Travels through History: Journeys in the former Yugoslavia – Sarajevo

This excerpt from the book about my travels in The Balkans

Now it was time for me to find the place where the first World War started on the street by the river. On their wedding anniversary, June 28th 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated by a member of the Black Guard group called Gavrilo Princip. That’s a stark fact I hope most people know. What is not well known is the absolute tragedy of errors that preceded this shooting. Princip was not a lone gunman. There were five other assassins in Sarajevo that day, but either they froze and were unable to carry out their attack or they were incompetent. In the latter category, so the story goes, was Nedeljko Cabrinovic. At 10:10 am, Franz Ferdinand’s car approached Cabrinovic where he was standing on the riverside road. Cabrinovic threw his bomb at the car. Sadly for Cabrinovic, and many other people, the bomb bounced off the folded-back convertible cover into the street. The bomb’s timed detonator caused it to explode under the next car in the procession leaving a 1-foot-diameter, 6-inch-deep crater in the road and wounding 16–20 people.

Cabrinovic swallowed a cyanide pill and jumped into the Miljacka river. This suicide attempt failed for two reasons. The first was that the cyanide only induced vomiting. The second was that the river was only 6-inches deep due to the dry summer. The police dragged Cabrinovic out of the river and he was promptly beaten by the crowd before being taken into custody. Franz Ferdinand carried on his way to the City Hall where he complained, perhaps not surprisingly, about the welcome he had received. Plans for the return journey were changed although the driver of Franz Ferdinand’s car forgot and followed the original route. When he was reminded of his wrong turning, he reversed the car, and this was when Princip fired two shots. He did not miss. If the driver had not been reminded and continued on his way, Princip would not have killed Franz Ferdinand and events might have been very different. As it was, Princip was prevented from shooting himself by a sharp-witted bystander and stood trial. Princip died of TB in 1918, roughly seven months before the chain of events he started came to an end.


Travels through History: Journeys in the former Yugoslavia – Kosovo

This excerpt from the book about my travels in The Balkans

“My friends and I think that someone pays them to wear that clothing,” said the taxi driver, pointing at a woman wearing a burqa, “and it has only started in the last 18 months, 2 years. It is the same with the men growing the long beards, they are being paid to make the long beard. It is not traditional. That is what the Muslim women wear here,” he continued jabbing a nicotine-stained finger at another woman with a long, orangey-yellow scarf wrapped around her hair. She was also wearing a long-sleeved blouse and a baggy skirt, both in understated pastel shades. “Those long-bearded men are being paid to be radicals.” “Who would do that, which country would do that, which organisation would pay people to wear burqas and grow beards?” I asked sceptically. “It is Serbia, they are paying people a hundred Euros a month or more to make these statements, so they can cause unrest amongst the people and cause the people to doubt each other. But it won’t work, because they don’t know the Muslims, they don’t know we won’t fall out with each other, because there’s no jihad against fellow Muslims. It is not just to fight your brother, but it is just to fight against a different religion if the circumstances are right.”


Travels through History – The Balkans: Journeys in the former Yugoslavia

The Macedonians build a fountain and upset the Greeks.

Villages on the road to Lake Ohrid fly Albanian flags instead of Macedonian ones.

Kosovan taxi drivers believe fundamentalists are being sponsored in their country by former foes.

Dubrovnik is so popular a one-way system is now in operation on the city walls.

In Sarajevo, the place the First World War started is not easy to find, but evidence of more recent atrocities is.

All these stories and more can be found in my new book: Travels through History – The Balkans

Memories are long in The Balkans, contrasts and contradictions are all around. History is always in your face, reminding you nothing stays the same for long in this most fascinating corner of Europe.



Sports the Olympics Forgot – The Anti-Pope Games from Avignon

This is an excerpt from the Anti-pope Games story in my book, Sports the Olympics Forgot

The next oldest race is the Greyhound Race that dates from 1621. Here the artificial hare is chased around three laps of the track by greyhounds dressed in monk’s costumes. The hare wears a Papal Crown and carries a Papal Staff. Again this is a toned-down version of the original where a real hare, wearing a mitre, was hunted to death by greyhounds. Nowadays, the winning greyhound and owner receive a kennel for the dog that is modelled on the Pope’s Palace at Avignon. A greyhound named Luther has won the race the most times with seven wins in the period 1898 – 1905.

Dating from 1645 the oldest athletics event is the Papal shot-put where contestants have to land their throws in a Papal mitre that is placed 15 meters and 17 centimeters from the rim of the shot-put circle. Each contestant is allowed six attempts at this accuracy contest and the winner is the person who lands their put in the hat the most times. Hugo Benjamin Draxler won the event thirteen times between 1794 and 1831. Draxler has been an important figure in the Games as he also lobbied the organizers to introduce a spear throwing contest where the aim and the rules were literally the same as those of the shot-put contest. After the success of the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris both a discus and a hammer contest were introduced in 1925 with the Papal Mitre situated 60 meters and 68 centimeters from the throwing circle. No one has ever won the Discus event and the Hammer event has been won just once in 1958 by the Soviet Anatoli Timofftichuk.

