Blog: WHS #635: Pico Island
Out of the 9 main islands of the Azores, Pico Island may be the prettiest one. Its lush green flora strongly contrasts with the abundant black lava stone that is present along its coasts. Its iconic stratovolcano peak is a landmark in the Azores part of the Atlantic Ocean. And there’s a WHS as well: the Vineyard Landscape of Pico Island comprises two narrow strips of land along the coast, where grapes are grown on a bottom of solid lava. Within stone fences, grapes were traditionally grown between the rocks of the lava stone - without soil. This part of Pico was unsuitable for ordinary farming.
The northern part of this WHS lies right next to the airport of Pico, so it’s a really nice welcome when you fly in. The plots neatly divided by walls of basaltic blocks are a memorable sight. I stayed for 3 nights near the other stretch of vineyards though, at Madalena. There’s a great walk through the WHS landscape that you can do in that area. It starts in Porto Calhau. I did not rent a car on Pico (also not on Terceira), and got around easily by hiking, one-way taxi rides and the occasional public bus. To get to Porto Calhau I took a taxi. The driver was very much aware about the starting point of the hike, it’s very popular and well-signposted.
The walk starts on the paved road along the coast. It's a minor road, I encountered little traffic except for some day trippers who were not deterred by the sharp rocks to swim in the sea or lay down on the rocks sunbathing. The hiking route is 6.9 kilometres long and takes 2 hours. It is fairly flat (an uncommon pleasure at the Azores), only after a kilometre or so you have to do a half-loop around a hill where the road goes up and down. In this zone there is a lot of Azorean heather, and I noticed the first plants in lots separated by walls of loose stones. That way they suffer less from the influence of sea and wind.
After tackling the hill, one arrives at an enormous open plain. It is full of gray stonewalled fields (currais) in which the vines lie. There is no shelter here, at least not for hikers. Although there was a nice breeze, I felt the sun gradually starting to burn my face, arms and calves. I wonder how tough it will be when it is your job to pick the grapes here. Huts made of loose stone are available now and then to protect the farmers and the pickers. Unfortunately for the hikers, I found the entrance gates to them closed.
Turning off from the paved road, the trail continues on a gravel road first and later on a narrow stone path through the 'fields'. I did not meet any other hikers, nor farmers - I wonder what the right season is, but I did not find any grapes on the plants that I saw. At the end of the walk you will approach a bright red windmill, a fairly new construction built after a traditional model. After that it's only a short walk to the village of Madalena. Conveniently the trail ends at a seafood restaurant.
At only 20 ‘ticks’ from our community members, this is still a quite obscure WHS at the same level of difficulty as Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi , Caral Supe or the Pyu Ancient Cities. I enjoyed my 3 days on Pico, although like the rest of the Azores it is a bit sedate and old-fashioned. Good if you’re looking for some quiet days, less so if you’re an avid traveller that wants to see and do something different every day.
Published 15 July 2017Leave a comment
Blog: Mid-Atlantic Ridge
The Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) has been part of the Tentative list of Portugal since this year. At this geographical location three tectonic plates have been moving away from each other and the void has been filled by magma from the inner earth. The MAR actually extends from the Antarctic to the Arctic, but this possible future nomination only comprises the Portuguese Azores section. It replaces the earlier single tentative sites Algar do Carvão and Furna do Enxofre, and now seems to incorporate all inhabited and uninhabited islands plus the terrestrial waters of the Plateau of the Azores.
It is not difficult to see or experience geological features of the MAR during a visit to the Azores. My stay at the three islands of Terceira, Pico and Faial provided numerous up-and-close views of results of volcanic events that took place here. One of the main tourist attractions of the island of Terceira for example is Algar do Carvão, a “volcanic chimney”. While I found tourism very low-key in general on the Azores and local costs only a fraction of those of the mainland, entrance to Algar do Carvão costs 10 EUR. For that sum you’ll have to descend a long flight of stairs, until the bottom of the volcano where there is a lake created by rainwater and stalactites/stalagmites on the walls. I did not find it very spectacular.
On the island of Faial the site of Capelinhos can be visited. The landscape here is the result of a submarine volcanic eruption that took place in 1957. It resulted in a bit of additional land for Faial island, and the coverage of part of the lighthouse and dwellings of local whalers under lava. The eruption was actually of a similar kind to the one that created Surtsey in Iceland 6 years later, but – the TWHS description concludes surly – volcanologists coined the term “surtseyan” instead of “capeliniana”. No trace of that legend is mentioned in the Surtsey AB evaluation by the way.
