Deep blue in Los Glaciares National Park

Flying into El Calafate, the Patagonian landscape below was a uniform brown, that is, until we spotted an almost luminescent turquoise river snaking its way through the otherwise featureless earth below. A little further on and the river opened up into the blindingly blue Lago Argentino, a vast glacier fed lake that looks like it should be on another planet. It was the glacial source of this extraordinary water that we’d come to see, and especially the Glaciar Perito Moreno – a truly glorious natural wonder.

That tantalising glimpse from the air was thrilling. I couldn’t wait to get to El Calafate to arrange our trip to Los Glaciares National Park. This though would have to wait. Our bag arrived exactly last on the conveyor belt at the small airport and, by the time we got outside, we’d missed the last taxi. An hour later, a taxi showed up and we headed into the windswept and bleak streets. El Calafate has the feel of a frontier town, only instead of gold prospectors it’s home to outdoor enthusiasts and determined tourists.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Like a frozen version of the Iguazu Falls, the Perito Moreno Glacier is unmissable. That is more than can be said for El Calafate itself. The surrounding area is beautiful, and it has views towards the Andes, but the downtown is filled with tourist shops and tour agencies. That said, it has some very decent restaurants. Radiating outwards from the compact centre is Patagonia’s version of urban sprawl. Dirt roads and wooden houses, that look like they could be put on the back of a truck and rolled elsewhere should the tourists move on.

Perito Moreno is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest reserve of fresh water in the world, and is shared with Chile. In an era of global warming it bucks the glacial trend and is slowly advancing rather than retreating. The front of the glacier is literally a wall of ice, reaching a height of around 70m in places. The exquisite azure, sapphire and turquoise colour of the ice is extraordinarily beautiful. Even on a cloudy and drizzly day, the ice illuminated the surrounding landscape. It’s simply stunning.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Beware falling ice, Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Beware falling ice, Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

It looks so peaceful, but it’s pretty noisy near the glacier. The massive bulk of advancing ice creaks, cracks, groans and rumbles as it inches forward into the lake. Then there’s the thunderous sound of vast hunks of ice calving from the blue wall and crashing into the water below. For something that moves at (wait for it) a glacial pace, it is certainly very active. There are several hundred meters of wooden walkways that you can stroll along to get ever-changing views of the ice and mountains.

To get up close and personal with the ice wall you can take a boat from a small harbour on the lake. The boat stays at a safe distance from the ice in case large chunks calve, but you get close enough to see the truly amazing colours of the ice. When ice does calve the waves make the boat bob up and down. The sun was stubbornly stuck behind an impenetrable blanket of low cloud, which obscured the mountains down which the glacier slides. Luckily, as we reached the shore the clouds parted and the luminous glory of the ice was briefly illuminated.

Lago Argentino, El Calafate, Argentina

Lago Argentino, El Calafate, Argentina

Lago Argentino, El Calafate, Argentina

Lago Argentino, El Calafate, Argentina

Lago Argentino, El Calafate, Argentina

Lago Argentino, El Calafate, Argentina

Reserva Laguna Nimez, El Calafate, Argentina

Reserva Laguna Nimez, El Calafate, Argentina

Reserva Laguna Nimez, El Calafate, Argentina

Reserva Laguna Nimez, El Calafate, Argentina

Friendly dog, Reserva Laguna Nimez, El Calafate, Argentina

Friendly dog, Reserva Laguna Nimez, El Calafate, Argentina

We made our way back to El Calafate utterly uplifted. It is little wonder Los Glaciares National Park has received UNESCO World Heritage status. We went for a drink in town before eating a lamb asado, something of a Patagonian speciality. The next day we’d be flying north, but not before we had the chance to walk around Reserva Laguna Nimez and some of the lake shore. A very friendly dog joined us for the walk, and left again as we got back to the town. I like to think he stuck with us until he was certain we were safe.

