Heritage through the eyes of the locals

Throughout our travels we were exploring, discussing and thinking about how relationships with heritage differ from region to region. It’s not straightforward or universally the same. People’s relation to their heritage depends on many factors – the way a country industrially developed, their place in the world hierarchy of power, the prevailing political ideologies and religious beliefs and much more.

Since we’ve been travelling for more than 17 months in the past 2 years we could compare this relationship throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. For the purpose of this article, however, we’ve decided to only focus on the regions we travelled to within our OWHC travel scholarship.

Since we began our travels in Slovenia and Germany, let’s start at home. As we’ve observed, Europeans mostly see their heritage as something which has to be preserved, “locked” away, studied and maybe exhibited to tourists. Just think about how many churches also serve as tourist attractions, how many old royal buildings are now museums or galleries and how the historical centres of European cities mostly only serve tourists.

On the other side, however, we had a completely different experience in Turkey and Iraq. There, history and the present go hand in hand. Historical centres are usually home to very traditional and conservative communities and are less developed than modern outskirts. Citadels, old architecture, bazaars and mosques are sometimes reconstructed, and sometimes not. However, an underlying theme to all of these places is that they are still deeply woven into the daily lives of the inhabitants of the city. Be it shopping at centuries-old bazaars, bathing in historical hammams, dining in traditional restaurants or praying in mosques from the early days of Islam – history and the present day are not separated.

At this point a question arises – is heritage something which has to be locked down and preserved, or is it something which changes with every society inhabiting a certain time and space? We hope we will gain more answers to these questions while we continue our 10-month trip from Germany to Taiwan!


UNESCO Sights on the Way

After visiting the Safranbolu, the next UNESCO Heritage city on our list was Bam in Iran. However, because of the protests taking place in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini as well as the limited internet access that followed, we decided to change our plans and skip visiting Iran. Nevertheless, instead of Iran we then unexpectedly visited the Kurdish region of Iraq and also travelled to Saudi Arabia sooner than planned and have already visited quite a few new UNESCO Heritage sites.

Even before leaving Turkey, we managed to see two new Heritage sites, Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia and Diyarbakır Fortress.

We’ve wanted to go to Cappadocia for some time but were afraid of the high prices and crowds of tourists during this peak travel season. The Capadoccia region actually has 7 different valleys easily accessible by foot. Because most tourists come for just a few days and drive only to the main sights, they are completely empty and more beautiful than you can imagine (photos or videos really can’t capture the extraordinary nature). The fairy chimneys or phalluses, as some describe them, were made by wind and water erosion and the holes and caves were built during the Roman times for living, storage and churches. All in all, we had a great time and were surprised by how beautiful and tranquil nature is, and how few people explore the region behind the museum and the air balloons.

In Diyarbakir, we took part in a Youth Exchange about Islamophobia for 10 days, together with peers from Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. It was a great experience exploring this historical city! It is the “capital” of Kurds in Turkey, with a conflicting past. The last clashes in 2016 left the old city centre, including much of the UNESCO-protected fortress destroyed, but it’s rapidly coming back up again. The site includes the 5.8 km-long city walls of Diyarbakir with their various towers, gates, buttresses, and 63 inscriptions, as well as the Inner fortress, also known as çkale and featuring the Amida Mound. It is really magical to sip tea and watch the people strolling and the children playing as the golden light illuminates the fortress and the city walls which are supposed to be the longest complete defensive walls in the world after the Great Wall of China.

Leaving the beloved country that is Turkey, we made our way across the border with Iraq, to the northern Kurdish region of the country. Our first stop was Erbil, the biggest city in the region, where we met some new friends who took us to an opera concert in the old citadel, organised by the Czech consulate there. Located in the historical city centre of Erbil, on a hill overlooking the always lively main square and the enchanting old Bazaar, it was a magical thing to experience on our first evening in the city. The 5th millennium BC is the first indication of human settlement in the area around the citadel. The citadel’s original fortifications were eventually replaced with homes, but the continuous wall of tall 19th-century house façades still gives the appearance that an unassailable stronghold dominates the city.

From Iraq, our journey continues to Saudi Arabia, more specifically, its Eastern province, which is home to the biggest oasis in the world, the Al-Ahsa Oasis. The oasis is an important area in terms of its unique nature and geography, historically and economically. It is actually home to the largest conventional oil field in the world, the Ghawar Field and with 2.5 million palm trees it is also responsible for a large amount of Saudi date production, with the country being the second largest date producer in the world. The mix of oil production facilities and neverending palm forests is truly a unique sight.

