UNESCO. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the acronym may look like letters for a combination gas station/carwash, a bulk goods grocery store, or some Silicon Valley Tech start up, BUT it stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO has a mission to promote the protection of natural and cultural sites and that their preservation be a way to educate future generations while bringing awareness to unique places all over the world. I’ve been checking their website before going to a new place to see if they have a world heritage site near where I’ll be staying and a pattern started to develop. I love UNESCO world heritage cities. They have history, culture, charm and are a photographers dream, making them some of my more favorite spots I’ve checked out this year. Here’s a rundown of my top three UNESCO world heritage cities and like choosing a favorite child, these are in no particular order…
1. Cartagena, Colombia
When we booked our trip I was intrigued to unearth more of what experiences were hidden in Colombia. It would be my first time in South America, and as a French student in school, my Spanish is limited to “No hablas” and “Estados Unidos” and my knowledge of the country similar so in my mind Colombia very well could still look like the 80’s romcom classic with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner…
It seemed like limited knowledge and stereotypes plagued Colombia outside of my own ignorance and most of the people I talked to when I told them I was going they remarked, “Isn’t it dangerous there?” or “I thought that country was just full of drug dealers.” It is cities like Cartagena that will change your mind and quickly show you Colombia is a juicy little onion, peeling away the layers of troubled history to reveal it’s sweet center.
Getsemani, a neighborhood once riddled with crime that is now transformed to an up and coming trendy artist spot, filling the previously seedy buildings with restaurants and pubs is a great spot to find a place to stay. The area offers a great opportunity for a walking tour, beautiful graffiti art is branded on street corners and we came across some wonderful architecture.
We stayed in Papaya Hostel near Plaza de la Trinidad, a hot spot for evening activities, where locals and tourists rest along the saffron walls of the church to people watch, play games, eat from the street carts and have an evening cocktail. It seemed like everyone gravitated here and we loved being so close to all of the action.
The old city of Cartagena has small side streets that labyrinth amidst the fortified walls so it is easy to spend several days just loosing time in light filled alleys that dead end at the wall where you can walk above and peer in from above. The vibrant colors are intoxicating, drawing you into the magic with it’s walls.
What makes this location even better is the fact that it is along the Caribbean coastline of Colombia so the beach is right at your doorstep to take a day trip to Playa Blanca.
Get out and Get Dirty: The Mud Volcano
We decided to hire a car and go for a drive to explore what lay outside of Cartagena as well as find the fabled volcano that is now filled with mud that was just outside of the city. We had some problems finding a car last minute but after some searching around we acquired our wheels for the day, a bright, shiny, new red Honda and we stuck out like a sore tourist thumb amongst all of the dusty sand covered jalopies that a lot of the locals drove.
We found El Totumo, the crater believed to have healing properties and is supposed to be excellent for your skin. You climb down rickety wooden stairs and then slowly submerge yourself in the mud bath. It is the weirdest sensation, I can only imagine it’s what floating in a giant tub of pudding would feel like, you bounce on the surface and as you try to press deeper towards the bottom, the dense ooze resists and pushes you up. We had heard from friends that there are a lot of “overzealous” workers that are there to help you in exchange for tips and just to be mindful and if you don’t want people all over you to just politely say no thank you. Somehow I ended up with some additional attention anyway. Afterwards you resist slipping to your death by clenching onto an old wooden railing and slowly descending down the stairs to the water below.
2. Georgetown, Malaysia
I fell for this city almost as soon as I exited the bus. I had come from the Cameron Highlands where the rolling green hills of the tea farms are located so it was going to be a hard city to beat and Georgetown was up for the challenge. Sino-Portuguese architecture overhead and at your feet there is grittiness to the streets. A look and feel is classic Southeast Asian but with the layout of a European city, street carts with Asian delicacies line the streets in front of quaint shop fronts.
The street art project here is like no other I’ve seen and it is credited for having a rise in tourism to the area, it’s truly something special. I hired a bike for a few days and went around town on a scavenger hunt, looking for the ironwork pieces and graffiti art along the sides of buildings. You can find maps of the area that pinpoint the locations of the artwork, turning into a tourism game of sorts. The project has created an outdoor gallery space within the city making it a truly unique experience when taking a walking tour, beautiful surprises around virtually every corner. Street food and coffee shops are prevalent here so I was rewarded for all of the hard work I did biking in the heat of the Malaysian sun.
I took an afternoon to explore Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, a wonderfully preserved home where Catherine Deneuve filmed Indochine. The owner had 7 wives over the course of the years, it went to ruins and then was restored, so you can imagine the history that has lived withing these walls. The “Blue Mansion” is a famous house in Georgetown and gives you a glimpse of how the better half lived here in Malaysia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The strikingly blue abode has received accolades from UNESCO for conservation and from Lonely Planet for one of the best mansions in the world to visit.
3. Valletta, Malta
UNESCO doesn’t mess around, they have criteria for their cities and Valletta is no exception to the rule. I stayed across the bay in Sliema, not in Valletta itself, but I found I was rewarded as I was able to look across the water and see this iconic view every morning.
Like Cartagena, Valletta is an old walled city, it’s architecture and layout from another time, wonderfully preserved. The high street is full of shops and restaurants, and there is a mall with a movie theater in it but if you move from the main vein of the city it revels it’s true character in the cobblestone streets and doorways. Make sure to visit St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a chapel with ornate Baroque style design housing a famous Caravaggio masterpiece.
Like most women I cannot resist a good door picture and I’m confused by this phenomenon but for some reason us ladies can’t help but love a pop of color and a climbing Bougainvillea in the same frame. Don’t believe me? Check out Pinterest. I spent most of my time in Valletta in front of stranger’s doorsteps, like a little creeper photographing their entryways. It’s here that I realized when I lived in Philadelphia if I saw someone outside taking a picture of my front door I’d probably be concerned but Valletta residents must be used to it because nobody seems to mind.
Knockers and Names
Malta is known for it’s ornate brass doorknockers, which also add to the allure of the door. The knockers carry a heavy nautical theme of fish, seahorses and mermaids, a glistening beacon welcoming visitors to their homes.
Alongside the doorways are small plaques usually with a saint or the Virgin Mary represented as well as a placard with the name of the house adorned on it. The houses are also named and the owners can get pretty creative. Most common are religious names or names with special meanings as well as nonsensical titles which are usually both the owners names mushed together (Brangelina should have a house here). The Maltese have a sense of humor about it all, on the bus I noticed three houses in a row named Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
While I was here I couldn’t help but want to call these the “Barrakka Obama Gardens”, it’s corny I know, but it makes me chuckle. Both Upper and Lower gardens are a verdant and lush welcomed warmth of color among the bisque stone buildings against the contrast of the blue Mediterranean bays. In the heat of day it’s a wonderful spot to people watch and if you hang out long enough you may get to witness the ceremonial cannon firing over the Grand Harbor.
Each of these cities are unique and special but for me the common thread is they speak to you, a character that reveals her country to you in her visual stories, sights and sounds. They help form a sense of what these places were in a certain time in addition to how they helped to shape the countries today. I was intrigued about the feeling that these three places evoke for me and I started comparing that with other cities I have seen and loved. Then, I started down the UNESCO rabbit hole, finding out that some of my favorite places are on their list: Old city of Quebec, Vatican City, Historic center of Rome, Historic center of Siena, Historic center of Florence, Cinque Terre, Edinburgh, Paris, banks of the Seine.
Curious to know how many UNESCO sites and cities you’ve seen? Check out their list HERE!