Tag: Favourites

The Windmills at Kinderdijk

Whenever I think of the Netherlands, the first image that comes to my mind is of flat, green country, divided by countless canals and dotted with windmills. In truth, there are only a few places left where you actually have an abundance of windmills, and one of them is the World Heritage Site Kinderdijk. 

At Kinderdijk, you find a network of a staggering 19 windmills within a relatively small space and the sight is amazing. The Dutch may be sick of hearing this, but in the eyes of tourists windmills are quintessentially Dutch and they’re quite mad about having their photos taken with one.

Much more than just looking pretty in an old-fashioned sort of way and making for a sufficiently touristy photo opportunity, windmills are evidence of Dutch engineering genius. If it wasn’t for windmills, quite a large chunk of the Netherlands might still be uninhabitable swampland or covered by water entirely. Rather than just be used to grind grains, windmills in the Netherlands are, or were, used to pump water and help make the country habitable.

According to the official description,

‘the Mill Network at Kinderdijk-Elshout is an outstanding human-made landscape that bears powerful testimony to human ingenuity and fortitude over nearly a millennium in draining and protecting an area by the development and application of hydraulic technology.’

I was utterly amazed to find out from the above mentioned description of the site that the windmills ‘function as fall-back mills in case of failure of the modern equipment’ even today. From one of the volunteers on site I learned that most of the Western part of the Netherlands would be underwater in case pumping should stop for three months. Let’s hope all those pumps and hydraulic systems keep going!


At the pumping station at Kinderdijk, you can watch an interesting, hands-on display, as well as a film on the history of the site and how water management with the help of windmills works. There are also two museum windmills, which can be entered and explored. All the other windmills can be viewed from several walkways. For the ones further from the entrance, little jetties have been built to provide better photo options – towards the end of summer, the reeds on the edges of the canals grow very tall and if it wasn’t for those wooden platforms, you’d hardly be able to see some of the windmills. There are also benches at frequent intervals, so you can have a rest or even a picnic. When I visited, you could buy pancakes and ice-cream from stalls near the first museum mill – I don’t know if they are available all the time, though.


Although the area isn’t too large and can easily be explored on foot, I would recommend renting a bicycle from the cafe/gift shop. However, you should watch out for tourists who apparently haven’t ever ridden a bike before, have hardly any control over it and go here, there and everywhere across both lanes. If you see one of those, take cover. On the whole, cycling through the lush, green countryside with canals on both sides and windmills seemingly everywhere is a wonderfully relaxing pastime.

In case you visit in summer or generally when it is warm and sunny, you may want to bring a cap or sun hat. I didn’t, because I thought it wouldn’t be that warm at the beginning of September and quickly regretted it. There is hardly any shadow to be found along the paths and cyclelanes connecting the windmills and if the sun is out, it will burn down on you relentlessly. I paid for my foolish misjudgement with a splitting headache.


There are several ways of getting to Kinderdijk, which lies roughly within a triangle between Rotterdam, Dordrecht and Utrecht. You can visit by car, of course, but public transport is also an easy option, with bus connections from the three cities mentioned above. From Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Kinderdijk can also be reached by means of the Waterbus, i.e. by boat. It takes about half an hour and is a nice change to sitting on a bus or going by car.

I absolutely loved this World Heritage Site, as it allows you to experience a typically Dutch landscape, learn about the history of the area and the underlying engineering methods and also to either walk or cycle around in the open air. A definite must-see!

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Plitvice Lakes

Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia just has to be one of the prettiest World Heritage Sites I have visited so far. The vast hilly woodlands, the streams, waterfalls and cascading lakes are breathtaking. Due to the underlying limestone and chalk and the reflected colours of the canopy and sky, the water takes on mesmerising hues of greenish-blue and is crystal-clear:


You really wouldn’t be entirely wrong comparing some of those lakes’ colours to a Caribean or South Seas beach and when I visited, I wanted nothing more than just jump in – this is not allowed, though, because people entering the lakes would destroy the underground, which makes the colours so special. To keep the park intact, it is absolutely necessary to stay on the paths and wooden walkways.

The national park was created in 1949 and is just under 297 square kilometers large; it was granted World Heritage status in 1979. The park is situated about 55 km from the Adriatic coast and can easily be reached by car or coach – there are regular tours on offer. Getting to the Plitvice Lakes by public transport is a little more tricky, but not impossible.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is home to many species of birds, and also to bears and wolves, apparently. Thankfully, I didn’t encounter any of those! =)


I know that a majority of tourists to Croatia spend their time on the beaches along the Adriatic coast, but it is well worth having a day away from the beach in the beautiful Plitvice Lakes National Park.


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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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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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