All posts by Chrissie Brungs

The Blue Mountains

The Greater Blue Mountains Area is one of Australia’s many natural heritage sites. Easily accessible from Sydney, a visit should not be missed.

On my last vacation down under, I only had three days in Sydney and was a little iffy about spending one of those on a trip inland. I was rather tempted to spend the day on the coast, but on the other hand I had wanted to visit the Blue Mountains for a long time. In the end, my ambition to visit as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites (WHS) as possible got the better over my desire to spend time at the beach. I think this was a good decision.

The Greater Blue Mountains Area can be reached from Sydney in about an hour by car and there are also many tours available, so there really is no excuse not to spend at least a few hours there. I was quite overwhelmed by the sheer size of the eucalypt woods – there seems to be no end to them. Walking through, you feel lost in a wilderness, despite the knowledge that urban life is close by. Standing on the edge of cliffs of up to 300 metres height, overlooking the vast bluish-green mass of eucalypt, you cannot imagine a village or town to be close by, let alone a huge city like Sydney.

 

According to the site’s description on the UNESCO World Heritage website, the area is so important because it

‘(…) is noted for its representation of the evolutionary adaptation and diversification of the eucalypts in post-Gondwana isolation on the Australian continent.’

The Greater Blue Mountains Area WHS is actually comprised of eight different sites: seven national parks and a karst conservation reserve, to a total of 1.3 million hectares. According to the UNESCO’s description mentioned above,

‘it constitutes one of the largest and most intact tracts of protected bushland in Australia’,

and is home to 152 plant families, 484 genera and c. 1,500 species – you can find ‘a significant proportion of the Australian continent’s biodiversity’ here. Yet, even if you’re not into biology or the evolution of the planet, the area is breathtaking and makes for an amazing day out.

 

When we stopped for lunch in a small town, I was reminded of a passage from Bill Bryson’s Down Under, in which he states that visiting small towns in inland Australia he felt transported back to the 1950’s. I found some of that nostalgic feeling here, as well, with a well-maintained high street, little shops here and there, cafes and restaurants, trees to offer shade along the walkways and hardly any traffic. It seemed like a place you’d like to spend time strolling or sitting around, not like a lot of towns nowadays, where there aren’t any little shops anymore, hardly any eateries or places to sit. This really felt like a nice change from urban concrete, despite being an urban setting itself – just much more alluring and comfortable.

I also rather enjoyed a trip to Scenic World Blue Mountain, where you can go on the world’s steepest railway (scary!), walk through Jurassic rainforest on the Jamison Valley floor and also have a choice between a skyway and cableway. Our group went down into the valley on the railway, then for a walk followed by a cableway trip across the gorge to a viewpoint from which you have good views of the famous rock formation known as the Three Sisters. What really made my day, though, was seeing a lyre bird. They are said to be extremely shy and I hadn’t expected to see – or hear – one. Unfortunately, it kept moving around, so that I wasn’t able to take a decent photograph.

In sum, I can only recommend a visit to the Blue Mountains. If you have the time, you should probably stay for a few days.

 

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Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, Melbourne

The Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens in Melbourne are yet another example of my stumbling onto World Heritage Sites completely unawares. Don’t let this poor habit of mine diminish their worth, though. The actual building is very beautiful and the surrounding gardens are a welcome spot for a break after sightseeing in Melbourne.

Located just north of the city centre, the exhibition building was built in just 18 months in 1879/80, in time to host the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880. Designed by architect Joseph Reed and built by David Mitchell, it is said to be based on various European buildings, such as the cathedral in Florence. The Exhibition Building went on to house several other exhibitions and major events, chief among them the centenary celebrations of 1888 and the opening of the first Parliament of Australia in 1901; but also several events during the 1956 Summer Olympics (I kid you not). The royal title, however, was not bestowed until 1984. Unfortunately, vast parts of the building were either demolished or lost to fire.

 

Nowadays, the remaining part of the building – the Great Hall –  is still used for commercial exhibitions and there was one in full swing when I visited. Sadly, I therefore do not have any decent photographies of the amazing interior. The exterior is also quite stunning, though, and reminds me of a cathedral much more than a building I’d envisage for commercial shows. This outlook is clearly different to that of the organisers of the famous international exhibitions, and UNESCO states the following as a criterion for the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne being a World Heritage Site:

“The Royal Exhibition Building and the surrounding Carlton Gardens, as the main extant survivors of a Palace of Industry and its setting, together reflect the global influence of the international exhibition movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement showcased technological innovation and change, which helped promote a rapid increase in industrialisation and international trade through the exchange of knowledge and ideas.” (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1131)

I am quite grateful for the people in charge to have built something so beautiful, and for the building to have survived. If you have a chance, you should visit the Royal Exhibition Building at a time when there isn’t a major event on, as that would make it much easier to visit and enjoy the inside.

