Friday, 21 November 2014

Unofficial Wonders Part 3: Europe

There's more to life than just official Wonders - there are unofficial ones too. I encountered a load of them on my recent travels, as recently highlighted, and so here are some more. Unscheduled and unresearched, they all stopped in me in my tracks in the way that a busy father, possibly with a freshly-made gin-and-tonic in hand, might stop suddenly upon seeing his children playing happily in the garden and think, "Yeah, things are pretty good." Does that imply that I secretly regard myself as the father of all monumental construction and that the world is my garden? Hmm, no, I didn't mean that. I'll take the gin-and-tonic, though.

These are all from Europe and are just the examples I happened to jump into a photograph with. There could have been many more - Italy alone is so stuffed with castles and cathedrals and medieval towers that if it were a pepper, then it would be, well, really too stuffed for its own good. Yet, what a tasty pepper.

Temple of Olympian Zeus, Greece

"The Temple of Olympian Zeus, or just the Olympieion, is a very ruined temple, but wow it would have been big. Once with 104 columns, each 17 metres high, and taking over 600 years to build, today just 15 columns remain. In its day, it was bigger than the Parthenon."

Galata Tower, Turkey

"Galata Tower is a restored 14th Century tower, almost 70 metres high, and looks like a rocket lifting off from Beyoglu.It gives pretty good views."

Ephesus, Turkey

"Ephesus was a Greek city that flourished under Roman control, and among other things it was famous for having one of the original World Wonders - the Temple of Artemis... ...The main parts of Ephesus are mostly ruined, and so you've got to use your imagination to reconstruct how it might have once looked, but there are a few pretty spectacular set pieces.

Surely the headline act of Ephesus, however, is the library, the Library of Celsus. It's a Roman building, built in 135 AD, and designed as both a library for around 12,000 scrolls, and as a tomb, for Celsus. Celsus was a popular senator, and had been governer for a while of the Roman province of Asia that Ephesus belonged to. The library and tomb was built for him by his son, and if you think it's rather unusual having your tomb in a library - then it is. But people did things different back then.

Sadly, the whole thing only lasted a little over a hundred years, as in 262 AD an earthquake struck, and destroyed all but the facade. It went the same way as the rest of the city and the Roman Empire after that, succumbing to general decline and occasional raids and earthquakes. What we see today is actually a full-on restoration, and an excellent one at that, done in the 1960s and 70s. The facade has been put back up, and it's absolutely gorgeous."

Hierapolis, Turkey

"The Romans in many ways were like us - they saw strange natural formations and they liked them, and with natural springs and minerals, Hierapolis was a spa town for them. There's plenty to explore, lots and lots of ruins, and the size of the site meant that we were able to get away from the roaming packs of tourists pretty easily. The tourists gather along the pool-dotted deposit-white path that leads from Pamukkale town to the top of the hill, and at the over-priced modern pool complex at the top."

Granada Cathedral, Spain

"Submerged by other buildings, it could quite easily be missed if you didn't look up at the right time, although its bell tower is a chunky presence that is visible from a number of surrounding streets. The cathedral is a fat giant rather than an upright Gothic giant, in a decorative Spanish Renaissance style. It was built following the eviction of the Moors, on the site where the city mosque had once been, and in typical cathedral style took absolutely ages, roughly 150 years from a 1518 start.

Inside is where it really makes the impression. Costing 4, we almost bypassed it - "I've been to loads for free!" - but no doubt it was worth it. Danielle considered it the best she'd seen, and that's up against some of the Gothic masters of France. I wouldn't go quite that far, but it was splendid, and perfectly captured the balance of looking in pristine condition while still conveying the sense of age."

Mezquita, Spain

"Built from the 8th to 10th Century, it was a grand mosque on the site of a former church, itself on the site of an old Roman temple. In 1236, Moorish Cordoba was conquered by King Ferdinand III of Castile and the Mezquita was converted into a Catholic church. However, the changes weren't as radical as you might think, which is why today we have a truly unique construction. At the centre is a cathedral, in the kind of Renaissance style you see all across Europe, but spread out all around it is the large expanse of the old mosque, held up by countless columns. I say countless, there are apparently 856, but I'll be damned if I'm confirming that count. Between each pair of columns is an arch, or a double-arch rather, an arch-on-top-of-an-arch, giving the ceiling a bit of extra height (it still feels quite low). It is these arches that give the Mezquita its postcard fame - they are striped in red and white and fill the large squarish area around the cathedral centre, a glorious repeating motif. With the dim lighting through small overhead windows, the Mezquita feels very exotic."