Another feature typical of the Azores is connected to the MAR as well: the occurrence of high numbers of “migratory pelagic megafauna” (i.e.: whales). They seem to be attracted to the feeding opportunities at the chains of seamounts. Every respectable town on the islands has its whale & dolphin watching outfitter, taking tourists out to open sea in small boats for a couple of hours. I did such a trip from Madalena on Pico island.
Almost 10 years ago I had been on a similar trip from Peninsula Valdes in Argentina. The conclusion of both trips turned out the the same: it’s very hard to get good views of the whales, as they are submerged under water for most of the time. During this trip from Madalena the captain of the boat was quite good at predicting which side of the boat the beasts would pop up to breathe. But I still did not succeed in taking any good pictures. The dolphins proved to be more cooperative.
As the MAR is a truly global phenomenon, we even already have a Connection about it featuring 4 WHS. It is weird that Portugal goes it alone in pursuing a nomination, although talks have been going on since 2007 about an international serial nomination. Iceland seems to be the obvious choice for a MAR nomination, this was even suggested at the evaluation of Surtsey.
Published 6 July 2017Leave a comment
Blog: WHS #634: Angra do Heroismo
The Central Zone of the Town of Angra do Heroismo in the Azores was a relatively early WHS (1983). As no nomination files of that period have been made public and the ICOMOS evaluations at the time were concise, the ‘Why’ of the nomination and inscription isn’t well-documented. The only thing that stands out is that Angra was an important port-of-call during the maritime explorations of the 15th and 16th centuries. How this is linked to tangible elements in Angra itself is rather unclear. Maybe just ‘being there’ half-way between Europe, Equatorial Africa and the West Indies was enough.
Angra is located on the island of Terceira, one of the 9 islands of the Azores. To get there I used the weekly direct flight by charter company TUI from Amsterdam to Terceira. My fellow passengers on the full flight were mostly Dutch senior citizens. The flight to Terceira airport took only 3 hours and 40 minutes, and afterwards I immediately hired a taxi to take me to Angra where I was to stay for 3 nights. My first impression of the town was that it seems colourful and festive (possibly related to the weeklong Sao Jao festival), and not overly touristy.
It was still way too early to check-in to my hotel, so I decided to start with the 1.5 hour walking tour of the town center that is described in the Bradt travel guide. It connects several churches and other points of (low) interest such as an embroidery museum. Walking Angra’s streets is exhausting, as the town is plastered on to a hill with steep ascents. Among the town’s main features are its brightly painted buildings in various colours. It resembles the baroque towns of Brazil, but here in Angra it all seems brand new. And in a way it is – some 70% of the buildings in the historic center were demolished in a big earthquake in 1980. Since then they have all been reconstructed.
Besides the pretty facades most of the buildings aren’t very spectacular on the inside (or aren’t accessible at all). The one that I enjoyed the most was the Convento de Sao Francisco, which now houses the City Museum. The convent’s church and the tableaux of azulejos on the second floor are just great. Another aspect not to miss is the walk through the Duke of Terceira’s Garden up to Memorial Hill – from there you will have the great views and photo opportunities of the bay of Angra and the remains of the two fortresses that once guarded it.
I stayed overnight in the Posada de Sao Sebastiao, located in one of the two main fortresses around Angra harbour and thus an essential part of the WHS. It still looks impressive when you walk up there. It is a bit of an empty shell however. Directly behind the gate the modern hotel starts, which isn’t really worth the considerable sum they charge per night.
One of the ‘issues’ with Angra is that it isn’t a real port anymore. Sure there is a small marina for private yachts, but the lively atmosphere of an active port is totally lacking. It was a safe harbour during the Age of Exploration, the island of Terceira being protected by dozens of fortresses. Many churches and a hospital were built to take care of the sailors passing by that were in need of a rest. Pirates hovered around to try to capture a booty. Ship wrecks and anchors still can be found in Angra’s former harbour. Nowadays there’s even an underwater archaeology park where divers can have a look at those.
Published 1 July 2017Leave a comment
Blog: Wooden tserkva of Zhovkva
The Wooden Tserkvas in the Polish part of the Carpathians have already been well-covered by the reviewers active on this website. I visited 6 of them myself in 2015. However, 8 of the inscribed tserkvas (churches) lie just across the border in Ukraine. Noone wrote a report on one of those yet. As I had half a day to spare after visiting L’viv, I hired a taxi to take me to the wooden Holy Trinity Church in Zhovkva – part of the Later Halych Group of the inscribed Ukrainian tserkvas.
