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‘To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace’ by Kapka Kassabova ****

Before the virus completely took over 2020, and made it almost impossible to travel without a two-week quarantine, my boyfriend and I had planned a trip to North Macedonia. We were intending to end our holiday with a wild swim at Lake Ohrid, somewhere we have wanted to visit for years. We are hoping that we will be able to embark on this trip at some point during 2021, but for now, I reached for the closest thing I could find – Kapka Kassabova’s non-fiction title To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace.

The Balkans is an area which I have travelled in relatively extensively already, but I find it fascinating to see regions which I love – as well as those which I have yet to visit – through the eyes of someone who is somehow connected to the physical place. Kassabova’s maternal grandmother grew up in the town of Ohrid, beside the lake, which lies ‘within the mountainous borderlands of North Macedonia, Albania, and Greece’. Lake Ohrid, and also Lake Prespa, which can be found relatively nearby, are located in ‘one of Eurasia’s most historically diverse areas’, and are the two oldest lakes in Europe. Ohrid and Prespa are joined by an underground river, and span these aforementioned borders.

‘By exploring on water and land the stories of poets, fishermen, and caretakers, misfits, rulers, and inheritors of war and exile,’ declares the blurb, ‘Kassabova uncovers the human history shaped by the lakes.’ Alongside her personal journey to reach her family’s roots, the author makes ‘a deeper enquiry into how geography and politics imprint themselves upon families and nations.’

For Kassabova, this region, which has housed ‘generations of my predecessors… is a realm of high altitudes and mesmeric depths, eagles and vineyards, orchards and old civilisations, a land tattooed with untold histories.’ The focus of To the Lake, as outlined in the introduction, is as follows: ‘Geography shapes history – we generally accept this as a fact. But we don’t often explore how families digest big historo-geographies, how these sculpt our inner landscape, and how we as individuals continue to influence the course of history in invisible but significant ways – because the local is inseparable from the global. I went to the Lakes to seek an understanding of such forces.’

The first chapter of To the Lake opens with Kassabova’s recollections of her maternal grandmother’s death. Her descriptions of her grandmother, Anastassia, which she goes on to reveal piece by piece, are so vibrant: ‘Surrounded by the mediocrity, conformity and mendacity that a totalitarian system thrives on, Anastassia lived with zest, speaking her mind in a society where half the population didn’t have a mind and the other half were careful to keep it to themselves.’ Her descriptions of her family particularly really stand out; she describes her mother thus, for example: ‘She always felt to me precariously attuned to life, as if born rootless, as if needing an external force to earth her.’

Some of Kassabova’s writing is undoubtedly beautiful – for instance, when she writes ‘Ohrid made you feel the weight of time, even on a peaceful evening like this, with only the screech of cicadas and the shuffle of old women in slippers’ – but there are some quite abrupt sentences and sections to be found within To the Lake. It does not feel entirely consistent at times, and Kassabova does have a tendency to jump from quite an involved history of the area to a conversation with someone who lives there, and often back again, without any delineation. This added a disjointed feel to the whole. However, the value and interest of the information which she presents was thankfully too strong for this to put me off as a reader.

To the Lake is certainly thorough; it was not a book which I felt able to read from cover to cover in one go, as it is so intricate – both in terms of the history and geography of the region, and of Kassabova’s own family. There is a great deal within the book which explores national divides throughout the lake region, as well as the religions which are practiced. Kassabova seems to focus far more upon the differences of the people whom she meets, than their similarities. There are some brief nods to fascinating Slavic folktales along the way, which I wish had been elaborated upon. Regardless, To the Lake is an important book, and an ultimately satisfying one, which I would highly recommend.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Virago Book of Women Travellers’, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O’Connor ****

9781860492129‘Some of the extraordinary women whose writings are including in this collection are observers of the world in which they wander; their prose rich in description, remarkable in detail. Mary McCarthy conveys the vitality of Florence while Willa Cather’s essay on Lavandou foreshadows her descriptions of the French countryside in later novels. Others are more active participants in the culture they are visiting, such as Leila Philip, as she harvests rice with chiding Japanese women, or Emily Carr, as she wins the respect and trust of the female chieftain of an Indian village in Northern Canada. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way. Features writing from Gertrude Bell, Edith Wharton, Isabella Bird, Kate O’Brien, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and many others.’

