Mankind has erected some stunning monuments across the world throughout history, and stumbling across a stunning building is one of the greatest joys of travel. Here's some of our favourite architectural masterpieces, drawn from travel bible Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth.
The Cathar castles of Languedoc-Roussillon, France
It’s hard to forget the first time you catch a glimpse of the Château de Peyrepertuse. In fact, it takes a while before you realize that this really is a castle, not just some fantastic rock formation sprouting from the mountaintop. But it’s no mirage – 800 years ago, men really did haul slabs of stone up here to build one of the most hauntingly beautiful fortresses in Europe.
In medieval France, war was frequent, life often violent – the point of castles, obviously enough, was to provide a degree of protection from all of that. Location was all-important – and the Cathar lords of Languedoc-Roussillon took this to ludicrous extremes, building them in seemingly impossible places. How they even laid foundations boggles the mind. Ironically, even castles like this couldn’t protect the Cathars. In the early thirteenth century, this Christian cult was virtually exterminated after forty years of war and a series of massacres that were brutal even by medieval standards. Peyrepertuse was surrendered in 1240, but the fact that it still survives, as impressive now as it must have been centuries ago, is testament to the Cathars’ ingenious building skills and their passionate struggle for freedom.
Château de Peyrepertuse sits above the village of Duilhac. See www.chateau-peyrepertuse.com.
The Mezquita, Spain
© Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock
La Mezquita: a name that evokes the mystery and grace of Córdoba’s famous monument so much more seductively than the English translation. It’s been a while since the Great Mosque was used as such (1236 to be exact), but at one time it was not only the largest in the city but in all al-Andalus and nigh on the entire world.
Almost a millennium later, its hallucinatory interior still hushes the garrulous into silence and the jaded into awe, a dreamscape of candy-striped arches piled upon arches, sifting light from shadow. Today’s visitors still enter through that same orange blossom compound, the Patio de los Naranjos, proceeding through the Puerta de las Palmas where they doff their cap rather than removing their shoes. As your eyes adjust to the gloom, you’re confronted with a jasper and marble forest, so constant, fluid and deceptively symmetrical in design that its ingenious system of secondary supporting arches barely registers.
In 1523, despite fierce local opposition, the more zealous Christians finally got their revenge by tearing out the Mosque’s heart and erecting a Renaissance cathedral. Carlos V’s verdict was damning: “you have destroyed something that was unique in the world”. Thankfully they left intact the famous Mihrab, a prayer niche of sublime perfection braided by Byzantine mosaics and roofed with a single block of marble. Like the Mezquita itself, its beauty transcends religious difference.
Check www.infocordoba.com for up-to-date entry costs and other details.
The Alhambra, Spain
Towering out of an elm-wooded hillside above Granada, a snowy Sierra Nevada behind, there are few more iconic images of Spain than the ochre-tinted enclave of the Alhambra. By the time the last Moorish prince, Boabdil, was scolded (by his mother) with the immortal line “Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man”, a succession of Nasrid rulers had expanded upon the bare bones of the Alcazaba (or citadel). In doing so they created an exalted wonder of the world, elevating its inhabitants with voluptuous waterways and liberating inscriptions.
Now over five thousand visitors wander through the restored complex every day. No amount of words, however, can approximate the sensual charge of seeing the Palacios Nazaríes, the best preserved palace of the Nasrid dynasty, for the first time. As a building, the palace’s function was to concentrate the mind on the oneness of God, and nowhere is this more apparent than the Patio de los Leones courtyard. Here Arabic calligraphy sweeps across the stucco with unparalleled grace, stalactite vaulting dazzles in its intricate irregularity and white marble lions guard a symbolic representation of paradise. The sweet irony is that none of it was built to last, its simple adobe and wood in harmony with the elements and in stark contrast to the Alcazaba fortress opposite, the impregnable looking towers of which have defined the Granada skyline for centuries.
The Alhambra is open throughout the year; advance booking recommended (www.alhambra-patronato.es).
One of the wonders of the ancient world, the Roman archeological site of Baalbek – a place that, in the words of Robert Byron, “dwarfs New York into a home of ants” – holds awe-inspiring temples, porticoes, courtyards and palatial stone stairways. The Greeks and Romans called it Heliopolis, “The City of the Sun”, a name it shares with another great Classical city in Egypt – but this phenomenal site has no equals.
