A Site for Sore Eyes? (Pt I)

When I think of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I tend to think of a single location such as Palace Green in Durham, where both Castle and Cathedral are found, or Studley Royal in Yorkshire, where John Aislabie added his estate and water gardens to the existing ruins of Fountains Abbey.  In Sicily though, I found the word “site” stretched to breaking point, for here UNESCO have granted World Heritage status, to what they call

Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale

That trips off the tongue doesn’t it?  What’s more the description that might suggest three locations actually relates to nine; for the elements located in Palermo include the cathedral, three other churches, a pair of palaces… and a bridge!  Furthermore, though Monreale is contained within the urban sprawl of Palermo it is a separate town,  and Cefalù is over 60km away as the crow flies.

So what were UNESCO thinking?  Well this scattering of locations are united by unique evidence of intercultural cooperation, describe by UNESCO as:

…the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard and French).

If you’ve read my previous posts from Sicily, then this multiculturalism will come as no surprise, but what surprised me was the impact that some of these structures (I didn’t visit all nine) had on me, and two in particular.

Bay of Palermo viewed from Monreale

From my brief visit to a cold and grey Cefalù I headed straight to Monreale where heavy rain and the fact that the Cathedral was closed made me question the value of a visit.  I persevered, killing time with a quick lunch and a when the rain stopped, a walk around the wet streets nearby (rarely great conditions for photography).  As I wandered I caught glimpses of a style I was to become familiar with on my travels around the island but I had no idea what was in store.

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When the doors opened once more people materialised from all directions, and with good reason.  I was immediately reminded of Howard Carter’s words on entering the Tomb of Tutankhamun; everywhere the glint of gold.  Not the gilt statuary and picture frames that you might expect in a catholic cathedral; here it was in mosaic and roof timbers, pictorial and abstract, above you and below.  With too many people around to deploy a tripod, and works too delicate to even consider a flash,  I wedged myself between pillars and into corners in an attempt to get the stability to produce decent pictures.  These don’t even begin to do justice to a building whose beauty literally brought tears to my eyes.  The nave shone with the Byzantine and the Muslim (those geometric patterns produced by a religion that shuns figurative representation), but beyond the altar the style changed.

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Here Baroque chapels revel in marble craftsmanship that anywhere else would be with a visit in themselves but of course the return journey to the exit doors was by way of that magnificent nave that would form my abiding memory.

Time to dry my eyes and return to the real world.


Fit for a Prince

Though most of its citizens are doubtless unaware of this, Durham has a pretty special history.  There was probably an earlier settlement here, but the place was really put on the map when the monks of Lindisfarne arrived with the bones of St Cuthbert (hermit of the Farne Islands) 300 years after his death to keep him safe from Viking raiders.  I say bones, but one of the features of Cuthbert’s body was that is was supposedly incorruptible.

Durham was England’s greatest pilgrimage site until the murder of St Thomas a Becket gave Canterbury a claim to fame (and an easier journey from the capital for the pilgrims).  Nevertheless Durham continued to draw in the crowds until the monastery was stripped by our old friend Henry VIII.

But let’s rewind a little.  When the Normans invaded, they placed great importance on Cuthbert’s shrine and built the great cathedral that houses his bones and those of St Bede.  Two saints for the price of one and two of the figures that made Northumbria the century of European culture in the dark ages.  Given its distance from London, and the unruly nature of the north they made the bishop a very powerful man, second only to the King.  Thus Durham became the land of the Prince Bishops – a title that into the 19th Century, and a castle was built alongside the cathedral to house the potentate._pw_3843_hdr

I tend to undervalue the castle and for a couple of reasons:

  • It’s difficult to view it all in one go, therefore difficult to envisage its size unless you resort untitled-8236to a drone (or the view from the cathedral tower)
  • From the Palace Green, where the gatehouse stands,  the keep atop its hill (motte to be accurate) seems insignificant when  you have the towering mass of the great church to your back.