I am an enormous fan of Virago, as anyone who knows even a little of my reading habits can probably discern.  To my delight, I spotted The Virago Book of Women Travellers online at a ridiculously low price, and decided to treat myself (another of my favourite things in life is travelling, after all!).  I had originally intended to read it over the Christmas holidays, but true to form at such busy times, I did not really get a chance to do so.  I thus picked it up in February, just before a wonderful trip to The Netherlands.

The selection of extracts here is extensive and varied, and encompasses an incredible scope of geographical locations.  Societally and historically it is most interesting, and some extracts – Beryl Markham’s about elephant hunting, for instance – are very of their time (thankfully so, in this case!).  Some of my favourite authors were collected here – Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, as well as Rose Macaulay.  As ever with such collections, there were several entries which I did not quite enjoy as much as the rest, but each was undoubtedly fascinating in its own way.  I very much enjoyed the ‘can do’ attitude which every single one of the writers had, regardless of circumstance or destination, and very much liked the way in which this singular thread bound all of them together.  The chronological ordering made for a splendid reading experience.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a marvellous volume in which to dip here and there, to reconnect with old favourites, and to discover new writers to find, and new women to admire.  I adore the idea of thematic travelogues, and there is something really rather special and inspiring about this one.  It has brought some marvellous women, both in terms of personality and writing ablity, to my attention, and I can only conclude this review by saying that it is a joy for any women traveller to read.

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‘Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence’ by Nick Hunt ****

Weather fascinates me, and therefore when I spotted Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence in Fopp, I did not hesitate before picking up a copy.  This non-fiction work was shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards in 2018, and chosen as a book of the year by The Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph, and The Spectator respectively.  Amy Liptrot observes that the book is ‘packed with wonder’, and Jan Morris concurs, writing that it is ‘full to the brim with learning, entertainment, description, scientific fact and conjectural fiction.  It is travel writing in excelsis.’

9781473665750In Where the Wild Winds Are, Hunt sets out to follow four of Europe’s prevalent named winds.  He begins in Cumbria with the Helm, the only named wind in Britain, before travelling to Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy to find the Bora which blows through all three countries, causing havoc for residents.  Hunt then searches for the ‘snow-eating’ Foehn in Switzerland’s alpine valleys, and the Mistral in the South of France, which ‘animated and tormented Vincent Van Gogh.’  Soon, Hunt ‘finds himself borne along by the very forces he is pursuing, through rain, blizzards, howling gales, and back through time itself, for where the wild winds are, there are also myths and legends, history and hearsay, sacrifice and superstition…’.

In his prologue, which is entitled ‘Blown Away’, Hunt reflects on his experience of the Great Storm which hit Britain in 1987.  Just a child at the time, he remembers how he was almost swept away by a gust of wind.  At this point, his obsession with one of our most unpredictable types of weather began.  Although he goes on to say that he did not take up a career in meteorology, or anything of the sort, what he did become ‘was someone with an urge to travel, and especially to travel by walking, which allows you to follow paths not dictated by road or rail, paths not marked on any map, or to follow no path at all; to wander and to wonder as freely as your feet can take you.  But every journey has a logic, even if it’s an invisible one.  All travelling, I came to understand, is an act of following something: whether a coastline, an ancient migration, a trade route, a border or someone else’s footsteps.’

Hunt then recollects the moment at which he came across a map of Europe’s winds, which linked regions in a way he had not previously considered.  He writes: ‘The fact that these invisible powers had names, rather than simply compass directions that described where they were from, gave them a sense of majesty, even of personality.  They sounded like characters I could meet.  These swooping, plunging arrows suggested routes I might follow, trails that had not been walked before.  As soon as I saw that map I knew: I would follow the winds.’  Thus, his quest to follow four winds – sometimes successfully, and sometimes not so – ensued.

Hunt chose to locate four winds as ‘a nod to the proverbial four winds and the four points of the compass.’  The book has consequently been split into four corresponding sections, each of which contains a map of his route.  He also lets us, the readers, know about the daunting elements of the task which he set himself: ‘It was clear that to follow the wind meant following uncertainty, allowing myself to be carried along by the unknown and the informed, the guessed-at and the half-imagined.  Chasing the invisible was in many ways a quixotic quest, which appealed to my romantic side…’.