Economics aside, the oasis presents evidence of human settlement in the Gulf region from the Neolithic until today. It possesses unique historical evidence of the continued human habitation in the area with the unique construction of fortresses, mosques, wells, and a network of open-air canals, which show a unique way of distributing water through the centuries. The historical buildings somehow act in harmony with a truly outlandish-looking geography of huge orange rocks scattered around the desert landscape. We were even lucky enough to join a tour to a hard-to-reach Al-Asfar lake, which is surrounded by sand dunes and nothing like we’ve ever seen before.

Changing our plans and leaving Iran out was a hard decision to make. Nevertheless, it’s definitely a country we plan on visiting when the situation allows it. Taking everything into account, our spontaneous adventures in Iraq and additional time in Saudi was an opportunity that we otherwise wouldn’t have and the Heritage sights that we saw before on during this time are memories that will undoubtedly not be forgotten.

City no. 4 – Safranbolu

Immediately after arriving in this historical town, we were mesmerized by the brown and white ottoman houses scattered around the hills and canyons. The cool breeze and clean air were a welcome relief from Istanbul’s sweltering heat and noxious pollution. 

For our three nights at a traditional guesthouse (konag), we were welcomed by a modest family who offered us breakfasts made with local ingredients and advice.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered “Turkey’s best-preserved Ottoman village” and one of the most fascinating to explore on foot. A reconstructed caravanserai (roadside inn where travellers could rest and recover from the day’s journey) that is now a hotel and a coffee museum was formerly an important trader’s stop along the Silk Road. A few mosques and a small sector of bazaars are nearby. Surprisingly, although being roughly halfway between Istanbul and Ankara, there are few foreign tourists there, and even locals who deal with tourists rarely speak English.

Safranbolu, an ancient and well-established city, has a lengthy history. The city was located in Paphlagonia, one of Anatolia’s ancient districts. In fact, in the Iliad, the legendary poet Homer recounted the Paflagons who travelled to aid the Trojans. Anatolian Seljuk Sultan II constructed Safranbolu in 1196. Ibn Batuta, a famous traveller, visited Safranbolu in 1334 and stayed for one night, describing it as “a captivating village nested in the mountains”. Its name originates from the Turkish name for Saffron (Safran) since this precious plant was grown and traded here.

Apart from exploring the history and nature, we also sampled many local delicacies, ranging from various soups to plates full of meat, manti (Turkish pasta) with walnuts, and the famous Safranbolu pide (a pie made with cheese and spinach, a very famous for this city).

However, the various coffees we had at the Safranbolu Coffee Museum were the best treat. They provided a variety of coffees made in accordance with the regional historical legacy of many ethnic groups, rulers, and traders from far and near.

Our favourites were the local Safranbolu coffee cooked in the fire with a side of Mastic water and the Tatar coffee with cream sprinkled with pistachio. We were also shown how to drink the traditional coffee. To begin, you drink the coffee with Mastic water, followed by the sweet Sherbet to finish.

After the relaxing 3 days in nature, we boarded another bus towards Ankara, from where we went on to explore the Black Sea Coast.

City No. 3 – Istanbul

We took a flight from Munich to Istanbul after spending another night with our friends in Forstinning. Arriving by bus to Taksim Square is always a magical experience, with the smokey smells of the kebab restaurants, the frantic crowds making their way towards the bustling Istiklal street, and many street vendors selling anything from corn to tours to kid’s toys.

We grabbed two steamed hamburgers (islak hamburger – a local favourite), jumped into the crowd, and followed Istiklal Street to our accommodation.

We slept in an Airbnb with some local LGBT activists, which was conveniently placed just a short walk from the famed Galata Tower but was somewhat under-equipped.

Istanbul in 2022 was unlike any of our previous visits to our favourite city in the world. After the COVID restrictions were nearly completely lifted, a large influx of Europeans, Americans, and Arabs flooded the city, significantly raising hotel and restaurant prices as well as taxi fares. This, combined with the extreme inflation, makes life difficult for the locals, as our friends have attested. To make the matters worse, Amadej also got quite sick with a cold, so we had to take a slow pace and avoid the overcrowded tourist attractions.

Nonetheless, we had a great time exploring the city’s many different aspects of heritage. First and foremost, we enjoyed the long walk from the Galata Tower through the Grand Bazaar to the Sultanahmet historical quarter. There, we tried to imagine what life was like at the Ottoman Court. With its numerous mosques, fountains, and palace complexes, it served as a link between two continents and a wide range of nationalities, cultures, cuisines, religions, and ideas.

After three nights in the city heat, a move to the countryside town of Safranbolu was more than needed. Our friend Nina joined us, and we boarded the 8-hour bus drive towards central Anatolia.

City no. 2 – Augsburg

“Augsburg’s Water Management System documents the 800-year development of the city’s water supply system, which is unparalleled worldwide.”