The Kitchen of the World, industrial heritage in Fray Bentos

In the classic 1865 Jules Verne novel, From the Earth to the Moon, meat broth “prepared from the best parts of the ruminants of the Pampas” was served for breakfast to the astronauts on their way to the moon. Made from a new process for concentrated beef extract, it was produced in a factory in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. To a British person of a certain age, the words Fray Bentos conjure memories, not of beef extract or a town in Uruguay, but of corned beef and steak and kidney pie in a tin. Both were ubiquitous during my childhood.

Invented by a German scientist called Justus von Liebig in 1847, the concentrated beef extract was produced by breaking down beef into small pieces before being boiled in liquid. The end product was a highly concentrated beef paste that was supposed to be a nutritious and cheap meat substitute. The problem was that it took around 30 kg of meat to make a single kilogram of the paste. In Europe the process was far from cheap, and this revolutionary new technique for feeding the masses never got off the ground.

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Corned beef cans, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Corned beef cans, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Until, that is, someone realised that the process could be economical if it was done in South America. Already a place with many more cows than people, the region had a thriving leather industry. The problem was that cows were killed just for the leather, the rest of the carcass was often wasted. In a world without refrigeration, the meat from the carcasses could now be used by the new process and be shipped around the world in glass pots.

This was traded under a brand name that would go on to become a household name in many parts of the world, Oxo. In 1911, another invention would allow Oxo to be sold in small bouillon cubes, which are still manufactured today, although no longer in the Fray Bentos factory on the banks of the Rio del Plata. In an era of industrial change, Liebig’s meat process changed the world and made a lot of money in the process. London’s Oxo Tower was bought by Liebig’s company in the 1920s as a cold store.

The Liebig Extract of Meat Company began manufacturing in 1865 and soon had a global market. Initially it was German owned and British financed. This led to the odd situation during World War I that the factory provided food to both the British and German armies. That changed between the wars when it became fully British owned as the Frigorífico Anglo Del Uruguay. Anglo, as it was better known, produced around 200 animal and vegetable products, and every day 1,600 cows, 6,400 lambs and hundreds of pigs and turkeys were slaughtered.

El Anglo’s productivity hit an all-time high during World War II. The factory had 5,000 employees from over 50 countries, and cattle were being slaughtered at the alarming rate of 400 per hour to meet demand for corned beef and bouillon cubes. Millions of famed trapezoidal-shaped cans of corned beef were exported to Europe yearly to feed civilians and soldiers alike. They used to say that the only part of the cow Anglo didn’t use was the moo.

The Anglo Meat Packing Plant was more than just a factory, it was an entire community known as the Barrio Anglo. You drive past its English-style cottages on the way to the UNESCO World Heritage industrial complex that was once said to be the “kitchen of the world”. Filled with machinery imported from the industrial cities of England – even the coal to power them was imported from England – it is a glorious reminder of the historic links between Europe and South America.

So important was the factory that it houses Uruguay’s first electricity plant, evidence that the workers and managers of Fray Bentos had electricity long before the citizens of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. Our tour around the plant was guided by two new guides from the local town and was fascinating. One of them even recalled a visit to the plant as a child on a school trip, her overriding memory was of the smell – given the vast scale of slaughter, it’s a surprising place for a school trip.

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Corned beef cans, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Corned beef cans, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

The modern tour takes you on the route that tens of millions of doomed cattle, sheep and pigs would have travelled on their one-way journey towards a metal can. It sounds a bit grim, but is an eye-opening place to visit for its international social history. There are original photos of the working factory illustrating the functions of the buildings. You end the tour in the vast slaughter house before visiting the entrance to the even vaster refrigerator building, lined with Portuguese cork for insulation. On a roasting hot day you can still feel the cold coming from inside.

It was absolutely brilliant and, for me, this should be a must see on everyone’s South American itinerary. We loved it so much we lugged a souvenir tin of corned beef around Argentina and then back to the Netherlands. It now sits proudly in the kitchen cupboard.