 

In case you would like to enjoy another beautiful relic of times gone by, you should travel on the lovely retro tram No. 35 – it has two stops on the edge of Carlton Gardens and circles the city centre, making sightseeing a little easier on your feet. If that doesn’t convince you, yet, it is also free of charge.

 

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Zollverein Coal Mining Complex (Zeche Zollverein)

When I was growing up in a small, leafy municipality near the Dutch-German border, the German area known as the Ruhrgebiet was still the epitome of ugly. The snooty inhabitants of better-off areas left no doubt about the industrial Ruhrgebiet’s shortcomings, its ugliness and dirt, impoverished inhabitants, and a certain university taking first place in students’ suicide statistics. Getting older, however, I heard more and more differing voices. It seemed that the inhabitants of the Ruhrgebiet actually took pride in their working class background, its rough charms  and underdog status. This is a little simplified, naturally, as the Ruhrgebiet isn’t a small area (4.435 square kilometers with 5.1 million inhabitants, according to Wikipedia) and the landscape, people and traditions do vary. On the whole, this label of a rough, but ultimately warm-hearted place and people still sticks, though.

What a lot of people, including myself, have not or have only slowly realised, is the fact that the “ugly duckling” has started transforming itself. Nowadays, there are many huge, green areas throughout the Ruhrgebiet, offering lovely local recreation areas, which twenty-odd years ago nobody would have expected to remain alive and green in this part of the country.

The coal mining complex known as Zeche Zollverein, located in the city of Essen, is a good example of such re-purposing. Zeche Zollverein was active between 1851 and 1986, oftentimes the most productive German coal mine per annum and generally offering up millions of tonnes of coal each year, and employing up to a thousand workers. Although the buildings and remaining machinery naturally look industrial – how could they appear any different? – the surrounding area at Zeche Zollverein is… green.

 

I was dumbstruck on finding out that the former mining complex now offers a recreational area for people living in the vicinity, who go there for walks or cycling. I can’t even say how many parents I saw pushing their prams or walking toddlers and dogs, something I wouldn’t have expected at the site of a huge former industrial complex. There even is a small swimming pool, which I already wrote about. Dotted throughout the site, you will also find sculptures and other arty installations. You can enter the grounds (and pool!)  free of charge, making the site even more accessible to locals; if you want to visit exhibitions or take guided tours, there are fees to be paid, however.

When I visited, I participated in a guided tour of the coking plant, which was extremely interesting, and also highlighted the dangers faced by the workers, even in modern times. I then visited the Ruhr Museum, which showcases not only the cultural and industrial, but also the natural history of the Ruhrgebiet. The museum is situated within the former coal washing plant, providing a fascinating backdrop to the exhibits. People interested in product design are bound to love the Red Dot Design Museum. In winter, you’ll find an ice rink in the old coking plant and stalls with all sorts of christmassy food. In case you get tired of walking, there is a bike hire station on site and a shuttle bus service is also provided.

 

In sum, I have to say that I will need to visit again: Spending a day or a couple of hours will give you a good first overview over the heritage of the coal mining industry. The whole of the former coal mining complex, however, is so huge and offers so many facilities, exhibitions and guided walks, that one day just didn’t suffice.  To me, the site is especially fascinating through its mix of industry and nature and art – and even food, by way of several restaurants. The former industrial site has been thoroughly incorporated into modern life, blending the past and the present and allowing for the history to be experienced and touched, not just looked upon. What more can you ask of a heritage site?

 

 

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Taking a Dip in a Colliery

The swimming pool at Zeche Zollverein in Essen just has to be the craziest pool I have ever visited – if there is one place I wouldn’t expect a pool, it has to be a colliery.

Zeche Zollverein (or Zollverein Colliery, as it is also known in English), is a World Heritage Site that depicts the tough working conditions which could be found in collieries throughout the Ruhrgebiet (or collieries anywhere else, come to think of it). And smack in the middle of the former coking plant, there sits a small swimming pool. To keep in line with the industrial heritage, it has been fashioned from disused freight containers, but it seems a little out of place, nonetheless.