Metropol Parasol, Spain

"Finished just three years ago, this is a brand new addition to the Seville skyline, and it is just about the most unusual and unique thing I've ever seen. I can't think of a close comparison. In as much of a nutshell as I can put in, it's a gigantic series of inter-connected wooden lattice quasi-mushrooms forming a kind of umbrella over a city square, on top of which you can walk and see views across the city, enjoying a drink or two if you wish.

It should be ridiculous - but it isn't. It's amazing, an inspired gamble by the designers and the Sevillian authorities. How many councils would give the go-ahead to something like this? The best thing about it is how unobtrusive it is. Seen from a distance, the colours make it blend in with the surroundings, and it's only when you arrive in the square that you notice it. It's highly unusual, but not at all ugly. At first, it just seems like a series of weird blobs in the sky, but after some exploration it really makes sense. I'm a massive fan. I'd read about it before these travels and had briefly flirted with adding it to my list. I kind of wish I had."

Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille

"No doubt the scenic set piece of the city is the Notre-Dame de la Garde, perched on the hill overlooking all of Marseille and the Mediterranean beyond. Built in the 19th Century on the site of an old fort, still quite visible, it is a striking addition to Marseille's skyline and its most iconic feature. It is full of quirks inside, particularly the naval theme that sees many pictures of ships and even model boats hanging from the ceiling."

Siena Cathedral, Italy

"The facade is pretty in pink, and the bell tower is a very distinct striped black-and-white, these being the Sienese colours. Some time ago, this was suggested as a potential Wonder candidate. I decided not to go with it and that decision was correct, but only because of the stupid numbers of amazing cathedrals around. Unquestionably, that Siena Cathedral is "just another cathedral" is testament to how lucky Europe is to be packed full of these masterpieces."

Milan Cathedral, Italy

"Milan's central appeal is its cathedral, an unusual Gothic edifice built over centuries - it was only finished in 1965. It occupies the heart of the city, facing a large piazza. I'd considered it a few times for my Wonder list, and likely it would have been included had not I already added so many cathedrals that I wanted to avoid overkill. Nonetheless, probably Milan Cathedral really should have been added, as it's a pretty distinct looking thing - although curiously more petite than I'd expected. Unlike most Gothic cathedrals, which have a large facade with a tower or two, Milan Cathedral's facade is more like an A-frame house, then absolutely covered with spires and points. It's the most hedgehog-like of any cathedral I've seen. I like it. Inside is cavernous with vast supporting columns, and a dim atmospheric light. Outside is ornate Gothic hyperactivity."

The Pantheon, Italy

"One of Roman architecture's greatest achievements is the Pantheon. It's a true masterpiece of architecture, and should really have had a place on my list somewhere. The most distinct feature is the giant dome, which was unprecedented for its era, and was massively influential for Western architecture. The height and diameter of the dome are the same, at 43.3 metres, and it remained the largest dome in the world for around 1200 years. The version we see now is a 2nd Century rebuilding of a roughly 0 BC/AD original. It's in great condition because it's been in continuous use, as a Roman temple and then a Christian church. It's still a church today, although it's mostly just a tourist site."

Altare della Patria, Italy

"It was built from 1885 to 1925 in honour of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of the unified Kindgom of Italy. It's huge - 70 metres high and 135 metres wide - and utterly over-the-top, with statues and fountains and rows of columns. It's 19th Century nonsense, but it's great fun, and kind of pompously impressive. Nothing subtle whatsoever is contained in the building. Additionally, it's right in the middle of Rome, not far from the Colosseum and walking distance from most of the city's highlights.

Somehow, I'd never heard of it before. In any other city, despite veering into the territory of tasteless, this would be regarded as one of the main monuments. In Rome, it's just one of many, and a lesser in a city of many superiors."

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