We also visited Augsburg with our local Bavarian friend Richard, who used to go to both beautiful Bavarian destinations with his family as a child. Our first stop in Augsburg was coffee on the Rathausplatz, the impressively big main square dominated by the grandiose town hall building, after which the square is named.

This location is also said to be locals’ favourite spot for a cup of coffee when they are in the area, so we felt that the break was necessary to truly immerse ourselves in the local (coffee) culture.

But the city’s impressive main square or its coffee aren’t reasons the city is a UNESCO Heritage city. It is actually its water management system. Water is undoubtedly one of the most noticeable features of the city. It is present in almost every street while walking through the old town and gives it a kind of a fresh, vibrant and breezy feel even during the hot summer days that we visited.

There is also a UNESCO Heritage information centre on the main square, but we were too late to visit it and just decided to stroll around the city and enjoy its impressive and innovative way of building the city centre on top of numerous water streams

The city of Augsburg is actually located on the northernmost point of a glacial deposit that stretches between the Lech and Wertach, two Alpine rivers, although the canal system also incorporates spring and river water sources. Regensburg’s earliest water supply system was built by the Romans and included a number of canals that brought water to the settlement.

Today, it is made up of 22 separate components that work together to form the entire system. It has been developing for more than a thousand years and has been operating for the benefit of the population until this day. As far back as the 15th century, drinking water and process water have been kept separate. In addition to providing drinking water,  the system’s primary tasks include providing process water for energy production and hygienic disposal

After admiring and learning about the water flowing through the city centre, we quickly drove to the system’s most important water monument, the Hochablass, where the Lech River is redirected to the majority of the canals.

Catching the last moments of daylight, we admired the huge water monument that made us understand the scope and importance of the water system better and ended the day off in the best way possible. 

Saying goodbye to Richard, his family and their lovely home in Forstinning, which is always hard because of all the Spezi (Bavarian soda drink), pretzels and especially their kind hospitality, we made our way to the airport and with that our third OWHC destination – Istanbul.

City no. 1 – Regensburg

“The only authentically preserved large medieval city in Germany”

We started our journey in Regensburg, a city in Germany known as “The only authentically preserved large medieval city in the country”. It is also where the Northwest Europe and North America Regional Secretariat of the OWHC is hosted. This meant that we got an unforgettable private tour of the city from a World Heritage Coordinator, Monika Göttler, which was especially focused on the city’s world heritage. And it was in German. But luckily for us, she spoke Hochdeutsch or High German and not the incomprehensible dialect, or more accurately, the foreign language called Bavarian that they speak there.

The reason the tour was done in German was that we actually had another “tour guide” accompanying us during our time in Germany, a family friend of Amadej’s, Richard. So we had a local Bavarian driving us around the sights from his point of view, which was an exceptional opportunity since one of our main goals, as seen in our travel motto, is to experience world heritage through the eyes of the locals. We were also lucky enough to stay at Richard’s family home in Forstinning, which is truly the best way to get a unique insight into local life.

Having Richard as our companion on the journey through the German heritage meant that our first stop in Regensburg was a legendary sausage joint, a local favourite without which you cannot start a visit to the city. Located right at the start of the old town we enjoyed charcoal-grilled sausages served on the most delicious sweet and sour Sauerkraut accompanied by amazing views of the historical bridge and the Danube river.

Joined by Monika, the OWHC coordinator, we made our way through the old city of Regensburg. The rich and diverse architecture immediately demonstrates that the city was once an affluent medieval trading centre. It connected important trading routes, from east to west, and facilitated the transfer of goods, information and knowledge. Some of the buildings are reminiscent of prominent Italian trading centres, and like those places, the wealthy merchants wanted to demonstrate the significance of the city by building the tallest buildings, even though the upper floors were purely ornamental and empty.

We also got to closely examine the city’s cathedral, an important gothic piece of architecture, with breathtaking frescoes which survived both world wars as they were somehow removed and protected from the bombing. There is also a restoration team that is always taking care that the building is kept in great shape. 


Regensburg was not, however, only an important trading centre but also had an influential political role as a meeting place for Imperial Assemblies as well as the Perpetual Imperial Diet from 1663 to 1806. The Imperial Chamber, where the Imperial Diet met and discussed matters in the Holy Roman Empire, is located in the impressive Old Town Hall.

The biggest shock of the day was definitely hearing and then seeing that Monika’s and other OWHC offices are also located in the same building, right across the hall from the chamber.


Seeing how seriously world heritage is taken in Regensburg, how passionate the OWHC employees are about it and how they literally live and work in harmony with the city’s heritage made us look forward to other OWHC cities even more!