Avoid the midday heat and crowds by arriving late in the afternoon, when you’re likely to catch the sky as it turns a purplish orange, flanked by Mount Lebanon and the colossal Temple of Jupiter. Ascend the temple’s restored steps – which long ago stretched to twenty times their current breadth – to the chiselled portico, once covered in cedar and supported by twelve massive Corinthian columns. The central door gives onto a hexagonal courtlyard encircled with exedrae, small, carved recesses in the walls where Romans would come to ponder the world. Further on, past the inner sanctum, the main court is overshadowed by six elephantine stone columns – the largest in the world – below which two large open basins served to bathe cows and bulls for sacrificial rites and above which once towered a massive Roman basilica.
Exit through a tunnel below the acropolis for Baalbek’s other sites: the Temple of Venus; the Ummayad Grand Mosque; and the Hajar al-Hubla, the largest cut block of stone known to man. Forged from local crystalline limestone, it supposedly took 40,000 men to move and its power has reportedly made barren women fertile.
Buses from Beirut to Baalbek take 2–3hr – see www.baalbeck.org.lb for details.
The Burj Al Arab, United Arab Emirates
Dubai is a desert turned Disney.What was once a sleepy fishing village is now a futuristic cybercity, with sparkling skyscrapers, shopping malls, water parks, golf courses and hotels so flashy that Elton John would be proud to call them home. The iconic Burj Al Arab is a striking 28-storey symbol of new-world bling. The gleaming building, one of the tallest hotels in the world, is shaped like a billowing sail – and to say it dominates the skyline is an understatement. At night, surrounded by choreographed fountains of water and fire, it is truly spectacular.
Modestly marketed as “the world’s first seven-star hotel”, it has a helipad on the roof (where Federer and Agassi played out a vertigo-inducing exhibition tennis match) and more than 1200 staff poised to satisfy your every whim. The bedrooms are all gigantic suites, their decor the epitome of Arabian kitsch. We’re talking mirrors above the beds, leopard-print chairs and gold-tapped Jacuzzis in every bathroom. The 42-inch TV screens are framed in gold, and the curtains and doors can be operated electronically. If all this doesn’t quite cut it for you, the two show-stopping Royal Suites come with their own private elevators, cinemas and rotating beds: a bargain at $28,000 per night.
The Masjid i-Imam, Iran
Known to the Persians as Nisf-e-Jahan (“Half the World”), Isfahan – a two-time capital of the Persian Empire – is home to the crowning jewel of Islamic architecture, the stunning Masjid i-Imam mosque. It is said that if you visit all the mosques in Iran, you should visit this one last, as its beauty will supplant your memory of all others. Built over 26 years, the Safavid-era mosque sits on the southern edge of the Maydan Naqsh i-Jahan, a massive fountained square in central Isfahan where horseriding and polo were once put on for the shah and his court.
Stroll around the outside of the mosque to take in the wild collection of diverse motifs, colours and calligraphic designs that adorn the various portals, walls and vaults. In the centre of it all is a beguiling, 54m-high bulbous dome. On either side of the main prayer hall courtyard are the halls of a medrese, an important Islamic school in use until the nineteenth century. To capture a memorable photograph of the whole thing, visit the Ali Qapu pavilion, just across the square, home to views that are simply magnificent.
The mosque is open to visitors daily 8am–5pm (until 7pm during the summer), but it is closed on Friday mornings.
Monte Albán, Mexico
© Dmitry Rukhlenko/Shutterstock
Rising like a giant fist above the valleys of Oaxaca, magical, mystical Monte Albán is above all a statement of power. The Zapotecs built their city far from the valleys and without any natural water supply (water was carried up by hand and stored in vast urns). This wasn’t a mistake – they wanted to emphasize their dominance of their people, and nature itself. Founded around 500 BC, most of the city was abandoned by 950 AD and though the Mixtecs later used it as a burial site, the main structures were only cleared and restored in the 1930s.
Approaching from the city of Oaxaca, the narrow road snakes its way through a series of terraced hillsides, now all overgrown scrub but once home to a thriving population of almost 20,000. What remains today is just the very centre of the site – the religious and political heart – and until you reach the top it’s impossible to appreciate the sheer audacity of this place; a whole mountaintop was effectively levelled by hand to create this massive, man-made plateau on which the Zapotecs constructed soaring pyramids, astronomical observatories and palaces.
