Dear fellow travellers
So what do the following four sites have in common?
1. The episcopal city of Albi in south-west France
2. Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean
3. The Putorana Plateau in the Siberian Arctic
4. Downe, a Kentish village on the edge of London.
On the face of it, we could not dream up four more different spots on the surface of the planet. Yet Albi, Downe, Bikini Atoll and the Putorana Plateau are all in competition with each other next week as UNESCO gears up to announce a new round of World Heritage Sites. Readers will doubtless have their own views about the politics and ethics of heritage, but many in Europe are raising an eyebrow or two about the inclusion of the Pacific atoll that hosted a major nuclear weapons test programme as a candidate for inscription on the UNESCO List.
But heritage comes in many guises and a look through the European wannabes jostling for inclusion on the list reveals the variety of landscapes and monuments that may credibly aspire to heritage status. It is fifteen years since the Dutch government first put forward a case for the historic centre of Amsterdam to be listed. And our guess is that Amsterdam must be a front runner for 2010. The concentric rings of canals that define the city centre are a superb example of seventeenth-century urban planning.
We have a feeling that Downe might make the grade too. This nomination seems a little improbable at first sight, but Downe - just a dozen miles from the centre of London - is more than just one more anonymous community on the rural-urban fringe. Charles Darwin lived in Downe for forty years and the meadows, chalk vales and woodlands around Downe were the setting for many of Darwin's investigations into evolution. The UK government has a knack of developing ingenious nominations to UNESCO and the proposal for Charles Darwin's Living Landscape Laboratory is one of their best yet. But whether a proposal makes the grade at the UNESCO annual heritage jamboree, which this year takes place in Brasilia, often has more to do with international politics than with the intrinsic merit of the case.
Securing a place on the World Heritage List can lead to a big boost in tourism revenue, but not everywhere that is on the list automatically becomes hugely popular. Towns like Zamosc (Poland) and Dessau (Germany) feature on the UNESCO List but neither are in the premier league of tourist destinations.
As one European city found to its cost, getting a place on the UNESCO List does come with a few strings attached. Dresden fell from favour as city officials pushed ahead with plans for a new road bridge over the Elbe, so slicing through a World Heritage Site. UNESCO was not amused and last year stripped Dresden of its World Heritage status. Dresden's civic vandalism secured for the German city the dubious distinction of being the only place in Europe ever to have lost World Heritage status.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)