(Image credit: David Perry)
By David Perry1st September 2022
This picturesque village exists in a time warp that takes visitors back centuries – but the principles that keep the town alive are as forward-thinking as they come.

The half-timbered houses, the isolated location deep in eastern Germany's forested hinterlands, the eerie rock pinnacles bounding the town on one side and the tempestuous Elbe River on the other – throw in an evil witch and Schmilka would be straight out of a 19th-Century Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Or, at least, of that age: the buildings go back around two centuries, the food and beer are prepared using techniques just as old, and I had to run up and down the town's one street (cobblestoned, of course) to find a wi-fi signal. Talk about a time warp.

"Schmilka used to be a holiday village 200 years ago," said Andrea Bigge, a local art historian. It is again, she added, but it still feels like it exists in that era.

"You have time here," added guest-house proprietor Ansgar Rieger. "No schedules, no lists. You come to Schmilka to 'do nothing'."

A day trip from Dresden, Schmilka lies just barely within the German border with Czechia. It was founded around 1582 by Czech lumberjacks – the town's name even comes from a Slavic word meaning "a place where timber is harvested". Pitch-makers taking advantage of the local spruce trees and ferrymen working the Elbe soon followed, and by 1665, the hamlet had become more substantial. People seeking a country escape appeared in the 1800s, but Schmilka never got much beyond a rural backwater enclave.

So it was a bit of a head-scratcher to me that this barely-there townlet is one of the most respected wellness retreats in Saxony, one of its most sustainable and organic communities, as well as one of the state's most beautiful villages. The food in Schmilka's restaurants, the beer from its brewery, the bread in its bakery, even the furniture in its hotels and guesthouses are prepared with sustainability at the forefront. The mill still uses water to grind its grain on millstones, the brewery uses 200-year-old techniques, and the buildings, all original, are made of stone, wood and daub. Plus its wellness offerings draw on old traditions like saunas and baths, and lean heavily on the surrounding outdoors for experiences like nature walks. I thought I had fallen down the rabbit hole; Schmilka looks, feels, sounds and even tastes the way it did centuries ago.

While locals seem to love this way of life – and the town owes its survival to it – Schmilka's present-day success can be largely attributed to one man.

Schmilka’s brewery looks much like it did 200 years ago (Credit: David Perry)

Entrepreneur Sven-Eric Hitzer fell in love with Schmilka as a rock-climbing youth during the East German regime. "It was just a border clearance [town] then, but the wilderness was wonderful," he said. "In the '90s, I came back to Schmilka to spend time in nature with my family. I bought a house with the intention of having a place to stay when we came here. Then another and…"

And he couldn't buy them fast enough; Hitzer discovered his childhood playground was in trouble. After 41 years of austere communism and the economic slump immediately following German reunification, Schmilka, like so many rural towns in the old East Germany, was slipping into ruin. People moved away and houses were abandoned.

"It crashed," Bigge remembered.

"And it looked it," said town guide Christin Glaser.

Initially, Hitzer had no other agenda than preservation. But by 2007, inspired by advice from his wife, he formulated a plan to save not just a few houses but the whole town by turning Schmilka into a sustainable retreat. "We were all for it," said Bigge. "There was no pushback."

"It would give all of us a future," Rieger added.

But first, Hitzer had to glow-up Schmilka's negatives. The town is remote. It's tiny. Hardly anyone lives there. There are no schools or churches, and its location inside the Saxon Switzerland National Park puts a hard stop on any new construction. Technically speaking, Schmilka is not even its own municipality; it is the southernmost extension of the larger town of Bad Schandau downriver.

Located in the narrow Elbe Valley, the village is crammed into a cleft that is at once dramatic and cosy (Credit: David Perry)

That said, it's not too difficult to paint a remote country town, situated in a park famed for hiking and mountain climbing, as an escape for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.