From the riverside it has a more imposing aspect, given greater prominence by the hill on which it stands (Durham has seven like Rome), and some streets do their bit in blocking out the larger neighbour, but from most places there’s no getting away from the fact that the castle is the junior partner in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Which is a pity, because the building embodies some rich architectural heritage; inevitable given that it was home to a series of princes.  The original builders were Anglo-Saxon and so there are traces of Anglian styling.  Romanesque arches imported by the Normans are topped with characteristically English Gothic windows.  The courtyard beyond the gatehouse feels like an Elizabethan palace, and the Great Hall, built in the 14th century, was Britain’s largest until shortened towards the end of the 15th!

Another claim to fame; it is the only Norman castle in England not to have been breeched in combat.  A Scottish invasion in 1346 was routed at the nearby Battle of Neville’s Cross and the Scots King David II was captured, apparently after the divine intervention of Cuthbert.

When the Bishops decamped to a new home in Bishop Auckland, Durham Castle became home to students of the university, who have been in residence ever since.  Consequently access to the interior is limited and on the day I visited not allowed.  It seems the young from the around the world are the new princes.  And princesses._pw_3941


Worth Doing Güell (SOS)

_PW_1830Situated much further out from the city that the other Gaudí sites that I’ve written about, Parc Güell seemed no less popular, based on my inability to get a shot of the famous mosaic salamander without someone draping themselves over it for their holiday album.

To be fair, I like to try to find a different way of shooting iconic locations so I didn’t lose too much sleep over it but perhaps the vandals who damaged it with an iron bar in 2007 didn’t feel the same.

The park was originally intended as a housing development mooted by the entrepreneur Count Eusebio Güell and inspired by the English Garden City Movement.  Perhaps he should have waited to see how the English took to the concept; only two such cities were built (Letchworth & Welwyn).  At Parc Güell only two houses were built, in addition to the existing country house home of the Count, and neither  was designed by Gaudí.  He did move into one of them and that has now become a museum populated with his works and those of his collaborators.  (Entry is not included with the park ticket unfortunately)

Still there is much in the park to enjoy, on a larger scale than the details he has crafted elsewhere, and additionally the garden setting permits the comparison between his work and the natural features that he sought to incorporate.

The main terrace, called The Greek Theatre by some and The Nature Square by others, was intended for public performances and is surrounded by a serpentine bench that provides plenty of seating and yet a modicum of privacy at the same time by creating small booth-like recesses.  Naturally this evolved into a public park when the project failed, though in doing so it became difficult to control the numbers onsite and thereby ensure the protection of the structures.  It was the intervention of the authorities to make the park open only to those willing to pay for entry that led to the act of vandalism.  Whilst the frustration is understandable, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and charging the many international visitors for the privilege is a logical way to fund its preservation.

_PW_1550Many of those features have been photographed from every angle, so the challenge of finding something new is considerable.  Visiting early allowed me some different lighting options, but even so the features are immediately recognisable.

So where to find something photogenic but with a hint of originality?  In the place that most of the tourists overlook.  The two lodges that stand on either side of the main entrance function as gift shop and a venue to display photographs and information on the history of the park.  In each case most people are distracted by the contents, or the opportunity to lean out of windows and be photographed by friends or family.  They miss the curving lines of plasterwork and window frame in their rush to see the park, and thus presented me with my opportunity…


Pisa Is Not Alone (Venezia 208)

Mention a leaning tower and Pisa gets all the attention; not without warrant I must say, for the colonnaded design of that tower makes it particularly attractive (not to mention its impressive neighbours in Field of Miracles) and if you ever ascend its spiral, the experience of feeling thrown from wall to wall as the lean pulls you towards the inner and then the outer wall is also memorable.  Let’s be fair though, Venice has lots more leaning towers (even it’s most famous; the Campanile of San Marco is in need of help with stability, despite being completely rebuilt in the 2oth Century) and we shouldn’t be surprised; building such structures on a series of water-logged islands in a lagoon probably isn’t good architectural practice.

This one is the bell tower of Santo Stefano and having added another 6.1cm to its lean in the last 60 years, it might just be in greater need than San Marco.



Public Works

untitled-4The thousands of rail passengers who pass above it each week are probably completely oblivious to its existence, and who could blame them for as they arrive in Durham they are granted amazing views of the Cathedral and Castle, a World Heritage Site.

