Monthly Archives: February 2013

In Praise of Spontaneous Travel

Posted by on February 27, 2013

You seriously don’t have a hotel room booked?

I am writing this in Warsaw, Poland.

That in and of itself isn’t that impressive. Many people visit Poland every year.

What makes this special is that up until a few days ago, I had no idea I was going to be in Poland. In fact, until yesterday, I had no idea I was going to spend the night in Warsaw.

My original plan was to fly to Germany early for the ITB conference and just hang out in Berlin for a week while I waited for it to start. I realized that Berlin wasn’t far from Poland, taking the train was very easy and I had never been to Poland before. Even factoring in the cost of a train ticket, I’d probably save money by staying in Poland rather than in Berlin.

So I decided to go to Poland.
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UNESCO World Heritage Site #198: Historic Centre of Warsaw

Posted by on February 27, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #198: Historic Centre of Warsaw

UNESCO World Heritage Site #198: Historic Centre of Warsaw

From the World Heritage inscription:

Warsaw was deliberately annihilated in 1944 as a repression of the Polish resistance to the German occupation. The capital city was reduced to ruins with the intention of obliterating the centuries-old tradition of Polish statehood. The rebuilding of the historic city, 85% of which was destroyed, was the result of the determination of the inhabitants and the support of the whole nation. The reconstruction of the Old Town in its historic urban and architectural form was the manifestation of the care and attention taken to assure the survival of one of the most important testimonials of Polish culture. The city – the symbol of elective authority and tolerance, where the first democratic European constitution, the Constitution of 3 May 1791, was adopted – was rebuilt. The reconstruction included the holistic recreation of the urban plan, together with the Old Town Market, the town houses, the circuit of the city walls, as well as the Royal Castle and important religious buildings. The reconstruction of Warsaw’s historical centre was a major contributor to the changes in the doctrines related to urbanisation and conservation of urban development in most of the European countries after the destruction of World War II. Simultaneously, this example illustrates the effectiveness of conservation activities in the second half of the 20th Century, which permitted the integral reconstruction of the complex urban ensemble.

There are many European capital city centers which have been inscribed on the world heritage list: Paris, Rome, Budapest and Prague are just a few. All of those sites have been inscribed based on the history value of the buildings in the city.

Warsaw is different, however. This old city of Warsaw was almost totally annihilated during WWII. There is very little left which is of original historic importance.

Warsaw has been inscribed because of its reconstruction.

I’d be willing to bet that thousands of people visit the old city of Warsaw every year and have no idea that the buildings were all built after WWII. You have to really pay attention to see that the construction techniques used are very different than those you see in Prague (which was relatively untouched by WWII).

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #197: Antigua Guatemala

Posted by on February 26, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #197: Antigua Guatemala

UNESCO World Heritage Site #197: Antigua Guatemala

From the World Heritage inscription:

Antigua Guatemala is an outstanding example of preserved colonial architecture and of cultural value. The religious, private and government buildings bear exceptional testimony to the Spanish colonial architecture in Antigua.

Built 1,500 m above sea level in an earthquake-prone region, Antigua, the capital of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala, was founded in the early 16th century as Santiago de Guatemala. The conquerors chose this location as the previous capital had flooded in 1541 and the valley provided an adequate source of water and a fertile soil. Antigua Guatemala was the seat of Spanish colonial government for the Kingdom of Guatemala, which included Chiapas (southern Mexico), Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. It was the cultural, economic, religious, political and educational centre for the entire region until the capital was moved to present-day Guatemala City after the damaging earthquakes of 1773, but its principal monuments are still preserved as ruins. In the space of under three centuries the city, which was built on a grid pattern inspired by the Italian Renaissance, acquired a number of superb monuments.

Antigua might be the most charming city in Central America.

The former capital of Guatemala (antigua means ‘old’ in Spanish), Antigua was abandoned for Guatemala City because the area was earthquake prone.

Among the many Spanish colonial buildings are several ruined churches which were destroyed by earthquake and never rebuilt. In particular, the cathedral which you see today (shown in photo) is only a fraction of the size of the original building. If you go to the back of the structure you can see the remains of the original cathedral.

Antigua is an hour drive from the Guatemala City airport and one of the top attractions in Guatemala.

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #196: Tikal National Park

Posted by on February 25, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #196: Tikal National Park

UNESCO World Heritage Site #196: Tikal National Park

From the World Heritage inscription:

Together with Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve, Maya is the most important reserve in the country, because of its archaeological and bio/ecological interest. Rivers, lakes, swamps and flooding savannas are important for biodiversity and for migratory birds. The reserve contains the largest area of tropical rainforest in Guatemala and Central America, with a wide range of unspoilt natural habitats. A large area of the reserve still comprises dense broadleaved forests with more than 300 species of commercially useful trees, such as cedar, mahogany, ramon (bread-nut tree), Araceae
(osier for furniture), chicle, pepper and others.