Located in the narrow Elbe Valley, Schmilka is crammed into a cleft that is at once dramatic and cosy. Looking down the river at dusk, with the rock stacks of the Ore Mountains like a row of hands reaching up to pull the night down, I literally stopped in my tracks. I could see why Hitzer wanted to preserve this village.

"When a house becomes vacant, Hitzer buys it and refurbishes it," Glaser said, as we talked in the Mühlenstrube's beer garden. Nearby, hikers and visitors lounged with organic beer and sausages in the shade of a massive chestnut tree. She pointed to the water mill, explaining that it was a hotel during the East German tenure but Hitzer reverse-engineered it to grind grain, as it had 400 years ago. The brewery and bakery, too, were reverted to their initial purposes (and the mill provides ground wheat for both). Hotels like the Helvetia are old homes. Even the small handful of properties not part of Hitzer's project are jumping on the refurbishment bandwagon; the Die Burg Schöna, the guest house across the river that Rieger runs, was once part of a defunct sawmill compound.

Hitzer even found a benefit, albeit an indirect one, from the Elbe's notorious floods: the early townsfolk had built everything out of stone.

"It didn't take long for the town to figure that out, even in 1582, and things haven't changed since," Bigge said. "Look at the houses; all the half-timbers are on the second floor, away from floodwaters and where people here really live. All the houses here are made of stone."

It dawned on me, like it did Hitzer, that the biggest reason Schmilka looks so traditional is because it is – and there was no other option.

In Schmilka, the beer, like the food, is all organic (Credit: David Perry)

Hitzer admitted his ideas evolved with time. For instance, even as he was buying up properties to turn Schmilka into a nature retreat, he had never thought of organic food as a business mandate until the day he went for a physical as part of a life-insurance application and "did not get a clean bill of health". It occurred to him that if organic fare was good for his well-being, it had to be so for others and could be applied on a larger scale at Schmilka.

"I decided that the food I eat should be free of toxins," he said. "Only later did I realise that healthily produced foods are also good for the environment. It's not just about me and my health, it's about sustainable business in general."

There are some grumbles, of course. Glaser mentioned that some residents, while not against Hitzer's idea, did not go green either. And some of the spin-doctoring has its limits; while modern Schmilka bills its limited wi-fi as a way for visitors to reconnect with nature and each other, Bigge and Glaser clued me in that this was Hitzer "making lemonade" with the fact that the valley has always interrupted phone signals.

The mill still uses water to grind its grain on millstones (Credit: David Perry)

Being so close to nature, Schmilka is acutely impacted by it. "Schmilka has had to face some serious tests: floods, landslides, mudslides, Covid," Hitzer said, "and now forest fire. There were fires on the Czech side of the park in early August."

Yet Bigge, Glaser and Rieger agree that Schmilka now has something to fight for. They also agree that Hitzer turned Schmilka into a forward-thinking town with an ironically backward-looking philosophy; the town is not stuck in the past so much as it willingly walked back to it… with electricity and central heating, naturally. This is a spa town, after all.

"What we call 'sustainability' today was the way of life 200 years ago," Bigge said.

"We grow our own vegetables," Glaser added, explaining that sustainability, a passionately embraced concept in Germany, is not a touristy gimmick. "We recycle and use recycled materials. We utilise waste heat from the brewery and bakery for the town. Even our detergents are organic."

"What we call 'sustainability' today was the way of life 200 years ago"

The company Hitzer formed in 2007 now runs Schmilka as a business. What drew people to Schmilka centuries ago – the forests, the quiet – do so again. Hitzer positioned the town as a decompression chamber for the world-weary, an HQ for hikers and rock climbers, and a health and wellness retreat for people exhausted by Covid, all under the banner of sustainability practices and organic cuisine. And it works beautifully.

Sipping organic ale in the beer garden, serenaded by the creaking waterwheel of the mill and surrounded by pastel-coloured buildings – all restored to their historical glory – I found myself embracing the time warp. Hotels are booked, yoga and massage therapies lined up, and the influx of visitors constant. The town is alive and well.