Hunt’s writing oscillates between matter-of-fact and descriptive.  When in Croatia, he writes, for instance: ‘After climbing for an hour I reached a layer of dense cloud, which brought about the sensation of entering a different realm.  I waded upward through submarine light, condensation slapping on the wet forest floor like rain, with the muscular trunks of beech trees looming through saturated air.  Deciduous trees gave way to pines.  Here and there blobs of snow lay like stranded jellyfish.’  Of one of the winds which he does locate, he comments: ‘It was in my ears, but it wasn’t blowing; nor was it moaning, whistling, howling, or any of the other words usually used to capture wind.  It was less a sound than a sensation, a nameless energetic thing that erased the line between hearing and feeling; for the first time in my life, I understood sound as a physical force.  It was in my lungs, under my skin.’

Before picking up Where the Wild Winds Are, I had not encountered a travel book like it.  Although it took a little while to really get into, I found myself fascinated by the mixture of elements which Hunt has woven in, from the history of forecasting the weather and the tools which the process entailed, to the quirky and eccentric characters whom he met along the way.  There is a definite human perspective which has been considered, strengthened because Hunt is always keen to ask those he meets how they feel about the wind, and how it affects their day to day lives.

Where the Wild Winds Are is not as focused upon the weather as I expected it would be.  Whilst Hunt’s aim is to follow the four named winds, he does so in a manner which is largely unscientific.  He discusses many things as he goes about his travels, from the fall of Yugoslavia and historic battles in Britain, to immigration, and its perceptions.  The title, too, is sometimes a little misleading.  Whilst Hunt does make some of his journeys on foot, he often relies on public transport to get him quickly from one place to another if rumours of the wind in question being in a particular location have reached him.

Where the Wild Winds Are is both an interesting read and a gentle one.  I enjoyed Hunt’s prose, which is often quite evocative.  The author does go off on tangents from time to time, which I did not find overly compelling, but on the whole, the book is accessible and relatively easy to get into.  I would recommend it if you enjoy travel writing and are looking for something a little different to sample.

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The Book Trail: Travel Writing

I am beginning this edition of the Book Trail with a piece of travel writing about selected winds of Europe.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to generate this list.

1. Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to 33814761Provence by Nick Hunt
‘As a six-year-old child, Nick Hunt was almost carried away in a gust from the Great Storm of 1987. Almost thirty years later he set off in search of the legendary winds of Europe; from the Helm, to the Bora, the Foehn and the Mistral.  Where the Wild Winds Are is Nick Hunt’s story of following the wind from the fells of Cumbria to the Alps, the Rhone to the Adriatic coast, to explore how these unseen powers affect the countries and cultures of Europe, and to map a new type of journey across the continent.’

 

76620952. Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story by William Blacker
‘When William Blacker first crossed the snow-bound passes of northern Romania, he stumbled upon an almost medieval world. There, for many years he lived side by side with the country people, a life ruled by the slow cycle of the seasons, far away from the frantic rush of the modern world. In spring as the pear trees blossomed he ploughed with horses, in summer he scythed the hay meadows and in the freezing winters gathered wood by sleigh from the forest. From sheepfolds harried by wolves, to courting expeditions in the snow, he experienced the traditional way of life to the full, and became accepted into a community who treated him as one of their own. But Blacker was also intrigued by the Gypsies, those dark, foot-loose strangers of spell-binding allure who he saw passing through the village. Locals warned him to stay clear but he fell in love and there followed a bitter struggle. Change is now coming to rural Romania, and William Blacker’s adventures will soon be part of its history. From his early carefree days tramping the hills of Transylvania, to the book’s poignant ending, Along the Enchanted Way transports us back to a magical country world most of us thought had vanished long ago.’

 

3. Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk Across Europe by Nicholas Crane 837297
‘Nicholas Crane embarks on a journey on foot through some of the remotest parts of Europe, travelling along the chain of mountains that run from the Atlantic in Spain, to Istanbul in the East. It’s not just a story about travel, but also about the human condition, about growth and fulfilment.’

