5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites through the eyes of a sketch artist

Artist Karen Neale travelled the world for five months, sketching some of the world's most incredible sites...

4 mins

When I was awarded a Churchill Travelling Fellowship, I used the grant to travel for five months through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan, India and Nepal; visiting World Heritage Cities and Sites. During this time I completed 106 annotated watercolour sketches recording my experience.

My sketchbook was my passport to people and places. When standing (or if lucky, sitting) somewhere for several hours, simply drawing with just a black biro, I became a part of that place for a time. Sketching erodes cultural and linguistic barriers, as a picture and the process to create it can be universally understood.

Here are my five favourite places, with images taken from my sketchbook...

1. Venice, Italy


A little trip on the train from Vicenza where I am staying with a friend of a friend, for just a few hours in magical Venice. I could spend years getting lost down all the alleys, arriving at a canal, going back down alleys, eventually find a bridge over the canals and so on.

I walked through the Jewish Ghetto, which was powerfully moving, especially with the sculpted bronze memorial pieces on the walls, and then you cross the bridge only a few metres away, but which would have meant the difference I guess almost between life and death not so long ago.

More happily St. Mark's Square is still as gorgeous as ever, appreciated by thousands of tourists every day and even more pigeons! I could happily spend a few months filling a few sketchbooks in this fabulously, fantastical city.

2. Matera, Italy

 Matera is apparently one of the oldest towns in the world. Originating as cave dwellings built into the rocky tufo hillsides, the old town has maze like alleys and carved steps leading to different levels.

During the 1950s many people were forcibly evacuated due to poor sanitary conditions. But not everyone left and this now semi-deserted area is increasingly dotted with freshly painted and restored dwellings.

If I had the money this would be the place where I would invest in a little cave of my own. As you wander through this magical maze, dogs appear suddenly at the top of a building, overlooking you like furry gargoyles and welcome you to Matera in comical fashion.

This is the view from Palazzo Lanfranchi, looking across to Sassi Caveoso, el Duomo on left, and San Pietro Caveoso and Madonna dell' Idris set into the rocks... all quite amazing. The mad swallows swooping overhead in eternal circles like an airy whirlpool of mirthful mayhem – wonderful.

3. Istanbul, Turkey


Istanbul: a completely captivating city. All the history and magic conjured up by its evocative namesakes of Constantinople and Byzantium, are completely alive and kicking in this modern city.

Cups of chay at every corner (my idea of heaven as those who know me will testify) and the bazaars are the endless resource and paradise of any homemaker. Best breakfast ever in Bayolu area, of creamy eggs and vegetables. Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, the Bosphorous and this is just to begin with – Istanbul has got the lot.

Getting lost in the wonderful and bizarre Grand Bazaar is an experience not to be missed and it is sketcher's paradise overload. People here are wonderfully friendly and keep me plied with water and Turkish tea, which is most hospitable.

I may drink the bazaar's Turkish tea reserves dry though, as I could stay here for decades. You can just about buy anything here I think, for a price, and the antique pewter, copper and gold don't come cheap!

4. Arg-e-Bam, Iran


I arrived from Kerman across the parched and remote desert to apparently three million palm trees forming the oasis around the town of Bam. The modern day city now lies outside the walls of the ancient city Arg-e-Bam. The whole adventure to Bam has been quite magical, staying at Mr. Akbah's little guesthouse and made to feel so at home.

I met some wonderful people in Bam and discovered that Iranian sense of humour is very similar to British – very dry with a hint of wit and sarcasm. The citadel is quite out of this world and completely compelling, and one of the most stunning sights I have ever seen, even while drawing this at well over 40° early in the morning, melting away in my long black oven of a dress.

The only inhabitants now in this amazing ancient city are the restoration workers, the ladies at the teahouse in the gatehouse to the citadel (great cooked eggs!) and the odd inquisitive lizard and bird.

5. Kathmandu, Nepal


Kathmandu: ancient history is fresh and youthful here, as stone Buddhas and Incarnations, stupas and other edifices nestle among the washing lines and 'Internet access here' signs. Medieval and modern life combine in a wonderful vibrancy in some amazing characteristic Nepalese adaptation.

The apparent randomness of the religious and secular buildings belies a wonderful complex and intricate network. In every chowk (residential courtyard/ marketplace with business enterprises mixed in on the lower floors) are stupas and Buddhas or even temples, which you can often glimpse from the street. It is a maze of delights.


Check out more UNESCO World Heritage Sites:

20 of the best UNESCO cultural sites around the world

18 new UNESCO Biosphere Reserves

Our favourite new UNESCO World Heritage Sites for 2019


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