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By Tarang Mohnot26th August 2022
In a series of Himalayan towns known for severe earthquakes, locals still honour a millennia-old building style.

In 1905, a deadly earthquake rocked the landscape of Himachal Pradesh, an Indian state in the western Himalayas. Sturdy-looking concrete constructions toppled like houses of cards. The only surviving structures were in towns where the residents had used an ancient, traditional Himalayan building technique known as kath kuni.

On a warm Tuesday afternoon, I was headed towards one of them: Naggar Castle, which was built more than 500 years ago as the seat of the region's powerful Kullu kings, and which remained standing, unscathed, after that calamity.

Officers from the Geological Survey of India were amazed by the lack of seismic damage to the castle and other kath kuni homes in the earthquake's radius. "This, at first sight, appeared unnatural on account of the apparently rather top-heavy construction of the houses… until one came to realise the natural resisting power of their timber-bonded walls," they wrote.

The castle is one of the most exquisite remaining examples of the building style, but kath kuni houses have been constructed in this region for thousands of years. The design is recognisable by its layered interlocking of deodar wood (a type of Himalayan cedar) with locally sourced stone, without the use of mortar. Naggar Castle is now a hotel and tourist attraction, but its rustic walls – flat-stacked grey stones alternating with earth-toned planks of wood – are proof that some things are timeless.

As a design, kath kuni is ingenious. "Deodar wood and stone create a spectacular balance and composition together," said Rahul Bhushan, architect and founder at NORTH, a Naggar-based architecture and design studio working to preserve the building technique through construction projects, workshops, artist residencies and homestays. "Stone gives weight to the structure, resulting in a low centre of gravity, and wood holds the structure together, thanks to its flexibility."

The technique is perfectly suited to the Himalayas, one of the most seismically active zones in the world (Credit: Tarang Mohnot)

The technique is perfectly suited to the Himalayas, one of the most seismically active zones in the world. Doors and windows are built small and have heavy wooden frames to lessen the stress on the openings during an earthquake. Plus, the buildings have fewer of these openings to help transfer inertial forces to the ground. On top of it all, thick slate roofs hold the whole edifice firmly in place.

The words "kath kuni" are derived from Sanskrit, translating to "wooden corner". "This describes the essence of the building style," said Tedhi Singh, one of the few remaining mistris (masons) in Chehni – the only village in Himachal Pradesh where the houses are all kath kuni, as opposed to other villages where newer concrete houses are more common. "Take a look at the corners of any kath kuni building and you'll clearly see beams of wood interlocked together. Gaps between these layers are packed with small stones, hay and rubble. This system of intricate interlocking makes kath kuni structures remarkably flexible, allowing walls to move and adjust in case of a seismic event."

Singh added that kath kuni structures have double-layered walls that act as insulators, keeping the space warm in the frigid winter months and cool in the summers. Trenches in the ground and raised beds of stone blocks strengthen the superstructure, while keeping water and snow from seeping in.

Naggar Castle is one of the most exquisite remaining examples of kath kuni (Credit: Tarang Mohnot)

In addition to these quake-proof qualities, kath kuni architecture is also well-adapted to the region's agrarian and communitarian style of living. Generally, the ground floor is reserved for livestock. Upper storeys are used as living quarters since they're a lot warmer, thanks to the sunlight and the rising body heat of livestock from below.

"I can't imagine living in a concrete structure… they simply don't fit our lifestyle," said Mohini, who lives with her husband and daughter in a century-old stone-and-wood structure in Chachogi, a tiny village near Naggar. "Kath kuni homes are designed in a way that lets us keep our cattle loose in the open space on the bottom storey and move them inside at the time of milking or during harsh weather conditions. They are also generally built in clusters, making it easy for us to share livestock and storage space."

