Freddie in the Douglas Fir

After many successful forays into the garden, Freddie suddenly decided that he wanted to start climbing things such as the fence and trees. He found the fence very hard to navigate as he didn’t have the strength to pull himself up the links. Trees on the other hand weren’t too difficult and he enjoyed climbing into the branches so that he could be higher than me when we were in the garden together.

Eventually Freddie decided that the Douglas Fir in the corner of the garden was his Everest. The lowest branch was around twenty feet from the ground and the trunk was too wide for me to put my arms around. Freddie stood at the bottom of the tree and jumped on to the bark and clawed his way up a few feet miaowing to himself, before falling off. He decided that more momentum was required so he began his run-up ten feet from the tree; about two feet from the base he leapt on to the trunk and started to climb again miaowing to himself for encouragement.

The problem was that as he climbed his front paws became further apart, so that by the time he was fifteen feet from the ground his face and tummy were pressed tight against the tree. He couldn’t go any further; he gave a distress miaow and then fell off the tree, landing on his feet of course. Freddie was undeterred and started his next run-up fifteen feet from the base of the tree; he must have reached one foot further up the tree before falling off.

However, Freddie was encouraged by this progress and started his next run-up right by the house; again he leapt at the trunk from two feet away and climbed steadily, but around 17 feet from the ground his face was pressed against the bark and he fell off. I had seen enough and tried to stop him make another attempt, but he dodged me and attacked the tree again, but with the same results.

I stood right by the trunk to stop Freddie making another attempt, but he approached from a different angle and landed on the trunk near my head. I took a hold of him and tried to pull him away from the tree but he dug his claws into the bark and refused to move. I prised his paws away one at a time and took him back into the house with him yowling in my arms. The next time Freddie went into the garden I watched him very closely, but he contented himself with sitting at the base of the tree and practiced jumping onto the trunk. He was happy doing that although who knows what he tried to do when my back was turned.

Extract from the book: Where is Freddie Cat?

HASTE – At the Giza Plateau

I was called to the Giza Plateau near Cairo in Egypt where a giant building project is being undertaken by the Pharaoh. I meet with the Grand Vizier amidst reports of many people being killed during construction.

The Vizier greets me warmly and we walk to the site, where I see that a giant cube is being built. The walls are around 30 metres high. Men are hauling massive stones from the ground up the sheer sides of the cube using ropes that are tied under the stones – the ropes occasionally break with the stone plummeting to the ground as a result.

“Does that happen often?” I asked indicating the stone lying on the ground with men standing around scratching their heads.

“It happens frequently because the ropes are not strong enough to haul the stones up the walls for more than 15 metres. I am not sure what we are going to do as Pharaoh requires another 110 metres of height over and above what we have now.”

“Well, the first item I must give you is a warning that none of the people working are wearing a hard hat, proper boots, or protective clothing in contravention of edict YTGF7777-88d8d of the construction worker’s code.”

“But if a ten-ton stone lands on your head it won’t matter whether you’re wearing a hard hat or not.”

“It’s the thought that counts. You have to be seen to be trying to look after the welfare of your people.”

“Appearances are everything. Even though people are willing to die to help Pharaoh.”

“Are they being paid to do this work or forced to be here?”

“They aren’t being paid, but they do get accommodation and food provided for them.”

“And they can leave when they wish?”

“Not really – it is thought an honour to be here and help with this building. The work is very tiring and we don’t force people to work for too long as they can cause their fellow workers problems if they are fatigued.”

“It would count as volunteering I suppose, but even then, this site is still a work environment and the employment safety laws still apply.”

“I understand completely – would you like a closer look?”

“Why does Pharaoh want to build a cube?”

“Because it is perfectly uniform in three dimensions, width, height, and depth. It’s perfect like him and he believes it will be his legacy for future generations and they will know him because of The Cube. There will be paintings on it and an inscription that will read ‘Look upon my work ye mighty and despair’, or something similar.”

“That sounds very poetic – how big will the letters be?”

“Two metres high roughly.”

“Where is all the stone coming from?”

“It’s coming from quarries along The Nile and is being carved on the edge of the plateau before being moved up here on stone rollers.”

“Is The Cube being built on a right of way – there seems to be a path heading to that corner? I must ask you to move the whole structure 1 foot to the left – I will issue you with a Blocking Right of Way notice B76-909-JJJJ-2929.”

