5 years, 6 months ago
We always think World Heritage Spain is open to speculation. Yes there are the 44 designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but we’ve never visited the country without asking ‘But what about……?’ Because so much of Spain still upholds ancient traditions and historic art and architecture are often intrinsic to the contemporary landscape it can’t be easy to draw a World Heritage line and decide what gets protected and what doesn’t. And in a way this is good news, the 44 sites that are official in Spain are truly World Heritage. They’re the cathedrals and monasteries that made the others look measly (and that’s going some in Spain). The national parks and islands and mountain ranges stood out in a country not short of contenders. And the historic cities that made the World Heritage top 44 must just have whiskered past the losers.
So for every awe inspiring monument, cathedral, park, rock painting or amphitheatre we’ve missed in our top 5, we’re not going to feel too bad because in our opinion UNESCO have ignored quite a few too – and they had a lot more wriggle room.
TOWER OF HERCULES, CORUNA, GALICIA
As if it wasn’t enough for Galicia to have one of the most extraordinary coastlines in Spain, the region bagged a fair share of the country’s fantastic seafood too, selfishly took Santiago de Compostela and to top it all walked off with the world’s oldest working lighthouse, The Tower of Hercules.
At 57 metres, The Tower of Hercules is the second tallest lighthouse in Spain and was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2009. The original Roman tower dates from the 2nd Century, there are Medieval modifications and in 1788 it was completely restored to its present form. Strategically positioned on a rocky peninsula the Tower of Hercules overlooks the Costa de Morte or Coast of Death, a stretch of the Atlantic known for its disastrous shipwrecks.
Galicia is one of the most mysterious and intriguing regions of Spain and its least touristy coast. The Spanish holiday here for the beautiful beaches, pretty harbour towns and to get first dibs on that famous Galician seafood before it ends up on the world’s Michelin starred menus.
SIEGA VERDE, SALAMANCA
We’re completely behind UNESCO’s conservation efforts when it comes to prehistoric art. Yes, we’d like to have seen Lascaux and Altamira in the flesh, although we’re happy to settle for the excellent reproductions and our imagination. But we have to admit that if the opportunity to get up close and personal with some Paleolithic art presents itself we’re not going to miss out.
Siega Verde in Spain’s Salamanca Region on the border of Portugal was designated a World Heritage Site in 2010. Officially Siega Verde is an extension of Portugal’s incredible Côa Valley Archaeological Park. But with 94 Rock Art sites covering an area of 16km² and depicting over 500 prehistoric animals, Spain’s addition to the world’s Paleolithic art collection more than holds its own. And the best bit is – you actually get to see the real thing. Understandably, visits to the Rock Art sites are guided and most involve trekking across some magnificently rugged landscape but these are definitely hikes worth taking.
EL ESCORIAL, MADRID
credit: Jose Luis Rodríguez
Tired of all that art and architecture in Spain’s capital? Then do as the Madrileño do and head 45km out of the city to El Escorial in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama. This vast World Heritage Site was commissioned by Philip II of Spain in the mid-16th century to atone for various bits and pieces of bad behaviour, think: sacking churches, loose interpretation of marriage vows and the purloining of quite a sizeable amount of New World Gold. For all his shenanigans when he was briefly King of ‘other places’ (including England briefly), Philip II of Spain went on to be famously devout as King of Spain and El Escorial is his monument to grace and wisdom as well as a grand location to inter future Spanish monarchs.
For Renaissance Spain, El Escorial is remarkably austere, although its sheer size is quite daunting. Today the complex houses one of Europe’s finest art collections including work by Titian and Tintoretto, its vaulted library is world famous for rare manuscripts and the restrained elegance of the formal gardens and water features is justifiably admired and much copied.
LA LONJA DE LA SEDA, VALENCIA
credit: palm z
Spain’s third largest city and one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean, Valencia would be worth visiting even if it didn’t have a World Heritage Site to its name. But unsurprisingly Valencia wears its centuries of wealth and prosperity fairly flamboyantly and it’s not short of an architectural masterpiece or twenty.
La Lonja de la Seda (Silk Exchange) is one of the few secular World Heritage Sites in Spain and the country’s finest example of late Gothic architecture. With its beautifully weathered gargoyles, soaring columns, huge arched windows and almost overwhelming use of marble, La Lonja is a stunning testimony to the power and influence of 15th century Valencia. La Lonja is still used commercially today although not for anything as romantic and exotic as silk trading. And if you need to antidote the great and grand don’t forget Valencia is also home to La Tomatina, the annual festival of getting good and rowdy and drenched in tomatoes.
Possibly Spain’s best known World Heritage Site, the Alhambra in Granada is certainly one of the loveliest in the world. The Alhambra was originally built as a fortress in the 9th century, added to by centuries of rulers and invaders and even the Duke of Wellington (forest of elm), allowed to fall into disrepair and finally restored with a few glitches along the way to become Europe’s finest example of Islamic, Christian and secular architecture.
We highly recommend taking one of the excellent guided tours of the Alhambra to get your bearings. Then explore the endless intricate details for yourself, keeping in mind that the general theme is ‘A Paradise on Earth’ – regardless of the era or architectural signature.
And that’s our top 5 Spanish World Heritage Sites. Our selection is unashamedly personal, obviously not comprehensive and we’re sorry we couldn’t include more of Spain’s wonderful natural heritage. But there are another 39 sites to see, so when you make up your top 5 we look forward to comparing notes.
Featured image by N i c o_