“UNESCO is the conscience of the United Nations”
- Federico Mayor Zaragoza 
I will not live long enough, nor do I have enough money, to see everything there is to see in this world. Yet, I have been fortunate to visit many wonderful places and see many beautiful things. Most of them with my wife. A great blessing.
Some of them have even been awesome. Awesome. What does that even mean anymore in this age of ever-fluid language and shifting definitions? It is a bit sad that this word, “awesome”, has been so overused and misused that it has nearly lost its meaning.
Alas. Only a few decades ago it was rarely used, and only then to declare an exceptional status: possessing such rich quality that its beholder experienced a state of “awe.” As in “awestruck”; or to be overcome with reverence and emotions like wonder or fear.
Nowadays a meal, a glass of wine, a golf shot or a last second winning field goal are commonly described as “awesome.” Pshaw. These things happen almost every day. Hardly awesome.
The Grand Canyon? Awesome. A 50-year marriage of mutual support, trust and fidelity: awesome. Landing a spacecraft on another world? Awesome. Even a total eclipse of the sun can be awesome.
Where does the history of the United Nations begin? Can we say it rose from the ashes of the League of Nations, whose failure:
(1) can be ascribed to political bickering in the United States; and
(2) led to the rise of fascism and World War II?
Alternatively, perhaps the UN rose from the thoughts and aspirations shared between Churchill and Roosevelt in a clandestine meeting off the coast of Canada, in August, 1941, aboard the cruiser USS Augusta, some four months before Pearl Harbor triggered the US entry into WW2 (and nearly two years after that war had begun). During that meeting, they wrote and signed the Atlantic Charter: a betrothal of sorts, that the US and Britain would support each other, not just in this struggle for the future of mankind, but to avert war and protect human rights forever afterward.
Soon thereafter, on January 1, 1942 – with the US now officially at war with the Axis Powers – the term “United Nations” became official, as the US, the United Kingdom and 24 other countries signed the Declaration of the United Nations. An extremely brief document, it contained the affirmation to support the Atlantic Charter, and a commitment to win the war without “separate peace.” It would grow in scope and vision to become the charter of the organization we now call the United Nations.
These 26 signatories, plus some 21 more who signed during the war, became the founding members of the United Nations (notably including the USSR and China), which met for the first time to sign the Charter document, in San Francisco’s Opera House, June 25, 1945.
Regarding travel. My wife and I spent most of this past October in Croatia. That country – even though sizing up smaller than West Virginia – is more abundant in history, culture, terrain and beauty than I had imagined. Among the many locales and sights, we visited perhaps the most beautiful and truly awesome place either of us had ever seen: Plitvice Lakes. Any attempt to describe it is to fail at justice.
Here’s my attempt.
For many millions of years the region that is now the mountain ranges and rugged islands of Croatia and Italy that parallel the Adriatic coast lay under a sea. For most of those ages the earth was much warmer than today; the sea teemed with life – including fish of many sizes, as well as shellfish like oysters and clams, all feeding on the abundant micro-plant life, like phytoplankton. When each individual perished the detritus of their life, which contained calcium, collected as sediment on the seafloor. Layer upon layer. Under great pressure and through eons of time, calcium-rich rock formed tremendous amounts of dense, hard limestone (primarily calcium carbonate, CaCO3) extending over a vast region.
Eventually, more powerful and longer-term earth dynamics took over: plate tectonics. The Adriatic Plates began to drift and rotate, forcing these huge sheets of limestone to fracture and rise from the sea, sometimes reaching for the sky. This produced the dramatic mountains and islands of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, including the Velebit Range, as well as the Apennines that form the spine of Italy. While some areas are still rising, others – like Venice – are sinking into the sea due to the same dynamics, millimeter by millimeter.
Along the Adriatic, the climate and terrain of Croatia’s coastal side of these mountains tends toward the classic Mediterranean feel: rocky, warm and dry. I was quite astonished to cross the mountains, drop to the coast, and see cactus and palm trees at the same latitude as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I grew up. On the inland side, where it is cooler and wetter, many streams and rivers drain the region – all of which eventually run to the Danube – including the Korana River. 
Along the Korana River’s path it has sculpted a lovely little canyon from the limestone. Here you will find Plitvice Lakes, probably the most naturally awesomely beautiful place I’ve seen in my life. To walk its paths and feast your eyes is like walking through endless postcards. [Pictures here: hopefully this link lives a while]. <More pics>
Within the canyon are a series of 16 lakes, each linked to the next by cascades of countless waterfalls of every shape and height – one lake flowing to the next. At the brink of each falls, particularly where there are entangled roots of trees and shrubs, calcium carbonate is continuously, slowly, steadily precipitating from solution to form new rock; thus the crest of most waterfalls tend not to erode, but grow and change in shape. Very. Very. Slowly.
Yes, if you go, take a full day to see it. Be prepared for crowds, even post-tourist season, in October.