“That means relocating 100,000 tons of stone.”

“You’re breaking the law – some poor sheep herder will have to drive his flock around the whole structure. Whilst you are doing that I would also suggest re-aligning the whole structure with that tree on the horizon – that will impress people in the future. They will try and prove the alignment relates to where a particular heavenly body appears over the horizon on the longest day of the year, or the shortest day. Perhaps burrow into the structure too and leave some parts of The Cube hollowed out, that will confuse them no end.”

“Oh, I see, leave a few mysteries for those to come to solve.”

“Except they’re not mysteries, you are just playing with their minds – leave a boat under The Cube for example, have a few empty rooms containing hieroglyphs, build steps down into the sand that don’t go anywhere.”

“I like the way you think – all these items will allow the name of Pharaoh to endure beyond his time to the stars and back.”

Just then a worried-looking man ran over to the vizier and asked him for a private conversation. They were away for about two minutes before the vizier returned.

“It seems we have a major problem,” said the vizier stroking his chin, “but perhaps you can help us?”

“What is the problem – are the stones too heavy to be hauled up off the ground for the required distance already?”

“They are and as I said earlier we have another 100 metres to go straight up.”

“Well, might I suggest a pyramid then, a stepped pyramid with a base angle of 52 degrees or so, whatever angle it has to be to rise to 139 metres. You can drag the stones up the various levels. Or build a spiral ramp.”

“Or use the Wand of Osiris which allows the stones to float lighter than air.”

“Why don’t you use that for everything?”

“Well, I do – I go around straightening things and making sure they’re aligned, closing gaps to make sure the rats can’t get in, making the structure waterproof, not that there’s much rain here of course. But I wouldn’t use the Wand all the time, because that would defeat the purpose of channelling the people’s efforts into creating monuments and making sure they have a common purpose of helping cement the legacy of Pharaoh rather than uniting to oppose him.”

“It also tires them out so they can only think of sleep when they’re not working.”

“There is that too, but they do get a day off every month.”

“That’s insufficient time – I will issue you with a notice as you’re contravening edict 8282-3ij3393-333fl relating to worker’s rest time over a calendar month.”

“Most people only work for six weeks at a time and then return to their home villages for the rest of the year.”

“It is still a contravention of the law.”

“Perhaps they won’t have to work as hard on a pyramid as they do on a cube.”

“Let’s hope so for their sake.”

“Less working hours, better working conditions, I think you’ll agree.”

When I returned the following week, I found the Egyptians were working on building a nice new pyramid and working conditions seemed safer.

Gobekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe is an unprepossessing archaeological site in Northern Mesopotamia – the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. No postcards of the site are on sale and no
guidebooks. Indeed, the gatekeeper has only one book for sale and that’s an English translation of the work by Klaus Schmidt that first alerted the world to his significant
discovery in southern Turkey near the Syrian border.

The archaeologists believe that Gobekli Tepe was built by hunter-gatherers somewhere in the period 7500BC – 9500BC, which means this site is at least 5,000 years older than
Stonehenge and The Pyramids at Giza in Egypt. Gobekli Tepe was built just after the last Ice Age and yet people in those times weren’t supposed to build things, to carve stone,
and to raise monoliths in the name of religion. Prior to the discovery of Gobekli Tepe it was thought that these huntergatherers just hunted, gathered, and then moved on in their nomadic existence.

Those thoughts have to be rethought as these particular hunter-gatherers obviously had advanced building and artistic skills and a desire for something to worship. Their society had an artisan class, a priest class, and so was almost certainly hierarchical. Visitors to the site walk on gangways above the four enclosures that have been unearthed so far. Each enclosure contains numerous monoliths that are surrounded by 2-3 metre high stone walls. Enclosure A was discovered in 1995 and excavated between 1996 and 1997.

The main features of this enclosure are the T-shaped megaliths. On the two central pillars there’s a depiction of a net made of snakes above a ram and a vertical row of a bull, fox, and crane. Enclosure B was excavated between 1998 and 2002 and contains two
pillars that are 4 metres high and show reliefs of foxes. The floor is made from a substance similar to concrete, which is waterproof. Enclosure C was discovered in 1998 and contains two concentric circles of pillars. Enclosure D, discovered in 2001, contains two central pillars 5.5 metres high. Another pillar contains an image of a headless man
with an erect phallus.

