I am a self-confessed history geek, so it is not surprising that many of my travels feature ancient sites quite heavily. I have a bit of a vivid imagination, so it doesn’t take much for a place steeped in history to come alive to me, particularly if it is a half-forgotten place, overshadowed by far more famous neighbours. So come with me to the highlands of Peru, the deserts of Argentina, the South of France - and my hometown. Are you ready to travel through time?
Imagine going into the Andean highlands of Peru and stumbling across an ancient city far, far older than Machu Picchu. With fewer than 20 tourists in the entire site. Imagine labyrinthine tunnels leading to wonderfully carved totem poles (or Lanzons, as they are called), a stepped ancient village, with the remains of stone houses and an imposing central square, and unforgettable views. This is Chavin de Huantar, an archaeological site high in the Cordillera Blanca mountains. With alpaca grazing nonchalantly on the hills inside the site, and local villagers leading donkeys or kicking up dust on handsome stallions, this is the Peru that dreams are made of.
Perhaps nothing can replace the sheer majesty of Machu Picchu, but for truly ancient artefacts and a very rural, local, living culture, Chavin is unbeatable. Some of my most treasured photos and memories of Peru come from this hidden-away place: a Sunday school parade, peering into the history of an ancient civilisation, and falling, briefly, in love with an archaeologist I met there and never saw again.
Just as surprising were the ruins of Quilmes, in the northerly province of Tucuman, Argentina. Dating back to 900 AD – also the heyday of the Chavin civilisation – this is, in some ways, an even more impressive site. It is more desolate, in its desert landscape, but it was clearly a large city, with an incredible terrace structure still very much present and stretching up the mountainside.
The physical layout tells a lot about the social structure; the further up the terraces you were, the higher your social position. The royal fortress is right at the top, whilst far below are far more working-class dwellings, still with the remnants of the industry of the day, such as large grinding stones.
Nowadays, the chief inhabitants are enormous cacti, which have taken over. It was an almost surreal experience to wander around this forgotten city. Like Chavin, there were few other tourists around, making it all the more atmospheric. Being able to explore at leisure, to really take in somewhere so ancient, felt like a very privileged experience.
Ok, so if you read this blog often enough, you will have heard of Peyreperteuse. However, in the Southern regions of France, Carcassonne and Montsegur are famous, whilst other ancient citadels are buried more deeply in the mountains and mists of time. As I recall it, Peyreperteuse was fairly remote, and it took plenty of hair-raising mountain roads to get anywhere near it.
What then followed was a fairly arduous climb up many, many stone steps, carved into the mountain. It was more than worth the climb though; from the highest point of the old abbey, perched above the castle itself, the views were breathtaking. The small car park where we’d abandoned the car had disappeared from view, and took very little imagination to see the castle as it would have been, a safe haven for persecuted Cathars. I could almost hear their chatter and evensong. You can see for miles across the Pyrenees – the same view that the medieval inhabitants would have seen.
Ruined Castles, UK
I might be biased, but for a pretty tiny island, we certainly pack in a lot of ancient wonder. We might not have quite the awe-inspiring landscapes which can be found elsewhere, but the rich culture often makes up for it. Some ruins have been turned into pure money-making machines, visited by thousands and sometimes millions of people a year, but no matter where you are, you will not be far from some Anglo-Saxon, Viking or Medieval ruin. I come from a medieval town, where the sort of wonky old house used in many a historical film is the average city centre building. As a child, I played in the ruins of a Norman castle. Nobody owned it, there was no fee to pay, no tourist information save for one board with a bit of history on it. There were no signs forbidding us to keep off the walls, no ropes to keep us away. With my friends, I’d clamber all over it, scaling sometimes precarious heights. Some days it was a traditional castle, other days a pirate ship. There were never any tourists to disturb our games.
World-famous Stonehenge may be just down the road, but it is these old ruined castles, lying abandoned in many fields in the area, which really fire my imagination and leave me awestruck.
This is not unique to Salisbury either; it is something repeated over and over again all over the country. The town I currently live in, Reading, is mainly a Victorian town, with a good amount of blocky 60s architecture thrown in for good measure. However, even here, there is an ancient, ruined abbey in the centre of the town, minding its own business.
I love that so much history still feels so undiscovered. Wherever you go in the world, famous names will always jump out, but you can guarantee that if you look hard enough, you will find a forgotten city, lost in ancient times.