 

The pool was created by Dirk Paschke und Daniel Milohnic in 2001, and has since become something of a fixture, being open to the public every summer, free of charge.

There is a lifeguard on duty, and when I visited the pool was crowded with local kids – they obviously enjoyed the pool and I think it is a marvellous idea to combine a heritage site with everyday life. After all, heritage sites and historic monuments have become just that because of the impact they had on peoples’ lives – so why not fuse old and new?

If you happen to be visiting the area in summer, take your bathers along and take a dip at this fancy pool!

Do you know of any other World Heritage Sites that happen to have their own pool?

 

Please note that this blog post was first published on my previous blog ‘Inside Chrissie’s Mind’ on November 12th, 2015.

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Climbing the Roof of Aachen Cathedral

A week ago, my friend Jessi and I were in for an extra special treat: we had a chance to participate in a guided tour of Aachen Cathedral (Aachener Dom). This wasn’t one of the regular tours, though, but one which took us into the framework and right onto the roof.

The tour was led by the person in charge of the cathedral building, Mr. Maintz. His title in German is Dombaumeister, but translations are a bit tricky. A Baumeister is a master builder, but a Dombaumeister is more than that. Back in medieval times, this would have been the master builder (or architect, maybe) in charge of planning and building the cathedral. Nowadays, a Dombaumeister’s task is to preserve the building and repair it, where necessary. Mr. Maintz, in fact, isn’t actually a builder, but an engineer and has two colleagues who help preserve the Aachener Dom – three people for such a large and important monument really don’t seem much, I thought. Apart from being the Dombaumeister, Mr. Maintz is an excellent tour guide and managed to convey a wealth of information – even to someone like me, who has hardly any knowledge of the natural sciences or engineering.

 

He explained, for instance, that he is in charge not only of the actual building (i.e. the stone structure), but also the heating and that this involves various aspects, such as keeping the interior of the building between certain temperatures and degrees of humidity, so as not to compromise the wooden structures, furniture or the artefacts within the church. He even stretched my grasp of chemical processes by explaining how and why stone erodes, or how to fight woodworm.

Our guide also gave a detailed account of the different building phases and the various materials and skilled labourers at hand. It is to be noted that the original building, the palatial chapel, was built around 800 AD in a style and size which was entirely unusual for this area. This is, in fact, one of the reasons that Aachen Cathedral was the first German historical monument to be awarded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, back in 1978. There are several other superlatives to be found here, as well: The stained glass windows in the Gothic choir cover an area of 1.000 square meters (nearly the size of an Olympic swimming pool) and have a height of 25 meters, thus being the highest windows from the Gothic period. And if I remember correctly, the building of the palatial chapel was – at the time – the highest north of the Alps. Considering that Aachen at that time was neither a large nor an important town, it is quite astonishing that such an ambitious building project was undertaken here. But such are the perks of being an emperors’s favourite abode…

 

Mr. Maintz then led us into the attic and explained how the large and – for this area – unusual structure was held together. It involved foundations five meters deep and huge iron bands around the building, as well as a deflection of pressure from the roof into the ground. If you want to find out more, I’m afraid you’ll have to read up on it or do a tour yourselves, as I don’t have sufficient knowledge of engineering to explain this properly. Apart from that I would’t want to steal Mr. Mainz’ excellent description of how statics work, which involved a grapefruit. (I kid you not.)

The highlight, of course, was being able to walk along the galleries on the roof. We had breathtaking views of Aachen and the surrounding area, and it isn’t every day that you get to climb around on a cathedral. I very much doubt that the 30 German kings that were coronated in Aachen between 936 und 1531 had the privilege. But then again, they wouldn’t have had cameras, anyway. =)

 

If ever you get a chance to participate in this special tour, do it! I am almost certain that you will not regret it, as you get to visit areas of the cathedral that are usually out of bounds and you are provided with lots and lots of information about the cathedral and its 1.200 year old history. Oh, and the proceeds actually go to preserving the cathedral, which is a pretty good thing, as well.

 

Please note that this blog post was first published on my previous blog ‘Inside Chrissie’s Mind’ on October 28th, 2015.

 

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Canterbury

In March, I finally made it to Canterbury.

I had wanted to visit Canterbury for a long time: as a student of medieval history, you can’t help but hear about it again and again – especially, when you are interested in the Plantagenet era.