Another pillar in this enclosure possesses a similar image. Both of these men are wearing a belt with a loincloth. Other carvings in this well-preserved enclosure depict boars, bulls, gazelles, foxes, spiders, scorpions, and snakes. Currently only about 5 – 10% of the whole site has been opened to the elements – the remainder lies under the dirt, soil, and detritus that the centuries piled on top of Gobekli Tepe after it was abandoned by its creators.

However, the archaeologists do believe that when the site was abandoned, Gobekli Tepe was covered by the ancients with 500 cubic metres of earth, which created an artificial mound that remained hidden for around 9,000 years. Standing at the entrance to the walkway over the four excavated enclosures it’s difficult to comprehend that 11,000
years ago hunter-gatherers were creating a religious site at all let alone one that will be an acre in size by the time the whole site is excavated.

Looking at the carved monoliths the visitor has to comprehend that these stones weren’t dragged here from a local quarry and roughly erected. They were shaped expertly and some had their surfaces carved with a lot of skill. There didn’t appear to be any mistakes, there were no half-carved animals or rough attempts that had been discontinued – everything was complete and looked as though it was meant to be.

Where did the carvers and shapers practice their skills – what remains to be discovered? Were there journeymen craftsmen who travelled around the ancient world and created these sites for the people of the time in a similar way to the tradesmen of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries who carved their insignia into the cathedrals of Lincoln and Trondheim?

One of the 5.5 metre high monoliths rests on a square,  stone base. On one edge of this base are carved seven wading birds standing proud from the rest of the stone. These birds are evenly spaced and from a distance look remarkably similar. Their beaks are well defined and their bodies appear curved and smooth – such carving is quite remarkable given that, according to our current timelines, the birds would have been carved with stone tools, not metal ones.

At some point the stone base has been damaged meaning that two of the birds have lost their heads, but their bodies are preserved. The bodies of all seven birds exhibited no discernible chipping marks that you might expect with a stone implement and indeed it looked to me as though the carvings had been sanded as they seemed so smooth.

The only other side of the square base that I saw didn’t contain any carvings, so why was so much lavish ornamentation confined to one side of the base? The answer to this, and many other questions, remains to be found in the secrets that Gobekli Tepe still keeps to itself.

Extract from the book: Travel Tales from Exotic Places

Autophoto: how photographers fell in love with cars – in pictures

An exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art contemporain in Paris examines how the car gave photographers a new way of exploring the world. The 500 works include pictures by Jacques-Henri Lartigue and Lee Friedlander. It opens on 20 April

Grand Turk

Grand Turk sits apart from the other islands in the Turks and Caicos, separated from South Caicos by a trench 7,000 feet deep. People flying over to Grand Turk from Providenciales – one of the Caicos Islands – will notice the change in the colour of the sea from a light-blue to a dark blue, a change that happens instantaneously. The trench is one of the deepest in the Atlantic Ocean and is an essential visit for divers from all over the world. The light-blue is a result of the reef that surrounds the Turks and Caicos, which is why clear and shallow sea can be seen from most of the beaches.

Visitors arrive in two main ways on Grand Turk. A new cruise ship terminal has been built on the south of the island and the passengers from these ships are taken around the island on tour buses. Some of the more adventurous hire All-Terrain Vehicles and proceed in convoys around Cockburn Town, the capital of the Turks and Caicos, and its surroundings. Other tourists arrive on Beechcraft 99 planes from Providenciales. These planes are the size where everyone gets a window seat and can see the pilot’s dashboard. It’s amazing how many different lights come on during the 30-minute flight – it’s best to look out of the window and watch the islands go by.

On arrival at Grand Turk airport, the only activity was the maintenance men cutting the hedge in front of the arrivals building. The airport is named after JAGS McCartney, who was the first chief minister of the Turks and Caicos when he died in a plane crash in New Jersey in 1980. JAGS are his initials and stand for James Alexander George Smith. McCartney was from Grand Turk and National Heroes Day, a holiday celebrated on the last Monday in May, commemorates his life. The sun was beating down but a gentle breeze from the Atlantic felt disarmingly cooling.