 

162404814. The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor
‘In the winter of 1933 eighteen-year-old Patrick (“Paddy”) Leigh Fermor set out to walk across Europe, starting in Holland and ending in Constantinople, a trip that took him the better part of a year. Decades later, when he was well over fifty, Leigh Fermor told the story of that life-changing journey in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, two books now celebrated as among the most vivid, absorbing, delightful, and beautifully-written travel books of all time.  The Broken Road is the long and avidly awaited account of the final leg of his youthful adventure that Leigh Fermor promised but was unable to finish before his death in 2011. Assembled from Leigh Fermor’s manuscripts by his prize-winning biographer Artemis Cooper and the travel writer Colin Thubron, this is perhaps the most personal of all Leigh Fermor’s books, catching up with young Paddy in the fall of 1934 and following him through Bulgaria and Rumania to the coast of the Black Sea. Days and nights on the road, spectacular landscapes and uncanny cities, friendships lost and found, leading the high life in Bucharest or camping out with fishermen and shepherds: in the The Broken Road such incidents and escapades are described with all the linguistic bravura, odd and astonishing learning, and overflowing exuberance that Leigh Fermor is famous for, but also with a melancholy awareness of the passage of time, especially when he meditates on the  scarred history of the Balkans or on his troubled relations with his father. The book ends, perfectly, with Paddy’s diary from the winter of 1934, when he had reached Greece, the country he would fall in love with and fight for: across the space of three quarters of century we can still hear the ringing voice of an irrepressible young man embarking on a life of adventure.’

 

5. The Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians by Philip Marsden 1117853
After centuries of prominence as a world power, Armenia has withstood every attempt during the 20th century to destroy it. With a name redolent both of dim antiquity and of a modern world and its tensions, the Armenians founded a civilization and underwent a diaspora that brought many of the great ideas of the East to Western Europe. Today, shrunk to a tenth of its former size and wracked by war with Azerbaijan and by earthquakes, its people still retain one of the world’s most fascinating and misunderstood cultures.’

 

5967786. The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier
‘In 1953, twenty-four-year old Nicolas Bouvier and his artist friend Thierry Vernet set out to make their way overland from their native Geneva to the Khyber Pass. They had money to last them a few months and a Fiat to take them where they were going, but above all they were equipped with the certainty that by hook or by crook they would reach their destination, and that there would be unanticipated adventures, curious companionship, and sudden illumination along the way. They were not disappointed, and neither will be readers of this luminous travel book fashioned from Bouvier’s journals. The two friends support themselves by writing and painting in Istanbul; are spellbound by the brilliance of winter in Tabriz; take a side trip to rebellious Kurdistan; and find ever more ingenious ways to keep their increasingly battered vehicle on the road as they head to Afghanistan. Along the way, they spend wild nights listening to Gypsy musicians, trading poetry with tramps, and entertaining their companions with song and an accordion.’

 

7. Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay 6827029
‘Eliza Fay’s origins are obscure; she was not beautiful, rich, or outlandishly accomplished. Yet the letters she wrote from her 1779 voyage across the globe captivated E. M. Forster, who arranged for their British publication in 1925. The letters have been delighting readers ever since with their truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twists and turns, their earthy humor, and their depiction of an indomitable woman. When the intrepid Mrs. Fay departed from Dover more than two hundred years ago, she embarked on a grueling twelve-month journey through much of Europe, up the Nile, over the deserts of Egypt, and finally across the ocean to India. Along the way her party encountered wars, territorial disputes, brigands, and even imprisonment.  Fay was a contemporary of Jane Austen, but her adventures are worthy of a novel by Daniel Defoe. These letters—unfiltered, forthright, and often hilarious—bring the perils and excitements of an earlier age to life.’

 

4712398. Letters from Russia by Astolphe de Custine
‘The Marquis de Custine’s record of his trip to Russia in 1839 is a brilliantly perceptive, even prophetic, account of one of the world’s most fascinating and troubled countries. It is also a wonderful piece of travel writing. Custine, who met with people in all walks of life, including the Czar himself, offers vivid descriptions of St. Petersburg and Moscow, of life at court and on the street, and of the impoverished Russian countryside. But together with a wealth of sharply delineated incident and detail, Custine’s great work also presents an indelible picture–roundly denounced by both Czarist and Communist regimes–of a country crushed by despotism and “intoxicated with slavery.”‘

 

 

Which of these books have you read?  Do any of them pique your interest?

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