THE BALKANS IN THE 1930's
"This was a time of great hardship in the Balkans, and Bulgaria in particular . Great changes were afoot. To the West, Europe was descending into authoritarianism, to the North the Russian bear was stirring. The 1930’s would see many dispossessed from their lands and even now, ninety years on, some of the remoter regions are only just emerging from subsistence farming and sharing in some qualified EU prosperity...".
So, it is interesting that, on December 9th 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor  set out by Dutch steamer from London's Tower Bridge Wharf to the Hook of Holland. His journey took him through Europe, across the Balkans, and finally to Constantinople.
Aged just 18 years and 10 months, he carried no camera, just a rucksack, a diary, his sketchbook and other bare necessities.
All this is well known to his legions of admirers, and his epic walk, now so well documented in his three books, has become a classic of the genre [2, 3, 4]. Interestingly, his travels have fairly recently been retraced .
But what is not well known, and in fact was completely unknown to us till late 2013...
No diaries appear to have been kept. However, amateur maps of their itineries were drawn, which have just survived as three of the fragile 3 inch by 3 inch glass lantern slides (see below).
...is that a small group of friends, at least three of whom were alpine plant enthusiasts, set off from Newhaven to Dieppe by the Channel Ferry in June 1929, and then again several times throughout the 1930's. First reaching Trieste via Lakes Como & Orta by train and car, and then from Ragusa by foot and horse, and traversing similar routes across the Balkans.
These were presumably to illustrate subsequent talks they gave about at least three of their plant hunting expeditions.
But, most important of all, this party did carry a camera, used by a most diligent photographer with an evident wish to record everything he saw.
By the merest thread his photographic records have survived.
One sees immediately from the images, that this was a time of great hardship in the Balkans, and Bulgaria in particular . Great changes were afoot. To the West, Europe was descending into authoritarianism, to the North the Russian bear was stirring. The 1930’s would see many dispossessed from their lands and even now, ninety years on, some of the remoter regions are only just emerging from subsistence farming and sharing in some qualified EU prosperity. A glimpse of this was sympathetically, yet unknowingly, recorded. There is, surprisingly, little by way of comparable material. Many of the 244 images coincide exactly with the places subsequently described by Leigh Fermor. These will be noted in the text where appropriate. What is fascinating is to compare “then” with “now”, especially through the new powers of the Internet, and by visiting the scenes in question. After almost a century, we can see areas where little has changed; other views are almost unrecognizable. Some, never recorded before or since.
This site is about our researches into these early records, their travels, their motivation (as well as ours), who the photographer was, and about acknowledging them and their considerable achievement. Not least, about our attempt to rescue for posterity a significant contribution to the cultural heritage of the Balkans.
Just one view, below left, shows what we mean. We show their record of Zabljak in Montenegro in 1929. Now the scene is one of utter transformation.
Archive Image file ref: 01-04.
An absolutely key point is as follows.
These were Alpine Plant enthusiasts, motivated to record unknown species. By the nineteen-thirties alpine plants were very well documented...only the remotest mountainous areas offering any hope of new discoveries. So this was where our party headed. Equipment was provided by Kew Gardens and we have even managed to locate the original 1930's Kew correspondence on their finds.
We have also chosen to write it as part detective story, part factual narrative* and for the internet age. This is for the reason that it has taken us many years and much patience, to unravel the mystery of exactly who our party was and what they were about. What appeared to us in 2005 as abandoned dust covered detritus, eventually yielded a remarkable story of danger and adventure. The climax came for us late in the day. We were almost at the point of abandoning the project, when Gregor Murbach our researcher colleague , spotted, again by chance, that just one of the minor images had previously seen the light of day. It had appeared sixty-four years earlier in a relatively obscure book on plant hunting . This single image from the archive became the vital missing clue.
Other parts of our story remain a mystery to this day. This too will emerge as the narrative unfolds. So we hope, by giving wider publicity on the internet, both in English and Bulgarian, that further people will come forward and help fill in missing parts of the jigsaw. Many have done so already. They, in turn, will be acknowledged for their contribution.
Suffice it to say that, by the merest thread, a very substantial archive of photographic material from these Balkan expeditions in the 1930’s now survives for posterity, and also as an unexpected gift, perhaps something of ourselves.
This is our story of how it was found, subsequently unravelled and what it contained.
The work reported here yielded unexpected friendship and bore much fruit. In fact, rescuing achievement through the prism of other men’s lives cast its own gentle light on long forgotten corners of the mind.
Chance and necessity came together…..and unexpectedly combined to fashion their own peculiar chemistry. Here was a chance perhaps to weigh one’s own life on an altogether gentler balance. Perhaps also, the necessity for quieter consolations. Just to watch the changing colours of the seasons as the moving finger writes.
One chance to tell how it was almost a century ago, in a remote and then largely forgotten and unexplored corner of the European landscape.
It is enough.
. “Patrick Leigh Fermor. An Adventure”. pp 38 et seq. Artemis Cooper. John Murray. London. 2012.
. “A Time of Gifts”. Patrick Leigh Fermor. John Murray. London. 1977.
. “Between the Woods and the Water”. Patrick Leigh Fermor. John Murray. London. 1986.
. “The Broken Road. From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos”. Patrick Leigh Fermor. John Murray. London. 2013.
. “Walking the Woods and the Water”. Nick Hunt. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. 2014.
. “Bulgaria: Farm Land without a Farmhouse”. National Geographic Magazine. August 1932. 185-218.
. “Plant Hunting in Europe”. Hugh Roubiliac Roger-Smith. Rush & Warwick. Bedford. 1950.
* Readers interested in this narrative form are recommended “Quest for Corvo”. A J A Symonds. 1934. Cassell.
For a more complete Bibliography & References, click here...
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