Once the bags had arrived on the carousel, I quickly realised that the other 14 passengers on my flight – the flight had been full – all had people to meet them. Once their vehicles had gone there were no other cars around. I asked one of the Inter-Caribbean airlines staff how I could find a taxi and she very kindly ordered one for me on her mobile phone. After 5 minutes, Delphine Simone from Queen Bee taxis arrived and whisked me off to the Osprey Beach Hotel. The fare was seven dollars, which for this part of the Caribbean is very cheap.

The Osprey Beach Hotel faces westwards towards South Caicos. The line of dark-blue water where the ocean trench started could be clearly seen about a mile out to sea. The sandy beach disappeared southwards in the direction of the cruise ship terminal and northwards towards Cockburn Town. The hotel serves meals around the swimming pool with some tables overlooking the waves that hit the beach every few seconds. When I asked to switch rooms the following day because there appeared to be a herd of wildebeest in the room above, I was moved without any fuss to a better, single-storey room with a patio that looked over the ocean.

Opposite the hotel is a diving company where you can also hire bikes for travel on dry land. I headed left out of the hotel along Duke Street. Just after the Sandbar restaurant is a sign proclaiming the Columbus Landfall National Park. There’s a feeling on Grand Turk that Columbus didn’t first make landfall in the “New World” on San Salvador in The Bahamas but rather landed on Grand Turk instead. This will almost certainly never be proved conclusively one way or the other. What can be said with confidence is that Columbus almost certainly landed near a place called Cockburn Town, as that is also the name of the main town on San Salvador.

Along Duke Street are some lovely restored buildings dating from around one hundred years ago with casuarina, frangipani, and Caribbean pine trees in the gardens. The sea is never far away with its clarity and light-blue colour being a constant feature all the way into town. There is a bank on Duke Street, which has a technologically advanced ATM with a touch-sensitive screen.

On nearby Pond Street is Her Majesty’s Prison, which is open for visitors when a cruise ship visits the island. This prison held inmates for over 150 years before being closed in the 1990s, when prisoners such as Pablo Escobar’s brother-in-law had found it all too easy to escape with outside help. Around a dozen cells held the male prisoners and there are fewer cells for the women. The three solitary confinement cells would have been brutally hot in the summer sun. The exercise area allowed prisoners to receive messages that had been thrown over the wall. The entry fee is $3 and the prison is well worth a visit.

The next place of interest is the Turks and Caicos National Museum. The exhibitions begin with the poetically titled “Wreck of the Molasses Reef”, a heavily-armed caravel that hit the reef surrounding the islands in 1513. After the initial discovery by professional divers in the mid-1970s, the wreck was dynamited by some glory-hunters, who thought the caravel was carrying treasure, but none was ever found, which means the caravel predates the Spanish invasion of Mexico.  The museum outlines the story of the dating of the wreck and has a number of objects from the caravel on display, with visitors being given the opportunity to guess the function of the item via a series of buttons.

The National Museum also outlines the story of salt production on Grand Turk. Between 1678 and 1964 salt was the number one export of Grand Turk and the salt pans that produced the salt can still be seen in the centre of Cockburn Town. In 1907, there were 230 acres of salt pans on Grand Turk and each acre produced 4,000 bushels of salt. One bushel contains between 75-80 pounds of salt. The role that Grand Turk played in the historic flight of John Glenn in Friendship 7 is also well documented – after splashing down Glenn first stepped ashore on Grand Turk. There’s also a collection of messages in bottles from various parts of the world and a fine model of the ocean topography around the islands, showing how steep the drop-off is into the surrounding trenches. The gift shop has a fine selection of locally produced artistic mementoes of the islands.

Walking around Cockburn Town, there’s an odd assortment of modern buildings, carefully restored older buildings, and houses that will almost certainly be blown over in the next hurricane. Grand Turk was affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the Osprey Beach hotel had some of its beach front destroyed. Two blocks away from the sea, the salt pans host some fish and bird life, with egrets wading in the shallows.

There are some restaurants along Duke Street serving local specialities such as curried goat and peas and rice. Some also serve grits, which I can’t really recommend. I’d always associated this ground-corn foodstuff with the southern USA, but it has percolated over to the Caribbean too. The Sandbar has great views over the sea from its bar stools.

