if this is motivated by indecent self-interest!

gibraltar-ape_1861379i

The British Isles are a group of islands off the north-western coast of continental Europe that consist of the islands of Great Britain, Ireland and over six thousand smaller islands. The term British Isles however is controversial in Ireland where there are objections to its usage due to the association of the word British which in terms of Irish history continues to be considered colonialist. The Government of Ireland does not recognise or use the term and it prefers the term Britain and Ireland as an alternative description.  Even the British Lions Rugby team is now rebranded as the British and Irish Lions.

The England Cricket Team has an Irish Captain who refuses to sing the National Anthem which to me means he is simply not eligible!  Previously there has been a Scottish captain, Mike Denness and a Welsh Captain, Tony Lewis who  didn’t have the same problem.  I would say to Eoin Morgan sing or you don’t play and get the appearance money!

Ireland Guiness

In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting. Most impressive is that Ireland is placed eighth in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top ten of the most highly developed countries in the World and before the recent economic crisis it used to be in the top five.  The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.

The economic crisis has had a negative effect on Ireland’s position in the European Happiness Index however and it is rated at only fourteenth out of thirty which is a very long way behind the United Kingdom but I was interested to see that in a recent poll in the Irish Times that Galway was voted the happiest place to be in Ireland and I was glad about that because that was where we were planning to go first.

Ireland has only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which, let’s be honest, is a rather poor performance and I would suggest that someone in Dublin needs to start travelling around and making some applications – Australia has got nineteen for goodness sake!  The country also needs to do something about its Blue Flag Beaches because it now only has seventy when a few years ago it had one hundred and forty-two!

Ireland Inch Beach

But some statistics continue to be impressive and Ireland remains the most successful nation in the Eurovision Song Contest, which with seven wins is higher than all other competitors so who really cares about the economic crisis anyway?

We arrived in Ireland (an hour late thanks to unannouced Ryanair flight rescheduling) at Knock Airport, or Ireland West Airport as it is now known and as we descended the aircraft steps the wind tugged at the buttons of our shirts and the rain stung our cheeks as though we were walking through a swarm of bees.

Knock Airport

It turns out that this is a most unlikely airport. The site, on a hill in boggy terrain that is often shrouded in dense fog, was thought by airport planning experts to be hopelessly unrealistic but was built following a long and controversial campaign by Monsignor James Horan who had a sort of evangelical business plan to bring pilgrims to the nearby religious site of the Knock Shrine (more about that later) and who convinced both the Irish Government and the European Union to fund the project.

Perhaps due to Devine Intervention it is now the fourth busiest airport in Ireland after Dublin, Shannon and Cork and we were happy about that because on our quest to visit all of Ireland this provided us with a gateway to the North West.

Knock Airport 1

Road Trip – Portimão, Carvoeiro, Praia Vale de Centianes and Silves

“The ancient handsome litter of the sea front had possessed its own significance, its vivacity and its charm.  A spirited collection of abandoned windlasses, the ribs of forgotten boats, the salt wasted, almost translucent gallows on which the fish had once been dried, the sand polished sculpture of half buried driftwood … was now abolished at a stroke”  –  Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’

On Wednesday the weather was still excellent so we decided to drive west to the secluded beaches all along the coast on the way to Portimão.

First we drove to the pretty little fishing village of Carvoeiro, which was stunningly beautiful, especially when viewed from the hills on either side of the town, so we walked all around it and from the cliffs we admired the village layered with white-washed villas and buildings, undulating in perfect harmony with the natural rocky landscape.

Carvoeiro Algarve Portugal

The beach was small but sufficiently spacious when there aren’t many people about to share it with and it was fringed with shabby seaside cafés,  inviting seafood restaurants and the homes of local fishermen whose colourful boats completed the picture postcard scene.

Before tourism this was a very small and intimate fishing village and in 1965 a foreign resident wrote about the place; “the mode of living remains essentially medieval”.  Well, in 1986 it was a bit more modern than that but still very quaint and although I have never been back I understand that now, thirty years on, it has lost any resemblance whatsoever to its modest origins.

