Milan, 3 October 2018

When my wife and I are in Vienna, we very often walk down our road into the centre of the city. It is a very pleasant walk, down a historical high street with little shops lining it, in the shade of linden trees much of the way. At about the halfway point, we pass a very nice little square, with a café-restaurant on one side and a fountain in the middle. In the summer, when the weather is good, the restaurant puts tables out in the square around the fountain.

It is this fountain that interests us here. At first glance, it looks quite unremarkable. It seems a typical product of its time, which is late 19th Century. It is composed of three statues, two of which spout water. The composition illustrates some tale, which I suppose was once well known in Vienna, of a bright young girl called Elspeth who through some cleverness or other managed to outwit two infamous robbers. So, we have Elspeth, Goddess-like, standing on a column

while at her feet crouch the two robbers with their hands tied behind their back, looking disconsolate and spouting water from their mouths.

So far, so good. But actually there is something definitely odd about the composition. The pose of one of the robbers is such that it looks like he’s vomiting the water he’s spouting. Already that is a bit strange, but it takes on a surreal quality when you see people merrily eating and drinking at the tables while the statue behind them seems to be puking his guts out.

We’ve been walking past this fountain very often over the last several years, and its oddness strikes me afresh every time we pass (who knows, though? maybe I’m the only person who finds it odd). This frequent mental pause, this little stone in my mental shoe, has had the effect of making me start to think about other odd statues which I have seen over my lifetime. And I’m thinking here of statues where the oddity is unintentional; I’m not interested in statues such as this one where the oddity is very, in-your-face, intentional.

Well, there are these odd statues which my wife and I came across in Salzburg during a little trip we made there during this past summer. They are statues of pickles, or gherkins if you prefer.

The fact that anyone would spend his or her time making statues of pickles is odd enough. What I found even odder was the way the pickle statues were aligned with a very normal statue of Schiller in the middle distance.

But it seems that this was the point. The blurb which accompanied the statues helpfully explained:

A gherkin is a gherkin is a gherkin – or then again, perhaps not? …. “I find the diversity of forms, which by virtue of their uniqueness are inexhaustible, compelling” explains Erwin Wurm [the sculptor] “Although individually different,  each gherkin is immediately identifiable as a gherkin, and generically classifiable as such … analogous to man”. The forms are as different as gherkins and people tend to be: tall and short, thick and thin, rough and smooth, slender and stocky. By scaling his gherkins up to human dimensions and by creating the impression that they are sprouting from the tarmac, Wurm confers upon them the status of creatures, possessed of an intrinsic individuality. The artist leaves his work open to interpretation, hovering as it does between critical irony and playful teasing.

Indeed … Well, my take on the composition is that it looked very Star-Wars like. I could imagine that after a long journey through intergalactic space I was being brought into the presence of the (human-looking) ruler of some distant planet, whose court consisted of pickle-like creatures. In my mind’s eye, I can see them wave gently as I walk past on my way to pay my respects to the ruler, creaking a little perhaps and perhaps oozing some pickling liquid, murmuring in some incomprehensible far-galaxy language as I pass them. I would guess that they stay upright as a result of having suckers on their base. But how would they move around, I wonder?

Leaving this rather feverish daydream and coming back to earth, how about this statue?

It is of a young man, naked but for some sort of loin cloth, purposefully striding along. Its oddness comes from its location, which is in the vestibule of Milan’s main post office. The inference is clear. When he was installed, which must have been some time during the Fascist era, he was meant to be representing those thousands of postmen who stepped out every morning to do their rounds. It’s already odd enough that he’s nearly starkers. I’ve never seen any postman doing his rounds in the state in which Adam found himself in the Garden of Eden. But apart from that, the statue clashed mightily with the dominant image I had of postmen in the mid-1970s, which is when I first saw it. That image was shaped by the husband of the lady who looked after my French grandmother and who lived in one part of her house. He was the postman for the surrounding rural district. He looked something like this.

I would see him ride off on his bike early in the morning. I would also sometimes spy him delivering his letters, which invariably seemed to involve a chat, a Gauloise cigarette (unfiltered), and a glass of red plonk. By the time he wobbled home in the early afternoon, his face would be several shades redder than when he left. He would proceed to have lunch and demolish another half bottle of plonk, at which point he would put his head on his arms and pass out.

But I think first prize for oddity goes to a statue I saw on my first ever trip to Italy. I was traveling with a rail pass and staying in youth hostels. The youth hostel in Rome was near the headquarters of the Italian Olympic Committee. In the early 1930s, during the first decade of Fascism, a stadium had been built next to the headquarters, where Italian athletes could strut their stuff for the Committee. To make it look suitably Roman and imperial, the Italian provinces had been invited to send in statues in white Carrara marble of men intent on various athletic pursuits. Some sixty such statues duly arrived and were placed around the stadium in Hellenic style. I would look over these statues as I went by on my way to and from the youth hostel. There was one which struck me in particular, representing the noble sport of skiing.

