The Balkan region has exerted a special appeal for Anglophone women travel writers keen to get beyond the ‘heart of darkness’ syndrome which has so bedevilled western writing about the region.
When Edith Durham set out one May morning in 1908 from Scutari (nowadays Shkodër) in Albania, there was simply no precedent for a foreign woman wandering alone through the Albanian hills. Edith Durham’s High Albania is a remarkable piece of writing, a sympathetic tale of a journey on foot and horseback into what Durham called “the land of the living past.”
By the time Rebecca West explored Yugoslavia in 1937, there was still a sense of venturing into the unknown — albeit for West with a measure of comfort beyond anything that Durham might have wished for or expected. West arrived in Zagreb in the comfort of a Wagons-Lits sleeping car. Her book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is notable for its historical detail. The author herself declared her intent to “show the past side by side with the present it created.” It is a monumental work — surely one of the best 20th-century travel books, though some of West’s remarks may offend modern pieties.