The Balkans have for the past few centuries been a source of great fascination for west Europeans. For intrepid travellers from the 18th century at least, this was the furthest extremity of the world that they could reasonably attempt…..The Debated Lands by Philip Hammond (2002) looks at about 500 books written by these travellers - first at the motifs of discord, savagery, backwardness and obfuscation which characterise the 19th century British travel books about the area. “Danubian Principalities; the frontier lands of the Christian and of the Turk” (1854), for example, is written by a British engineer who found himself in the land just south of the Danube in what is now North-East Bulgaria and offers a view just 20 years before Bulgaria was liberated from the “Turkish Yoke”
There then followed a strand of writing in the late 1920s which, as Hammond puts it, “took the romanticisation into deeper territory – with a revolt against western modernity and mass society –
From the end of the First World War until the outbreak of the Second, travellers were finding in this previously depraved corner of Europe…. " a peace, harmony, vivacity and pastoral beauty in utmost contrast to the perceived barrenness of the West, and which produced benefits for those weary of modernity that ranged from personal rejuvenation to outright revelation”.
According to this alternative balkanism, violence had disappeared from the region, savagery became tamed, obfuscation turned to honesty and clarity, and the extreme backwardness that had formerly been the gauge of Balkan shortcoming was now the very measure by which it was extolled. For many travelers, any mystery that did remain around the geographical object became less the marker of a befuddled and dishonest culture than a vital indication of spiritual depth…….”
Meet Bulgaria; RH Markham (1932) (who was Balkans correspondent of The Christian Scientist) may be seen as an example. The link gives you the entire book which paints a charming picture of a rural society – and has a complete chapter on painting.
Undoubtedly the most famous travel writer for this part of the world was Patrick Leigh Fermour (generally known as Paddy) whose trilogy about his walk from the English Channel to Istanbul in 1933 was finished only last year. A Time of Gifts(1977) covered mainly his experience of Nazi Germany; Between the Woods and the Water(1986) of Hungarian aristocratic houses in Transylvania. But, in 2013, after a 25-year gap, we got The Broken Road(2013) dealt mainly with the Bulgarian and Greek sections of his trip. Paddy’s writing is quite exquisite. He led a very full life – a website is devoted to his memory; and a great biography came out quite recently.
Rates of Exchangeby Malcolm Bradbury (1982) follows a British linguistics lecturer, Dr. Angus Petworth, on his first ever visit behind the Iron Curtain, to Slaka.
His arrival, the paranoia of his hosts, the changing moods of his ever-present interpreter and guide, the secret trysts with attractive female novelists, his increasingly desperate attempts to phone home and the fall-off-the-chair-laughing diversion into second-division British diplomatic circles are brilliantly written vignettes that can only be based on real events.
These may or may not of course have happened in Bulgaria – Slaka ultimately borrows a little from every country once behind the Iron Curtain – but anyone who visited before (or even immediately after) 1990′s overthrowal of the communists will immediately recognise much of communist-era Bulgaria in Bradbury’s book.
Especially good are the descriptions of the hotels: dark wood everywhere, omnipresent men in long coats reading newspapers, peroxide-blondes smoking at lobby bars, terrible service and Byzantine bureaucracy.
Imagining the Balkans by Bulgarian anthroplogist Maria Todorova writes that In the approach to the First World War specific countries were embraced by economic and military alliances and some countries acquired what has been called a "pet state" status.
Todorova sums up as the pet state approach to south-east Europe as consisting of “the choosing from amongst the Balkan states a people whose predicaments to abhor, whose history and indigenous leaders to commend, whose political grievances to air, and whose national aspirations to advocate”. In this way Montenegrins, Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians and Albanians were all, at different times, picked out for laudatory comment.