Who on earth, I would ask myself bemusedly, would ever go skiing naked?? Because, of course, as befitted statues echoing their worthy Greek and Roman predecessors, most of them were carved strictly in the buff. I don’t remember now any of the other statues but in preparing this post I looked at some of them and found a couple which are nearly as odd:
The Naked Mountaineer

The Naked Footballer

The Naked Tennis Player

Somehow, I find that these statues represent beautifully Italy’s Fascist era: a time of bombast and chest-thumping which, though, was all rather comical.

That is what I have to date in my gallery of statuary oddities. But I will keep a weather eye out for other specimens. If readers have any suggestions to make, I will be more than happy to hear about them.


Photos: mine, except for:

Silly statue: http://forumodua.com/showthread.php?t=318155&page=56
French postman: http://kenhtruyen.info/?i=Ann%C3%A9es+1970+en+France++Wikip%C3%A9dia
Naked skier: http://roma-nonpertutti.com/en/article/66/foro-italico-an-enclave-of-the-cult-of-mussolini-and-his-empire
Naked mountaineer: http://stadio.dei.marmi.dalbiez.eu/Stadio%20dei%20Marmi%202006.htm
Naked footballer: https://www.pinterest.at/?show_error=true
Naked tennis player: https://www.gettyimages.co.nz/search/2/image?events=50786504&family=editorial&sort=best


Yangon, 7 March 2015

In 1430, King Saw Mon founded a new capital at Mrauk U, in what is now the State of Rakhine, for a Kingdom of Arrakan of which he was the first ruler. Mrauk U lay at the head of several navigable tributaries of the Kaladan River, and so could command the trade routes in the Bay of Bengal, on which the kingdom’s wealth was founded. It became a transit point for goods such as rice, ivory, elephants, tree sap and deer hide from Burma, and of cotton, slaves, horses, cowrie, spices and textiles from Bengal, India, Persia and Arabia. It also lay at the edges of a broad plain, where abundant rice could be grown to feed the city’s population. The area was dotted throughout with hillocks, ideal for capping with splendid pagodas which earned their founders much merit, but also for acting as watchtowers in strong defensive walls which linked hillocks together and could keep the kingdom’s jealous or rapacious neighbours at bay. It was, in all senses, a happy choice for the new kingdom’s capital.

Exactly two hundred years after the city’s founding, a Portuguese monk, Fray Sebastian Manrique, who was to live in India for forty years, visited Mrauk U, as part of an official mission. In a book he wrote about his time in Asia, “Itinerario de las missiones del India Oriental”, he dedicated several chapters to his visit to Mrauk U. “This great city”, he starts, “stands in a lovely valley, some fifteen leagues wide, wholly enclosed by high rocky mountains, which serve as natural fortifications”. The city was bisected by a network of waterways linked to the nearby river, which were “the principal means of traffic, both public and private”. Most of the houses were thatched bamboo and wood structures, held together by “Bengal cane, as we call it in Portugal”. Even the palaces “are made of these reedy materials”. The size and ornamentation of the houses, and not their materials of construction, were what proclaimed the station and wealth of their owners. Inside, wall mats were hung “of the finest texture and of many colours”. No doubt, the richer and more important the owner, the finer and more elaborate the wall mats. The better houses and the palaces also had rooms of wood “ornamented with carving, gilt mouldings, and enamel work in various tints”. Some of the palaces went one further, having rooms of sandalwood and other aromatic woods. One of the richer palaces included a “House of Gold”, a pavilion decorated from floor to ceiling with gold, which housed golden statues, dishes and other vessels. The royal palace boasted a ceremonial hall, with a golden roof “ornamented with flowers of different colours”, supported by thirty gilded wooden pillars. The monks didn’t do too badly for themselves either. A number of the temples and monasteries in which they lived were as sumptuous as the palaces, richly endowed as they were by their wealthy and important founders, who were seeking thereby to gain merit. Most of the temples were “pyramidal in shape”, with a spire that ended in a gilt metal globe on which small bells hung that tinkled in the wind (I presume the good Friar was referring to the stupas, which sit at the centre of temple complexes). The temples’ interiors were decorated with “frescoes done in gold and colours”. Several years later, he again visited Mrauk U on an official mission, and this time he was lucky to be there when the king was crowned. He described in breathless detail all the pomp and ceremony which accompanied the crowning. This print, by the Dutchman Wouter Schouten, gives an idea of what Mrauk U looked like at this time.

mrauk u old print

The happy times did not last. Warfare between the local kingdoms was endemic, as each king tried to grow at the expense of his neighbours. In one of these local wars, King Bodawpaya of the neighbouring kingdom of Burma got the upper hand, helped along, it must be said, by vicious internecine struggles, all worthy of a Shakespearean history play, that were being played out between Arrakanese kings and their impatient heir-apparents, and between them and various usurpers. In 1784, the Burmese army attacked

war elephants

and eventually took the city, razing it to the ground. They took care, though, not to destroy the stupas and associated temples; the soldiers did not want to lose merit. But they stripped them and the rest of the city of all the movable loot they could lay their hands on. What part of the population they did not kill, they enslaved. And so, laden with vast quantities of booty and 20,000 slaves, King Bodawpaya and his army returned home to celebrate, leaving death and desolation behind them. The kingdom of Arrakan and its capital city were no more.

