Borders, Shmorders

I recently learned about Archivists without Borders (via Twitter, where else!) and that got me thinking about the many organizations working “beyond borders” to bring needed services to people around the world, wherever they live.

In this season of Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate to recognize and thank the people who volunteer in other countries, often in challenging and downright risky conditions. To the people who join these organizations, this kind of work is more than a volunteer vacation, it is their calling.

Plaster lesson with CHwB at Babameto House

Plaster expert with Cultural Heritage without Borders discusses the work to be done

Cultural Heritage without Borders, AiP’s project partner at the Babameto House in Albania, is an international relief organization working to promote peace, recovery and development through the preservation of cultural heritage. CHwB believes that working with cultural heritage can help vulnerable groups recover their sense of dignity and empowerment, which in turn can increase the possibilities for reconciliation and the fight against poverty.

Archivists without Borders (AwB) is a Barcelona-based non-profit organization inspired by the principles of identity, memory, right to information and defense of human rights that are inherent elements in archivists’ daily work. AwB volunteers collaborate on projects in the field of archival science and documentary heritage. They also provide training for archival professionals from countries that find if difficult if not impossible to develop their own training programs due to lack of resources or other political or social reasons.

Engineers without Borders is a term used by groups in a number of different countries, but their focus is the same: using engineering solutions to support international development. A new umbrella organization, EWB-International has formed, though many country chapters are not affiliated. Engineers without Borders projects use a lot of students, providing the chance for young engineers to gain practical project experience while helping others. (This will be a familiar tune to long-time AiP supporters!)

Youth Volunteers

Flickr Photo: Youth Volunteers at a medical clinic

The granddaddy of them all is Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). MSF provides emergency medical assistance to populations in danger in more than 70 countries. I first learned about MSF when I was living in Croatia and working on projects in Bosnia and met some of their dedicated volunteers. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the magnitude of their operations. I am now an ardent supporter and donor.

In addition to implementing projects, these groups all advocate for their cause, for the rights of people around the world to have access to decent health services, to live within a strong and safe infrastructure, and to preserve their cultural heritage and traditions. They also rely on volunteers to share their expertise and to those volunteers, I would like to say “thank you”.

A Direct Line to History

Access to one of Armenia’s most famous building complexes just got a little easier. A new cable car, which at 5.7 kilometers (3.5 miles) is the world’s longest, opened in October, enabling year-round access to the country’s ancient Tatev Monastery.

Tatev Monastery from a distance

Armenia's Tatev Monastery Creative Commons Photo: Alexander Naumov

The Tatev Monastery dates to the 9th century and is built along the Vorotan River Gorge on a remote promontory with sheer cliff faces on three sides. The only accessible side has been fortified with walls and towers, creating a formidable defensive complex. It is one of the country’s most important religious centers and a major tourist attraction. The complex contains the St. Paul and St. Peter church, built in 895-906; the Church of St. Gregory, built in 1295 on the site of an earlier church; the over-gate church of Astvatsatsin (11th century); and the Gazavan, built in 904.

The Gazavan Pillar Creative Commons Photo: Thomas Frederick Martinez

The Gazavan pillar is one of the site’s most fascinating features. It is an octahedral column eight meters (26’) tall, crowned with an ornamented cornice. It is also a marvel of Armenian engineering: in response to seismic activity – or the touch of a hand – the structure will sway but return to upright position. (It was also sensitive enough to indicate when enemies were approaching, which may have been its intended purpose.) Armenia is in an active seismic zone and the Gazavan pillar has survived numerous earthquakes. The rest of the complex has not been so lucky. A severe quake in 1931 seriously damaged the bell tower and dome of St. Paul and St. Peter church. The dome has been reconstructed, but the tower is still in ruins.

The cable car is a major heritage tourism development initiative for Armenia, which is hoping to showcase its architectural and other heritage. The fare for visitors is 3,000 Armenian drams (eight dollars/six euros.); local residents ride free. If you go, be sure to send us photos!

Note: You can help the people of Armenia  preserve their architectural heritage by joining AiP’s volunteer project in Gyumri in June 2011.

Learn more:

Tatev – Wikipedia Entry

Tatev Foundation Website

3D Virtual Model of Tatev Monastery

Access to one of Armenia’s most famous building complexes just got a little easier. A new cable car, which at 5.7 kilometers (3.5 miles) is the world’s longest, opened in October, enabling year-round access to the country’s ancient Tatev Monastery.