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Electrical plant, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Electrical plant, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Refrigerator, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Refrigerator, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

The mysterious Dolmen of Antequera

When UNESCO announced that Antequera’s three prehistoric megalithic monuments, the Menga and Viera dolmens and the Tholos of El Romeral, were to be given World Heritage status in 2016,  they described them as, “one of the most remarkable architectural works of European prehistory, and one of the most important examples of European Megalithism.” It’s hard to argue with that.

These fascinating temples or tombs were built 5,000-or-so years ago during the Bronze Age. Despite some hard evidence and many theories, they remain mysterious structures. The dolmens were built because they aligned with the summer or winter solstice, but it’s likely that their view towards the human head-shaped Peña de las Enamorados mountain was just as important.

Menga Dolmen (L) and Peña de las Enamorados (R), Antequera, Spain

Menga Dolmen (L) and Peña de las Enamorados (R), Antequera, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

The Dolmen of Menga, one of the largest megalithic structures in Europe, would have been an extraordinary architectural feat at the time. During its excavation in the 19th century, archaeologists found the skeletons of several hundred people inside. If you were here on the solstice, you’d see the sun rise over the Peña de los Enamorados and shine down the entrance corridor into the interior chamber. That’s not coincidence.

The prehistoric communities that lived in this area, and who were responsible for leaving these impressive structures behind, were farmers. They must have gone to some extremes to quarry and transport all the stones – the heaviest of which is 180 tonnes. For context, the heaviest stone at Stonehenge, which was built around the same time, is only 40 tonnes.

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Menga Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Viera Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Viera Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Viera Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Viera Dolmen, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

The Menga dolmen is only a short distance from the Viera dolmen, both are reached on a newly laid path from a newly constructed visitor centre, a result of funding from their new World Heritage Status. There were only a handful of people at the site, but its new found fame didn’t stop some of them from climbing on the mounds and entrance stones to take selfies.

Other than the interiors of the dolmen there’s not much to see. We popped into the visitor centre where there was a short video and some information on the history of the dolmen, but not enough to keep us for more than a few minutes. Back in the car we headed the 4km to the Tholos of El Romeral, which is the youngest and most dramatic of the three dolmen.

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

The drive to El Romeral was along a dispiriting road that passed through an industrial estate, picturesque it was not. The UNESCO money clearly didn’t extend to paying for good signposts. We got lost a couple of times before finally driving down an unpaved potholed road that ended by a portacabin, inside of which was the world’s most disinterested woman.

The walk down the entrance tunnel into the dolmen was thrilling though, the interior is a domed room with a smaller domed antechamber leading off to one side. Perfectly preserved for 4,000 years. It was humid inside, but just about as atmospheric as you could hope a prehistoric burial chamber might be. It was a fantastic place, but there wasn’t a scrap of information about the site anywhere.

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Tholos of El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

Tholos of El Romeral, Antequera, Andalusia, Spain

We headed off bewitched by the mysteries of El Romeral, but also slightly baffled that a very new World Heritage Site could provide so little insight into itself. Maybe it’s an unintended tribute to the people who built these prehistoric structures, about which we also know very little.

Historic Seoul, Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung Palaces

Amidst Seoul’s skyscrapers, business districts, high-tech industries, fashionable shopping and pulsating nightlife areas, the city’s streets hum with modernity in a way that’s hard to find in Europe. Spend even a short time here and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a city with its gaze fixed solely on the future. Yet Seoul has a surprising number of tranquil parks, historic temples and beautiful royal palaces, reflecting its more than 600-year history as the capital of Korea.

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

The glorious, UNESCO World Heritage listed, Changdeokgung Palace, is generally considered the most important in Korea so, on my final day in the city, I set off to explore this wonderful place. Korean royal palaces are large, sprawling complexes that require time to explore. Thankfully the rain of the previous day had given way to blue skies, and I was able to walk through the expansive grounds concerned more about sunburn than getting soaked.

Constructed in the early 15th century, in line with the Korean architectural philosophy of the time, Changdeokgung was built to be in harmony with nature. It sits at the foot of Mount Baegaksan, one of the Guardian Mountains of Seoul, and the large grounds are beautifully landscaped. Walking through the main gate, which sits opposite a busy four-lane road, the tranquility of the palace is in sharp contrast to the surrounding city.