The site was too good to abandon completely. Gradually, people moved back into the city and partially repopulated it. But now it was just a small market town, with the modest lives and modest dreams and modest destiny of such towns. Its citizens lived out their lives in the shadow of monuments from Mrauk U’s royal past, which slowly crumbled away and were overgrown by vegetation.

But Mrauk U’s glorious past was not completely forgotten. Echoes of its history were passed down. Now that Myanmar has come out of its self-imposed isolation from the outside world, and the world has accepted the country back into the community of nations, Mrauk U has become a tourist destination. Not like Bagan, which hosts the ruins of another vanished kingdom, nor like Inle Lake, another popular tourist destination, nor even like the capital Yangon. A much more modest destination, because it has little tourist infrastructure and is hard to get to: seven hours by private boat from Sittwe, several more by the public boat; six hours by car on a spine-crushing road, several more by public bus. But a trickle of tourists do make it through.

We have just been part of that trickle. We hired bicycles, a wonderful way to move around this town whose dimensions are small and whose traffic is contained, and we slowly criss-crossed it, riding down potholed roads, side streets of beaten earth

02-mrauk u-flav 016

half-finished roads on which toiled labour gangs of women

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even across desiccated paddy fields when the half-finished roads were impassible

03-chin villages-flav 001

observing all the very rural life that passed us by. Most of the houses are still made of wood and “reedy materials”

02-mrauk u-flav 050

but from the few modern houses we saw brick and concrete are clearly now the building materials of choice for the wealthy. The network of waterways are still being used, although now sadly choked with plastic and other debris of modern life.

02-mrauk u-flav 052

Bicycles and motor bikes are the mode of transport of choice

02-mrauk u-flav 078

with two-seater bicycle rickshaws playing the role of local taxi

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and ten-seater tuk-tuks playing that of local buses (ten seats is a nominal number; the drivers seemed to be able to squeeze twice that number into them).

03-chin villages-flav 003

As in all ages and in all places, the wealthier disdain these proletarian forms of transport, although they now favour four-wheel drive cars with tinted windows rather than the palanquins and elephants of old. On the edges of town (which were reached after no more than ten minutes by bike from the town centre – and we rode slowly), chickens, pigs, and the odd cow join the human melée. And everywhere, young girls and women (never men and very rarely boys) are walking slowly to or from the wells and reservoirs which dot the town, ferrying the households’ water, no doubt as they had been doing nearly four hundred years ago when Friar Manrique criss-crossed the town – such a waste of women’s time! And the water they were collecting fitted no definition of “drinking water” that I know of.

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The town has schools, but all in a shocking state of decrepitude

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and in any case many children were put to work in various trades: child labour seems the norm here, not the exception. This country’s military dictators have much, much to answer for.

And so it was that we rode and we observed, and we meditated on what we observed, until the next stupa, or temple, or ordination hall from Mrauk U’s past loomed out in front of us. We visited many during our two days, but I will mention only three. The first is Mro U-hnauk Phara
02-mrauk u-flav 037
because it was the first temple we visited, but also because we were intrigued by the very ornate edifice constructed out of galvanized corrugated iron sheets that preceded the ancient stupa.

02-mrauk u-flav 038

The materials of construction may be humble but the designs are really quite complex. We got used to seeing these structures in front of many of the stupas in town. Both my wife and I immediately remarked on how much these constructions reminded us of the stavkirke in Norway.
The second site I will mention is Koe Thaung temple, which sits out in the middle of paddy fields a little way out of town.
koe thaung temple
Its design is said to be based on Borobudur in Indonesia. We wouldn’t know, not having been able to visit Borobudur because of a volcanic eruption. But Koe Thaung certainly has charm, what with the serried ranks of stupas lining its terraces


and the hundreds of Buddhas, each with a different face, lining the galleries that encircle the edifice.

02-mrauk u-flav 107

When the rice paddies around the temple are planted and green, it must be very beautiful.

The third is actually a grouping of temples and stupas, all situated in a large open space. From the vantage point of the high terrace of one of these, I could see most of the group laid out before me.