Zhovkva is a town of 13,000 inhabitants, about 30km northwest of L’viv. The drive takes just half an hour and doesn’t bring very remarkable scenery. The roads out of L’viv are potholed, many of the streets leading from the main streets into villages are still unpaved. Inspired by the Polish churches which lie in sometimes idyllic rural settings, I hoped to get a glimpse of the Ukrainian countryside by going to Zhovkva. It didn’t turn out to be that way however.
The Holy Trinity Church lies beside the main road that leads from L’viv to Zhovkva city center. I had brought a print with me including the name of the church in Ukrainian and a picture of it, just to be sure. But it cannot be overlooked, and is even signposted in English with the same type of bilingual signs that point to the various sights in L’viv. It looks a bit out of place in its suburban setting, but the specific type of wooden construction and good state of conservation made me glad that I had taken this sidetrip. The church dates from 1720.
I would have been reasonably content admiring the tripartite church from the outside, but the icing on the cake of course would be to get in. Just as with the Polish churches, I found a phone number attached to the front door to call for someone with the key. Fortunately I did not have to ask my hesitantly German-speaking driver to make the phone call for me in Ukrainian: the door was open and two men were already inside – probably cleaning away after Sunday’s service. The building is nowadays used by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church.
The lay-out of the church is quite similar to that of the other tserkvas: one enters via the narthex (featuring a bunch of brochures and what may be a baptismal font), reaches the nave annex choir and it all ends at the iconostasis. There isn’t space for many churchgoers: five rows of benches are placed on each side. However, this tserkva has a choir loft worthy of a much larger church. This is all decorated with many icons, paintings and the lovely iconostasis - “The interior furnishings survive intact, offering the best example of the integral interior design of an 18th-century tserkva”, according to the nomination file. Odd addition to this wooden structure is the white brick sacristy, which also dates from the 18th century.
After a while the priest, who had been working in the sacristy behind the iconostasis, came to greet me. He asked whether I was Polish – most tourists that come here are. Unfortunately he didn’t speak more than a word or two in English and German, but he was obviously proud of his little church. The written Unesco inscription certificate has been prominently nailed to one of the walls, amidst the paintings of saints.
Published 10 June 2017Leave a comment
Responses to Wooden tserkva of Zhovkva
nan (10 June 2017)
Went there, too, and also was able to enter. They open before services.
There are frequent busses from Lviv, so no need for a driver. The town itself was also nice.
Blog: WHS #633: L'viv
The Historic Centre of L’viv presents an eclectic mix of architectural and artistic highlights of both Eastern European and Western origin. I stayed there for 2 nights during the long Pentecost weekend. The city is very popular with Polish tourists – the border is only an hour away – and has a lively atmosphere with cafés, terraces and street performers. Cost levels are very low, they are comparable to those in Belarus which I visited last year and a fraction (25-30%) of those in Western Europe. It is easy to navigate in L’viv as signs around town are in English as well: a souvenir from the Euro 2012 football championships.
L'viv has traditionally been a trading city, and has been part of the Kingdom of Poland (until 1772) and Austria-Hungary (until 1918). It attracted different populations that lived in their own communities - from Armenians to Jews, and from Ukrainians to Germans and Hungarians. Reminders of this multicultural history can still be found, though most of them have only been revived since post-Soviet times. Much of the buildings that one sees nowadays around town date back to ca. 1900, and subsequently there is a lot of Art Nouveau.
The city has no exceptional highlights that would warrant a WH listing on their own and it lacks a certain prettiness that for example attracts the tourist masses to a town like Cesky Krumlov, but there is a bunch of sights that are worth seeing anyway. The Armenian Cathedral for example should not be missed. Its multicolour interior is vastly different from the usually sober Armenian churches that I have seen around the world. The facial expressions on the wall paintings (also dating from around 1900?) are odd to say the least.
Further to the north lies the Opera, a neo-renaissance building from 1901 that could be at home in Paris. Nearby is the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum. It still seems to adhere to the communist manual for museums (an elderly lady is present in every room), but the collection should not be overlooked. It mostly consists of late medieval and 16th-17th century icons that were removed from churches in the L'viv region. Even a few full iconostases are present. The quality of the icons is exquisite, and there are explanations in English.