Plitvice Lakes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO is a United Nations Agency that has been part of the United Nations practically since its beginning, also going back to 1945. (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The mission of UNESCO is to help preserve peace by promoting Education, Science and Culture.
Currently there are over 1,100 such heritage sites worldwide. They are recognized – and thus protected – for having great significance, either as a historic human achievement, a wonder of nature.
In the United States, you will easily identify places like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. There are some 20 more, many of human construct, such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Statue of Liberty.
There are several benefits to such sites. Yes, they do get some UN funding, but it is small. Being so recognized brings attention – this means positive world recognition, and (sort of bad news) more tourist dollars to support the site. Finally, the Geneva Convention on the rules of warfare protect all UNESCO heritage sites.
Croatia is dense with such sites, much more than most countries, and we were fortunate to see many. Besides Plitvice Lakes, we
- walked the ancient island city of Trogir,
- saw the Venetian defense walls of Zadar,
- were amazed by Diocletian’s Palace in Split, there also experiencing a UNESCO Heritage Intangible: an a capella performance by a local Klapa group (example here, and we watched in the same place as this performance),
- experienced the historic splendor and walls of Dubrovnik,
- and we bicycled through the Stari Grad Plains on the island of Hvar, where sturdy folk have eked out an existence on the rocky ground cultivating olives, figs, grapes, lavender and pomegranate for nearly 24 centuries.
On side trips, we walked the Stari Most Bridge in Mostar (in Hercegovina) and beheld the eye-candy of Lake Bled, Slovenia. (The bridge is a UNESCO site; the latter is not, but could well be soon). 
A couple of places we visited are likely candidates to become such sites soon: the tiny village of Ston, with its most impressive wall – the longest stone wall in Europe (now that Hadrian’s has faded away) – as well as its salt beds, oyster and mussel farms. And, the fetching city of Korčula, on the eponymously named island, purported birthplace and later home of famous Venetian world traveler Marco Polo.
I won’t let it pass that UNESCO World Heritage Site status spared neither the city of Dubrovnik nor the Stari Most Bridge of Mostar from severe damage during the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the 1990s.
In Mostar, the bridge crashed into the Neretva River from Croat shelling. In Dubrovnik, thousands of buildings were damaged, many of them totally; over one hundred non-combat inhabitants were killed. Many more were injured. The city was left without power and water during the seven-month Serb “siege of Dubrovnik.” Such a cultural outrage that even Hitler’s Nazi armies, nor Tito’s national partisans, would perpetrate.
In any case, the historic and magnificent walls of Dubrovnik, built between the 12th and 14th centuries were finally used for defense of the city – and they did quite well. The city has been largely rebuilt, as has the Mostar Bridge. Each done faithfully to their original construction.
We do intend to visit Croatia again. It is quite reasonable with regard to cost and weather, and the people are extremely friendly and English speaking. Croatia, as they say, is open for business.
In case you are thinking of visiting the area (and I hope you are), I’ll put in a plug for the company we used: Soul of Croatia (SoulOfCroatia.com). Robi helped us set up, and pull off, a rather complicated tour with no hitches whatsoever.
Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season and that you find peace in your lives through all components of your heritage, including education, science and culture.
Joe Girard © 2019
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- Federico Mayor Zaragoza, head of UNESCO for 12 years. Bio here.
- The Danube River watershed is large, second only to the Volga for European River watershed size.
- During the Yugoslav Civil Wars, Croat shelling destroyed the Mostar Bridge in 1993. It was rebuilt in 2004 and is regarded as one of the most elegant bridges in the world, a testament to Ottoman engineering skill of the 16th century.
Final notes: The US is not starved for UNESCO Heritage sites, although on a per square mile basis, it is sparse compared to Croatia. In the US I have visited the following: Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Olympic Peninsula National Park, Cohokia Mounds, Mesa Verde National Park, The Everglades, Independence Hall and Park (Philadelphia), Redwoods National Park, Great Smokey Mountains, Chaco Canyon and Culture Center, Monticello and the University of Virginia, Carlsbad Cavern, The Missions of San Antonio (including the Alamo, which I wrote about here).
Still have about 10 to go: Yosemite, Glacier Bay are on the bucket list.
Outside the US and Croatia, our list is larger still. We’ve been quite fortunate …
In Germany we’ve visited and seen: Aachen Cathedral, Würzburg Residenz, Medieval town of Bamberg, and Köln Dom (Cologne Cathedral).
Austria: Hallstatt, Salzburg, Vienna, and Schönbrunn Palace.
Belgium: Brugges (Brugge)
France: Mont Saint-Michel, a Vauban fortified city (Neuf Breisach), and the post-WW2 re-built city of Le Havre.
Canada: Rocky Mountain Parks, and Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump (this last one might need its own essay)
Also: Luxembourg City Center, and Sydney Opera House