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It’s Epiphany Night — It was Jan. 6, Epiphany night the conclusion of the Christmas season - in Évora, Portugal. As I wandered through the dimly lit medieval streets I passed several parades of people singing and playing music in celebration. Around a corner I find a Medieval tower, complete with a large bell; around the next, an illuminated series of Roman columns. I am starving and find a hole in the wall serving tapas and order in broken Portuguese.
The next day the festive atmosphere of the city is replaced by a sense of timelessness. I wander some more, visiting Roman ruins and a Franciscan cathedral and monastery. The highlight was definitely the morbid Capela de Ossos: a 16th-century chapel constructed entirely from human bones. Some Franciscan friar wanted to scare everyone into going to church so he dug up the local graveyard and built a chapel out of hundreds of skeletons. I finished the day with the usual search for a vegetarian, but traditional, meal, and hopped on a bus to Seville. Évora was the first stop on a four-week journey that would take me in a full circle around the Iberian Peninsula.
Before studying abroad in February at Maastricht University, Netherlands, I took a month to backpack solo around Portugal and Spain, starting New Year's Day. I continued traveling on the weekends during my semester. With countless things to see in the heart of Europe yet so little time I decided to visit as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as I could.
After WWII, the United Nations created the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to identify and preserve key cultural and/or natural sites of importance. To receive the UNESCO designation, a site must be of “outstanding value to humanity,” and fulfill a set of criteria.
My quest to visit UNESCO sites took me to incredible places.
While staying with a friend in Aachen, Germany, I wandered around the town center and saw the magnificent Aachen Cathedral. Its construction by the Frankish emperor Charlemagne — to whom a family tradition claims I am related — marked the embrace of Christian culture in Europe, a phenomenon that would define the next thousand years of the continent’s history.
When walking through Granada, Spain, first through the Moorish Albayzín neighborhood, then the Nasrid Islamic Alhambra fortress and finally through the more modern sections of the cities, I saw how the city changed through conquest and development by these different cultures.
While in London, England, I rode the tube to the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. This site exhibited human achievement in gardening and landscaping and served as a hub for research and conservation of plant species.
And when visiting the Palace of Versailles in France, I saw the glorious atrocity that occurs when kings named Louis are given whatever they want. Even after it was ransacked during the French Revolution, the palace contains unimaginable wealth. Each chamber, devoted to a different specific purpose, is filled with gold, silver, fine glass, and paintings by the greatest contemporary European artists. The backyard consists of miles of fountains, pools, and gardens. I was simultaneously amazed by the aesthetic brilliance of the palace, yet disgusted by the knowledge that all this was constructed while many of France’s citizens lived in dire poverty.
I became obsessed with seeing UNESCO sites. At one point I found myself at the Brussels-South Station with only a few hours to make it to my bus at the Brussels-North Station. I ran across the city through an intense storm, narrowly dodging an airborne fruit stand and seeing a parked bus nearly topple over. Despite the time crunch, I took a detour and ran through the Grand-Place heritage site, a breathtaking square lined by massive palaces of architectural mastery and surrounded by shops vending classic Belgian treats: chocolates, fries and beer.
My quest to see UNESCO sites involved several challenges. To travel cheaply, I stayed in youth hostels for around $15-20 per night — with breakfast included! The unbelievable price became very believable one night when I awoke to the yelling of a sick man in Portuguese at 5 a.m. in the bunk below. Another night, the woman sleeping next to me pulled a flat-screen television out of her bag and watched “Spanish Idol” at full volume until 3 a.m.
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While navigating new cities in search of specific sites, I also got lost several times. In Amsterdam, a friend and I wandered through a suburb for hours looking for a fort that never turned up. In Milan, my sister and I took the wrong train on the way to a site and ended up in Gorgonzola. The cheese was great, though, so no complaints there.
My sister and I also visited the old town of Bergamo, Italy, a part of the Venetian Defense Line site. Bergamo was one of the first cities hit with coronavirus in Europe, the virus which ultimately led to my early departure from the continent.
My departure was abrupt. I found myself saying goodbye to friends who were leaving the country one morning, only to have my own tickets home that evening. Because of the timing, I had to take a night bus with all my things and stay in London for a few days before I could catch a flight home to Washington, D.C. While in London, I tried visiting the Westminster Abbey heritage site but unfortunately, it was closed.
Though I had to leave earlier than expected, I managed to visit 16 different heritage sites in eight different countries in a little over two months.
Each heritage site is a puzzle piece in the picture of humanity, each a chapter in our common story — a story of conquest, of creation, of union with and dominion over nature. By visiting these places, I literally placed myself into those stories.
Enjoying a crepe on the bank of the Seine I became for a moment a minuscule part of Paris’ long history. When I startled one of the last remaining Iberian Lynxes into the undergrowth in Spain’s Doñana National Park, I witnessed the final chapter of another species’ story.
It is in these “spots of time,” like in Évora on Epiphany Night, eating modern cuisine in medieval structures and watching citizens in modern dress participate in a centuries-old tradition, that I feel truly present. Because of this feeling, I intend to visit every UNESCO heritage site I can before I die.
Contact contributor Riley Place at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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