Leaving  Carvoeiro we took the scenic coast road west that ran adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean along an orange ridge of rugged sandstone cliffs.  All along the route there were beaches and secluded bays and after a short while we stopped at Praia Vale de Centianes, which from an elevated position looked totally idyllic in a Robinson Crusoe sort of way.

We parked the car by a stairway but found that about half way down it had been blocked off by someone who had wedged a fishing boat into a rocky entrance gorge that completely prevented people from passing.  This wasn’t going to stop us however so we bypassed the obstruction by climbing down the cliff in a tricky little mountaineering manoeuvre before rejoining the steps, which wound endlessly down through the rocks until we reached an enclave surrounded on all sides by towering rocks.  At the bottom was a perfectly secluded beach, which we had all to ourselves and we laid out our towels and lay in the warm November sun.

Not long afterwards we found out why the steps were closed because the tide started to rush in quite quickly and the troubled turbulent sea was being funnelled in by the cliffs on both sides, which had the disturbing effect of intensifying the power of the waves.

Obviously the beach was quite dangerous in winter and the boat blockade was there for a good reason, which was to prevent foolish people like us from going down there.  The sea rushed in quite quickly so we gathered our possessions and made for the steps and by the time we had reached the boat the whole bay of previously golden sand was completely submerged.  That was a a bit too close for comfort so we decided that we wouldn’t risk any more deserted beaches and returned instead for an afternoon at Armação de Pera where we shared a beach with local men attending to their fishing nets and getting ready for work.

This was to be our final night in Portugal before we set off on the drive home so tonight we drove to the nearby town of Silves for an evening meal.  Silves was once the capital of the whole district that was still referred to as late as the nineteenth century as the “Kingdom of the Algarve” and standing proudly on a hill the thousand year old town is practically the last urban area before the mountains of southern Portugal rise up dramatically like an impenetrable wall behind it.

It was quiet tonight and didn’t look too promising until we found a pleasant little fish restaurant that was busy with local people and we interpreted this as a good sign.  A man dining alone could see that we were having some difficulty with interpreting the impenetrable menu and he offered us assistance with what little English he possessed and based on his recommendation we enjoyed a very tasty traditional fish of the day meal.

After dinner we drove back to Villa Estrella and had more beer and at some point in the evening there came the point where we had had obviously far too much because we decided that we were enjoying ourselves so much, the weather was so much better than expected and Anthony couldn’t bear to leave without saying goodbye to the girls from Leeds so we foolishly agreed that we could probably manage the drive back in two days instead of three and we would rather like to have an extra day in Portugal.

Fuelled by excess alcohol, common sense was completely abandoned, thrown into a bonfire of insanity and although Tony claimed to be running short of Portuguese cash we calculated that between us we had enough Escudos to support us for the additional day.  We were also encouraged because the map that we had, which to be fair was not an especially good one, suggested that the journey home was motorway all the way so this really shouldn’t be a problem at all!  How naïve we were and we had no idea how much trouble was coming our way!

And that was how we came to abandon our carefully made plans and spend a fourth day on the Algarve.  We drove again to Albufeira and Richard and I looked around the back streets once more and Anthony and Tony walked the entire length of the beaches, several times, looking for the girls from Leeds.  In the afternoon we walked along a path on the top of the high cliffs to São João with spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean, which was a brilliant blue under the strong winter sunshine.

Later we took up position at a table overlooking the beach and quite simply, just wasted the rest of the day away.

Anthony found the girls he was looking for and I think they were a bit surprised to see him on account of the fact that by about this time we should have been well on our way to Madrid.  He arranged to meet them that evening and then we all returned to the villa to pack our bags so that we could get a good early start the next day.

We returned the empty bottles to the lady at the shop and again she invited us to buy as much bread as we liked and she looked rather disappointed when we explained, as best we could, that we were going home tomorrow so didn’t need any.

I felt bad about that and I have always wondered if she managed to sell the additional supplies that she had obviously bought in especially for us.

Have you ever recklessly changed your travel plans?