The main square (Rysnok Square) has a number of interesting 17th century merchants' houses. In one of them lies "the Italian courtyard" - the city's most romantic place, where photographers were busy capturing bridal couples when I visited. In the southeast of the center lies the former synagogue (only some ruins are left) and the Greek-Catholic Bernardine church with its fortifications.
The L’viv WHS consists of two locations: besides the city center as described above, there’s also St. George Cathedral which lies some 2 km to the west. It is the main church of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. The yellow baroque and rococo style building lies on a hill. It was busy when I arrived: a wedding ceremony was going on. Apparently Sunday is a popular day to marry in Ukraine, because the next couple was already waiting outside. I was able to get inside anyway via a side entrance. Like the other churches that I visited in L'viv, there are many banners depicting saints and the Ukrainian national colours. St. George, killing the dragon, seems to be the most popular saint of the city.
Looking back at the many small and larger churches that I visited in L’viv they are mostly Catholic in some kind of denomination (I did not enter a Orthodox church, although 32% of the population belongs to that faith). The proximity to Poland and the long shared history with the Polish people will be the cause of that. The popular Polish pope John Paul II is revered here very much as well.
Published 4 June 2017Leave a comment
Blog: WHS #632: Telc
I think the WHS of Telč will defeat me – can I really write 500 words about this over-commercialized market place?
The historic center of Telč consists of a castle and a triangular marketplace, both of which originate from the Renaissance. Most striking is the series of original houses at the square, built in stone at the end of the 16th century after a fire had destroyed their wooden predecessors. In the 17th century, baroque facades and gables were added to several of them.
Not a lot of people from the general travel audience will have heard from Telč. But tourists do come here in large numbers: upon entering the town by car you will be directed to one of the major parking lots around the old center. There are ample parking spaces for buses, and the parking has to be paid for.
From the parking it is only a few minutes walk to the city's main attraction: the market square. It is a very elongated square, approximately triangular in shape. On all three sides there is a row of colourful buildings with arcades. They are all in different colours and with various types of gables. The square itself isn’t especially pretty, unlike for example the Grand Place in Brussels or the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Maybe because it isn’t fully enclosed – it opens out to 5 roads.
In almost every review of the Telc market square on this website or at Tripadvisor you will read about the eyesore of the place: the center of the square is literally filled with parked cars and larger vehicles, blocking close views of the surrounding buildings. Parking actually has been allowed here only since 10 years or so, one wonders why they have made that decision. It also seems totally unnecessary given the many adjoining streets and parking lots. The view was even more obscured this Saturday by a bunch of haphazardly positioned market stalls, sporting commercial logos. It amazes me that so far no remark about this issue has been made in the State of Conservation reports concerning this WHS.
In a far corner of the square lies the “chateau”. This is not a medieval type castle such as in Cesky Krumlov, but a more palatial one dating from the Renaissance and designed under supervision of Italian artists. I wasn’t in the mood for a tour with a tour guide and a large group again (which is the only way to get inside). But the building itself, the courtyard and the garden can be admired for free and are well worth it.
The verdict (5/10):
I spent about 2 hours in Telč, including time for consuming a hearty and cheap lunch with the locals at the Švejk restaurant. The facades of the buildings aligning the square are indeed beautiful, but I couldn’t really enjoy them because of the obstructed views and the lack of information on display on site. This website has some more background on their origins.
Word count = 500
Published 20 May 2017Leave a comment
Responses to WHS #632: Telc
Philip Wharmby, Bury GB (29 June 2017)
I was there in 1997, a charming place the. We wondered why there were so few tourists at such an architectural gem
Blog: WHS #631: Cesky Krumlov
During my quick dash into South Czechia last week (3 WHS in 2 days) I stayed overnight in Cesky Krumlov. It’s perfect for that, as everyone seems to rent out rooms and there are restaurants to every taste. I arrived around 1 pm on Friday afternoon and left again at 10 am on Saturday morning. By that time I had seen most of the small historic center.
As it was raining on Friday, I decided to go to the town’s museums first. The Egon Schiele Art Centrum is an exhibition centre dedicated to modern art, named after the expressionist Egon Schiele who lived in Cesky Krumlov at the beginning of the 20th century. I knew of Schiele from my Art History study at the Open University, where his distorted portraits adorn the "Expressionism" handbook (a course that I failed twice, and gave up on).