If you have time, explore the tombs to the northeast of the main site, linked by rough paths across the scrub – here, amongst the stone memorials to Zapotec rulers long forgotten, Monte Albán’s sense of lingering mystery is most palpable.
Monte Albán (daily 9am–5pm; M$51) is 9km southwest of Oaxaca – most visitors make day-trips from the city.
Astana beggars belief. This new city, thrown up with a mix of determination and flair last seen when Peter the Great forged St Petersburg out of a Baltic swamp, is the second coldest capital in the world, after Ulan Bator in Mongolia. Why did newly independent Kazakhstan want to build its new capital on steppe-land where temperatures plummet to -40°C in winter? True, the old capital, Almaty, 1000km to the south, was prone to earthquakes and lacked space for expansion, but some suspect the real reason was to bring ethnic Kazakhs up to the north of the country so that its Russian-speaking population didn’t form an enclave.
The city is the project of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since the fall of the Soviet empire. A gilded imprint of his hand rests on the top of the Bayterek, a spiky space-age tower representing the poplar tree in which, according to legend, the magic Samuruk bird laid its egg. Yet this is only one of a number of statement buildings across this extraordinary city. Others include a glowing glass Pyramid of Peace designed by Norman Foster, which is supposed to double as an underground opera house. Conspiracy theorists believe it is actually a piece of Masonic symbolism designed to herald a new world order. Foster also built Khan Shatyry, a 50m-high “royal tent” that encloses an entertainment complex. Money seems to be no object in Astana. As long as the petrodollars keep flowing in, this is a city that can genuinely say “Make it so”.
www.airastana.com flies direct to Astana from many Asian and European airports, including London.
The Meenakshi Temple, India
© Val Shevchenko/Shutterstock
Rising from the surrounding plains of tropical vegetation like man-made mountains, the great temples of the Chola dynasty utterly dominate most major towns in Tamil Nadu. For sheer scale and intensity, though, none outstrips the one dedicated to the fish-eyed goddess, Shri Meenakshi, and her consort, Sundareshwara, in Madurai. Peaking at 46m, its skyscraping gopuras stand as the state’s pride and joy – Dravidian India’s Empire State, Eiffel Tower and Cristo Redentor rolled into one. The towers taper skywards like elongated, stepped pyramids, their surfaces writhing with an anarchic jumble of deities, demons, warriors, curvaceous maidens, pot-bellied dwarves and sprites – all rendered in Disney-bright colours, and topped with crowns of gigantic cobra heads and gilded finials.
Joining the flood of pilgrims that pours through the gateways beneath them, you leave the trappings of modern India far behind. A labyrinth of interconnecting walkways, ceremonial halls and courtyards forms the heart of the complex. Against its backdrop of 30,000 carved pillars unfolds a never-ending round of rituals and processions. Day and night, cavalcades of bare-chested priests carry torches of burning camphor and offerings for the goddess, accompanied by drummers and musicians blasting out devotional hymns on Tamil oboes. Shaven-headed pilgrims prostrate themselves on the greasy stone floors as queues of women clutching parcels of lotus flowers, coconuts and incense squeeze through the crush to the innermost sanctum.
Madurai, in the south of Tamil Nadu, can be reached by plane from Mumbai (3hr 20min) or the state capital, Chennai (1hr).
Bangkok's Grand Palace, Thailand
As befits a former royal residence, there’s bling aplenty at the Grand Palace, whose main temple, Wat Phra Kaeo, dazzles with its shimmering walls and gables covered all over in gilt and coloured glass mosaics. Join the hundreds of Thai pilgrims and step inside to pay homage to the teeny Emerald Buddha, the holiest icon in the country. The figurine is just 60cm high, elevated atop a towering golden pedestal, and is dressed according to the season: a golden shawl in winter, a monk’s robe for the monsoon and a crown for summer. Things get even more surreal in the colonnades that encircle the temple, where an exuberant kilometre-long mural depicts the complicated ups and downs of the Ramayana story, an ancient epic tale of good versus evil, whose cast includes a monkey king, a demon with ten heads and otherwordly air-borne creatures.
Wat Phra Kaeo, or the Grand Palace, is open daily 8.30am–3.30pm.
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