I’d expected it to be very busy – almost every historic site I’ve visited in Korea has had lots of tour groups – but, with the exception of some of the main buildings, I often found myself alone. In Seoul, that is not something you can say very often. I strolled through the complex, following the map I’d been given at the entrance, not realising that the site is home to two interconnected palaces: Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung.

I paid an additional entrance fee and set off through some woods to a pleasant lake before entering the grand square outside Changgyeonggung Palace. This area had far fewer people, and was more beautifully landscaped. A group of school children had just swept through in front of me, making lots of noise. As they left, silence descended and I had the whole place to myself. It was rather magical.

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

There is a lot of history bound up in these two palaces, home to generations of Korean royalty. As you wander through the courtyards and peer into the wooden living quarters, it’s possible to feel a sense of the lives lived inside this a city within a city. The palaces haven’t always been so peaceful, they were repeatedly damaged by invading armies and, being constructed from wood, were vulnerable to fire.

The palaces burned to the ground during the Japanese invasion in 1592, but were rebuilt faithful to the original in 1609. Which was just in time for them to burn to the ground again in 1623. Changdeokgung remained a royal palace and seat of government well into the 19th century; while Changgyeonggung was home to the Emperor Yunghui, Korea’s last emperor. Deposed by the Japanese invasion and occupation of 1910, he lived here until his death in 1926.

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

As well as the royal palaces, there is Huwon or the “Secret Garden”, which can be visited only as part of a tour. The tour takes 90 minutes and I simply didn’t have time to do that and visit Bukchon Hanok Village before heading to the airport. I skipped the tour and wandered back through Changdeokgung on my way back into the city.

Back in time in the Valle de Viñales

I dare you to look at a panoramic photo of the Valle de Viñales and not want to hop on a plane to see it for yourself. The UNESCO World Heritage listed valley is extraordinarily beautiful, retaining a sense of timelessness that defies its status as one of the most visited destinations in Cuba. It’s the sort of place where you plan to spend a couple of days and stay for a week.

Valle de Vinales, Cuba

Valle de Vinales, Cuba

The village of Viñales is a magnet for independent travellers seeking peace, quiet and the outdoors. This might seem contradictory, but tourism is low-key and it’s a laid-back place with an endless supply of rocking chairs and mojitos. The village still retains many colonial-era one storey houses, most of which are painted in bright colours and have been converted into casas particulares.

Church, Viñales, Cuba

Church, Viñales, Cuba

New Year mannequin, Viñales, Cuba

New Year mannequin, Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Part of the Sierra de los Organos, the valley is dotted with mogotes – the sugarloaf-shaped limestone outcrops covered in greenery that give it its distinctive appearance. It’s an iconic landscape best known for producing Cuba’s (and therefore the World’s) finest cigar tobacco. In the winter the valley floor is covered with fields full of the large green leaves of nicotiana tabacum.

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Ox cart, Viñales, Cuba

Ox cart, Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

Viñales, Cuba

The real delight of the Valle de Viñales, and a key selling point for Cuban tobacco, is that farming methods remain very traditional. No pesticides here, and you’re far more likely to see bullock carts and horse-drawn transport than tractors. Fields are still ploughed using oxen. The wooden huts with palm leaf roofs where the tobacco leaves go to dry, would have been as familiar a sight in the 19th Century as they are today.

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Tobacco fields, Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Tobacco fields, Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Tobacco fields, Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Tobacco fields, Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Viñales holds a special place in the national psyche, a place Cuban’s talk about wistfully while encouraging you to visit. After a few days in the valley it’s easy to see why. Tradition is everywhere, but the farming community here is also a vibrant cultural mix of indigenous people, Spanish colonialists and African slaves, brought here to work the tobacco fields. It even has its own musical style.

