Friday, September 26, 2014

UNESCO World Heritage Sites: 7 Wonders plus 929 more

The majestic Taj Mahal, Agra, India  (Photo: Taylor)
CHARLOTTE, September 26, 2014 – Thanks to UNESCO, modern explorers can access an ever-expanding list of sites throughout the world that can enrich almost any travel experience.

UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which consists of 193 member states and 7 associate states, “works to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly share values.”

The World Heritage List, which is one of many UNESCO projects, is a compilation of 936 properties that are natural, cultural or both.

Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal  (Photo: Estoril Tourism)
For travelers, this list is an invaluable resource of places that are “must see” destinations.  Currently it includes 725 cultural, 183 natural and 28 mixed properties around the planet.

As UNESCO states, “Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.  Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.  What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application.  World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.”

Mont St. Michel, Normandy, France  (Photo: Wikimedia)
Mark Twain, the famed American writer, was an avid traveler.  During one of his many adventures he wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” 

In a sense, UNESCO’s World Heritage project is a living example of Twain’s words, for it is difficult, if not impossible, to visit these sites without being profoundly affected by the diversity and magnitude of their global impact throughout the centuries. 

Many of UNESCO’s locations are ancient sites that are familiar to everyone, like the Great Wall of China, the pyramids of Egypt or the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.  Others are more contemporary, but equally recognizable such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Taj Mahal in India or, even, the city of Venice and its lagoon.

Not all UNESCO sites are located in exotic foreign destinations either.  The United States has many that most Americans, as well as travelers from other countries, will recognize, like the Grand Canyon, Monticello and the Great Smoky Mountains.

Massive Fortress of Suomenlinna, Helsinki, Finland  (Photo: Wikimedia)
Others are largely unknown to many, but every bit as fascinating like the Plitvice Lakes of Croatia, the Fortress of Suomenlinna in Finland and Brimstone Hill on the island of St. Kitts.

Some entire cities are UNESCO sites.  The list contains more than twenty such designations including the Swiss capital of Bern, Quito in Ecuador, Vatican City, and Budapest.

Ayutthaha, Thailand  (Photo: Wikimedia)
As my travels have broadened, whenever I am near a place that features a UNESCO site, I make every effort to go there because I know that I am sure to be rewarded with something new, exciting and educational.  Three personal favorites are Petra in Jordan, the Alhambra in Spain and the excavations of Delphi in Greece.

While the Parthenon in Athens may be better known to most travelers, Delphi’s dramatic hillside setting leaves little doubt about the mystical wonder it held for the ancients.  You will also be awed by the life-size bronze statue of the Charioteer that was discovered in 1896 at the Sanctuary of Apollo.  In a sense, it is the Greek equivalent of Michelangelo’s David.

Granada’s Alhambra is a stunning Moorish castle and fortress complex that was constructed in the mid-14th century.  Built for Spain’s last Muslim emirs, the elaborate buildings and carvings have been described by Moorish poets as "a pearl set in emeralds."

The Treasury, Petra, Jordan  (Photo: Wikimedia)
Jordan’s “rose-red” city of Petra is equally spectacular combining natural beauty with man-made architecture and sculpture.  With its hidden location within majestic canyon walls and a narrow entrance, Petra was largely lost to the world until the end of the 19th century.  Today it remains relatively unknown to mass tourism but for those who do discover it, the impressions are lasting.

It’s simply a matter of knowing that when you travel if you see or hear the words UNESCO World Heritage Site, you are in for an experience that is most assuredly guaranteed to amaze, surprise or educate you in some unique way.

For myself, here are the Top Ten sites I have visited in alphabetical order.  Attempting to give them an order of preference or as a favorite would be little more than an exercise in futility.  Besides, it’s a fragile alliance at best, which means that the list could very easily change when something equally worthy pops up to replace one of the current members. 

Top Ten Favorite Personal UNESCO Sites

             1 – ALHAMBRA  (Spain)
             2 – AYUTTHAYA (Thailand)
             3 – DELPHI EXCAVATIONS  (Greece)
             4 – GRAND CANYON (United States)
             5 – MASADA (Israel)
             6 – PETRA (Jordan)
             7 – PLITVICE LAKES NATIONAL PARK (Croatia)
             8 – POMPEII (Italy)
             9 -- SINTRA (Portugal)
           10 – TAJ MAHAL (India)

Five Honorable Mention UNESCO Sites
             1 – CHICHEN ITZA (Mexico)
             2 – OLD CITY OF DUBROVNIK (Croatia)
             3 – FORTRESS OF SUOMENLINNA (Finland)
             4 – MONT ST. MICHEL (France)
             5 – PRAGUE (Czech Republic)

The UNESCO list is long and the choices are many.  It is possible, as the UNESCO selection committee has done, to define the list according to man-made or natural sites.  By choosing your favorites in separate categories, the list takes on an entirely different perspective. 
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia  (Photo: Wikimedia)
Check it out for yourself.  You might be surprised at how many places you have already seen or you might even discover bold new worlds of interest.  UNESCO’s “wonders of the world” are truly magnificent sites for sore eyes.