Schiele was eventually chased out of Cesky Krumlov because he would let young girls pose naked for him. There is not much of his work on display here (it has very high value), most of it is in the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful art exhibition centre. I enjoyed the current exhibition of the works of the Czech Pavel Brazda especially.
Due to the still pouring rain I hurried on to the castle, where I bought a ticket for the first available guided tour. Unfortunately I did not really pay attention: there are several kinds of tickets for sale, and I really wanted to go to the castle theater which apparently is very beautiful. However, together with around 40 other tourists, I ended up in the palace quarters. Rarely interesting, and no exception here - only the many stuffed bears used as carpets are remarkable. The castle owners have always kept bears in the castle moat. Two supposedly still are there, but they were not "on show" when I visited probably because of the cold.
The most beautiful hall of the tour lies at the end: the Masquerade Hall, with painted masked party guests on all walls. No pictures are allowed inside the castle unfortunately - the reason given here is that the tours would take too long if everyone had to snap his or her perfect shot!
The next morning the sun was shining at last, and I toured the town with my camera. From the various bridges there are beautiful views of the castle. The castle is so overwhelming that it looks too big for the small town centre. I did a full loop in an hour "uphill", through all the courtyards of the castle, across the white-blue mantel bridge and past the gardens. You eventually end up at a bridge at the other end of the town. This is a nice walk in the early morning, though I certainly was not the only one to enjoy it.
Cesky Krumlov is really flooded by mainly Asian tourists, in the middle of summer it has to be terrible. Its medieval street plan does not accommodate such high numbers of people. Although it has kept its atmosphere well and it is a friendly place in general with some nice small cafees, it could do without tourist traps such as the Wax Museum, the Torture Museum and the Shanghai Restaurant.
Published 13 May 2017Leave a comment
Blog: WHS #630: Holasovice
Holašovice Historic Village is a tiny WHS in the south of Czechia. Six previous reviewers on this website have already tried to capture its Outstanding Universal Value - often in vain. Its value lies in its architecture (the fusion of two vernacular building traditions into "South Bohemian Folk Baroque") and being an authentic representation of a Central European rural settlement. It also has been considered as a continuing cultural landscape, but that part seems to have been disregarded at inscription.
Less than a week after I was in Egypt, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius in Abu Simbel, I found myself at a completely different scene. Holašovice lies in a hilly area full of farm villages. There was still snow on the ground. The closer I got to Holašovice the snow cover got thicker and it started raining as well. I had some trouble finding the town actually – I had to navigate via my smartphone, as there is no signposting. On the way I passed at least two village centers similar to Holašovice, with a pond and a row of colourful houses.
Despite its unassuming surroundings, Holašovice is ready to receive tourists. At the edge of town there’s a parking lot large enough for a tour bus or 2. They also have an information center and a museum. And a monument celebrating the inscription on the World Heritage List. A minibus with some Asian tourists was just leaving when I arrived – the last passengers were running around to have some quick final shots of the village.
One of the characteristic spots in the village is the large pond in the center, but I could hardly see it because of the snow. All I could do was to take a brisk walk round the elongated square. Although the façades of the buildings that surround it have nice colours, they give away nothing about what lies behind their gates. None of the protected buildings except for the museum are open to the public. Which is understandable as people still live there. But it makes it hard to understand what exactly is so special about these farmhouses. If you want to prepare your visit in depth: more background info is available in this pocket guide.
Farmhouse number 6 holds the small "museum" - perhaps one could better say that the farmer exhibits his old items in a barn to earn something extra. Its opening hours may be erratic, but I was let in after ringing the bell. The owner of the house proceeded to give me an extensive explanation in English about each object. Later we talked about the weather ("this is not normal") and about the Netherlands (good country, he had been there a few years before). The biggest advantage of visiting this museum is that you can see how the traditional farmhouses are set up: through the gate you arrive at a courtyard, with to the left the house and behind it the stables and sheds.
In front of nearly every house stands a wooden pump, which was used to pump water by hand through pipes into the building. There might be some interesting piece of local history connected with the pumps, but I did not get to the bottom of it. Overall I lasted 25 minutes in town, my visit cut short because of the cold.
Published 6 May 2017Leave a comment
Blog: Tips for travelling to Egypt
I have just returned from a 10 day trip to southern Egypt - only my first visit to this country (105 countries came before!). I ‘did’ the Luxor to Abu Simbel stretch, covering only 2 WHS and 1 TWHS. But it was well worth it, as these are undisputed members of our Top 200 WHS.