There’s a tourist circuit in the valley, and even a hop-on-hop-off bus taking you to various sights. These seemed a bit underwhelming so we decided to do our own thing. We did visit one of the largest cave systems in the Americas though. Other than that, we went on walks through this picturesque valley, plodding along observing traditional life while moving at a traditional snail’s pace.

Let sleeping dogs lie, Viñales, Cuba

Let sleeping dogs lie, Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

Valle de Viñales, Cuba

A striking feature of Viñales is that the village has numerous independent bars, cafes and restaurants. We ate mostly in our fabulous casa particular, but the options for eating and drinking in the village are in contrast to much of the rest of Cuba. Ordering valedictory piña coladas on a bar terrace, our drinks came accompanied by a bottle of rum. Just add to taste, we were told.

Now that’s laid back tourism.


Where we stayed in Viñales:
Villa Yaset and Yanet
Pasaje Rafael Trejo 2 No. 5-A
Viñales, Pinar del Rio.
Cuba.
Tel. (53) 048 63 5379 / Movil. 0153642661
Email. villamoro985@gmail.com

The Byzantine glories of Umm er-Rasas

Time and earthquakes have not been kind to Umm er-Rasas. Much of this ancient city lies in ruins. Little but arches of collapsed buildings, surreally rising out of the rubble, walls and doors are left to tell of the glories of its past. For all this, wandering through the remains of a city that has played host to Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic societies is an atmospheric experience.

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

I arrived in the early afternoon and, even though this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there was no one else here. The visitor centre looked like it had been built to accommodate tour groups and packs of archaeology buffs who never materialised. The ticket office was abandoned and covered in a thick coat of dust, the gates leading to Umm er-Rasas were wide open.

I walked down the path to a small hillock that gave me a view over the site, which sits majestically on a wide plain that once supported this entire city. It’s unfortunate that the UNESCO money appears to have run out and the vast majority of the city has not been excavated; while some excavated mosaic floors have been covered in plastic and sand, but are now exposed to the elements.

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Mosaics, St. Stephen's Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Mosaics, St. Stephen’s Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Excavations only began at Umm er-Rasas in 1986, but they almost immediately uncovered a treasure trove of historic artefacts. The highlight of which is undoubtedly the mosaics covering the floors of numerous Byzantine churches found at the site. The most impressive of these is the Church of St. Stephen which, despite being sheltered under an impressively ugly metal hanger, is simply beautiful.

The mosaics of St. Stephen’s show scenes of every day life: hunting, fishing, farming, riding an ostrich. Most impressive though is the large panel that depicts ten towns from the region, including nearby Madaba, Amman (then known as Philadelphia), Gaza, Jerusalem and Umm er-Rasas itself. It’s a thing of great beauty.

I visited St. Stephen’s Church and the nearby Church of Bishop Sergius before heading into the ruins of the old walled city. There are no signposts or information boards at the site (which is a bit rubbish for a UNESCO World Heritage Site), so it was pure luck that I managed to stumble upon two churches built into the thick defensive walls of the city.

Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

The evocatively named Church of the Rivers and Church of the Palm Tree are wondrous to behold. They have some small unprotected mosaics on their floors, but as I walked around it was the carvings of early crosses, old water troughs, door frames and other signs of human occupation that were most moving. I stopped, sat on a rock and tried to drink in the atmosphere of this ancient place.

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Church, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

I spent a fascinating hour or so doing my best Indiana Jones impersonation, cambering over partially collapsed buildings, discovering mystical carvings in the stones of former houses, and finding another couple of semi-preserved churches with more mosaics. It was fabulous, but also a little tragic.

I hope that one day soon there will be enough visitors to justify reopening the ticket office, and restarting the work of excavating and conserving.

The ascetic monks of Umm er-Rasas

Jordan only has four UNESCO World Heritage sites. Ask people to name them, including myself before visiting Jordan, and it’s unlikely that many will get past Petra. Some people might guess Wadi Rum, but that’s not a given. Almost no one would think of Umm er-Rasas, the extraordinary Roman fort that grew into a thriving Byzantine town with sixteen churches.

