It can resemble a most haphazard series of coronations – of kings both magnificent and miniature. The annual announcement of the new set of sites receiving Unesco World Heritage status – a declaration that occurs every July (whc.unesco.org) – tends to stir feelings of both familiarity and bemusement.
Some landmarks granted a rubber stamp of quality by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation – to use its full title – seem like unquestionable candidates for this seal of approval. Some seem so deserving of official respect that you wonder why they haven’t been heralded before. And others make you pause for a moment, consult a map – and wonder who would really go there.
The 2017 roll-call is no different. In all, 26 locations are being handed their Unesco orb and sceptre. Some are crucial nuggets of yesteryear in France, Turkey, Croatia, Italy and Iran. Some exist as astonishing slices of landscape and nature in the UK, China and Argentina. Others, though, are likely to spark wanderlust only in travellers who prefer to abandon the beaten track.
While all 26 are worthy of their recognition as places of global significance, some are too remote for conventional holiday touring (the Qinghai Hoh Xil high plateau in western China; the Daurian Steppes of eastern Mongolia and Russian Siberia; the Kujataa farmscape of Greenland) or so entirely niche that a trip to go in search of them might seem an act of wilful obscurity (the Tarnowskie Gory Lead-Silver-Zinc Mine in the Upper Silesia region of southern Poland). Still, there is plenty in this latest Unesco mission statement to make people reach for their passports. And the tours that follow are all routes to glimpsing these new monarchs enthroned.
The Lake District, UK
England’s greatest cocktail of rock and water – Windermere spreading its wings as the largest lake in the country, Coniston Water a five-mile ribbon alive with mystery and moodiness under Cumbrian skies. Some of the area is already protected as Lake District National Park (lakedistrict.gov.uk). Unesco’s focus, long overdue, supplies an extra glory.
Unesco says: ‘The combined work of nature and human activity has produced a harmonious landscape in which the mountains are mirrored in the lakes.’
Perched some 100 miles north east of Marmaris in Anatolia, Aphrodisias was an ancient Greek settlement named in tribute to the Greek goddess Aphrodite. It was famed as an enclave of beauty and artistry, not least because of its temple to its titular goddess of love. This ruin of many pillars was later redesigned as a basilica, but it retains its third-century BC grace.
Unesco says: ‘The wealth of Aphrodisias came from the marble quarries north east of the city, and the art produced by its sculptors.’
Historic city of Yazd, Iran
Pitched almost at the heart of Iran, Yazd’s Unesco anointment will only add to the burgeoning appeal of a country where travel was recently implausible. The ancient core of the city grew due to its proximity to the Spice and Silk Routes – but it also has a desert loneliness that helped preserve its Persian architecture from invasions in later centuries.
Unesco says: ‘The architecture of Yazd escaped the modernisation that destroyed many traditional earthen towns, retaining its hammams, mosques, synagogues and temples.’
The largest city, but not the capital, of Gujarat, Ahmedabad has earned its Unesco status for its walled medieval core. It was founded in 1411 by the Gujarati sultan Ahmad Shah I – and still clings to this era in its sturdy gates and the crowded clutter of its narrow alleys.
Unesco says: ‘The urban fabric is made up of densely packed traditional houses (pols) in gated traditional streets (puras), with flourishes such as bird feeders and public wells.’
Gelati Monastery, Georgia
Far out east, where Europe ebbs into Asia, the Georgian city of Kutaisi has pinged on travel radars because the nearby Gelati Monastery has been saluted by Unesco. Founded in 1106 by King David IV of Georgia, the medieval complex sings of the ‘Georgian Golden Age’ of the 11th to 13th centuries in rounded towers and grand mosaics.
Unesco says: ‘One of the largest medieval Orthodox monasteries. A masterpiece of medieval Georgia, [from] a period of political strength and economic growth.’
Los Alerces National Park, Argentina
Patagonia’s visual splendours need no introduction, so the addition of this pocket of Argentinian wilderness to the Unesco roster only adds to the reasons to visit South America. The park takes its name from the colossal alerce conifer trees which sigh over its labyrinth of lakes and rivers.
Unesco says: ‘Glaciations have moulded the landscape. The vegetation is dominated by dense forests, which give way to Alpine meadows under rocky Andean peaks.’
Sambor Prei Kuk, Cambodia
Angkor Wat dominates perceptions of Cambodian heritage – but the kingdom of Chenla, which preceded the Khmer Empire – was also a force. The Sambor Prei Kuk archaeological site (in Kampong Thom province), where temples are shrouded in jungle, has been identified as the ‘lost’ Chenla capital Isanapura.
Unesco says: ‘The art and architecture developed here became models for other parts of the region, and laid the ground for the unique Khmer style of the Angkor period.’
Venetian fortifications, Italy, Croatia, Montenegro
Venice was once the centrepoint of an empire that stretched through Italy and down the Adriatic. The size of La Serenissima’s former realm is underlined by the fact that six fortified sites in three countries have been given Unesco status, including Bergamo (Italy), Zadar (Croatia) and Kotor (Montenegro).
Unesco says: ‘[These] defence works spanned more than 1,000km between the Lombard region of Italy and the eastern Adriatic coast.’
An island standing proud in the currents of Europe’s longest river, the Volga, 40km west of the city of Kazan, Sviyazhsk is a fragment of medieval Russia – founded as a fortress in 1551 by Czar Ivan the Terrible. Unesco’s king-making gaze has fallen particularly on the Assumption Cathedral and Monastery, its ornate vision of piety.
Unesco says: ‘The cathedral’s frescoes are among the rarest examples of Eastern Orthodox mural paintings.’
Not, perhaps, the most in-demand of destinations in Africa, Eritrea has earned a doffing of the Unesco hat in the latest heritage list. This is for Asmara, its capital, and for the modernist architecture that came to define the city during its occupation by Italy (1889-1941) – like the Fiat Tagliero Building, whose futuristic angles were hewn in 1938.
Unesco says: ‘Asmara is an excellent example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century, and its application in an African context.’ Despite tensions in the Horn of Africa, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office considers Asmara safe to visit.
The best of the rest Unesco newcomers
Other Unesco enrollees can be enjoyed by tour. French city Strasbourg’s historic centre has been in the World Heritage portfolio since 1988. Now its Neustadt, built under German rule (1871-1918), has been added to the list.
Further afield, Valongo Wharf is a patch of historic sadness amid the high merriment of Rio de Janeiro – ‘built for the landing of enslaved Africans reaching the South American continent from 1811 onwards’.
On the far side of the planet, Taputapuatea – a ceremonial site on the island of Raiatea, French Polynesia – also joins the Unesco club. It offers ‘exceptional testimony to 1,000 years of ma’ohi civilisation’ in the South Pacific.
Another isle, Okinoshima in Japan, has also been inscribed. However, access is restricted – it is viewed as holy in the Shinto religion. But the Munakata Shrine – nearby on the Kyushu mainland, also part of the new inscription – features in a nine-night trip, sold by Inside Japan Tours (insidejapantours.com), which covers Japan’s Unesco sites. Mbanza Kongo – once ‘the political and spiritual capital of the Kingdom of Kongo’ – pre-dated the Portuguese arrival in what is now Angola. Steppes Travel (steppestravel.com) is planning a 2018 tour of the African state. Register interest at email@example.com.