This is the second installment of Little-Known Facts About Big Tourist Attractions. Here we study Mexico, Russia, Brazil, Italy, and Romania in a quest to learn more than just the bare facts about famous historic places. Obscure details and hard-to-find historical information will come to life for the curious reader.
A Different Kind of Pyramid
Temple of Kukulcan (Chichen Itza, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico).
The pyramids of Egypt and the pyramids of Mexico are vastly different; Egypt’s stone pyramids are simple, pointed, more ancient. Mexico’s pyramids are stone, flat at the top, and still very old but not quite as old as those at Giza. The temple at Chichen Itza is the best tourist attraction to visit for those who are planning to travel to the Yucatan. The area that Kukulkan (the pyramid) now encompasses was once a busy city of the Mesoamerican people known as the Mayans. This was about 1,200 years ago. Kukulkan’s specifications were probably inspired by the Mayans’ ancestors, another Mesoamerican group called the Toltecs.
Visitors who come at just the right time can see that the pyramid may have been a giant calendar of sorts, forming odd shadows in certain seasons. The ancient peoples of Mexico were very influenced by the coming and going of the seasons and astronomical studies. The pyramid is not the only building in the complex; other buildings, such as a Ball Court, can be explored. These were not nice, fun games; in ancient days, if you lost a match, you were also likely to lose your life.
Best Time to Travel: In the morning, when the weather is (semi) cool, or when a special event like a light show will occur.
The Most Beautiful Church Ever Created?
St. Basil’s Cathedral (Red Square, Moscow, Russia). Many will agree that Orthodox architecture is distinctly different from building styles in other parts of the world. The bright, oddly-shaped domes are purely the work of Russia and its surrounding areas, and one of the loveliest churches in the world is St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. In the 1500s this beautiful gem sprang up in Red Square, and it has been a landmark ever since. In fact, Napoleon was so enamored of St. Basil’s unique architecture that he wished he could bring the whole church with him (how he intended to do this, no one knows). During the years of World War I, enemies of the church desired to tear it down, but fate intervened.
St. Basil is actually comprised of many separate chapels. Although the majority of the construction ended in the mid-1500s, it is thought that the beautiful domes weren’t painted so brightly until the 1600s.
Best Time to Travel: You may want to choose an inclement weather day to visit the cathedral; seeing the interior is a great activity when you can’t walk otherwise around the city. Otherwise, any time should be fine.
The Guardian of Rio de Janeiro . . .
Christ the Redeemer Statue (Corcovado Mountain, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).
The statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) is probably Brazil’s most recognizable landmark. It rises almost 130 feet from the ground, and none who visit Rio de Janeiro should leave without noticing its beauty. A clergyman wanted to raise such a statue in the 19th century, but the royalty in power at the time didn’t share his enthusiasm, so the suggestion temporarily fell to the wayside. Eventually, in the 1930s, the idea caught on and the statue was built.
Just a little amazing trivia: According to some sources, the statue weighs in at over 2 *million* pounds. It is almost 100 feet long and can be seen from most places in the city. Cristo Redentor wasn’t even built in Brazil; its construction began in France. Curious travelers can get transportation to the statue to enjoy the beautiful views of the city and beaches.
Best Time to Travel: Blue skies make a terrific backdrop for this lovely monument, so wait to snap that quintessential photo.
The Vatican’s Most Famous Church
St. Peter’s Cathedral (Vatican City, Rome, Italy).
If visiting famous churches is a desire, start with St. Peter’s Cathedral. It is one of the most important religious structures in the Christian world, for good reason. Rome (more specifically Vatican City) is the Catholic Church’s headquarters and St. Peter’s is visited by people from all walks of life. What makes it so special? Many Christians believe that St. Paul was laid to rest near the site that St. Peter’s Cathedral now occupies, and even if we will never know exactly where he was originally buried, the building is a wonderful place for a pilgrimage.
Oddly enough, although construction efforts began in the 1500s, the church wasn’t officially sanctioned until its completion in the early 1600s. There is something interesting in the depths underneath the cathedral; those brave enough can listen to stories about the Roman burial grounds located directly below St. Peter’s. It seems the church had at least one humble worker; when Michelangelo was finished with his extensive contribution to St. Peter’s, he was offered a reward but would not take any form of compensation.
Best Time to Travel: You may *not* want to visit during a special occasion such as a holiday, because many other people will have the same idea and navigating St. Peter’s will be difficult at best. Choose an off-season time of the year to visit if at all possible.
The Sad Ruins of Herculaneum
Remains of an old Roman city (Near modern-day Ercolano, Italy).
There are few places where those who love history can find an almost perfectly preserved Roman town; what was a tragedy for countless families turned out to be a blessing for archaeologists and explorers. In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius, which also decimated Pompeii, destroyed Herculaneum, killing many and leaving the town totally deserted. Those who walk through the narrow streets today can still see ash from that volcano, 2,000 years ago; it would seem strange to clear it away, for no one knows what artifacts would go with it.
So what exactly can travelers see at Herculaneum? A walk through some of the old Roman homes will amaze history lovers; except for furniture and men and women in robes and togas, they may think they are walking through the past. The remains of murals and floor mosaics are still evident in some of these places, such as the beautiful House of the Mosaic Atrium. The House of the Gem and many other partially-standing homes can be found here as well.
Best Time to Travel: There really isn’t a best time, but for a real “what it was like to be there” experience, visit at the end of August, the anniversary of Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD.
Romanian Legend: How Much is True?
Count Dracula’s Castle (Brasov, Romania)
How many times have we been fed stories about Dracula’s castle? There’s something about Romania and its folk legends that fires the imagination, and we tend to believe the rumors because they seem exciting. The stories of Vlad Dracul, who became known as the Impaler (unless you have a strong stomach, don’t ask why he was known by this name) evolved into the Dracula tales everyone has heard. Although Bran Castle has been called “Dracula’s Castle” as long as most people can remember, it actually wasn’t his homebase and probably didn’t have much to do with him at all.
Transylvania is actually a real place; most of us know that, but did you know it is a beautiful place, near the majestic Carpathians, filled with natural beauty and crumbling architecture? This is where curious onlookers can find Bran Castle. When it was constructed, it wasn’t called Bran at all; its official name was Dietrichstein. Visitors can walk inside the castle; it may not be haunted, but the restored rooms and lovely architecture will draw even the most die-hard Dracula fans.
An interesting woman named Maria, who just happened to be royalty, loved Bran and the history of the area so much that part of her will always remain at Bran Castle; literally! Even though she died in the mid-20th century, followers went by the old custom of burying the heart of a famous person separately from their body. Maria’s heart was interred at the chapel beside Bran Castle. The castle was built in the Middle Ages and has been the subject of legend for a long time. It seems that very little historical authenticity was used in determining Bran Castle as Dracula’s abode, but the place is still mysterious enough that we can forgive the wrongful associations.
Best Time to Travel: Avoid bad weather unless you have good legs and don’t mind touring the castle grounds sopping wet and freezing. If you don’t like crowds, don’t go in the tourist seasons.