The restaurant at the Osprey Beach produces wonderful food and I can particularly recommend the Crab and Pasta salad eaten at a table with a view over the clear light-blue sea. Two people were swimming in the sea, three were heading off to dive on the 7,000-feet wall, and three more were thinking about sunbathing in the early afternoon. Four yachts bobbed on the waves just offshore. Grand Turk doesn’t have many visitors and so makes an ideal destination for those who like a quiet time under the sun with the Caribbean for company.

From Scottish Highlands, Caribbean Islands, and more

Lal Kach festival in Bangladesh – in pictures

During the Hindu Lal Kach festival in Dhaka, men and boys cover themselves in body paint and take part in processions through their local neighbourhoods wielding swords to ward off evil and welcome the Bengali new year 1424

HASTE – Lady of the Lake

Amidst reports of a young lady being constantly immersed in water and thrusting a pointed sword into the air in a vain attempt to save herself, I head to the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury in 421 A.D.

I am walking by a small lake when I see a young woman standing up in the water and watching me.

“Hello,” I said, “is your name Vivian, the Lady of the Lake?”

“It is,” she said, accompanied by some celestial music that began to entrance me, “are you Merlin?”

“No,” I said trying hard to resist her charms.

“Are you Arthur, because if you are then I have something for you, something hard and pointed and extremely strong.”

“I am not Arthur, either,” I said almost completely overcome by her beauty.

“Oh, then just who are you?” she asked. The music stopped. The spell was broken.

“I am Brian Snell, from the Health and Safety Time Executive.”

“Well, Sir Brian of the Haste, how can I help you?”

“I have a report of a young lady standing in water all the time. I presume that is you, so who is your employer? I should speak to them about your working conditions as you shouldn’t be standing in water wearing a revealing dress all the time. You will catch your death of cold.”

“I am self-employed and this is my home, I am used to the conditions I find myself in. You see this dress – it’s a special kind of samite a luxurious and heavy silk fabric of a twill-type weave, including gold and silver thread. It’s also waterproof and so I don’t really feel the cold.”

“Well that’s as maybe, but you are still in contravention of the law regarding the wearing of appropriate clothing when working in water. You should be wearing a diving suit or some other rubber suit that prevents you catching cold. I shall have to issue you with an order to comply with the regulations within seven working days or you will have to pay a fine.”

“I am not wearing a diving suit, although I suppose I could wear it under my dress, and just have my head sticking out of the water, because it would not look sexy and alluring to either Merlin or Arthur when they come by, if I was wearing a dark rubber suit.”

“Are they due to come by in the near future?”

“Merlin is already overdue and I was hoping Arthur would have dropped by as he will need his sword Excalibur to show his leadership qualities.”

“I just passed a young man who was trying to pull a sword out of a stone.”

“Where was this?”

“A few minutes ago, just the other side of that hill where I parked my vehicle.”

“Oh, that means he will be here soon, when he finds out that sword is just a fake – it’s a sword handle glued into place.”

“Whereas your sword is real?”

“It is – look I will show you – here it is.”

“Whoa, you could have someone’s eye out – do you have a license for that? It’s a lethal weapon and should be kept in a locked cabinet. Where do you keep it?”

“Just here under the water – in a hole in the lake bed.”

“What would happen if someone stole it?”

“They wouldn’t be able to – it has magical powers and can only be used by the once and future king, if you see what I mean.”

“What happens if someone, who isn’t the once and future king, tried to use it?”

“It would become incredibly heavy and they would not be able to lift it from its resting place.”

“That’s by the by. I will still issue you with another order R445-9822 to obtain a special license for the sword within 7 working days, otherwise the weapon will be confiscated by my colleague who will be conducting a further inspection in the next two weeks. I will attach both the orders to the end of the sword.”

“Thank you, Sir Brian of the Haste, but I sense the sword will not be here in seven working days, as I believe Arthur, the once and future king, is on his way.”

The music of the spheres started again and a figure, wringing his right hand as though he’d injured his wrist, came into sight. I sensed it was time to vacate the scene, although I was still worried Vivian would catch a chill if she continued to wear just a dress in the cold waters of the lake.

From the book Haste

Macedonia

Travelling into Skopje, from Alexander the Great airport, I was expecting to see refugees walking along the road heading for Serbia. I was told that people were no longer allowed to walk on the roads and along the train tracks as there had been too many accidents in the preceding months. Now, the refugees were bused from the Greek border to the Serbian border and weren’t allowed to spend more than three days in Macedonia otherwise they would be returned to their point of entry and thrown out of the country.