02-mrauk u-flav 228

Immediately ahead is the Laymyekhna, with the four Buddhas in its internal gallery facing the four cardinal points, and its attendant Nyidaw Phara. Just behind it the Htukkanthein, a fortress-monastery.  At the base of the hill in the background, is the Shite-thaung temple, the most important religious edifice of the old city and known for its three encircling galleries with Buddhas and friezes.  This is where the coronation during Friar Manrique’s second visit took place. Over to the left is the Ratanabon Temple.

But what also struck me was the apparent indifference of the townsfolk to these venerable monuments. The open space was turned over to the growing of rice and vegetables. There was constant traffic along the roads and tracks which crossed the space as people went about their business. There were goats and cows cropping the grass around the edifices. And I was suddenly reminded of those paintings from the 17th and 18th Centuries, which were also recording the remains of a fallen city, ancient Rome in this case, mouldering slowly away as a new city lived its life around them
Roman forum Claude Lorrain
This particular painting, by Claude Lorrain, is a view of the Forum, with the arch of Septimus Severus in the left foreground, the three remaining columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the middle ground, the arch of Titus in the background, and at the very back the Colosseum. And all around these ruins, the Romans are leading their lives.

Now I don’t want to make too much of a parallel between Rome and Mrauk U. Rome had been a huge city, many times bigger than Mrauk U had ever been. It had also held sway over a much larger territory than Mrauk U had ever done. On the other hand, the collapse of Rome, although over a longer period, was probably as total as Mrauk U’s. Medieval Rome, and perhaps even Baroque Rome, was probably no bigger than Mrauk U is today and just as backward. If it hadn’t been for the Pope, there are good chances that Rome would have disappeared. The Pope kept Europe’s attention on the town, while the pilgrims were a handy source of income, along, later, with the sons of Europe’s aristocracy. They flocked to Rome in the 18th and 19th Centuries because it was the thing for an educated young man to do, and paintings like the one above were produced for them by the hundreds.  Rome was also lucky to have become the capital of the newly unified Italy, which brought it the power (and wealth) of national government. In contrast, Mrauk U seems to have been forgotten by all once its last king fell. If the new government of Myanmar can ensure that Mrauk U shares in the country’s upcoming economic development, then it has the chance to become a prosperous little town.


Mrauk U old print: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Vista_de_Mrauk-U,_ou_Arrakan_%28cidade_de_Arrac%C3%A3o%29_no_primeiro_plano_o_bairro_portugu%C3%AAs.jpg (in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vista_de_Mrauk-U,_ou_Arrakan_%28cidade_de_Arrac%C3%A3o%29_no_primeiro_plano_o_bairro_portugu%C3%AAs.jpg)
War elephants fighting: http://ic2.pbase.com/o6/93/329493/1/131322898.yAQdtZvd.BKKAug10128.jpg (in http://www.alternatehistory.com/discussion/showthread.php?t=240558)
Stavkirke: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bb/Borgund_stavkirke.JPG (in http://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borgund_stavkirke)
Koe Thaung Temple: http://www.vietnamjettravel.com/images/products/20147141754135.jpg (in http://www.vietnamjettravel.com/voyage-birmanie/a-travers-la-birmanie-de-yangon-a-mrauk-u.79.html)
Koe Thaung temple stupas: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/04/ab/0c/d1/koe-thaung-temple.jpg (in http://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g1390118-d2557685-i78318801-Koe_Thaung_Temple-Mrauk_U_Rakhine_State.html)
Claude Lorrain view of the Roman Forum: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/Claude_-_The_Campo_Vaccino,_Rome_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg (in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_-_The_Campo_Vaccino,_Rome_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg)
All other photos by my wife


Beijing, 9 March 2014

I was recently in Dubai with my wife for a long weekend. If you don’t like shopping, which I fervently do not, if you don’t get much of a kick out of visiting the tallest building in the world, which is definitely my case, if you don’t quite see the point of going skiing in a mall, which I certainly don’t, then your to-do list in Dubai is really quite short. On one side of the saltwater creek which wends its way through the middle of the city


