So, in no particular order, here are my ten favourite places …
The Taj Mahal
There are a lot of words written about the Taj, about Shahjahans monument to his beloved Mumtaz Mahal, the “teardrop on the face of time”, and rightly so. It’s a stunning building in a stunning setting and it’s mood changes throughout the day. From the pale pink of dawn, to the harsh whiteness at midday to the golden yellows of the setting sun, this study in marble and pietra dura, is rightly considered to be one of the most beautiful buildings ever created. And you get to share it with half of India when you visit!
The rose red city half as old as time is quieter now. Troubles over the border in Syria have led to a reduction in tourists visiting the amazing facades and tombs that line the wadi in which Petra exists. That first sight of the treasury is magical as you emerge from the narrow siq and get your first glimpse of the iconic building. Climb up to the high place of sacrifice or, better still, ascend the 800 steps to the colossal treasury and take in the views over Petra. It’s very exposed so take plenty of water with you as the temperature was touching the hundreds on my trip. Just a really special place.
There are a couple of Egyptian entries on my list. Abu Simbel is extraordinary and one of those places that gave me goosebumps. These days virtually the only way you’ll get to see the two templesis via an 8 hour round trip driving through the desert with an armed escort. Another sad example of how the worlds troubles affect our travelling.
But in happier times it was a short plane ride to the nearby airport. That was before, if the plane was offered, travel agents ripped you off to the sum of £250 per person. It’s not that Abu Simbel isn’t worth it because it is but knowing the plane actually costs about £30 shows how you’re getting taken, literally, for a ride!
The temples constructed by Ramesses 2nd “The Great” are monuments both to him and his beloved queen, Nefertari. Set in a spectacular setting on the shores of Lake Nasser it’s worth remembering that these extraordinary temples were only rescued from the waters by a colossal UNESCO effort in the 1960s. Without international cooperation and money they wouldn’t exist. A marvel of engineering saved by a marvel of engineering!.
Here I am in my younger days enjoying a cool spot in and on Philae. The lovely temple sits just below the town of Aswan and is reached only by boat. Moved, as with Abu Simbel, from one location to another; carefully deconstructed and reconstructed, Philae is definitely pretty.
A late period, mainly Ptolemaic construction, the temple is very picturesque on its island setting which gives it a sense of uniqueness. Even as someone who adores Egyptology I can appreciate the phenomenon known as temple fatigue but, even to the most jaded, there’s enough here to perk you up and reignite the interest.
See, I told you she was pretty.
It was here that our guide on the first of my three visits, enacted the ancient myth of Osiris, Isis, Horus and Set. I got the short straw, Osiris and was killed off in the first act. Typical of my luck.
The place where men became gods. Unfortunately many of my favourite places I visited before I had access to digital photography so I don’t have pictures to share on my blog and, to many who’ve seen the photos I have, Teotihuacan just gets a shrug of the shoulders and a “so what ?” expression.
I think you have to go there to really appreciate it.
It’s not beautiful. It’s not picturesque, or lovely, or cute. It’s imposing.
There’s a sense of huge about it. A sense of massiveness. Flanked at one end by the Pyramid of the Sun and, to one side, the Pyramid of the Moon, it has an epic sense of scale. The Avenue of the Dead is about 1.5 miles long and one of my fondest memory’s is leaving my tour group to drive to the other end and just taking a leisurely stroll from one end to the other, clambering up pyramids as I went to take in the views.
It might not be to everyone’s taste but to me it was totally thrilling.
The Kerala Backwaters
There have been few moments of sheer bliss in my life but my time spent drifting on the Kerakan backwaters were certainly some of them. The beautiful waterways that run up and down the west coast towards the southern tip of India are as idyllic as you can imagine and the night on the houseboat, waking up to the soft lapping of water and the breeze rustling through the palms is something I’ll never forget. If there is a heaven on Earth then I think this is it.