Stylites Tower, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Stylites Tower, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Almost no one, including myself (again), has even heard of Umm er-Rasas. This might explain why, in what is supposed to be Jordan’s busiest tourist season, I found myself walking around a World Heritage Site entirely on my own. To be able to wander alone amongst the atmospheric ruins of this once magnificent city was fantastic for me, less good for the livelihoods of Jordanians.

When I arrived there was only one car parked outside the shiny new visitor centre. It belonged to the security guard who gave me a wave and then disappeared. I asked the woman running a tea stall where I could get tickets, she just waved me towards the entrance. There was no fee to visit Umm er-Rasas. Seriously, it doesn’t cost a penny to visit and there still weren’t any tourists.

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

v

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Camels on the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Camels on the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

I walked back out into the glare of the Jordanian sun and headed towards St. Stephen’s Church, one of the most famous in Jordan thanks to its wondrous mosaic floor…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before arriving at Umm er-Rasas I’d been driving around the countryside trying to find it. The road signs which had reassured me I was going in the right direction had become increasingly scarce and then non-existent. Luckily, while I was stopped by the side of a road in a small village, a gang of young army recruits came spilling out of a building and were delighted to help me out.

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

On the way to Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

One who spoke good English said something I didn’t understand about a ‘tower’, thinking nothing of it I set off again. Half an hour later I screeched to a halt on the road after passing a very faded brown ‘tourist’ sign which simply said, ‘To the Tower’. This couldn’t be coincidence. I reversed the car and set off down a side road.

I didn’t see the Tower at first, I was distracted by a pile of ancient rubble in another field. Cursing yet another wasted side trip thanks to the Jordanian Tourist Board’s tendency to signpost every pile of old stones as a tourist attraction, I started to turn the car around. It was then I saw the Tower.

Stylites Tower, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Stylites Tower, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Stylites Tower, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Stylites Tower, Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

No mistaking it, this was a tower. It looked old, very old. There were the remains of some other buildings nearby, a camel wandered across to investigate my arrival, but nowhere could I find any information telling me what the Tower was and why it was here. Was it a watchtower to spy enemy troops? Was it used to gaze at the stars? The camel remained enigmatically silent on the issue.

I took some photos, shooed the camel away from the car and walked around the tower. This is when it got interesting. There was a doorway but there didn’t appear to be any stairs. Why would someone build this thing in the middle of nowhere? I didn’t yet know it but the Tower was less than a kilometre from Umm er-Rasas.

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

It was only later that I discovered the Tower belonged to the Stylites, Christian ascetics who enjoyed spending time contemplating life from the top of a tower or pillar. It sounds like something Monty Python would make up, but the Stylites are named after the first pioneer of tower dwelling, Simeon Stylites the Elder.

Stylites Tower seen from Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

Stylites Tower seen from Umm er-Rasas, Jordan

I’m not sure if he still holds the record, but the Elder Simeon apparently spent 37 years living on top of a pillar somewhere in Syria. It wasn’t long before self-proclaimed copycat Stylites were climbing up towers and staying there for prolonged periods of time. The trend peaked early in the Byzantine period, which corresponds to when Umm er-Rasas reached its pinnacle (so to speak).

Bulguksa, celestial land of the Buddha

In the whole of Korea the government has recognised just 317 National Treasures, cultural assets of the highest artistic and historic importance. It’s no surprise that the ancient Silla dynasty capital of Gyeongju is home to a significant number of them; more surprising is that seven National Treasures can be found in one place, the 8th Century Buddhist temple of Bulguksa, itself one of the most important temples in Korea. For good measure, Bulguksa is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

16km southeast of Gyeongju, Bulguksa Temple sits on the lower slopes of Mount Toham, a 750m high mountain that, during the Silla era, was one of the country’s guardian mountains. Site of important religious ceremonies, it’s no surprise that it’s home to a 1300 year-old temple. Time was short so I took a taxi, which dropped me off in a car park at the entrance. I paid the 4000 won (€3.20) entry fee and quickly found myself walking up a tree-lined avenue towards the Temple complex.

