Want to add a little culture to your next holiday? Here’s historian Dan Snow’s guide to the best places to get your history fix. This advice is taken from the September 2010 issue of Lonely Planet Magazine.
1. Suez Canal to Petra, Jordan
The Suez canal was both the artery and the graveyard of the British Empire. It’s still a really cool thing to see, the huge ships gliding through the desert. After that, travel up to Petra. I never get bored of walking along the wadi towards the fantastical temples hewn out of the rock – it’s pure Indiana Jones. Then at Wadi Rum, you can follow in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia, and see the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It’s invigorating to see how the desert sand changes colour as the sun goes down.
2. New York to Montréal
Lots of people are very rude about the history of the USA, but actually it’s fascinating, and so rich in 18th-century history. The drive upstate from New York through the Hudson valley passes by historic highlights such as the Ticonderoga frontier fort, or the battlefield at Saratoga – where one of the decisive battles of the American revolution was fought. There are still Iroquois Native American settlements in evidence as you near Montréal. And of course, the whole area is very beautiful, especially in autumn.
Ukraine has just been through terror after terror. The scars are still visible – the empty Jewish quarters in the cities, the collectivised farms rotting away. There are still loads of Cold War nuclear bunkers – I visited one with a former worker, and asked him whether he would have pushed the red button and obliterated Britain. And he said: 'Yes, of course, it was my job!' There are cities like Odessa and Sevastapol too. Once great centres of culture, they were interrupted by the catastrophe of communism, but are still very striking.
4. The Great Wall and Xian, China
I thought the Great Wall would be a bit naff, but it blew me away. It’s a monument to man’s attempts to dominate our landscape. I flew to Xian afterwards to see the Terracotta Army. Lots of major monuments were actually built by someone quite irrelevant – like Tutankhamen, who was a very minor Egyptian king. But the Terracotta Army was built to defend the man who created China – Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor. And they’re still digging stuff up today; no-one knows how much is still in his tomb.
My Dad drove me around Greece when I was a kid, and the quality and number of ancient ruins is unique. It’s a civilisation that gave so much to ours. We still talk about Homer, and the great thinkers and dramatists – so it’s amazing to get a glimpse of the world which so influenced our own. I was particularly struck by Sounion, the temple of the sea, on the tip of the Athenian peninsula. It’s where Lord Byron carved his name into a pillar, and is really underappreciated – but to my mind remains the most wonderful of all the Greek sites.
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