you can visit gold and spice souqs of dubious antiquity. On the other side, you can visit a small remnant of the old town, saved, so it seems, from the wrecker’s ball by the intercession of Prince Charles with the Sheikh of Dubai. You can follow this up by a visit to the Dubai Museum, housed underneath a quaint little old fort and filled with a rather pathetic set of dioramas showing the old ways of life in the sheikhdom. A 20 minutes’ walk downcreek will bring you to the Sheikhs’ old residence (or rather, a nearly complete reconstruction of it) filled with some old photos of Dubai. You can cross from one side of the creek to the other in supposedly old wooden boats which ply the waterway. And that’s it. Of the four days that my wife and I spent in Dubai, we actually only needed two to visit the city itself. We used one of the days to visit Abu Dhabi (or rather, the planned eco-city district of Masdar) and while I was sitting in a conference my wife used another to visit Al Ain, an oasis town some two hours’ drive from Dubai.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s really very pleasant to wander around without haste, poking your nose in here and there, snapping photos of this and that, taking long lunch and coffee breaks, and enjoying mild and sunny weather. But what really got my goat was a small exhibition which we stumbled across somewhere in the souqs, which proudly announced that some time this year Dubai expected UNESCO to nominate the creek and its immediate surroundings as a World Heritage Site. Give – me – a – break! The Dubai creek a World Heritage Site?! That’s ridiculous!! For those readers who may not be familiar with this UN programme, I should explain that it implements an international convention, the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, whose purpose is to protect and conserve for present and future generations cultural heritage (monuments, groups of buildings, sites) or natural heritage (natural features, geological formations, natural sites) of outstanding universal value. Please note: outstanding universal value. Those are big, big words. Put another way, the sites which are nominated as World Heritage Sites should be so fantastic that it would be a crime for me and every other citizen in the world not to do everything in our power to protect them for future generations to marvel at. Does that describe Dubai creek? I – don’t – think – so!

I had first entertained serious doubts about the World Heritage Site listings when we went on a family holiday to Finland some ten years ago. I had seen that a church along our itinerary had been listed. Intrigued, I dragged the somewhat unwilling family to visit it (to this day, my children remind me of this and other churches I forced them to visit in Finland). What we were confronted with was a small, rustic church whose three main claims to fame were (a) that it was quite old, (b) that it was made entirely out of wood, and (c) that no nails had been used to make it … this was “outstanding universal value”?? Puh-lease! My cynicism over World Heritage Site listings only deepened over the following years as everywhere I went I came across really quite ordinary sites which had been listed. UNESCO’s convention has obviously been hijacked by the tourism industry and its hacks in Ministries of Tourism to brand national sites and raise tourism revenues. And no doubt political correctness has reared its head. It won’t do for just a few countries to have all the heritage sites of outstanding universal value, every country should be able to claim at least one …

This debasing of the World Heritage Site brand is a pity, because I think there are a number of places around the world which through some magical combination of geometry, colour, light, and siting really do have an outstanding and universal value to all of us in the world and whose preservation truly deserves the concerted attention of the global community. My wife and I put our heads together, and what follows is our list. Its main weakness is that it is based only on places which we have seen – so much of the world for us still to see …

Since Dubai got me going, I’ll start with cityscapes:

– Venice, which must be the most beautiful city in the world


view from ferry

– Paris, especially the part along the banks of the river Seine running from Notre Dame Cathedral to the Eiffel tower

Paris-Notre Dame

Paris-Eiffel tower

(I find Paris to be at its best at night, when all its buildings are lit up like theatre backdrops)

– Rome, especially the Baroque part of the city

Rome Piazza Navona

where, though, older Roman urban fabric can poke through

Rome Pantheon

– The historic nucleus of Istanbul, on its peninsula jutting out into the Bosphorus


– Old Prague


– On a smaller scale, San Gimignano in Tuscany

San Gimignano-1

San Gimignano-2

which can stand for all those wonderful hilltop towns and villages scattered throughout central Italy (Siena, Todi, Gubbio, Assisi, Volterra, Arezzo, Perugia, Urbino, and on and on …)

– I will add Savannah in Georgia. My wife and I stumbled on the city by chance thirty years ago, and we were blown away


I wonder if I should I add Edinburgh? My wife is doubtful, but the New Town there is really very nice, with a magificent view over the Firth of Forth


and there is the dramatic backdrop of Edinburgh castle


What about Manhattan?

Manhattan Office Vacancy Rate Drops In Second Quarter

I’m torn. Manhattanites certainly think that the borough has outstanding universal value, non-residents may not be so sure.

After cityscapes we list a series of buildings and complexes that stand out because of the beauty of the buildings themselves, often highlighted by their siting:

– Taj Mahal, which must be one of the most sublime buildings in the world

Taj Mahal

and which can stand in for a series of wonderful Mughal edifices dotted around northern India (Fatehpur Sikri, the Mausoleum of Akbar at Sikandra, the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi, the mausoleum of Humayun, …)

– Angkor Wat


with its wonderful faces carved in the temple walls


– The rock gardens and temples of Kyoto

Kyoto Tofuukuji rock garden-2

kyoto kinkakuji

kyoto ginkakuji

– The chateaux of the Loire in France, especially Chenonceau

Chateau de Chenonceau

and Azay-le-Rideau


– The Alhambra palace in Andalusia


with its typical Arab love of water


We don’t just list old buildings. We would add at least two modern buildings:

– the Sydney Opera House

sydney opera house 014

– the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington DC

east wing national gallery

My wife thinks we should also list Labrang, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery-town in Sichuan


I’m not convinced that it really has outstanding universal value, yet.

I’ll add here a couple of the wonderful garden-parks which were created around some of the grander country houses in the UK in the 18th century.