The complex comprises numerous exquisitely carved and painted wooden buildings, built on stone terraces set around interconnected courtyards. Arriving at the traditional entrance is a little like arriving outside the walls of a fort, the temple complex rising up in front of you. The tourist entrance is around the side of the courtyard housing the Daeungjeon (Hall of Great Enlightenment); but the traditional entrance was up one of two flights of stairs, the Blue Cloud Bridge and the White Cloud Bridge. Both have 33 steps representing the 33 stages of enlightenment.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Inside the courtyard is the Hall of Great Enlightenment and two stone pagodas – Seokgatap (Pagoda of Sakyamuni) and Dabotap (Pagoda of Bountiful Treasures) – both listed as National Treasures. Sadly, only Dabotap was visible while Seokgatap undergoes restoration following damage caused by an earthquake. This isn’t the first time Seokgatap has needed repairs. In 1966 some would-be thieves, believing the pagoda to contain treasures, attempted to blow it up using explosives.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

They were right, the interior of the pagoda contained anient Buddhist relics and what some claim to be the oldest known documents printed using a wooden block. Chased off by the monks before they could steal anything, the contents of the pagoda were declared a National Treasure in 1967.

There were plenty of other visitors, but wander away from the main sights and you can find little pockets of solitude, although these get regularly interrupted as tour groups make their way through the complex. After I’d finished strolling amongst the temple buildings, I made my way back towards the bus stop. Walking along the paths through the picturesque landscaped grounds, I reflected upon what it must be like here without all the noise from tourism. Beautiful and serene, I’d bet.

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju, Korea

Hanging out in Medieval Cuenca

Perched on a rocky outcrop high above two gorges forged by the Júcar and Huécar rivers, Cuenca is as dramatic a sight as any in Spain, especially the casas colgadas, houses that hang precariously from the steep rock over the gorge below. Walking its narrow, medieval streets the evocative history of this fabulous town seems to seep out of the stone walls and cobbled streets. I’d wanted to visit Cuenca for years after seeing a panoramic photo in the travel pages of a newspaper, despite the chilly March weather and occasional rain showers, it didn’t disappoint.

Cuenca is a beautiful place, full of atmosphere. It has a compact old town which is easy to stroll around, some excellent restaurants and lively, entertaining bars crammed full of locals and visitors alike. We had one of the best meals of our trip, fresh grilled octopus washed down with local artisan beer, in a small restaurant just off the Plaza Mayor. The town also has a couple of really good museums, including the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español which occupies one of the casas colgadas.

We’d arrived on a Saturday and there was a buzz in the town as visiting Madrileños arrived for a weekend in the country. Cuenca is deservedly on the tourist trail, but on a weekend in late March we didn’t come across any other tourists who weren’t Spanish – which made watching the El Clasico game between Barcelona and Real Madrid in a local bar a lot of fun. Barcelona won, much to the disappointment of everyone in the bar except for two gleeful Catalans.

This is tapas country and every glass of wine or beer is accompanied by a sizeable portion of free tapas. I’ve always thought the Spanish approach to drinking the most civilised in the world: order a drink, get some free food, order enough drinks and you rarely need dinner. Although given how cheap a glass of wine is I don’t know how it can be economical. Elsewhere in Spain you might get olives, bread with cheese or chorizo; in Cuenca the tapas comes in large quantities and is largely pork-based. Delicious it may be, but after a couple of days I found myself saying no to yet more morcilla or pork scratchings.

Cuenca’s culinary delights are more than matched by its historical delights. Considered an exceptional medieval fortified town by UNESCO, it was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1996. The town dates back to Roman times, but it was the arrival of the Moors in the 8th Century that put it on the map; by the 11th Century it was a flourishing textile centre with grand fortifications making it a strategic point at the heart of the Caliphate of Cordoba. A near impregnable stronghold, the town finally fell to the Castilian forces of the Reconquista in 1177.