In the heart of this jungle, surrounded by lush vegetation, lies one of the major sites of the Mayan civilization. The ceremonial centre contains superb temples and palaces, and public squares accessed by means of ramps. Remains of dwellings are scattered throughout the surrounding countryside. The ruined city reflects the cultural evolution of Mayan society from hunter- gathering to farming, with an elaborate religious, artistic and scientific culture which finally collapsed in the late 9th century. At its height, AD 700-800, the city supported a population of 90,000 Mayan Indians. There are over 3,000 separate buildings dating from 600 BC to AD 900, including temples, residences, religious monuments decorated with hieroglyphic inscriptions and tombs. Excavations have yielded remains of cotton, tobacco, beans, pumpkins, peppers and many fruits of pre-Columbian origin. Large areas are still to be excavated.

When I mentally categorize world heritage sites I visit, one of the ways I segregate them in my mind is between major and minor sites. I’d estimate that 90% of the sites I visit are minor, with 10% being major. The major sites are the ones that most people know of: The Pyramids, The Grand Canyon, The Great Wall, etc.

I’d easily categorize Tikal as one of the most significant heritage sites in the world. Easily a top 100 attraction.

Not only is it perhaps the most important Mayan site in the world, but it is an important biosphere reserve as well. In the hours I spent at Tikal I saw monkeys, heard howler monkeys and many different and colorful species of birds.

The importance of Tikal can be seen on the Guatemalan license plates and currency, both of which carry and image of temple #1 from Tikal.

I highly recommend a visit to Tikal if you are in the region (Southern Mexico/Belize/Guatemala). I considered it to be on a par with Angkor in Cambodia and one of the top destinations for archeological ruins in the Western Hemisphere.

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #195: Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quirigua

Posted by on February 22, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #195: Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quirigua

UNESCO World Heritage Site #195: Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quirigua

From the World Heritage inscription:

The ruins of Quirigua retain an impressive series of stelae and sculpted calendars, partially deciphered, which constitute a remarkable and unique source of the history of the social, political and economic events of the Mayan civilization. The zoomorphic and anthropomorphic sculptures are among the most attractive pre-Columbian works known.

Quirigua is, together with that of Copán (Honduras), one of the major testimonies to the Mayan civilization. At Quirigua, traces of human occupation are attested to from about AD 200, but the zenith of the city may be placed during the period known as Late Classic, about AD 600-900.

Inhabited since the 2nd century AD, Quirigua had become during the reign of Cauac Sky (723-84), the first sovereign of the historic period who has been identified with certainty, the capital of an autonomous and prosperous state. The extraction of jade and obsidian in the upper valley of the Rio Motagua, which was tightly controlled, gave rise to a profitable goods trade with the coastal ports of the Caribbean. This monopoly remained in existence during the 9th century.

Quirigua isn’t the most sexy of Mayan ruins. It is significantly smaller than most sites like Tikal, Copan, or Coba. What buildings are left are not that large and it lacks the awe inspiring pyramids of a Chichen Itza.

What it does have is perhaps the best collection of intact Mayan stelle in the world. Not only are the stelle in relatively good condition, but they are also the largest stelle in the world. In fact, they are the largest pre-Columbia stone sculptures in the Americas.

Quirigua is often considered a companion to Copan in Honduras. If you are visiting Copan, a trip to Quirigua only takes about 1-2 hours, depending on time at the border and traffic. The entire site can be explored in about an hour.

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #194: Maya Site of Copan

Posted by on February 21, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #194: Maya Site of Copan

UNESCO World Heritage Site #194: Maya Site of Copan

From the World Heritage inscription:

Copán with its temples, plazas and terraces, comprises a type of architectural complex among the most characteristic of the Mayan civilization. The lengthy inscription on the Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza is of considerable historical significance

The Mayan city of Copán as it exists today is composed of a main complex of ruins with several secondary complexes encircling it. The main complex consists of the Acropolis and important plazas. Among the five plazas are the Ceremonial Plaza, with an impressive stadium opening onto a mound with numerous richly sculptured monoliths and altars; the Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza, with a monumental stairway at its eastern end that is one of the outstanding structures of Mayan culture. On the risers of this 100 m wide stairway are more than 1,800 individual glyphs which constitute the longest known Mayan inscription. The Easter Plaza rises a considerable height above the valley floor. On its western side is a stairway sculptured with figures of jaguars originally inlaid with black obsidian.

From what is known today, the sculpture of Copán appears to have attained a high degree of perfection. The Acropolis, a magnificent architectural complex, appears today as a large mass of rubble which came about through successive additions of pyramids, terraces and temples. The world’s largest archaeological cut runs through the Acropolis. In the walls of the cut, it is possible to distinguish floor levels of previous plazas and covered water outlets.

Copan is undoubtedly one of the most significant Mayan sites in Mesoamerica and most important cultural site in all of Honduras.

While not as large as other Mayan sites such as Tikal, it is reasonably large in its own right and also has one of the best collections of Mayan stelae in the world. The quality and detail which can still be seen in the stones can be found in few other places.

The site is situated only 15 km from the Guatemalan border which makes it easy to visit if you are visiting other sites in the region. Tours and transportation can easily be had from the city of Copan Ruinas.

Given the size of the site, you might want to dedicate 3-4 hours to explore the ruins. There is also a museum on site which can be entered for an additional fee.

View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that I have visited.