The Charm of Château Miranda

Tim Laman of Fort Worth, Texas, sent us this piece about an abandoned architectural gem that has captured his attention. If you too have discovered some wonderful buildings you’d like to share, send their stories along so we can ooh and aah with you. – Jamie

I have always had an interest in historic buildings, but abandoned places seem to have an added draw. During the 1980’s I lived in a small town, and there was an old movie theater on Main Street that was probably 50 years old, but it was obviously abandoned for a long time. On the back side of the building, it looked like someone had driven a truck into the wall and left a gaping hole. I wasn’t brave enough to go in, but I could see the remains of a movie screen hanging in tatters, seats ripped from the floor and pushed into a dust-covered pile, and a broken down popcorn machine. It made me wonder what the theater used to be like when it was new, and what it still could be if only someone cared.

Chateau Noisy

A haunting view of Chateau Miranda/Chateau Noisy Flickr Photo Courtesy Harm Rhebergen

Over the years I’ve explored other abandoned buildings, but these days you really don’t have to go further than online to see them. There are many websites with photos taken by “urban explorers,” and although you can’t believe everything you read, pictures usually don’t lie. It was on one of these websites ( a couple of weeks ago that I came across images of something beautiful and utterly unique.

The Château Miranda, later called Chateau Noisy and located near Celles, Belgium, was built in phases circa 1866-1907. Most of the historical accounts I’ve read online seem to copy each other, but sources say the architects were an Englishman named Milner, followed by Pelchner, who was French. The château was built for Count Liedekerke-Beaufort, whose family also still owns the nearby Castle of Veves. The château was used as a private residence for many years, then occupied briefly by the Germans during World War II, and later converted into a home for children. Exactly how long the property has been neglected seems uncertain, but indications are that it has been out of use since 1991.

Chateau Noisy Interior

Crumbling interior gives a glimpse of former glory Flickr Photo Courtesy Harm Rhebergen

The most striking feature of the château is a turreted clock tower which rises some 183 feet (56 meters) above the main house. The entire structure has many towers, conical roofs, and other Neo-Gothic details. It truly is like something out of a fairy tale, but a combination of vandalism, the elements, and deferred maintenance have taken their toll. Most of the 500 windows have been broken; walls, floors and staircases have collapsed; and fire has burned away some upper sections. Mold is a problem in this climate, and trees are growing on the roofs. Although beautifully rendered ceilings and columns still exist inside, they are in constant danger of being permanently lost. The property is privately owned, and the owner seems to be concentrating his efforts on preserving only the Castle of Veves. Some of the posts online allege that hunters in the area try to run off any intruders around the château, and others say that the building is so dilapidated it’s very dangerous to go inside.

What will happen to this place? How can further damage be prevented? In my opinion, it would take raised awareness, an international outcry, organization, and money. Last week I found a Facebook group called “Chateau de Noisy” with 200 members from all over the world, and there is a link there to an online petition which you can sign. The “Helpful Links” section of Adventures in Preservation’s website provides valuable contact information for other organizations all over the world which might be able to help with this cause. And I also decided that if nothing else I can send letters and emails to media outlets, even celebrities, who might be willing to get the word out and initiate some kind of action. My dream is to visit Château Miranda someday and to see it preserved for future generations, but it will take many more voices who care enough to make this dream a reality.

See more of Harm Rhebergen’s photos

The Great Balkan Road Trip

Judith Broeker wrote this account of her travels through the Balkans earlier this fall.

Like many who grew up in the American Midwest, where it often takes hours to reach your destination, I love a good road trip. So as program director of Adventures in Preservation, I scheduled our two European workshops to allow time to drive from one to the other, i.e. from Slovenia to Albania. Fortunately, friends I had met at our 2008 workshops were also free to join, and we schemed and planned the best way to explore as many countries as possible in the Western Balkans during those two weeks.

We met in Slovenia to work on the restoration of a 17th century cottage with a group of AiP volunteer vacationers. After a great week, our small group of travelers headed to northern Croatia. Just a note to say that our trip involved quite a bit of driving that required a ‘devil may care’ attitude. Though the quality of driving in the Balkans has greatly improved over the past ten years, driving there can still be an adventure.