Morocco, Top Travel Tips – The Royal Palaces

Continuing my short series on Top Tips for Morocco. number two is the Royal Palaces…

Wandering aimlessly around the maze of streets in Marrakech we were looking for the Saadian Tombs which the guidebook said shouldn’t be missed but could be difficult to find.

First of all we discovered that it was completely right on the second point and after we had walked around the outside of the Kasbah Mosque we missed the entrance and took an unnecessary detour into some back streets and lanes which took us nowhere in particular.

After all the walking we were feeling hungry now so while we consulted the guide book maps we found a café with pavement tables and had a bottle of water (a bottle of water!) and a chicken kebab snack that was cooked on a grill on the pavement which tasted good even though it was complimented by exhaust fumes and the smell of horse manure from a carriage parked up close by.

The helpful waiter showed us on the map where we would find the tombs so after we had finished eating we paid up, left an appropriate tip and moved on.

Marrakech Sadian tombs

The reason that we missed the site was that the entrance is squeezed in between the back of the Mosque and a narrow row of kiosks and having found it we paid our ten dirham entrance fee and walked through a very narrow alley in between two tall buildings where there was barely room to pass the visitors that were coming out.

It turns out that the Saadian Tombs were sealed up in the sixteenth century by a jealous ruler, Moulay Ismail, who resented the wealth of his predecessor, Ahmed al Mansour, and who set about dismantling anything he had built or acquired.  So successfully was it hidden away that it wasn’t rediscovered until the 1920’s when an inquisitive French administrator overcome with curiosity opened up the entrance and found this treasure hidden away from public view half in ruins and completely forgotten.  It would be nice to think that there may still be treasures like this just hidden away somewhere but I suppose with modern mapping techniques like Google Earth this is most unlikely.

There has been a lot of restoration at the site and the two main mausoleums have been returned to their original state when they were built five hundred years ago to contain Mansour’s own tomb.  The graves of over a hundred Saadian princes and royal household members are scattered around the garden and the courtyard most with gravestones brilliantly tiled and elaborately inscribed.

It was only a small site and it didn’t take long to complete the visit even though we had to compete with several large tour groups to see everything there was to see.

The site that we were heading for next was the Badii Palace and for such a big place the entrance was once again tucked into a narrow lane which we only found after asking several times for directions.  Asking direction in Marrakech always carries the potential issue of being offered an unwanted chaperone and guide and a refusal often leads to misinformation so this turned out to be a lengthy process.

The Palace is in ruins now but reputedly took armies of labourers and craftsmen twenty-five years to build and when it was completed it was said to be amongst the most magnificent palaces ever constructed with walls and ceilings encrusted with gold and precious jewels and in the middle a massive pool with an island flanked by four sunken gardens.

Sadly the magnificent building survived for barely a hundred years before the Saadian dynasty was overthrown and replaced by the Alouites and the conquering Sultan, Moulay Ismail, came along and stripped the place bare at just about the same time as he was sealing up the Saadian Tombs.

Moulay Ismaïl was by all accounts an interesting character and  a man of extreme excesses.  It is said that he personally killed over twenty-five thousand men but to make up for this he is alleged to have fathered eight hundred and eighty-nine children. This is widely considered the record number of offspring for any man throughout history that can actually be verified.  It is estimated that to father that number of children (allowing for failed attempts of course) he would have had to have sex with an average of 1.2 women every day for sixty years which is something that I can only imagine was a real chore!

When he wasn’t slaughtering or shagging he was building himself a new capital city at Meknès in the north of Morocco and it took twelve years to dismantle the Badii Palace and remove the treasures and relocate them and all that is left now are the stripped red mud bricks.

We wanted to see the replacement Palace and that took us to the city of Meknès.  Being unexpectedly allowed into this place we walked through a series of courts and chambers decorated in bright yellow tiles and spiralling stucco work. Behind the courts is the sanctuary that holds the remains of Moulay Ismail and his family members and after we had taken off our shoes at the door we were invited into the mausoleum but not the Mosque.

