Author Elizabeth Gowing followed in the 100-year-old footsteps of an intrepid British woman and discovered a part of the Balkans where time has stood still
In 2006, Elizabeth Gowing moved to Kosovo and fell in love with the country. Dividing her time between there and London, she felt an identity crisis. Through archives and museum collections in Britain she discovered the story of Edith Durham, a stout Edwardian English woman who travelled in her tam o'shanter across the Accursed Mountains into Kosovo.
In her latest book, Edith and I, Elizabeth retraces Edith's steps in Kosovo and learns from her what she should do with her life. She tells Peter Moore how Edith Durham revealed to her a whole new side to the country she now calls home.
How did you first learn about Edith Durham?
When I first came to Kosovo, seven years ago, people kept mentioning this British woman, Edith Durham, who had been here 100 years earlier and kept assuming that I’d heard of her. I hadn't. And neither, it turns out, have most people in the UK.
But in Kosovo and in Albania, Edith Durham is really very famous. There are schools named after her and roads named after her. She was the first woman on a Republic of Kosovo stamp. They call her the “Queen of the Mountain People”.
So there was this sense of someone coming before me. She was interested in a lot of the same things that I’m interested in. We both came as amateurs. She didn’t have any background in anthropology and nor do I.
I was working in the Ethnological Museum in Pristina as a volunteer and she was drawing pictures and writing about what she saw. She later became the vice president of the Royal Anthropological Society and quite a respected anthropologist. So it was quite inspiring to have someone who just turned up as a random traveller who then fell in love so deeply and got taken so much to the heart of this very unknown land.
Did you feel an affinity with Edith?
Edith first travelled when she was 37, which was the age I was when I was researching her, so it felt like we were at parallel stages in our lives. But unlike me, she was this unmarried, older daughter who was looking after her sick mother in Hampstead. And then she had a nervous breakdown and then, rather wonderfully, the doctor prescribed travel as her medicine. "It doesn’t matter where you go," he said. " You just need to get away as far as you can get."
So that’s what took her away, initially on a cruise down the Dalmatian Coast, where she stopped off in Montenegro. She came back from that and made a deal with her mother that she would look after her for ten months of the year in exchange for two months where she could go back to the Balkans and continue her explorations.
You say she became regarded as the "Queen of the Mountains". Did she head up into the Accursed Mountains?
Yes. She was more in Albania than Kosovo. But obviously, it was her travels around Kosovo that I focussed on and found inspiring. But she actually lived in the Accursed Mountains for a time, after her mother died, and her writings are mainly about the mountains and the mountain people.
You followed in her footsteps. Did you find there had been massive changes since the times she wrote about or is it pretty much as she found it?
It was quite interesting, actually. There were obviously some changes, but many things had stayed the same. Some were unexpected. For example, she was there in the first decades of the 20th century and we tend to forget that it was a very militarised area in those days too.
Kosovo is known to us now because of its war and the international peace keeping mission. But it was the same in 1908. Edith described all of these Turkish soldiers who were around keeping the peace when there was restlessness among the Ottoman Empire. So it’s quite interesting that we have this vision of the Balkans having suddenly become a war zone in the 90s, but actually, when she was there too there was the same sort of tensions, an occupying power and lots of soldiers around.
Things like that were quite interesting. When I was bumping into the NATO force soldiers in Peja and she was describing bumping into Turkish soldiers keeping the peace in the same place, 100 years before.
What were the highlights of the trip for you?
The people. And it was for Edith too. It’s always the interactions with families, when people invite you into their homes and the relationships that you build, those are the things that really stay with you. And Edith would have said the same thing. That hospitality just gives you inspiration as a human being, to go around the country, where people are showing their best side so energetically.
Since you moved to Kosovo, you’ve been involved with the Ethnographic Museum. You’ve also helped set up an organisation encouraging homestays. Can you tell us a bit about your various projects?
I really just started out as a volunteer, but some of those things have taken off and got bigger and bigger. In terms of promoting Kosovo as a tourist destination, I’m fed up with people only having heard of it because of the war. That was 14 years ago now. When I kept discovering these beautiful places that have nothing to do with the war, these lovely Serbian monasteries, the mountain villages, the traditional crafts, I wanted to promote those.
So I’ve done what I can, just as an individual, through my website, through putting travellers in touch with people and places. There isn’t much tourism in Kosovo, so people are grateful for any bit of information. And through my first book, Travels in Blood and Honey, as well.
Then, four years ago, I set up an NGO. I formerly registered a charity in Kosovo. Not with any particular aim. There were just various things I was doing that I needed money for and people were starting to give me money and I thought, rather than keep it in an envelope near the bed, it would be better to have something more transparent.
If someone asked you what to do in Kosovo, what would you recommend they see and do?
Definitely the Ethnological Museum! It was my starting point and I think it’s a great starting point. I think people are often put off by the idea of an ethnological museum that’s going to be all fusty rugs and pots. And actually, it’s much more vibrant and set in a fantastic old building. I also love that it’s organised around themes. There’s the Room of Birth and the Room of Death. I think that’s a very creative approach to ethnography.
Beyond that, especially if somebody has only got a short time, I would say get out of Pristina and get into the villages as much as possible. That’s where life is more different from England, that’s where you’ll get the best hospitality, and the countryside around Kosovo is very beautiful.
Kosovo also has three UNESCO world heritage site monasteries, so I would definitely say visit one of those. And they’re all very different actually, different styles, so you could visit all of them.
Then there are these various homestay initiatives, which I think is the best way to meet the locals. Whether that’s up in Rugova, or in the wine-growing district in Rahovec, or up by the old castle in Nobogrado. There are also some treehouses that have just started up this year offering accommodation. I haven’t been to see them yet, but I think it sounds brilliant.
Something that is somewhere between hotels and homestays, there a few Kullas, old stone buildings, that have been converted into guest house hotels. That’s an experience you can’t get anywhere else in the world, very special.
Your first book, Travels in Blood and Honey, featured Kosovan recipes. Is there any particular dish people should try when they visit to Kosovo?
Definitely the fruit and vegetables. They are wonderful and very fresh. And the honey, of course.
The only really trademark Albanian dish, which is unique to Kosovo and northern Albania, is fli. It’s a layered pancake, served in a huge round tray, cooked traditionally outside over a couple of hours. The process of cooking fli is a performance in itself. It’s delicious and can be eaten with honey or fresh cheese, tomatoes and so on.
We tell any visitors we have that they can’t leave Kosovo until they try fli and go to a monastery.
What’s next? Have you got any other adventures planned?
One thing I’ve become increasingly interested in is the Albanian communities that are outside of Kosovo and Albania. There are communities all over the world, not just from the recent war, but going back to the 14th Century when the Ottomans came to Kosovo. I’ve already been to the Arbëreshë community in Italy who are the Albanians who have been living in Italy for 700 years.
And there is a community in Ukraine. There are three Ukrainian villages that still speak Albanian from the 14th century. There are Albanians in Syria and Argentina and China and obviously in place like the US and UK where people have gone as refugees. Not necessarily in the last 20 years, but in the last 100 years.
I’m hoping to find a publisher for a book tentatively titled, Chasing the Eagle, with the idea being to visit all these diaspora communities spread across the world and see how Albanians have taken over the world, really, in quiet ways that people don’t realise.