Altamira prehistoric painted cave to reopen

One of Europe’s most breathtaking examples of prehistoric art will soon be accessible to the public.

The Paleolithic cave art at Altamira, in the Cantabria region of northern Spain, will soon be open to visitors. Altamira’s paintings of bison, deer, and other animals date from 14,000 to 20,000 years ago and are some of the best preserved of all prehistoric cave art. Even more intriguing are the hand prints by the artists themselves.

Cantabria’s Culture Ministry and Altamira’s board of directors have decided to reopen the site sometime next year. Access will be limited and they did not release details as to the number of people who will be allowed into the cave. Altamira has been closed since 2002 because even the few visitors allowed at that time affected the delicate environment that had preserved the paintings for so many millennia. Like at the famous Paleolithic cave of Lascaux in France, mold has started growing on some of the paintings. The circulation of air from people coming and going changes the temperature, and their breath changes the humidity.

Some archaeologists have criticized the move, saying that allowing visitors will increase the damage already done. If the plans to reopen Altamira go through, it could lead to a controversy similar to the one surrounding Lascaux, which has seen a group of scientists called the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux call for an independent investigation into how the cave is managed.

Photo of Altamira reproduction at Madrid’s Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España courtesy José-Manuel Benito.

Scotland promoting archaeological tourism

Forget kilts, haggis, and caber tossing, Scotland’s tourism board wants you to delve into the country’s past.

Tony Robinson, star of Blackadder and Time Team, is the poster boy for Visit Scotland‘s new push for archaeological tourism. The tourism board has developed several five-day itineraries visitors can follow to explore Scotland’s 10,000 year heritage.

Scotland is an archaeological wonderland with stone circles, mysterious prehistoric forts, and medieval monasteries. Visit Scotland’s trails focus on the country’s northern and western islands. Despite their rough climates, island chains like the Orkneys, Shetlands, and Hebrides preserve evidence of advanced cultures. One of the most important sites is Skara Brae, pictured above, on Mainland (actually an island) in the Orkneys off the north coast of Scotland. This remarkably complete Neolithic village was founded about 5,000 years ago and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built from local stone, the little homes are sunk into the earth to protect them from the elements. The interiors have shelves, hearths, and even stone furniture built into them. One even has a toilet with a drain.

The itineraries go beyond simply describing a series of sites. They also give information on how to get there and back, suggestions on where to eat, and historic hotels and B&Bs to stay in.

And don’t worry, you can still eat sheep’s hearts, wear man-skirts, and throw telephone poles.

Photo courtesy Dr. John F. Burka via Wikimedia Commons.


Tanzanian official urges beauty queens to boost tourism

An official at Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area is encouraging contestants in the National Miss Utalii pageant to use their assets to boost tourism.

Public relations manager Adam Akyoo said that beauty pageants would attract more tourists to a region already famous for its wildlife.

The dozen contenders for the Miss Utalii pageant are all university or college students from Tanzania’s northern region, where the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is located. The most famous beauty queen from this region is Miriam Odemba, pictured here. She was crowned first runner up for Miss Earth in 2008, winning the title Miss Earth Air.

Much of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is taken up by a large caldera and is home to Olduvai Gorge and its rich collection of fossils of early humans. Huge herds of zebra and wildebeest migrate through the area twice a year and thanks to this it has large populations of lions and cheetahs. Other animals include hippos, rhinos, leopards, elephants, and hyenas.

Unlike many parks in Africa, humans are allowed to use the land for limited agriculture and grazing. The Maasai bring their herds into the caldera every day, but must leave before dark. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is popular with safaris and adventure travelers.

Coming Attractions: Iran

My first night in Tehran, reeling from a 55 hour bus ride from Istanbul, I staggered into the closest restaurant I could find for some dinner. The waiter was very curious to see me and we chatted a bit. I quickly found my mediocre Arabic was useless in this Farsi-speaking nation and we got by in what limited English he could muster. After dinner I went up to the register to pay and the cashier said, “Never mind, your waiter paid for you.”

“Wow, that was nice! Where is he so I can thank him?” I asked.

“He’s gone home already.”

That was my first sample of Persian hospitality.

It’s a casual, instinctive form of hospitality. They don’t make a big show of it like in some countries. Instead the Iranians have an intellectual curiosity about the outside world and feel a genuine warmth to outsiders.

Wait. . .Iran? That country with the leader who denies the Holocaust and wants to build nukes? Yeah, that Iran. I’ve been to more than 25 countries and I’ve never seen such a difference between a people and their government. The regime is crap, no doubt about it (there goes any offers of a press trip) but the people are something else. In a month I never got an ounce of attitude, not even in the mosques and madrasas (religious schools). One director of a madrasa even confided, “I wish the government didn’t force Islam on people. It turns people away from the faith.”

To anyone brought up on Western television, Iran is a constant series of surprises. It’s quite safe and is home to ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites, easily accessible via an efficient system of clean, modern buses. Top sites include the old Persian capital of Persepolis (where the guard gave me a tour in Italian because it kinda sounded like the French I tried on him), medieval Armenian churches, and the mosques of Isfahan, simply the most beautiful Islamic city I’ve seen.

There’s a saying in Persian, Isfahan nesfe jahan, “Isfahan is half the world”, and it certainly gave me half of my best memories of Iran. The mosques, with their cool blue tiles and sleek minarets, are as soothing to the eye as the city’s lush gardens. Perhaps it’s because so many Iranian buildings are made of bare concrete that Isfahan creates such an awesome contrast, but I spent days admiring the architecture. Isfahan is also home to many traditional crafts, their stores divided into separate streets in the customary fashion of the Middle East. The carpet bazaar was as much of a visual treat as the mosques, but the coppersmith’s street, while having traditional appeal, is not a place to go while nursing a headache. A hundred guys hammering away at metal lacks any cultural interest at that point.

Oh, and the food’s good too, especially if you have a sweet tooth. The Persians are big on desserts. I wish I could remember the name of this one concoction made with ice cream topped with honey and walnuts, topped with whipped cream, and then another layer of ice cream topped with honey and walnuts and whipped cream. . . and on and on to the top of a dauntingly tall glass.

Get there

While there are no direct flights from the U.S. or Canada to Iran, there are numerous flights from all major European hubs. Or you can try that horrible bus route I took from Istanbul. It’s grueling, but you get to see many long miles of rugged Anatolian and Persian scenery on the way, and meet lots of dodgy money traders too. One guy offered me $7,000 cash for my Canadian passport. I have to admit I was tempted, but the idea of being without a passport and having to lie to Iranian cop kept me honest. It’s even possible for U.S. citizens to get visas to Iran from the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Pakistani embassy in Washington, DC. Read the website carefully, though, as there are lots of restrictions.

How great is the Great Wall of China? Very!

I bet you thought the name said it all. A recent survey by of this World Heritage site – billed as “technologically advanced” – puts the original length of the wall at 5,500 miles, much further than the previous estimate of 3,700 miles. That’s a difference of almost 50 percent!

This effort took more than two years of surveying with GPS tools, infrared technology and other mapping techniques, and the outcome is the most complete view of the wall ever seen. Since perfectly restored pieces comprise no more than 20 percent of the original wall, this new perspective will help with efforts at conservation.

Erosion and war impeded protection in the past, but the current threat is construction, as China embraces (parts of) a capitalist economy. In some cases, roads exist in places once occupied by the Great Wall of China. Almost a third of the structure has disappeared completely.

More research is on the agenda, with completion expected to come in 2010.