Over time, the building technique has been passed down through generations. However, the tradition is dying as clusters of flat-roofed concrete houses are taking precedence in many villages. Several locals are even concealing their concrete homes with stone tiles and wood-finish wallpapers – desperate attempts to preserve identity as raw materials for kath kuni have become more difficult and expensive to obtain.

As Himachal Pradesh's traditional dwellings became expensive and unfeasible, the concrete industry gathered steam (Credit: Tarang Mohnot)

In 1864, the British Empire established the Forest Department in India, leading to a sudden transfer of forest ownership from the locals to the state. This spurred the rampant extraction and commercial use of deodar in present-day Himachal Pradesh. In an attempt to repair the relationship between forests and local forest-dwellers, the Indian government passed the Forest Rights Act in 2006, which entitles each Himachali family to just one tree every 10 years – hardly enough wood to build a house.

"Opposed to kath kuni, concrete looks jarring to the eyes because it's not in sync with the landscape. But it's not like the locals don't want to build wooden houses – they simply lack access to the required resources," said Sonali Gupta, an anthropological archaeologist and the founding director of the Himalayan Institute of Cultural and Heritage Studies.

As Himachal Pradesh's traditional dwellings became expensive and unfeasible, the concrete industry gathered steam. Bricks and cement presented locals with a cheaper and quicker way to build houses. "Kath kuni structures come with higher one-time costs, and people find it hard to shell out those amounts," said Bhushan.

Chehni is the only village in Himachal Pradesh where the houses are all kath kuni (Credit: Tarang Mohnot)

Along with the fall in the demand for kath kuni structures, there's been a steady decline in the number of mistris who specialise in the art, coupled with a growing belief that concrete structures are more durable. However, Himachal Pradesh has undergone scores of earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 and higher in the past 100 years, and during these seismic events, concrete houses proved liable to damage.

Finally, aspects of kath kuni have also become somewhat irrelevant in the context of Himachal's evolving culture and values. "Kath kuni houses have really small doors," said Mohini. "In the old days, people bowed at the entrance, for this also meant bowing before the household deity in reverence. But today, one doesn't want to bend before anyone – not even God."

Mohini is confident that her daughter will live her life in the same house that two generations before her have called home (Credit: Tarang Mohnot)

Despite these challenges, local organisations are trying to find ways to promote and save traditional building methods. For example, NORTH works with its clients to design projects in the kath kuni style and collaborates with local artisans for the construction. They are also investigating whether alternative materials such as bamboo could replace wood to make the kath kuni style more sustainable in the long-term. In addition, Bhushan is experimenting with dhajji dewari, another old Himalayan building technique that uses timber frames and earth infill, and is a lot more cost- and time-effective than kath kuni. And since Himachal Pradesh is a tourism-heavy state, boutique accommodations such as Neeralaya and Firdaus bolster education and appreciation of local architecture by offering tourists the opportunity to stay in kath kuni-style homes, as well as experience regional cooking and activities such as fishing and forest bathing.

"Earthquakes will come and go, but the house will live on"

Even with this revived focus on the old ways, mistri Tedhi Singh worries that once smooth roads connect Chehni to the world, cement will make its way to the village, requiring him to adopt modern-day techniques. "It's quite bittersweet," he said. "The thought of good roads is like a dream but working with bricks and cement just won't be the same."

As for Mohini, she is confident that her daughter will live her life in the same house that two generations before her have called home. "I will teach her how to preserve this house and make her understand that such houses can't be made again... earthquakes will come and go, but the house will live on – take care of it."

Heritage Architecture is a BBC Travel series that explores the world's most interesting and unusual buildings that define a place through aesthetic beauty and inventive ways of adapting to local environments.


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By Geena Truman23rd August 2022
Egypt may have the Pyramids of Giza, but Iraq has the Ziggurat of Ur – an incredibly well-preserved engineering achievement that towers over the ruins of an important ancient city.

