The summer palace in Beijing, China; Sydney Opera House, Australia; Cathedral of Notre Dame, France; Vatican City, Rome; Blenheim Palace, England; the Borobudur and Prambanan Temples, Indonesia; the Jeju Island and Lava Tubes in South Korea, and the walled town of Carcasonne, a hour’s drive from Toulouse in France.
What do these places have in common?
For one, I have visited them in my travels overseas (there are more in the list but too long to include it here). Secondly, they are all listed as world heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
(Four sites in Malaysia are also on one of Unesco’s lists; two are natural – Gunung Mulu National Park and Kinabalu Park – and two cultural – Melaka and George Town, Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca and the Archaeological Heritage of the Lenggong Valley).
But it was at Carcasonne last week that I realized the significance of these world heritages.
It doesn’t have to be ancient (Sydney Opera House vis a vis the Cathedral of Notre Dame for example) but each of these sites tell a story.
And the fact that some of these ancient buildings are still standing is fascinating. That’s how good the construction was back then and how serious the respective governments are in their conservation and preservation programmes.
I continue to be amazed with what the owners (some of the establishments listed as world heritage by Unesco are actually privately owned) and the authorities have done to preserve these properties, which in turn have become tourist attractions for the respective areas and countries.
Some of the sites are self sustaining, too, without depending much on government assistance to keep it going.
Take Carcasonne, one of the largest fortified towns in Europe, as an example.
It is also had one of the best conservation programmes, which was carried out by French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (27 January 1814 – 17 September 1879) in the 19th century.
There are shops within the walled town, selling souvenirs which include replicas of items from the medieval times such as clothings, swords and shields; cookies and chocolates and herbs such as lavender and other spices and other touristic stuff like fridget magnets and t-shirts.
There were also small hotels and restaurants in the area.
Emanuelle, the guide who took us there, said the revenue from these establishments (she probably meant rental) help pay for the maintenance of the medieval walled town. The authorities also charge an entrance fee into the castle, which is within the town.
Carcasonne is one of 38 historical sites in France listed in Unesco World Heritage List. The World Heritage List includes 981 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value.
We drove about an hour through the Toulouse countryside to reach Carcasonne. It being the summer month, there were many visitors to the castle. We headed there in the afternoon and spent three hours exploring the vast castle, which also included the St-Nazaire and St-Celse Basilica.
We toured the castle and its grounds with Emanuelle telling us the history of Carcasonne in her smattering English. Half the time, we couldn’t understand her!
One could easily get lost in the castle had it not been for the directions along the route. On some floors, there are exhibition areas, where old relics and artefacts are displayed.
I remembered that every time I popped my head out of one of the windows of the castle. I will have one of the steeples in sight. This reminded me of the 2011 movie of The Three Musketeers. I can’t help but recall the scene where the young D’Artagnan duelled against Captain Rochefort.
Emanuelle said the castle had been used as a location for some Hollywood movies but she couldn’t tell me which one (I don’t think she understood my question). I googled and found out that parts of the 1991 film, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”, were shot in and around Carcassonne.
And like other historical buildings and sites, you’ll end your tour at the souvenir shop stocked with not only fridge magnets, soft toys and other memorabilias but also books and other reading materials on the historical place.
Do we have something similar or better?