After the mausoleum visit we went next to the Heri es Souani, the site of Moulay Ismail’s stables. We paid the reasonable entrance fee and were allocated a guide.  He asked if we understood French or English, we told him English and he looked at us with a face that said ‘That’s a shame because I do this tour in French’ and he set off regardless on his Gallic commentary to our appropriately blank faces.

He took us through a remarkable system of high-vaulted chambers with a series of storerooms and granaries.   In the time of Moulay Ismail, these were used to hold provisions in a case of a drought or a siege and behind these chambers were the stables for seven-thousand horses.  That’s an awful lot of horses and an awful lot of equine shit to shovel so there were living quarters over the top for the hundreds of grooms and labourers that would have been required to support an operation such as this.

At the completion of the tour the guide said goodbye but rather like a barnacle attached to a rock stayed close by.  We set to walk off but then suddenly he seemed to remember that he could speak a bit of English after all, he coughed an attract attention sort of cough, held out his hand and asked if we had forgotten something.  We had of course and we rifled our pockets for some loose change to give the man his deserved tip.

Anyway, don’t just take my word for it, I recommend that you pop across to visit this post for another accompanied tour – nareszcieurlop.wordpress.com

Heri es Souani Meknes Morocco

Turkey, Preparation and Arrival

Turkey Postcard 3

The end of the Summer usually means the Greek Islands for our travels but this year we were breaking with tradition and although close by to the Dodecanese we were visiting mainland Turkey instead.

The flight to Bodrum was with Monarch airlines and this reminded me that my first ever flight was with Monarch when I went to Sorrento in Italy in June 1976.

Shortly before take off this time the pilot introduced himself as Captain Rupert Mattox and I couldn’t help thinking that there is something reassuring about a pilot called Rupert because it’s a fair bet that he has been to Public School and served in the RAF.  What you don’t want is a pilot called Wayne or Brandon because that sort of introduction is rather like seeing a single magpie – a bit of a worry.

Briefly though now, back to 1976 because on that occasion the pilot didn’t introduce himself by name until after we had safely landed when he revealed his name to be Captain Skidmore – I kid you not.  I was travelling with my dad and he thought that was so funny, so funny he told the story for the rest of his life.

00 Monarch Airlines

It was late when we arrived and quite dark but the prearranged transport was there to meet us and took us on the one and a half hour journey to our accommodation in Altinkum.  We found the place and then climbed three flights of stairs to the top of the apartment block.  It was dark in the hallway and there were light switches which were on a timer and had an annoying habit of going out too soon to be completely useful.  The light switches were placed next to the doorbells to the apartments and Kim managed to push everyone during our ascent bringing residents to open their doors and to several apologies for disturbing people but I suspect this happens quite a lot.

After settling in we went in search of a shop and on the way down the stairs Kim managed to press most of the door bells again.  There was a shop next door so we bought some beer and wine and some snacking food and returned to the apartment and Kim managed to press the door bells for a third time so I was glad when we reached the top and got inside and locked the door so that we couldn’t annoy anyone anymore this evening.  We weren’t going out again because we were unsure of our location and anyway it was getting late so we spent an hour or so on the balcony and reviewed our plans and itinerary.

In preparation for travel I had carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.

Turkey is the thirty-fifth largest country in the World, out of two hundred and six (give or take a few disputed states) and is one of five European/Asian transcontinental states (the others are Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kazakhstan).

Turkey is placed sixty-first in the Human Development Index which means that it is categorised as having high human development in an index that ranks countries by data composed from life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.  It is sixty-first in the OECD Better Life Index and forty-fourth in the Happy Planet Index which is three places behind the United Kingdom but way ahead of the United States which is as low down as one hundred and fifth.

Turkey Souvenir Shopping Bag

Turkey has thirteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites but the chances of visiting more than one or two was very remote because they are spread evenly right across the country.  Like Greece and Egypt it has two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and due to their proximity to Altinkum it seemed quite likely that we would be able to see them both while we were here.

The country has seven thousand two hundred kilometres of coastline and an impressive three hundred and seventy nine Blue Flag Beaches which according to the Blue Flag website means that this is the second highest after Spain.  There is some dispute about this however because although the website is quite clear that neighbouring Greece (having carelessly lost thirty-three awards between 2013 and 2014) now has only three hundred and sixty and has dropped from second to third place, the Visit Greece website stubbornly claims four hundred and eight.  I think the Blue Flag website is probably correct!