Add studies in English literature and linguistics, as I did, and you end up with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. No way around this city, then. =)

The cathedral came to sad fame in 1170, when Archbishop Thomas Becket (formerly King Henry II’s Lord Chancellor) was killed inside by four of King Henry II’s knights and I doubt we’ll ever know whether this truly happened on the orders of the king or not. In the aftermath of this gruesome murder, however, Canterbury Cathedral became a popular destination for pilgrims. It’s those pilgrims that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales deal with, and his work is famous for popularising the vernacular language, namely Middle English. Up until then (the 14th century), the vernacular had not really been considered for publication, as Latin and French had been the languages of the learned people, who considered it unnecessary to educate the masses. To put it simply, writers such as Chaucer rang in a new era by writing in the language of the ‘common’ people and thus giving them an incentive to learn to read. It took centuries to spread education to the masses, of course, but a foundation was laid in the middle ages. (Which is one of the reasons I hate to hear them referred to as ‘the Dark Ages’.)

 

Having been such an important place to so many people over the centuries, I decided I had to have a look at this cathedral. Add the fact that it is the final resting place of Edward, the Black Prince, and going there was a must.

I went to Canterbury on a day trip from London; as it was a Sunday, the city was full of tourists. This isn’t surprising at all: Even if you weren’t interested in visiting the cathedral, Canterbury would still be a nice destination for a day trip.

Canterbury has a lovely town centre with lots of nicely kept old houses, a number of cafes and little shops and it just invites to stroll around or go punting and enjoy the day. There’s a range of museums, as well, and the cathedral, of course.

The cathedral is fairly large and impressive, but apart from the stained glass windows it is mostly quite unadorned. Being used to the more lavishly decorated cathedrals on the continent, this made for quite a change (which isn’t supposed to mean that I didn’t like the cathedral).

It is rather a shame that the cathedral is boxed in by the town houses so much, as it is difficult to get a good view of the whole building.

 

I was told you could catch a good glimpse from out of town, but as the weather was grey and rainy, I couldn’t bring myself to walk the few miles back and forth. I imagine it a nice idea for a warm summer’s day, though.

Oh, one more thought: If – like myself – you like visiting World Heritage Sites and you come to Canterbury for this reason, you should keep in mind that the World Heritage Site there comprises of three different locations.

Apart from the cathedral, always called Canterbury Cathedral but actually Christ Church Cathedral, the heritage site is made up of the ruins of the Abbey of St. Augustine and the Church of St. Martin, which is considered to be the oldest church in England.

 

Please note that this blog post was first published on my previous blog ‘Inside Chrissie’s Mind’ on October 25th, 2015.

 

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Venice

Venice. Venezia. La Serenissima.

Those words invoke such expectation, it’s really rather difficult to put my own thoughts to paper. I just don’t know how to describe my experience of visiting Venice. Needless to say, so many literary geniuses have written about the city before that I hardly dare do so myself, seeing as I’m a total hack.

Venice felt like a strange kind of dream. Throughout your life, you get to see so many pictures and hear so many accounts of this extraordinary city that on arrival you get the impression that you already know the place. Which is ridiculous, of course, because you’ve never been there before. But you do recognise so many buildings and landmarks that some sort of familiarity creeps up on you. I don’t know about you, but I was totally freaked out by that.

 

Talking about freaks, all those tourists drove me mad. Unfortunately, I had time for only a daytrip and to make matters worse, I had to go during the Easter holidays. This meant that the whole of Venice was packed to breaking point with tourists. Now I know I shouldn’t be complaining about tourists, as I am one myself, but I just don’t know how the people of Venice cope with this onstorm. If I was living in a place that was overrun by such numbers of tourists, I’d go berserk.

 

But please don’t let my complaining put you off – Venice is well worth a trip, it’s full of the most amazing, beautiful buildings and steeped in such a rich and varied history you’d have to be insane not to want to go. The World Heritage Site is comprised of the city of Venice and its lagoon. I will definitely have to come back at some stage and explore in more detail. Hopefully this article and photos offer a first impression.

 

Please note that this blog post was first published on January 20th, 2015 my previous blog ‘Inside Chrissie’s Mind’, and has been amended slightly.

 

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Santiago de Compostela

A couple of weeks ago, I had an opportunity to visit Santiago de Compostela. Friends had told me repeatedly what a beautiful city it is, so I was thrilled at the thought of finally getting to see it for myself.