Around 4,000 years ago, this pale, hard-packed spit of Iraqi desert was the centre of civilisation. Today the ruins of the great city of Ur, once an administrative capital of Mesopotamia, now sit in a barren wasteland near Iraq's most notorious prison. In the shadow of the towering prison fences, Abo Ashraf, the self-proclaimed caretaker of the archaeological site, and a handful of tourists are the only signs of life for miles. At the end of a long wooden walkway, an impressive ziggurat is nearly all that remains of the ancient Sumerian metropolis.

To get here, I'd been packed into the backseat of a taxi hurtling through the desert for hours, until I began to see the city's famed monument looming in the distance: the Ziggurat of Ur, a 4,100-year-old massive, tiered shrine lined with giant staircases. A tall chain link fence barricading the entrance and a paved parking lot were the only hints of the modern world.

The very first ziggurats pre-date the Egyptian pyramids, and a few remains can still be found in modern-day Iraq and Iran. They are as imposing as their Egyptian counterparts and also served religious purposes, but they differed in a few ways: ziggurats had several terraced levels as opposed to the pyramids' flat walls, they didn't have interior chambers and they had temples at the top rather than tombs inside.

"A ziggurat is a sacred building, essentially a temple on a platform with a staircase," said Maddalena Rumor, an Ancient Near-East specialist at Case Western Reserve University in the US. "The earliest temples show simple constructions of one-room shrines on a slight platform. Over time, temples and platforms were repeatedly reconstructed and expanded, growing in complexity and size, reaching their most perfect shape in the multi-level Ziggurat [of Ur]."

The Ziggurat of Ur was built a bit later (about 680 years after the first pyramids), but it is renowned because it is one of the best-preserved, and also because of its location in Ur, which holds a prominent place in history books. According to Rumor, Mesopotamia was the origin of artificial irrigation: the people of Ur cut canals and ditches to regulate the flow of water and irrigate land further from the Euphrates River banks. Ur is also believed to be the birthplace of biblical Abraham and, as Ashraf explained while he walked us through the ruined walls of the city, the home of the first code of law, the Code of Ur-Nammu, written around 2100 BCE – 400 years before Babylonia's better-known Code of Hammurabi.

The Sumerians bored hundreds of square holes into the outer walls to allow the internal mud-brick core to stay dry (Credit: Geena Truman)

"In Mesopotamia, every city was believed to have been founded and built as the residence of a god/goddess… who acted as its protector and political authority," Rumor said. In Ur, that was Nanna the moon god – for whom the ziggurat was constructed as an earthly home and temple. "The cult of Nanna developed very early around the lower course of the Euphrates (at the centre of which was Ur) in connection with the herding of cows and the cycles of nature that increased the herd," she said.

The structure's lower tiers remain today, though the temple and upper terraces at the top have been lost. To figure out what they looked like, specialists have used all kinds of technology and ancient writings (from historians like Herodotus, as well as the Bible). In her 2016 paper, A Ziggurat and the Moon, Amelia Sparavigna, an archaeological imaging specialist with the Polytechnic University of Turin, wrote, "[Ziggurats] were pyramidal structures with a flat top, with a core made up of sun-baked bricks, covered by fired bricks. The facings were often glazed in different colours...".

Based on remnants found at the site, it has been generally agreed that the Ziggurat of Ur held a cerulean temple sitting atop two massive mud-brick tiers. The base alone consisted of more than 720,000 meticulously stacked mud bricks, weighing up to 15kg each. Reflecting Sumerian knowledge of the lunar and solar cycles, each of the ziggurat's four corners pointed in a cardinal direction as exact as a compass, and a grand staircase to the upper levels was oriented toward the summer solstice sunrise.

I could see the remains of this great achievement as Ashraf led me and the other few tourists to the main staircase. He knows the site well: he moved here with his father 38 years ago to assist with archaeological digs, and his family home lies just steps from the entrance. Once I reached the summit, I could imagine the ancient kingdom sprawling out in every direction thousands of years ago.