Find below my Top Tips for Travelling to Egypt as a World Heritage Traveller.
1. Go now to avoid the crowds
Since the Revolution of 2011, visitor numbers to Egypt have been low. Many trip reports that float around on the internet date back to over 10 years ago. Locals that I met were complaining that especially Europeans and Russians do not come anymore. Fortunately for the Egyptian tourism industry, the Chinese are not deterred. And high hopes are held for the Indians. In general it was relatively quiet everywhere I visited – especially in the cities and during the early or later hours of the day. A number of shops and restaurants in Luxor and Aswan seemed to have closed down. But there definitely were crowds at the Valley of the Kings and at the temple of Kom Ombo. Beach destinations such as Hurghada and a Nile cruise are still popular, so people take day trips from those bases. A recent claim that tourist levels are back to normal again is overstated though I think.
2. Take a Dahabiya Nile Cruise
Labelled as "The cruise for people who don’t like cruises”, I can fully recommend a Dahabiya Nile Cruise. I went upstream for 4 nights on board of the Dahabiya Zekrayaat - a large sail ship in the style of Victorian travellers (it even included a piano downstairs at that time). The romantic magic is diminished a bit nowadays as it needs a towboat to move ahead at a speed high enough to cover the distance between Luxor and Aswan within 4 days (a train on the same stretch takes only 3 hours!). We were 6 travellers (South African, Australian and Dutch), pampered by 10 staff including a formidable cook.
3. It will be a classical trip for everyone
During our deliberations about the Top 200 WHS, noone had any doubt about including Egypt’s classical sites (Ancient Thebes, Abu Simbel, the Pyramids). Every serious traveller will be enriched by visiting these very ancient and unique sites. Touring them is inexpensive for the quality that you get to see – entrance fees to Abu Simbel or Karnak are a mere 5 EUR. And don’t underestimate Egypt as a nation, although it may not be at its prime at the moment it very much has its own soul.
4. Prepare yourself for what you want to see
Egypt is mostly a destination for package holidays and (large) group tours. This means that a one-size-fits-all approach usually is taken by its tourist industry. Scores of well-educated Egyptologists spend their days as guides going through the motions, rattling off all the dynasties in the right order and translating a couple of hieroglyphs here and there. Don’t let this industry decide how you will spend your days and what you will see. Do your own research beforehand. Include that recently opened tomb in the Valley of Kings (even for a surcharge) into your itinerary, find your way to those uncharted sublocations of a WHS, or that specialist museum. Cities like Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel are also very easy to navigate on your own.
5. Have a closer look at Egypt’s Tentative List (and beyond)
Egypte has relatively few WHS for its size and place in history. Consequently, its Tentative List is still full of sites well-worth a detour. In the southern part of the country, which was the focus of my trip, this certainly is true for the Ptolemaic sites Edfu, Kom Ombo and Dendera. I heard from fellow travellers that they found Abydos interesting too. And along the Nile we made a worthwhile early morning visit at Gebel el Sisila, which was a stone quarry for Ancient Thebes and holds a number of small rock-cut tombs.
Published 30 April 2017Leave a comment
Blog: WHS #629: Nubian monuments
The Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae comprise 10 archaeological sites in the far south of Egypt. They were the products of the pharaonic attempts to dominate Nubia.
Many trip reports from the past about Abu Simbel start with the compulsory convoy that has to be taken to travel there from Aswan, effectively limiting arrival times to two times a day. The convoy has been discontinued however since October 2016. So after leaving my dahabiya near Aswan, I was picked up by a car and driver at 9 a.m. for the 3 hour drive south. The drive is incredibly boring, just a desert road with maybe one or two gas stations. There are road signs however to temples into the desert – two of them are Amada and Wadi es-Sebua which are also part of this WHS .
I was staying overnight to be able to visit the temples without tour groups being there, and also to get a hint of the Nubian feel of the town of Abu Simbel. My latter wish was completely satisfied by the Eskaleh Lodge, an oasis of friendliness where hypnotizing Sudanese music was played all day long. At 3 p.m. I was picked up by driver and guide for my scheduled visit to the temples. Somehow the tour company had found it necessary to send a guide, although it isn’t of much use (they are not allowed inside the temples). But well, he bought the tickets and explained the essence of the site to me sitting outside. We just sat at the entrance to the main temple, as no one else was there!