 

Macedonia was one of the republics that comprised the former Yugoslavia. However, since the breakup of that country, Macedonia has struggled to find an identity. This is largely because Macedonia was forced to join the United Nations under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) because of Greek objections to the use of the name Macedonia. The ancient kingdom of Macedon, ruled over by Philip II and then Alexander the Great, covered the area around Ohrid in modern day FYROM, some of south-west Bulgaria, and most of northern Greece including Thessaloniki. Greeks living in this area of Greece refer to themselves as Macedonian and aren’t related ethnically to the modern day Slav people living in FYROM.  

 

This dispute is still going on and needs international arbitration. Greece believes FYROM has tried to appropriate Alexander the Great from them, even though Alexander was undisputedly born in Pella in modern day Greece. Greece has also blocked FYROM’s EU membership application, though it is thought Bulgaria would block such an application if Greece didn’t. When I heard this, it seemed as though FYROM could soon become alienated in their own backyard and possibly look to Turkey for friendly relations. I started to feel sorry for the country I was visiting, which I shall now refer to as Macedonia. I continued to feel sorry for Macedonia for the rest of my visit.

 

Apparently the brand new Skopje bypass was closed because a French film company was filming an action sequence on this road. The bypass was closed for three weeks in total. The local drivers hadn’t had a chance to use the road yet. As a result we took a convoluted route into the city and I was dropped off at my hotel. It didn’t look too promising from my window. There was a lot of traffic and many blocks of flats. Looking at the map, I was relieved to see the city centre and the old town were in a different direction, a direction I immediately headed in.  

 

After two hundred yards I found the Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid, the largest house of worship of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Construction of this Orthodox Cathedral began in 1972 and the consecration took place on 12th August 1990, the 1150th anniversary of the birth of St. Clement of Ohrid. This church seems to be composed of only domes and arches and from a distance appears like a giant, bald spider.

 

Five hundred yards further on things started to get interesting. I saw a large equestrian statue on top of an enormous plinth; sure enough it was Alexander the Great riding Bucephalus and striking a dramatic pose. When this statue was raised the Greeks were upset because they believed the Macedonians were making an unfair claim on Macedonia being the birthplace of Alexander. A strongly worded note from Athens to Skopje outlined the reasons for the Greek displeasure. Underneath rider and horse, a co-ordinated display of leaping water caught my attention. The word fountain doesn’t come close to describing the choreography of the jets as they played in tune with the classical music emanating from loudspeakers attached to nearby lamp standards. The music was Johann Strauss waltzes and extracts from Wagnerian operas such as “Ride of the Valkyries”.

 

On a street running from the square, there was an Arc de Triomphe, which was completed in 2014. Called the ‘Porta Macedonia’, the 21-metre high arch symbolises the triumph of a nation that had won its independence 21 years previously. This arch cost 4.4 million Euros and both this arch and the Alexander the Great monument were part of a 200 million Euro construction project to build monuments and neoclassical buildings in the Macedonian capital; the cost of the project has almost tripled, but at least it is now almost complete and the visitor and their camera can reap the benefits, although the locals regard the new buildings as a colossal waste of money.

 

The oldest structure in this area is the Kameni Most, or Stone Bridge, spanning the river and taking visitors to Carsija, the old town of Skopje. Just as I was about to walk across, I noticed a statue of someone about to jump into the river and a pair of legs sticking out of the river. Further along the bank was a sailing ship made from concrete blocks and serving as a restaurant. I walked past the ship and crossed another, modern bridge imitating the Charles Bridge in Prague, although the statues of the famous Macedonians were a lot smaller and closer together than their Prague counterparts. This bridge landed me at the main entrance of the brand new Museum of Archaeology, but I resisted the temptation to visit the 6000 artifacts from prehistory to the Middle Ages, found on three floors, as the weather was good and I wanted to visit Carsija.