Each of the ziggurat's four corners pointed in a cardinal direction, and a grand staircase was oriented toward the summer solstice sunrise (Credit: Geena Truman)

King Ur-Nammu laid the ziggurat's first brick in 2100 BCE, and construction was later completed by his son King Shulgi, by which time the city was the flourishing capital of Mesopotamia. But by the 6th Century BCE, the ziggurat was in ruins thanks to the desert's extreme heat and harsh sand. King Nabonidus of Babylonia set to work restoring it around 550 BCE, but instead of re-creating the original three tiers, he built seven, aligning with other grandiose Babylonian structures of the time, such as the Etemenanki ziggurat, which some believe was the famed tower of Babel.

The bulk of the ziggurat remains intact today largely due to three ingenious innovations by the original Sumerian engineers.

First was ventilation. As with other ziggurats, this one was constructed with a core of mud bricks surrounded by an exterior of sun-baked bricks. And since that core retained moisture that could have led to the overall degradation of the structure, the Sumerians bored hundreds of square holes into the outer walls to allow for quick evaporation. Rumor explained that without this detail, "the mud-brick interiors could soften during heavy rains, and eventually bulge or collapse".

Second, the walls were built at a slight slant. This allowed water to flow down the ziggurat's sides, preventing pooling on the upper levels; the angle made the structure appear larger from a distance, intimidating the empire's enemies.

Lastly, the temple on top was built with fully baked mud bricks held together by bitumen. This naturally occurring tar staved off water seepage into the unbaked core.

Despite these achievements, by the 6th Century CE, the once-thriving metropolis had metaphorically and physically dried up. The Euphrates River had changed its course, leaving the city without water and therefore uninhabitable. Ur and the ziggurat were abandoned and subsequently buried beneath a mountain of sand by wind and time.

It wasn't until 1850 that the remains of the ziggurat were found again; later, in the 1920s, British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley led an in-depth excavation of the monument, uncovering what was left of the structure and digging up gold daggers, carved statues, delicate lyres and intricate headdresses from surrounding graves. But as Ashraf noted, "With only 30% of the site excavated, much more remains to be discovered."

Ur is believed to be the birthplace of biblical Abraham and the home of the first code of law (Credit: Assad Niazi/Getty Images)

Even so, the ziggurat is important enough to have been used as a pawn in modern wartimes. During the Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein parked two of his MiG fighter jets alongside it, in hopes that the historical site would keep the United States and other foreign nations from attacking his planes. Unfortunately, the ziggurat still suffered minor damage.

In 2021, Iraq opened its doors to an array of Western countries, and tourism has been emerging slowly (though many governments still advise against travel here). Janet Newenham, an Irish travel journalist and owner of Janet's Journeys, visited Iraq shortly after the visa-on-arrival programme launched. Since then, she has led several group tours to the region. "On our first trip in July 2021, we saw not one other tourist," she said. "By the time my April 2022 trip came around, we would often meet small groups of adventurous tourists… we never saw more than four or five other tourists at a time though.

Yet nearly every day, Ashraf braves the heat to help tourists understand the importance of the ziggurat. He said he taught himself English by "studying the dictionary" and when most of his foreign visitors were Japanese, he set to work learning snippets of Japanese as well.

As I carefully climbed the grand staircase leading to the flat upper floor, I could still see bits of bitumen between the broken bricks. I also spotted a small, inscribed brick that recognises Saddam Hussein for his partial reconstruction of the monument in 1980. The upper terraces and the colourful temple have long been destroyed and lost to time. But across the nearly flat expanse of desert, I could see small mounds scattered throughout the area waiting to be excavated, no doubt hiding a world of treasures yet to be discovered.

Ancient Engineering Marvels is a BBC Travel series that takes inspiration from unique architectural ideas or ingenious constructions built by past civilisations and cultures across the planet.


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