My final benchmark is always the  Eurovision Song Contest and Turkey has taken part since 1975, it won the competition in 2003 but it has come last three times and on two occasions didn’t score any points at all.  It pulled out of the competition in 2013 because it disagreed with some voting rule changes.  Sour grapes it seems!

As we sat under the stars trying to make sense of the geography we knew that this was going to be a different sort of travel experience for us because we were going to be based in the same place for two whole weeks something that we hadn’t done for ten years or so because normally we like a few nights in a place and then move on so this fortnight was going to require some adjustment and before bed we considered the guide books and the travel company brochures and drew up a short list of places that we would probably like to go and visit.

Turkey Postcard 1 (2)

My Personal A to Z of Spain, U is for UNESCO

In 1954, the government of Egypt announced that it was to build the Aswan Dam, a project that proposed to flood a valley containing priceless treasures of ancient civilizations. Despite opposition from Egypt and Sudan, UNESCO launched a worldwide safeguarding campaign, over fifty countries contributed and the Abu Simbel and Philae temples were taken apart, moved to a higher location, and put back together piece by piece.

Building on this international success the United States then came up with the idea of combining cultural conservation with nature conservation and a White House conference in 1965 called for a World Heritage Trust to preserve ‘the world’s superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature developed similar proposals in 1968 and they were presented in 1972 to the United Nations conference on Human Environment in Stockholm. A single text was agreed and the ‘Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage’ was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on 16th November 1972.

Roman Theatre Merida

Today there are eight hundred and seventy-eight listed sites and it isn’t easy to get on the list and to do so a nomination must satisfy impressively difficult criteria which in summary consist of cultural criteria:

to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius; to exhibit an important interchange of human values; to bear a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition; to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or landscape; to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement; to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance,

and natural criteria:

to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance; to be outstanding examples representing major stages of Earth’s history, to be outstanding examples representing significant ecological and biological processes; to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-site conservation of biological diversity.

It is hardly surprising that with forty-seven listed sites Italy has the most but for those who think of Spain as nothing more than a country of over developed Costas with concrete condominiums, marinas and golf courses it might be a shock to learn that Spain has forty-three sites and is second highest in the exclusive list.

Each new trip to Spain includes visits to World Heritage Sites so when I counted them up I was interested to discover that out of the forty-three sites on the UNESCO list (second only to Italy with forty-seven) I have now been to twenty and that is nearly half of them.

Philip IV and the Palacio Real

In 2005 I went to Barcelona in Catalonia and saw the works of Antoni Gaudi, Palau de la Música Catalana and the Hospital de Sant Pau. Then in 2008 I saw the Historic Centre of Cordoba, the Caves of Altamira in Cantabria, the Old Town and Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella and the Alcázar and Archivo de Indias in Seville. In 2009 in the motoring holiday around Castilian cities it was the Old Town of Segovia and its Roman Aqueduct, the Walled Town of Cuenca, the Historic City of Toledo and the Old Town of Ávila. This trip in 2011 added Cáceres, Mérida and Aranjuez and also Trujillo which for the time being is only on the tentative list.

   

Even before I knew anything about World Heritage Sites it turns out that I have visited two more in the days of my beach type holidays. Although, to be absolutely fair, when I went to these places neither of them were yet on the list. In 1988 I holidayed on the island of Ibiza which was accepted onto the list in 1999 in recognition of its biodiversity and culture and the following year I went to Tenerife and took a cable car ride to the top of Mount Tiede, a national park that was accepted to the list in 2007.

Even though they weren’t World Heritage Sites at the time I visited them I am still going to count them but the final two might be a bit dubious – but anyway here goes. In 1984 while driving back through Spain from Portugal I drove with friends through the city of Burgos which was accepted in that year because of its Cathedral and in Galicia in 2008 while visiting Santiago de Compostela I managed to drive over parts of the Pilgrim Route, which exists on the list separately from the old city itself.