 

The beautiful Macedonian flag was flying from most of the buildings in this area. This flag depicts a stylised yellow sun on a red field, with eight broadening rays extending from the centre to the edge. This was the second attempt at a new flag by the newly independent Macedonia. Their first attempt had also depicted a stylised yellow sun centred on a red field, though this design had eight main and eight secondary rays emanating from the sun, all tapering to a point. Like me, you may think the flags have similar styles. Well, the difference is that the sun and rays on the first flag were actually an ancient symbol, known as the Vergina Sun, named after the Greek town where the symbol had been discovered in archaeological excavations. Hence, the Greeks regarded the Vergina Sun as a symbol of continuity between ancient Macedon and modern Greece and so objected to the symbol’s use on the Macedonian flag. They felt so strongly about this that it was decided to impose an economic blockade on their new neighbour until the design of the Macedonian flag was altered to the Greeks’ liking. After more than a year, to end the blockade, Macedonia decided to introduce a second flag, which was the one I saw fluttering in the breeze around Skopje, but in few other places (and that’s another story). The fledgling country of Macedonia couldn’t even have the flag it wanted.

 

There were more grand water features on my way to Carsija. One denoting the role of women in society and another depicting Philip II of Macedon. The official title of the latter piece is “Warrior with accompanying elements”, a vague description designed to avoid upsetting Greece. This vagueness didn’t work, of course. The unveiling of the Philip statue in 2012 was even planned to happen one day after a NATO meeting where Macedonia’s application to join this organisation was under consideration. The application was blocked and you can probably guess which country blocked it.

 

Carsija is a pedestrianised area of old stone-paved streets with many coffee houses, souvenir shops, restaurants, tour operators offering cheap flights to many Turkish resorts, shoe shops, and tailors. Carsija was clean and litter-free. Browsing in the shops was expected and there was absolutely no pressure to buy any item you took an interest in.

 

I visited the Sveti Spas church, partially built underground around the turn of the 18th Century, because the Turks wouldn’t allow churches to be taller than mosques. Located just outside the church is the tomb of Goce Delcev, Macedonia’s national hero, killed by the Turks in 1903. I walked up the hill to the Mustafa Pasa Mosque, built in 1492, with its gardens and fountain for washing hands and feet. On the other side of the road and through a park was the entrance to the Kale Fortress, whose ramparts provide a great view over Skopje and of the surrounding hills.

 

I could see the 66-metre high Millennium Cross built on the highest point of the Vodno mountain. Construction of the cross began in 2002 and was funded by the Macedonian Orthodox Church, by the Macedonian government and by private contributions from all points of the Macedonian diaspora. A lift was installed in the cross during 2008 and in 2011 a cable-car system, three and a half kilometres long, was built to whisk visitors to the top of the mountain from the lower slopes. At night the cross shines down over the city. Some people believe the cross was chiefly built to upset the Albanians, but I am sure no one will ever admit that.

 

I decided to eat at the London Cafe with its extensive menu and long list of local beers. An interesting feature of the menu, which I have never seen anywhere else, was that next to the list of ingredients for each dish was another list of all the allergens that would be triggered if you ate this meal. If dairy was included in the meal then dairy was included in the list of allergens. Celery was included in the list of allergens. I had never heard of this before. Celery allergies are apparently a serious problem in certain Western European countries and the cafe was being careful in informing tourists of the presence of celery, or celeriac, in their meals. Gluten-free meals were also available.

 

In the main square the fountain next to the Alexander the Great statue was now coming into its own as night fell. There were sixty small holes in the main square, six rows of ten (check this!!) out of which water would pour. Each hole contained a light that could switch colour. The water could either shoot out vertically, to a height of about six feet, or at an angle of about 45 degrees, so that it appeared to be jumping into another hole close by. This display of playing streams of water was choreographed to the accompanying music. The jets would play at the same height and then gradually decrease from one end to the other in a line, so one jet at the end of a line would have completely disappeared whilst the jet at the other end was still playing to a height of four feet. All the time the colours in each of the lines was changing. This fountain drew a large crowd, some of whom thought they could run through the fountain without getting wet. They were wrong.

 

I looked up and saw the Millennium Cross shining in the darkness behind the Alexander the Great statue. Illuminated by a spotlight, a Macedonian flag fluttered on the top of a hotel. I looked at the playing waters in front of me and realised that this fountain hadn’t upset any of Macedonia’s neighbouring countries, a not inconsiderable feat for this new country, which is trying to make its way in the world and, at the moment, is being thwarted by the overly sensitive natures of the surrounding countries.

From the book: Travels through History: The Balkans