– Stowe gardens


Stowe gardens-house

– Fountains Abbey and Gardens

fountains abbey

fountains abbey gardens-1

fountains abbey gardens-2

Which brings us naturally to our last list, our choices of natural heritage sites of outstanding universal value. We would start with the canyons in the American west. Rather than list the Grand Canyon, which some might consider the natural choice, we would list some of the smaller canyons:

– Bryce Canyon, especially lovely in winter, which is when we saw it:

bryce canyon

– and Canyon de Chelly


– We are moved to list here too the Atlas mountains in Morocco. When we first saw them, we were immediately reminded of the canyonlands in the US

Atlas mountains

but what was even better was that the locals were still making their villages from the local clay so that villages seemed to grow out of the landscape

atlas mountains-villages

– From canyons on land to canyons on the sea, and here we found the fjords in New Zealand more striking than those in Norway

New Zealand South Island Fiordland National Park Milford Sound

– From water to none, with the red sand dunes of Namibia

Namibia -Dune 45

– and back to water again, with the Amazon River

Amazon river

– from hotter to cooler, with the high meadows of the Alps in the Trentino in Italy


– from grass to trees, in this case the truly magnificent sequoias


– and finally back to grass and water, with the Scottish Highlands



Well, that’s our list of cultural and natural sites which we would consider to have outstanding universal value. As I said earlier, the list is no doubt incomplete simply because there are still lots of places we haven’t visited. We’d be interested to know how readers feel about this. What sites would they put on their own list?