Egypt - Cairo - The Pyramids of Cheops and Chephren at Giza

Pyramid Racing – Part 2

Each year there are roughly 5,000 entrants for the race who make their way to Cairo at their own expense. They are given a thorough medical by the race organizers and those who pass have to sign an insurance waiver and provide proof they have adequate medical insurance for repatriation to their own country. If more than 3,072 pass the tests then an elimination 10,000-metre race is run around the Giza Plateau and the top 3,072 entrants reach the pre-qualifying races.

A basic pyramid race comprises four racers, one for each of the edges. The idea is that the contestants start the race 50 yards from their corner of the pyramid. They stand by an empty plinth and wait for the Starting Judge to wave the Wand of Osiris. Once this happens, they make their way to the top of the pyramid, collect an image of Thoth from a judge wearing an ibis mask, who stands on the capstone, and then descend to the bottom. The winner is the person who first places his Thoth on the plinth.

In the week prior to June 21st the qualifying takes place on the Pyramid of Menkaure. Between June 14th and June 17th the 3,072 entrants each take part in one of the 768 races; the losers from these races qualify for the races on the Step Pyramid of Djoser between June 18th – 21st. On June 18th and 19th the 768 winners are whittled down to 192 and then on June 20th the final 48 are decided and they qualify for the “Race to the Stars” on the Great Pyramid on June 21st. The 576 who lose races on June 18th and 19th qualify for the races on the Pyramid of Menkaure on June 21st, which is still a prestigious race. The 144 who lose races on June 20th qualify for the races on the Pyramid of Khefre on June 21st, a race only second in importance to the race on the Great Pyramid.

Extract from Sports the Olympics Forgot


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The Hula Hoop Games – Buenos Aires

The modern hula hoop was invented in the late 1950s but people around the world have played with hoops for centuries. Traditional materials for hoops include willow, rattan, and stiff grasses. The Hula Hoop Games in Buenos Aires were started in 1959 and now attract contestants from around the world.

At these Games the emphasis lies on throwing and rolling the Hula Hoop rather than twirling it around the body while running along or standing still. There are two types of events: the distance events and the accuracy events. The standard 40-inch diameter adult hula hoop is mandatory for all events.

The distance events involve throwing the hoop as far as possible. There is the plain hurl event where the contestant grips the outside of the hoop and throws it into the distance, often twirling around in a circle like a discus thrower to build up momentum before releasing the hoop at the optimum moment. The winner of the event is the person whose hoop lands at the furthest distance from the start line. The furthest distance ever recorded was 156 feet 11 inches by David Nelson from Accra in Ghana in 1997.

From the books Sports the Olympics Forgot

Romania - Sighisoara - Clock on the clocktower

The Dracula Race in Sighisoara – Sports the Olympics Forgot

Taken from the book – Sports the Olympics Forgot

The individual time trial starts outside the modern day café where Vlad was born. The contestant must first run to the Clock Tower and climb the stairs to the top taking care not to hit their head on the low doorways. They must then run around the top of the clock tower in an anti-clockwise direction five times. After completing this task they must bite three apples in half before descending to the bottom of the tower. There they have to throw ten cloves of garlic into a bucket situated twenty yards away. Only when they have symbolically got rid of the garlic can they run to the steps leading to the accurately named The Church on the Hill. The contestant runs up the hundred steps, taking care not to trip over the gypsy boy sleeping on the top step, to the church. Outside the entrance the competitor has to knock down five crosses from a distance of 10 yards using some old tennis balls provided especially for the occasion.

After completing this task the contestant runs down the steps and then has to complete 50 sit-ups while lying in a coffin. Then the contestant runs back to the clock tower and ascends to the top where they must run 5 times in a clockwise direction around the top of the tower before biting three more apples in half.

Once this is done they descend to the bottom of the tower and run to the café where they must gulp down a pint of tomato juice. Once this has been done their time is recorded and the next contestant can begin. If a competitor attempts to ingest some tablets to counter acid reflux or to prevent a stomach ache they will be immediately disqualified by the Ingestion Judge who fits false teeth into the person’s mouth which clamps their mouth shut.

The contestant then lies down for exactly 10 minutes in another coffin before beginning the bike race to Bran Castle. The false teeth are removed and the contestant leaves Sighisoara – the time begins when the rider cycles between a pair of whale bones. After 50 kilometres the cyclist must knock down 10 cardboard cutouts of Turkish soldiers using garlic cloves while still mounted on their bike. After a further 50 kilometres the cyclist must dismount and place fifteen turkey meatballs on a barbecue. Once the meat is cooked they must symbolically impale the turkey balls on a three-foot skewer and present the kebab to the Barbecue judge who will check that the meat is cooked. The judge will add a minute to the cyclist’s time for each meatball that isn’t properly cooked or that isn’t impaled correctly on the skewer. The cyclist then rides the last 40km to the castle at Bran and runs to the top of the castle. Here they catch a zip line which flies them over the finish line.