Jason and I frequently joke that I should get a bumper sticker that reads, “Will stop for flora, fauna, cheese, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites.” Although it may be a joke, there is some truth to this. I must confess that I am a serious UNESCO junkie and admittedly several of the places we have decided to visit on our around the world trip have been based solely on there being a UNESCO World Heritage Site nearby. What may you ask is a UNESCO World Heritage site? First UNESCO is short for United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is either a natural or culture site that is deemed to be of such importance to humanity that it should be preserved for future generations. There are UNESCO World Heritage Sites in virtually every country around the world. As we have traveled and visited different UNESCO sites, I continue to be awed by mans ingenuity and natures beauty. I would love to be able to say before I die that I have seen all 981 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Since I love these places so much and believe that seeing these places has enriched my life, I thought I might share my 5 favorite European UNESCO sites so far.
Roman Ruins of Arles, France
For us Arles, France was love at first sight. We loved the narrow, winding medieval streets, the muted colored houses, the amazing markets, and the foods of the Provence region. But we especially loved the Roman ruins. Many hours were spent exploring Arles and the ruins around the town. Our favorite Roman ruin in Arles was the arena because it is so intact and it’s still being used today for bullfights. The arena is actually more intact than the Colosseum in Rome. Shhh…I have a secret to share. After seeing the Roman arena in Arles Sydney was actually disappointed by the Colosseum in Rome, because it was not nearly as intact. But don’t let Rome know this. While exploring the Roman arena in Arles we had fun taking turns pretending to be a charging bull while the other acted as the matador.
Avebery, United Kingdom
When one thinks of prehistoric sites in England most will think of Stonehenge. However, in my opinion there is a far more impressive, larger, and less visited prehistoric stone circle nearby called Avebery. Although the Avebery stone circle is not as intact as Stonehenge, Avebery is what I picture how Stonehenge was 30 years ago. There are no fences around the stones to prevent people from climbing on or touching the stones. Sheep placidly graze next to the mammoth stones, while people picnic and children run and play in the fields. Impromptu drum circles can also be seen, giving Avebery a mystical feel. Did I mention that Avebery is massive and actually contains several smaller stone circles within a larger one? In fact, it is so large a small village was built over part of the ruins. When we visited Avebury, we spent a delightful afternoon exploring the ruins and were astonished at how large it really is. Pictures do not do it justice.
Pompeii and Herculaneum, Italy
I know technically these are separate sites. But I have to include both Pompeii and Herculaneum on my list; both archeological sites provide a wonderful glimpse into Roman life. Pompeii and Herculaneum were Roman cities that were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. While Herculaneum is smaller than Pompeii, it is more intact thanks to Mount Vesuvius burying the city in over 60 feet of volcanic mud. Wooden furniture, parchment papers, doors and balconies to houses can be still be seen in Herculaneum today. It is amazing to me that these artifacts have survived and give such a complete record of Roman life. Pompeii, on the other hand, is a significantly larger city and all aspects of Roman life can be seen from the grinding stones of the bakeries to the brothels. While walking through the streets of Pompeii I could imagine what life must have been like during Roman times.
Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland
Wieliczka Salt Mine is located near Krakow, Poland. The Wieliczka Salt Mine was started in the 13th century and is the longest running salt mine in the world with mining going on until 2007. Wieliczka Salt Mines are enormous and our tour only covered a small faction of the mine. What makes Wieliczka Salt Mine so interesting is the salt sculptures. Due to the difficulties of getting to the surface, miners spent the vast majority of their time in the salt mines. During their free time they created intricate carvings out of salt including a replica of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper.” All aspects of life occurred in the mine including church services. Several chapels and a cathedral can be seen. During our tour of the mine we were able to see Kinga Cathedral. Pictures do not do the cathedral justice. The Cathedral is stunning, as everything is carved or made from salt including the chandeliers! Services are still held in the Cathedral to this day. Overall, we really enjoyed exploring the Wieliczka Mines. Sydney, of course, had to verify that the walls of the mine were really made out of salt by licking it. I shudder to think how many other mouths have been on that wall.
Saxon Fortified Church of Viscri, Romania
The Saxon Fortified Church of Viscri, built in the 12th century, is located in Transylvania, Romania. In order to get to the town of Viscri, we had to drive down a long dirt road. As we ventured down the dirt road, we saw shepherds tending flocks of sheep much as they have done for centuries. We eventually came to the beautiful town of Viscri, where the traditional Romanian culture can still be seen. In order to get to the Fortified church we had to walk along the cobbled streets of Viscri. As we opened the gate to the Saxon Fortified Church the person was just closing it up to go to lunch. However, she readily reopened the church to allow us to explore. We enjoyed exploring the church and even got to see traditional Romanian garb along with traditional farming implements. It was incredibly cheap for us to get in to the Fortified Church costing us approximately $4 USD. However, unlike many of the other UNESCO sites we have visited thus far on our travels, Viscri is not as well preserved. I am sad to think that this unique building and way of life is crumbling away and may not be here for future generations.
Okay, I know this one is not technically in Europe. But I have to include Volubilis on my list, as it has been my absolute favorite UNESCO site so far on our travels. Volubilis is set in the beautiful rolling fields just outside of Moulay Idris, Morocco. Pictures of Volubilis make it look very remote. When I first told Jason that I wanted to go to Volubilis, he said, “Absolutely not” as he imagined us getting stuck in the middle of nowhere without any means to get back to civilization. Happily as it turns out, Volubilis is easily reached by a grand taxi. Volubilis was initially settled by the Phoenicians in the third century BC, but began to thrive under Roman rule in the first century AD. I was surprised to learn that the Roman Empire reached as far as Morocco and that ruins still exist. Although few of the Roman structure survive today, Volubilis has some of the best mosaic floors that I have seen anywhere so far including Pompeii and Herculaneum. This is another UNESCO site that was incredibly cheap for all of us to get into costing less than $3. However, this is also another site that I worry about whether it will be there for future generations.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading about my favorite UNESCO sites and hopefully on your future adventures will be able to visit some of these places. I also encourage you to take a look at the UNESCO Heritage website.