Dubai creek: http://www.guiaemdubai.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Dubai.creek_.jpg [in http://www.guiaemdubai.com/dubai-creek/%5D
Venice-aerial view: http://weddinginvenice.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/venice.jpg [in http://weddinginvenice.net/blog/aerial-view-of-venice%5D
Venice-worm’s eye view: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8149/7667954390_2eafc258f6_h.jpg
Paris-Notre Dame: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Notre_Dame_de_Paris_by_night_time.jpg [in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cattedrale_di_Notre-Dame%5D
Paris-Eiffel tower: http://wallpapersus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/eiffel-tower-sunset-architecture-city-cloudy-dusk-famous-river.jpg [in http://wallpapersus.com/eiffel-tower-sunset-architecture-city-cloudy-dusk-famous-river/%5D
Rome Piazza Navona: http://www.bonjouritalie.it/uploaded/images/Piazza_Navona_Evening.jpg [in http://www.bonjouritalie.it/en/news/46/PIAZZA-NAVONA-the-Roman-s-playroom-.html%5D
Rome Pantheon: http://www.dewereldwonderen.nl/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/pantheon-omgeving.jpg [in http://www.dewereldwonderen.nl/andere-wereldwonderen/het-pantheon/%5D
Istanbul: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02012/istanbul-biennial_2012683b.jpg [in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/8796386/Istanbul-biennial-art-at-the-crossroads-of-the-world.html%5D
Prague: http://www.discoverwalks.com/prague-walking-tours/wp-content/blogs.dir/5/files/4/not-many-people-can-show-you-this.jpg [in http://www.discoverwalks.com/prague-walking-tours/prague-castle-tour/%5D
San Gimignano-1: http://www.roma-antica.co.uk/custom/San%20Gimignano.jpg
San Gimignano-2: http://www.hotelilponte.com/writable/public/tbl_galleria/grande/v961b38120234375.jpg
Savannah: http://www.shedexpedition.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/gingerbread-house-Savannah-Georgia-1899-Carpenter-Gothic.jpg [in http://www.shedexpedition.com/savannah-georgia-best-quality-of-life-and-visitor-experience/%5D
Edinburgh-New Town: http://www.stravaiging.com/photos/albums/places%20in%20Scotland/towns/Edinburgh,%20Midlothian/IMG_9890.jpg [in http://www.stravaiging.com/blog/edinburgh-world-heritage-official-tour/%5D
Edinburgh-castle: http://waimhcongress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/edinburgh_-_calton_hill_nov_12_0.jpg [in http://waimhcongress.org/location/about-edinburgh/%5D
Manhattan: http://www.elikarealestate.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/nyc001.jpg [in http://www.elikarealestate.com/blog/manhattan-sales-time-high/%5D
Taj Mahal: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c8/Taj_Mahal_in_March_2004.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Mahal%5D
Angkor Wat: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02381/Angkor_wat_2381155b.jpg [in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/cambodia/9638352/Canals-may-have-sped-up-building-of-wonder-of-the-world-Angkor-Wat.html%5D
Angkor Wat Gods: http://www.urbantravelblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Angkor-wat-gods.jpg [in http://www.urbantravelblog.com/photos/angkor-wat%5D
Kyoto Tofukuji rock garden: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_bWbsTZVSaLw/S8uzFo1o2mI/AAAAAAAAAO4/tq11td38q3I/s1600/april-13+141.jpg [in http://kyotofreeguide-kyotofreeguide.blogspot.com/2010_04_01_archive.html%5D
Kyoto Kinkakuji: http://img.timeinc.net/time/photoessays/2011/travel_kyoto/01_kinkakuji.jpg [in http://content.time.com/time/travel/cityguide/article/0,31489,2049375_2049370_2048907,00.html%5D
Kyoto Gingakuji: http://lookjapan.org/photos/ginkakuji-temple.jpg [in http://lookjapan.org/kyoto.html%5D
Château de Chenonceau: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d0/Chateau_de_Chenonceau_2008E.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Château_de_Chenonceau%5D
Château Azay-le-Rideau: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d2/Chateau-Azay-le-Rideau-1.jpg/1024px-Chateau-Azay-le-Rudeau-1.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Château_d’Azay-le-Rideau%5D
Alhambra: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/Detail_Charles_V_palace_Alhambra_Granada_Spain.jpg [in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Detail_Charles_V_palace_Alhambra_Granada_Spain.jpg%5D
Alhambra-2: http://www.earthalacarte.com/images/destination/1370429824_0!!-!!4.jpg [in http://www.earthalacarte.com/destinations/alhambra/%5D
Sydney Opera House: our photo
East Wing National Gallery: http://www.greatbuildings.com/gbc/images/cid_2880204.jpg [in http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/East_Wing_National_Gallery.html
Labrang: http://korihahn.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/dsc_0423.jpg [in http://korihahn.com/2010/11/01/beijing-to-lhasa/%5D
Stowe gardens: http://www.landscapearchitecturedaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Stowe-Landscape-Gardens.jpg [in http://www.landscapearchitecturedaily.com/?p=2599%5D
Stowe gardens-House: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-9CU7qypYuhw/UTi58Pz-zXI/AAAAAAAABjU/t5dzpqANduk/s1600/photo+%286%29.JPG [in http://theelephantandthepirate.blogspot.com/2013/03/day-tripping-stowe-gardens.html%5D
Fountains abbey: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-yHJdJ-LcSwI/TaSbP30qvOI/AAAAAAAACZQ/Mt-9gkW8Wj4/s1600/Fountains+Abbey+reflected+blg.jpg [in http://saltairedailyphoto.blogspot.com/2011/04/fountains-abbey.html%5D
Fountains abbey gardens-1: http://www.gardenvisit.com/assets/madge/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980_jpg/600x/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980_jpg_600x.jpg -[in http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey%5D
Fountains abbey gardens-2: http://www.gardenvisit.com/assets/madge/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980a_jpg/600x/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980a_jpg_600x.jpg [in http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey%5D
Bryce canyon: http://www.mikereyfman.com/Photography-Landscape-Nature/Bryce-Canyon-National-Park-Utah-USA/big/MR0105.jpg [in http://www.mikereyfman.com/photo/photo.php?No=5&Gallery=Bryce-Canyon-National-Park-Utah-USA%5D
Canyon de Chelly: http://believegallup.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/canyon-de-chelly.jpg [in http://believegallup.com/canyon-de-chelly/
Atlas Mountains: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/81928810.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/81928810%5D (Toubkal National Park)
Atlas mountain village: http://www.destinationlemonde.com/images/17/photo1-ag.jpg [in http://www.destinationlemonde.com/images/17/photo1-ag.jpg%5D
Milford Fjord New Zealand: http://globalconnection.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Milford_Sound_Fiordland_National_Park_South_Island_New_Zealand.jpg [in http://globalconnection.com.au/product/new-zealand-south-island-post-convention-tour/%5D
Namibia-Dune 45: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/54/Dune45_Sossusvlei_Namib_Desert_Namibia_Luca_Galuzzi_2004.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dune_45%5D
Amazon River: http://assets.worldwildlife.org/photos/1818/images/story_full_width/meandering_amazon_%28c%29_WWF-Canon__Andre_Bartschi.jpg?1345553423 [in http://worldwildlife.org/tours/the-great-amazon-river-cruise%5D
Alps in Trentino: http://hqscreen.com/wallpapers/l/1280×800/67/alps_italia_italy_trentino_alpi_1280x800_66754.jpg [in http://hqscreen.com/alps-italia-italy-trentino-alpi-wallpaper-66754/%5D
Sequoia national park: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-lABhQdL_8II/UwXlmbxPEuI/AAAAAAAArw0/VfGi2Htb0jI/sequoia-national-park2.jpg?imgmax=1600 [in http://www.latheofdreams.com/%5D
Scottish Highlands: http://timeforbritain.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/scottish-highlands1.jpg [in http://timeforbritain.wordpress.com/beautiful-scotland/%5D


19 March 2013

In a previous post, I have admitted to being a lapsed Catholic, to having fallen off the straight-and-narrow when I was a young man. But this does not stop me from taking an interest in moments of high Catholic drama such as papal elections. These are held against one of the world’s most beautiful backdrops (St. Peter’s square in Rome)


They have quaint customs like black and white smoke to announce the results of ballots (“is it white? is it black?”)