The Abu Simbel site covers two temples next to each other. The largest one is to glorify Ramses II – the famous four huge statues at its facade all show himself at various ages! I even can’t think of a modern day dictator who would be so bold. One of the heads has fallen off (already 2000 years ago), but it still is laying at the statue’s feet like a toppled moai at Easter Island. The interior of the temple is well-lit, via a similar method as they use at the Valley of the Kings. As this temple was carved into the rock, not much natural light gets in. I had to forget about the delicate carvings and symbolism of the Ptolemaic sites that I visited earlier: the temple is a brash statement of power of Ramses II, mainly showing his accomplishments on the battlefield.
The second temple at Abu Simbel is dedicated to Nefertari, one of the wives of Ramses II who was of Nubian descent. It does show her, and him again. The interior is decorated with remarkable heads representing the goddess Hathor. I finished both temples within an hour – except for the facades with the mega statues and an occasional glance at Lake Nasser there isn’t much that will keep you there longer. I tried to find the “seams” where they pasted the temples together again after the rescue effort in the 1960s. If you look closely they can be seen, but it has been done very well. Only the back side of the rock where they are now located feels manmade.
The next morning I got up at 5.20 and walked through the streets of Abu Simbel once more. The temples are especially beautiful at sunrise, as they are illuminated by the sun at that hour. I had read that sunrise tours (even from Aswan) are popular here, but again no more than a handful of other visitors were present.
After Abu Simbel, I unfortunately had only one afternoon left in Aswan. So there was little time to check out the other monuments included in this WHS. I decided to focus on Elephantine island, the island just in front of Aswan town center. A very short public ferry ride (costing about 2 minutes and 1 Egyptian pound) brought me there. At the southern part of the island lies the Aswan museum and the archaeological site. The museum did disappoint, I was expecting something to the level of the Luxor museum but this one is much more simple. It shows lots of small objects that were found on Elephantine island, but only the votive objects I found worth a second look. I did not do well at the rest of the site either: the temperature had risen so high that I had little energy to roam around ruins. I made my way directly to the Nilometer – the third of its kind that I saw on this trip, and the closest one to the Nile itself.
ICOMOS had its doubts in 1979 whether such a string of sites a long distance from each other would not set an unwanted precedent: “Does this not invite all countries to define the physical boundaries of their cultural heritage too broadly?” Well – almost 30 years later such loosely coupled WHS have almost become the norm, with the Works of Le Corbusier even stretching continents.
Published 26 April 2017Leave a comment
Responses to WHS #629: Nubian monuments
Els (26 April 2017)
The Sound and Light Shows (Son et Lumiere) are still very much a tourist magnet, at Abu Simbel, Philae and Karnak. It doesn't appeal to me indeed, that's why I skipped them.
Solivagant (26 April 2017)
For our first visit to Abu Simbel back in 1978 we flew from Luxor – officially there were no seats available but we went out to the airport and a bit of baksheesh there unlocked 2. The only problem was that we (naturally!) were given no tickets! We were told, however, to say “Mr Qtab” at every occasion and this worked Ok at Luxor – but how on earth would we get back into the airport and onto the plane at Abu Simbel? No worry – The magic words “Mr Qtab” were like “open sesame”! There must have been quite a web of corruption distributing our fares (and no doubt those of many others) up and down the chain of employees! In ‘92 we had rented a car in Cairo and driven up to Aswan. The potential problem of driving on to Abu Simbel (this was before the “convoy era”) was whether there was any petrol in Abu Simbel as our small saloon car tank wasn’t definitely enough for the c600km round trip. No one in Aswan could state for certain that the only gas station in Abu Simbel (none along the road in those days) had any. Based on the belief that some $$$ would find some in Abu Simbel if really necessary, we set off early and alone on the empty road and had an excellent full day there – and got petrol ok! The tourists were like “waves” as coaches /planes arrived and departed and there were long periods when the Temples were virtually empty. Again – no limitations on taking photos in those days.
You made no mention of “Son et Lumiere” taking place at either Karnak or Abu Simbel. Is this because they have been cancelled due to lack of tourists or simply that this form of “entertainment” doesn’t appeal to you? I would agree that it is an over rated medium which always reminds me of some 1950s Hollywood epic movie with its booming sound track and overblown rhetoric but still worth experiencing at Karnak I believe.
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