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Seven Alternative Wonders of the World
Starting travelling abroad in the 1960s at the age of three, I was something of a curiosity to my friends at school. In those days for most people, holidays were generally to an English seaside resort, or perhaps if your parents were really adventurous, by car ferry to France. Flying was still quite rare and my first long-haul flight at the age of 5 took 3 days and 4 nights – and involved more than 10 stops along the way. Pity my mother who was left to travel with me and my younger brothers. We ended up in Singapore and then Ipoh, Malaysia where we stayed for a couple of years. I’ve travelled ever since and have my own, long list of wonders of the world. Picking seven is a challenge and I’m struggling to work out which ones would make it. Whenever I travel somewhere new I find something wonderful and unexpected. Some historic, others contemporary.
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The only ‘still standing’ wonder of the world, the Pyramids of Giza are an amazing sight indeed. But, Egypt as a whole has a plethora of wonders from their ancient civilisation. I found much to challenge the Pyramids themselves, starting with the Valley of the Kings and the other left bank tombs near Luxor and the temples on the right bank of the Nile. Whilst the scale of the pyramids was impressive, the complexity of Ancient Egyptian society was more of a wonder for me. Everything from the intricate, vibrant wall paintings in the tomb of Rameses VI to the mummified crocodiles at Kom Ombo crocodile museum. More otherworldly – the wonders of Ancient Egypt seem remote from life today.
Vicenza and Palladio:
A different era and a different scale, I’m truly fascinated by the region around Vicenza, home to Palladio. For most of my life, in my ignorance, I didn’t realise there was an individual called Palladio – and thought the name Palladian was simply a style of architecture that came from somewhere (I’d assumed probably Ancient Greece or Rome). An ‘almost by chance’ trip to Vicenza was something of a revelation. Not only is the city itself dominated by the works of Palladio, but the surrounding countryside is too.
There are historic villas, including one which was the model for the White House in Washington DC. For me though the most incredible building in Vicenza is the oldest indoor theatre in the world, the Teatro Olimpico, complete with original sets. Built between 1580 and 1585, the theatre was designed by Palladio, though like the Basilica not completed until after his death. Inside, the trompe-l’œil set designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi and installed in 1585 is still in place. Made from wood and stucco to imitate marble, the effect is a long street disappearing into the horizon.
Ancient and Modern in Wiltshire
Three Old English Specials in one in Wiltshire: If Stonehenge takes a special place in the ‘wonders of the world’ list for many, what I find particularly special about this part of Wiltshire is not one but three historic locations. Stonehenge of course, is notable for its age, for a majestic splendour and for feats of engineering which were seemingly possible for something that pre-dates the Pyramids.
Nearby Old Sarum was a prehistoric site, then a Roman fort and the site of both Saxon and Norman settlements. On the top of a hill, it was the logical place to build at a time when being able to defend yourself against the enemy was critical. But, it was also cold, damp and windy – and the location meant that providing for the inhabitants was tricky – everything had to be brought up the hill. Salisbury, the young pretender, was the site chosen by those petitioning to move the Cathedral at Old Sarum to a location where water would be plentiful and easier to access. Permission was given to relocate the cathedral in 1218 and the foundations started on April 28th 1220 – to be completed just 38 years later. The tallest stone spire in Europe built at breakneck speed, and yet still standing today. You can walk up the 332 steps of the spire and marvel at the medieval engineering. Or just take in the fabulous view.
Context is everything and my next wonder is perhaps special for me because it was so totally unexpected. Almost my first press trip, to Portugal for Birdwatching, Hiking and Mountain Biking (yes really), I’d said yes simply to have the chance to go somewhere new. On the itinerary for the first evening was listed ‘check into spa hotel, dinner, optional rock engravings’. In my head ‘spa hotel’ with relaxing sauna, steam room and hot tub sounded infinitely more appealing than rock engravings which were, after all, optional. But, the enthusiasm of our host for dinner that night meant that despite the inclement weather, I donned waterproofs and walking boots to go and find the ‘rock engravings’ of Foz Côa
Wandering along what seemed like a random path through a gorge, we did wonder. But, as we approached the edges of the gorge our guide flashed her torch onto the rocky outcrop. Horses, aurochs, ibex and deer carved carefully into the stone. We learnt that by daylight they are almost invisible and the best way to see the carvings is at night by torchlight. Designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1998, the prehistoric rock art sites have over 200 engravings and date back to 22–20,000 years B.C. Just like Stonehenge, no one really knows why they were carved in that particular spot.