Hvar croatia architecture heritage travel

Harbor in Hvar, Croatia

Our trip began by driving, rather sedately, down the entire coast of Croatia. I can tell you, everything you may have heard about the Adriatic’s striking color and beauty and the amazing views across islands looking toward Italy, is true. Given we were all passionate about historic preservation and building conservation, we visited a number of remarkable historic towns settled around the 4th century BC and variously ruled by Romans, Gothics, Byzantines, Venetians and so on. The visual remnants of these cultures allowed the amateur photographers among us to go wild. If you ever get the chance to make this trip, you’ll want to remember the names of Šibenik, Trogir, Split (Diocletian’s Palace), Hvar and of course Dubrovnik.

Šibenik Croatia plaza architecture heritage travel

A rainy night in the center of Šibenik

My personal favorite was exploring the old city of Šibenik on a rainy night. Water cascaded down the stone steps as we made our way from the cathedral square up to the castle. There was just enough light to give an eerie glow to the rain-soaked scene. Just as striking was the lavender-scented island of Hvar, where we followed a narrow twisting road high above the coast to access beautiful old towns and deserted stone farmsteads.

A side trip to Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, allowed us to see the Stari Most, the bridge which is a symbol of the town’s incredible resilience through time. We then returned to Croatia, and spent a day in Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is yet another World Heritage site in the region, a remarkable example of a walled city. Much has been written about both towns, so I’ll leave you to those more detailed descriptions. From Dubrovnik, we drove into Montenegro and followed the shoreline of the southern-most fjord in Europe, the Bay of Kotor. This coastal drive vacillates between modern development in the larger cities (which was not much to our liking) to beautiful quaint historic towns.

Stone shephard's cottage

Our forays into Montenegro’s mountainous back country had our mouths dropping open – both from the beauty of what we saw and from the precarious nature of our travels over the high, narrow roadways. The views of Tara Canyon, Europe’s deepest river canyon, and Durmitor National Park were almost not to be believed. Hikers, rafters and cyclist come from around the world for this experience. Our car often teetered close to the edge … and then we’d meet the tour bus! Keep in mind that Stephen, who did much of the driving, is a die-hard Porsche owner, and all his associated skills kept our hearts racing along with the engine.

Local traffic sign

Our time in Serbia and Kosovo was brief, but the cities in southern Kosovo were alive with crowds of people, energy and excitement in the air, even with a marked lack of electricity in most shops. A small generator was a standard feature outside each entrance. Driving was insane and speed limits addressed both tanks and cars. We passed by Bill Klinton (sic) Blvd. as we headed through Pristina on our way to Skopje, Macedonia.

We arrived in Skopje, which like all of the Balkans is a crazy mix of deteriorated, questionable new, and reconstructed architecture along with the occasional delight of quality restoration or striking new architecture. Regardless of your taste, it makes every outing an eventful exploration. In a single outing we encountered a Roman temple under construction, a petrified cat (you don’t want to know!), historic trades districts now filled with shops displaying shoes or evening gowns, and chance encounters with both the oldest Orthodox church and oldest mosque.

church in Ohrid Macedonia heritage travel

Byzantine Church in Ohrid

Leaving Skopje, we drove through Macedonia’s wine region and made our way to the edge of the Mariovo region, dotted with deserted stone villages in rugged terrain. The towns we visited were still occupied but nonetheless gave us a glimpse of the region’s quaint, and beautiful, stone architecture, with narrow streets much better suited to walking than driving. We then traveled to Lake Ohrid, staying several days to visit a variety of Byzantine-era churches  scattered up the hill and around the lake. The most memorable was a small church built and brightly painted c. 1280. Through its history, it has been cleaned but never restored or repainted and its interior is absolutely gorgeous.

The final days of our trip took us into Albania through steep hills and gorges. We were heading for Tirana to pick up an AiP team member coming from Canada for the Gjirokastra workshop. That day, Camilla, our other fearless driver – always cool and steady – was behind the wheel. Her cool was put to the test, because as the guide book pointed out, crossing the street in Tirana is not for the faint of heart, and for that matter, neither is driving down the street. We circled the city center with hundreds of other darting, honking drivers, through construction and one-ways, in search of our hotel (Hotel California). I finally jumped out and flagged down a taxi driver, who led us to our destination.

We spent a day exploring Tirana, discovering that new development almost completely overwhelms the city’s historic past. To be fair, preservation is extremely difficulty, given the deteriorated condition of buildings – old and new – left without maintenance for many years.

This is the state of architecture in much of Albania, which was confirmed as we headed south through the country. Arriving in Gjirokastra, our group of AiP volunteers joined Cultural Heritage without Borders to deal with this issue by working with the community to save their remarkable heritage. This was a fitting end to the road trip that took us from one end to the other of a  region rich in natural and cultural heritage.