There are all these old, principally white, men wandering around in bright red and purple cassocks, surrounded by toy soldiers dressed in renaissance garb


There are the Latin pronouncements (“habemus papam” et cetera).

St. Peters Square, Pope Francesco

So when Benedict XVI made his surprise announcement about retiring, sending the world media into fibrillation (“first pope to retire in 600 years!”), I settled down to enjoy the show. My wife – also a lapsed Catholic although less militant about it than I – joined me on the sofa as we surfed around the international TV stations, dropping in on their twitterings about various aspects of popes, the papacy and papal elections.

I left for a business trip just as the cardinals were processing into the Sistine chapel, sure that they would still be at it when I got back two days later. I mean, there was that election back in the Middle Ages during which the cardinals had been balloting for ages without coming to an agreement; they were finally locked into the chapel by irritated guards and told they would get only bread and water until they had agreed on a candidate. So you can judge my surprise, and disappointment, when my wife announced to me as I walked in the door that the new pope had already been chosen. I had missed the smoke! The blessing from the window! The announcement of the papal name! My wife made sympathetic noises and then dropped a bomb. He had chosen the name Francis!

I suppose it can be considered a crime of lèse majesté for me to compare myself to the pope, but I have to tell you that many years ago, in the one time in my life that I got to choose a name for myself, I too had chosen the name Francis.

Before turning away irrevocably from the faith, I had been through all the rituals required of a good Catholic child. I had done my First Confession, my First Communion, and – critically for this story – my Confirmation.  I was 14 when I went through this last ritual, so getting towards an age when I more or less knew what I was doing. On the great day itself, which took place at school, my parents came; they had arranged to be in the country for the event. Our local bishop presided. He sat enthroned before the altar of the school’s church as each one of us (we were a group of some 20 boys) came up before him to be confirmed. My father came up to the altar with me as my sponsor, and stood solemnly behind me as I knelt before the bishop and his hovering acolytes and announced to him the confirmation name I had chosen: Francis.  The bishop read through the ritual words, anointed me, and then it was time to leave the place to the next boy.

Francis doesn’t appear on any official document of mine, but I am particularly proud of it since it is the only name I have ever gotten to choose. My parents chose all the others before I was even born: one to commemorate various fusty old ancestors, one to commemorate my godfather, and one to commemorate a fusty old saint that my mother particularly venerated. But Francis, that was my choice.

Like the pope, I chose Francis in memory of St. Francis of Assisi. I chose him because, as my children might have said some ten years ago, I thought he was a pretty cool dude.  I mean, here was a guy who had had everything – money, intelligence, friends, wit, all the women he could want, doting parents who let him do whatever he wished – and he turned away from it all, to live a life of complete poverty and simplicity, among the poorest of the poor and the outcasts of society. Without really trying to, he gathered around him hundreds and eventually thousands of followers and started a huge movement in Europe striving for a simpler life. In many ways he reminds me of the Buddha.


And he wrote a wonderful poem, one of the earliest in the Italian language, or rather in the Umbrian dialect spoken in his native Assisi: the canticle of the sun. Here are a few lines from the original:

Laudato sie, mi Signore cum tucte le Tue creature,
spetialmente messor lo frate Sole,
lo qual è iorno, et allumini noi per lui.
Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore:
de Te, Altissimo, porta significatione.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora Luna e le stelle:
in celu l’ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.

Let me continue with a translation:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

It goes on a bit more, but I’ll stop there because these are some of the loveliest lines I know about the environment.

It is said that Francis preached to the birds and talked to the wolves. I take this all with a pinch of salt. But he did love nature passionately, which is really why I chose his name for my confirmation.

I hope the new pope is worthy of the name he chose.


St. Peter’s Square: http://readytour.ru/images/italy/excurs/6-800.jpg
White smoke: http://l.yimg.com/bt/api/res/1.2/zaEY7ikCWZpTeGB8NMi3pw–/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7Zmk9aW5zZXQ7aD00MjA7cT04NTt3PTYzMA–/http://media.zenfs.com/en_us/News/gettyimages.com/conclave-cardinals-elected-pope-lead-20130313-112050-018.jpg
Cardinals and Swiss Guards: http://www.capuanaweb.insulareport.it/media/k2/items/cache/c230427c303c0684b5582388f5d0dfd7_XL.jpg
Habemus papam: http://timeglobalspin.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/cm_vatican_pope_03_13_13_178.jpg?w=753
St. Francis: http://www.thomryng.com/amateurmonk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Francis.jpg