Like Foz Côa, Butrint was an unexpected find on my part. As a guest on a Seabourn cruise, I decided the best way to pick day trips was a kind of random ‘leave it to us’ scheme. I’d rather hoped, though, to spend some time at least in one of our stops, Corfu. Instead, after an early disembarkation, I found myself clutching my passport to board a hydrofoil to Albania. Less than an hour later I alighted in what was definitely an old Eastern Block town to catch a coach to Butrint. I still really had little idea why I was there. The ancient walled port city of Butrint we were visiting is unique in that although it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in the middle ages, it dates through three major civilisations, Ancient Greek, Roman and Venetian. It’s also somewhat isolated, you are unlikely to find anyone photobombing your Instagrams.
Where else can you walk from a Greek Acropolis dating back to the 8th century BC to a 16th century Venetian Tower and then to a Roman Thermae from the 2nd Century AD in a matter of minutes? All only partly restored and all without seeing another face. It’s that juxtapositioning of major European civilisations in a way which seems totally haphazard together with that sense that Butrint is just abandoned. In these days of mass communication that seems a wonder in itself.
Sigiriya, Sri Lanka:
My itinerary in Sri Lanka included a late afternoon visit to Sigiriya. But, my driver was quite insistent that we changed the itinerary around and that I was ready to leave at 6.30am at the latest. Although I’d seen photos, it wasn’t until we reached the site that I realised the logic behind his early morning start. The breathtaking rock fortress was built for a 5th century King, Kashyapa I of Anuradhapura. Since he’d overthrown his own father and usurped his brother for accession to the throne, one theory is that he built the fortress as a way to protect himself. The other theory was that this ‘playboy’ king built the place as a rather special playground.
Certainly, the citadel is home to stunning frescoes of beautiful semi-naked women (of the original 500+ only 19 remain today) and certainly, the inaccessibility of the fortress palace became very clear as we climbed over 1,200 steps from the bottom. At that point, I was very pleased to have started early enough to avoid the heat of the midday sun. From the top, there’s a wonderful view over the water gardens which are almost always dry. I learnt that every so often though when the rains are heavy enough, the dormant hydraulics systems and water retaining structures spring into life with fountains and water features which are still working today.
The lakes and waterfalls of Plitviče Croatia:
Finally, I’ll nominate Plitviče in Croatia – again somewhere quite unexpected for me. I was travelling from Osijek to the Dalmatian Coast and had been looking for somewhere to stop en-route. I thought the large green splodge on the map looked interesting and so that’s where we headed. Once again, it was, perhaps, the unexpected magnificence of this National Park, a 295 sq km space in central Croatia that comprises a network of 16 terraced lakes joined by waterfalls. And of course, there’s Big Slap – Veliki Slap – a 78km high waterfall. While Plitviče is a (mostly) natural wonder what impressed me most was the way the whole space was managed.
Plitviče Lakes National Park is a 295-sq.-km forest reserve in central Croatia. It’s known for a chain of 16 terraced lakes, joined by waterfalls, that extend into a limestone canyon. Walkways and hiking trails wind around and across the water, and an electric boat links the 12 upper and 4 lower lakes. The latter are the site of Veliki Slap, a 78m-high waterfall. You travel across the lakes via electric ferries. Everything is specially designed to make sure the lakes’ ecosystem isn’t. There are carefully marked out and well-maintained walking routes – with guidelines to give visitors an idea of how hard each route might be. All this careful management enables this, the oldest National Park in Europe and a UNESCO listed site, to welcome well over a million visitors a year.
As I’ve been writing this, I’ve come to realise that my wonders are generally places where I’ve found something unexpected. From a stunning cathedral built in just 38 years to an amazing network of lakes and waterfalls where I expected nothing more than a pretty forest. What would your seven wonders of the world be?