The hundreds of motorists who drive by each week may never give it a second thought, and those who do are probably unaware of the detail of its construction; the sturdy stone blocks that are visible from the roadway are no more than a facing for a structure comprised of a multitude of small red bricks.

untitled-34untitled-53-Edit-EditThe dozens of people who live below its arches in housing that harks back to an earlier time, probably give their neighbour little thought, having acquired a selective deafness to the rumble of the rail users above them.

And yet someone was thoughtful.

At the foot of one of the supporting pillars of the grade 2 listed structure, the Durham rail viaduct, is another, comparatively tiny detail.

When this was built a century and a half ago someone gave thought to those passers-by and local residents.

They ensured that their most basic needs were catered for.

They installed a fountain.



Wood you believe it? (Venezia 31)

It’s the stones that grab the limelight.  The mosaics, the marble, the bricks, the stucco.  They all vie for your attention, but it’s wood that makes Venice.

Not just in the way-markers showing the safe routes across the lagoon, nor in the construction of its gondolas, not in the jetties or the innumerable mooring posts however jauntily some may be painted.  It’s in the piling.   The great stone palaces would have subsided into the sandy lagoon were it not for an amazing feat of engineering.  Thousands of timber piles as long as 60′ were driven into the ground, through the sand, silt, dirt and mud into a layer of hard clay, and though hundreds of years old, they continue to provide a firm foundation, and so long as they are not exposed to the air they do not rot.

No one sees them, but we owe them a great deal.

Mooring posts at a traghetto jetty
Mooring posts at a traghetto jetty



How I warmed to 0°

Watch this space?  Watches and Space perhaps.

As I left the O2 I was headed for a part of London that was completely new to me, and yet a place with enormous significance for the history of the UK.  Greenwich.


What’s so special about Greenwich then?  Like Durham it contains a World Heritage Site, a status which recognises the number of architectural masterpieces to be found hereabouts, many of which are also of great historical significance.  You could spend days here exploring the treasures that these buildings contain, but with only an afternoon to spare I restricted myself to the exteriors and even then sacrificed both the Vanbrugh Castle and Hawksmoor‘s St Alphege‘s.

Positioned at the bottom of the u-shaped meander  in the Thames and with a hill that gives commanding views up and down the river it is strategically well placed, and the town’s Viking name underlines this.  The Danes were camped here for three years in the 11th Century, murdering the Archbishop who gives his name to the Hawksmoor church when ransom couldn’t be achieved.  Those great sailors created a precedent for maritime feats to come.

Those who saw the recent film Thor: The Dark World will have witnessed the thankfully fictional destruction of the Old Royal Naval College at the hands of Malekith’s Dark Elves, and it is no surprise that the sumptuous vistas it provides are regularly sought out by film and TV productions.  Built on the site of a former Tudor palace, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed by Hawksmoor its beauty should come as no surprise.

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untitled-21And yet there is more on offer here; standing nearby is the Cutty Sark, one of the fastest sailing ships ever built, now “moored” in a specially constructed dry dock whose glazed skirt mimics the water line, yet allows light through to illuminate her sleek hull for the visitors below.

We’re not done yet though for part of the Maritime Museum is housed in a building known as The Queen’s House.  Perfectly aligned with symmetry of the Naval College before it, this was the first piece of classically inspired architecture to be constructed in the UK.  Inigo Jones took his inspiration from Italy and produced this Palladian delight with great colonnades reaching out to the wings on either side.  Appropriately enough, given the Viking history, it was built for Anne of Denmark (wife of James I).

Modestly overseeing all of this grandeur is the Royal Observatory.  Britain’s former dominance was achieved through naval superiority, and the small cluster of buildings that sits atop the hill here were critical to that, with scientific research in field crucial to effective navigation.  Astronomy is perhaps obvious, sailors having steered by the stars for centuries, but for reasons too complex to explain here, accurate timekeeping also has an essential part to play.  (Perched upon the roof is a time ball that is raised daily to drop at exactly 1.00pm GMT – Greenwich Mean Time, its prominence being visible to shipping on the Thames who needed to accurately set their timepieces.  Nowadays the ritual is for the tourists!) Here then you will also find the UK’s largest refracting telescope, John Harrison’s original chronometer, and of course the Greenwich Meridian which marks 0 degrees longitude amongst many other astronomical and horological marvels.  (Thanks to Stephan for posing on the strip that marks the meridian)

Next I will explain the ∞% element!

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