Unfortunately, I had less than two days and to top that misfortune it was raining cats and dogs all the time I was there. But what can I say? I loved every single minute of it!

It took quite some effort to actually get there, but I have mostly myself to blame for that: I was way too cheap to spend an enormous amount of money on the flight and therefore didn’t get a direct connection. However, I’m told that Santiago really is a difficult place to get to in any case. Once there, I was happy to find out there is a handy shuttle bus service from the airport into town. It only costs peanuts as well, which is always nice. Finding out that my hotel was right next to a bus stop was also a big plus.

When I finally made it into the town centre, I was instantly enchanted. It was the late afternoon of a grey, rainy day and the town was veiled in an indescribably eerie atmosphere – the blurry softness that comes with a drizzle, the fuzzy yellow lights of a street lamp here and there and that certain something that can only be radiated by medieval buildings.

Walking through some narrow road, which was lined by charming arcades, I happened across the cathedral. Having done no previous reading on the town, I also hadn’t bothered looking at a map and therefore didn’t actually know where I was going; you may call that careless or stupid, but I just love ambling around and happening upon buildings, things or people I didn’t expect to encounter.

For that very reason, I didn’t realise I had found the cathedral until I stepped inside. In my defence I have to say that I came towards the cathedral from the South, and that – despite it looking like a church entrance – you don’t realise it is one of the biggest cathedrals you could find. From that perspective, it really looked like any old church squeezed into an old town, not being able to see properly where one building stops and the next one starts. (Never mind you don’t usually squeeze a church into a town as it is rather that a town huddles around a church – but I hope you get the picture in any case).

 

So here I was, suddenly standing inside one of Christianity’s most treasured places. After all, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is home to the remains of St. James and the destination of one of the most prestigious pilgrimages – the Pilgrimage (or Camino) of St. James. Believers have undertaken that pilgrimage for hundreds of years and endured unbelievable hardships while doing so. I’m told the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was second only to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land – quite an important place, therefore.

Despite not being a religious person at all, I was absolutely gobsmacked when I stepped inside the cathedral. I believe I actually blocked the entrance, because I just couldn’t take it all in and stopped dead. After recovering, I dare say I wandered around with my eyes and mouth wide open, looking as ridiculous as you please. I tried very hard to behave myself and put forward my best Sunday behaviour. Yet you (or I at least) can’t help craning your neck in surroundings such as these and staring at all the priceless paintings and statues, at the glittering gems and all that gold and silver. It really is too much to take in.

Personally though, I have to say I’m much more taken with the cathedral’s exterior. Somehow I vastly prefer the actual building to its overladen décor inside. Don’t get me wrong, the interior is amazing and contains so many artefacts it makes your head spin. But possibly this is just the point for me: being inside the cathedral, I didn’t find the peace I had expected to find in such a sacred place (despite not being a religious person, I still appreciate being in places of worship sometimes). Being outside, I found the presence of the cathedral highly soothing, though.

Although in all honesty that is an effect a lot of ancient buildings have on me. I absolutely love visiting medieval castles and I have that annoying tick of having to touch the old stones, sort of an attempt to convince myself of the fact that they’re actually there. The knowledge that something has been in existence for hundreds or even thousands of years and has seen so many different eras, events and people and that I possibly am in the exact same spot as someone a thousand years ago is quite breathtaking to me.

Continuing my walk around town I had another superb experience. In a little archway between the cathedral and another building there was a bloke playing his bagpipes. It sounded absolutely wonderful and the resonance of the music from that little archway out into the courtyard in front of the cathedral was spectacular. The music in combination with that eerie, drizzly atmosphere and the dusky view of the cathedral was breathtaking and I felt transported back in time. Unbelievably, I came across another person playing the bagpipes the next evening – so possibly this is a regular occurrence and you’ll have a chance to see and hear it, as well.

 

As I didn’t have a lot of time to spend in Santiago de Compostela, I didn’t visit any museums – rather than being indoors I spent my time walking all around town and soaking up the atmosphere (and the rain). I am pretty sure I’ll come back with more time, though. What I also want to do is to visit the surrounding countryside. I left Santiago by train and caught so many lovely glimpses of Galicia (the sun had come out!) that I am convinced it is a superb holiday destination. Go see this place!

 

Please note that this blog post was first published on January 13th, 2013 on my previous blog ‘Inside Chrissies Mind’.

 

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