It may not show it today, but like much of Spain Cuenca suffered a steep decline from the 16th Century onwards. The grinding rural poverty, so poetically brought to life in Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and the oppression of the church, which came to typify the rural Spanish experience, was widespread in-and-around Cuenca by the early 20th Century. Perhaps not surprisingly, Cuenca was firmly in the Republican camp during the Spanish Civil War, and only surrendered to General Franco’s forces in the final days of the war.

Reprisals and imprisonment against Republican supporters were plentiful once Franco’s Nationalists took control. Some of these reprisals were revenge for the killing of priests (including Cuenca’s Bishop) and other Nationalist supporters during the Civil War. The whole of this region suffered huge economic decline in the post-Civil War period, and many of the inhabitants migrated to other regions of Spain. That trend has been reversed, and today Cuenca seems to be a prosperous little town with tourism increasingly contributing to the local economy.

Djenne, one of Africa’s oldest cities

If you’re going to build a city out of mud, you probably shouldn’t build it between two rivers that flood so severely in the rainy season that the town is transformed into an island reachable only by boat. The architects of ancient Djenne decided to build the city between the Rivers Niger and Beni; good for river transport, less good for longevity, or so you might think. They got around the annual threat of being washed away by building on raised platforms.

Djenne dates its foundation to around 250BC, making it one of sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest cities. Its golden age arrived in the 15th and 16th Centuries when it flourished as a centre for trade, Islamic scholarship and pilgrimage. Most of the buildings are made of mud bricks, baked hard in the sun and then coated in a protective layer of mud. More than two thousand ancient buildings survive from Djenne’s golden age, one of the reasons it is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The star of the UNESCO show, and Djenne’s centrepiece, is the world’s largest mud structure. The glorious Grand Mosque is one of the most famous buildings in Africa, although the annual re-plastering of the mosque is almost as famous as the building itself. This enormous undertaking sees hundreds of people climbing the walls, using the wooden supports that protrude from the walls, and cover the walls of the mosque in a new coat of protective mud every year.

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

For a mud structure, the mosque is huge. It can hold 3000 people, and its thick walls support three massive towers and protect worshipers from the intense heat. Each of the towers is topped with an ostrich egg, symbol of purity and fertility, and the whole structure reflects the same ancient Malian architecture that we saw in Timbuktu. Non-Muslims can’t enter the mosque, but it is fun to be in the large square outside the building when worshipers flood out of the entrances.

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The sudden riot of colour and noise transforms the uniformly dull-brown plaza, as people meet and greet their friends and family, and head across the square before disappearing down Djenne’s dusty streets. I didn’t have long in Djenne, just a day to recover from the trek through the Dogon Country and to take in some of the sights. Luckily there aren’t that many sights and the weekly market, which attracts many people from surrounding villages, wasn’t happening the day I was there.

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Worshippers leave the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, Africa

At its peak Djenne was a major trading centre, linked to Timbuktu by the River Niger. Goods from the south, including gold and slaves, were taken from Djenne to connect with the great Saharan caravans which had their southern terminus in Timbuktu; salt, cloth and the much prized metal, copper, flowed from the north to Djenne. Such was its wealth and strategic importance that it was coveted and conquered by numerous other kingdoms, from the Moroccans in the 16th Century, to the French in the 19th Century.

Today, although it has a population of 40,000, it feels like a sleepy town where not a huge amount happens. The streets are dusty and, at night, very quiet. As you walk around the town you notice two distinctive styles of architecture on people’s homes. The Toucouleur-style has a massive and low porch over the entrance, while the Moroccan-style has a plain entrance. The styles reflecting the waves of conquerers who took control of the city.

Toucouleur-style house in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Toucouleur-style house in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Sudanese-style house in Djenne, Mali, Africa

Sudanese-style house in Djenne, Mali, Africa

After a second night in Djenne, we had an early start and left in a beat-up old 4×4 to travel the 600km back to Bamako. I just had enough time to shower, and take in some live music at one of Bamako’s legendary music clubs, before heading to the airport for a 2am flight to Morocco.