I’d long wanted to visit Angkor Wat. It was one of those places that was on my list but seemed elusive as costs seemed to spiral higher and higher and cheaper holidays took priority. But they say that good things come to those that wait and thus it was, in 2011, the opportunity arose.
The iconic spires. The all too familiar, it seems, tarpaulin and scaffolding that afflicts so many ancient sites. I remember it well.
In truth Angkor Wat is part of a bigger complex, the city of Angkor Thom which itself contains many highlights. It’s like an adventure playground for adults with any number of different “rides” to clamber over and explore. I’m still surprised that so few people have heard of Angkor but, in a way, I’m also relieved as it’s absolutely amazing and I’d go back again in an instant. Yes it’s that good. It’s an architectural masterpiece of Hindu design slowly metamorphosising into a Buddhist temple. It’s grand, it’s setting is spectacular and it’s in Cambodia, a country of warm and friendly people.
It’s just epic!
There are several sites in Iran that would make a top 20 list. I had to think long and hard about this but felt I really couldn’t leave Iran of my list because, let’s face it, it’s not thought of as a tourist place and, it’s an extraordinary country deserving of wider publicity.
Esfahan is the city that’s half the world. Within Iran itself it has something of a reputation for snobbery but, as a tourist in the mid 1990s I can only attest to the warmest of welcomes.
The highlight, amongst many, in Esfahan, must be the Naghsh-e-Jahan square. Constructed between the late 1500s and early 1600s it has, at one end, the Shah Mosque, an extraordinary and captivating vision in blue tile work (although on closer inspection the tiles are actually made up of seven colours). To one side stands the Sheikh Loft Allah Mosque, another Safavid masterpiece but this time designed for private, not public use and hence devoid of minarets. It’s tilework is exquisite and both the exterior and interior of its dome are utterly dazzling. There is so much beauty it’s just a shame that so few people will ever get to see it.
For the ninth entry I return to Cambodia. I’m just realising what’s not making this list and wishing I could cram 50 places in but, if I did, I’d probably think a bit harder and add even more. I suppose that’s both the good and bad thing about travel. So many amazing places, such a short list to add them to!
Anyway, The Bayon.
Let’s face it, that’s pretty neat!
Another wonderful example of Khmer architecture in the city of Angkor Thom. The multitude of serene and smiling faces look down upon the modern traveller from this imposing temple in a jungle setting. Whereas Angkor Wat is more classical Khmer in style, the Bayon is more of a baroque construction. It’s not just the faces that draw you into the temple but the myriad of fine reliefs that adorn its walls. From a distance you might just see a jumble of stones but as the individual faces come into view, and no two are exactly the same, you appreciate how amazing it is.
And it is, amazing!
For the final entry I return to my first love, Egypt.
If there are iconic buildings then surely the Pyramids are up there with them. These colossal stone constructs still dominate the Cairo skyline although the encroachment upon the Giza Plateau has somewhat diminished them in terms of location.
I recall vividly my first sight of them. It was an early morning. A faint breeze threw a delicate sand wash across the plateau and the early morning mist was just being burnt away by the fierce Egyptian sun. I recall standing there in awe as they loomed out of the sun casting colossal shadows across the burning sands.
It was hard to take in. The magnitude of their construction, the Egyptian ability to construct, to move the huge stones into place, the planning, the organisation that we struggle to match in modern times with all of our technology.
Actually going inside the Great Pyramid was a sensational experience, clambering through the grand gallery, squeezing into the Kings Chamber and feeling the vast weight of millions of tonnes of stone above your head. Feeling so insignificant at the heart of the machine.
Utterly, quite brilliantly, brilliant!
So that’s it. My top ten. I’ve missed out so many, The Shwedagon Pagoda and Bagan in Burma, Persepolis in Iran, Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itza in Mexico; the list goes on and on.
That’s today’s list.
Tomorrow ?. Who knows ?.