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An english woman discovers the Balkans (the20th century)

Itinerary edited by Rita Nicoli
English language translation by Adriana D'Amato

Durham, whom northern Albanians loved and called ‘the Queen of Melissori’, that is of the mountain dwellers, is not only the first woman who walked in the ‘cursed mountain’, but also a political missionary who tried to spread the principles of Western democracy. During the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and the First World War, Durham constantly and fervently supported the Albanian national cause in several British, German and US periodicals. In her books, her true travelling experience mingles with action and political fight.
Among Albanians, in places totally different from the oppressive city of London, she found a way of life which enabled her to free her emotions. Albanian humor and adaptability inspired her; in her journals, she communicated her love for Albania to Western countries, which did not know anything about this country. The Burden of the Balkans and High Albania are diaries dealing with her experience.


profilo della durham.bmp



After having looked after her mother for years, her doctor recommended her to leave, but during this journey she found her vocation. She therefore decided to go back to the Balkans over and over again in following years and she worked for several aid agencies. Her watercolors capture scenes of life in villages and she collected folkloric and local objects. At the beginning of the 20th century, following her writings, a traveller could find her vivid impressions. Therefore, we propose to follow part of the journey through Albania Edith Durham began in 1904.
At the age of 37, Edith Durham left from Trieste and, following the Dalmatian coast, she arrived at Kotor and then Cetinje, the capital of the principality of Montenegro.



In the south-eastern country, the itinerary also includedOchrida and continued up to the city of Manastir which is currently in the Republic of Macedonia. This city still has the Turkish name it received when it was a small area between the Balkans andMacedonia. Today, it is the second largest city of Macedonia. Around the city there are the ruins of ancient Heraclea Lyncestis, the city founded by Philip II of Macedonia in the 4th century BC, onthe well knownVia Egnatia, a Roman road which goes from Rome to Salonika through southern Italy and Albania. Whoever has time can follow the ancient Via Egnatia, another interesting and attractive itinerary.

Mentioned for the first time in the 10th century, Manastir, or Bitola as Serbs called it, was a great commercial centre during the Ottoman Empire (1382-1913). It was seriously damaged during the First World War, but it managed to keep its Muslim traces. The mosque of the city and Bezistan, the truly Turkish bazar or ancient covered market, represent the ruins of Muslim architecture.

trieste natura



It was two o'clock a m., pitch dark, and freezing hard, when I left Monastir in a large ramshackle carriage, with four horses abreast and a Bulgarian driver, two gendarmes riding ahead as escort, and two Albanians (our assistant at Ochrida and his brother) as travelling companions. The road was frozen into deep ruts, and we were rattled about like dried peas in a pod. As I had had no time to rest since leaving Ochrida, and had been riding all the previous afternoon to make sure my new saddle was all right, I nevertheless dozed till dawn, and dreamed I was on board ship. The pallid sun crawled up, the white fog lifted off the frozen land, and we all got out and walked to thaw our toes.



After leaving Manastir and staying in Resna, the itinerary goes along the western side of Lake Presba, through the National Park.

“[…] the big lake was extraordinarily beautiful in the morning light. Ochrida is magnificent, but Presba is faery-like in its loveliness. My comrades held out hopes of a 'han' and a possible fire, where we should rest and refresh at midday, but we arrived only to find it had  been burnt down during the late insurrection, and a party of Albanian soldiers encamped in the ruins, as lenesome, melancholy, and comfortless as any Bulgarian refugees.

I bought for twopence a very neatly-made wooden spoon, with an ingenious folding handle, from a trooper, who was whiling away the time by carving such from a lump ofboxwood, and producing artistic results with no other tools but a clumsy pocket-knife; for the Albanian is a born arts-and-craftsman, clever-fingered and inventive, with an instinctive sense of design and a power of boldly handling strong colors that rarely fails him.”


prespa parco.jpg



Byzantine churches, caves, the castle of Trajan can be visited and several sports, such as fishing and water sports,climbing and walks in woods can be done. In her journey, Edith Durham saw in front of her the small lake of Malik. The homonymous location is the most important and well known prehistoric centrein Albania and the whole Balkan area. The archaeologicalexcavations, which began in the 60’s and continued till the mid-80’s, highlight the presence of a solid Illyrian culture in the Copper Age.

Later, the author arrived atKorchecity. Here there are well constructed houses, made of stone and red tiles. “Korche was very kind to me. It greeted my plan of riding all through Albania with enthusiasm. The houses I visited were all Albanian; very good houses, too, comfortably and prettily arranged”. Its inhabitants have kept their ancient hospitality and contribute to make the beauty of city appreciated: “Koritza (Korche, Alb.) is a surprising town. It is clean, really clean—the cleanest town I know in the Turkish Empire—with straight, well-paved streets."


Korche city is one of the most important cities in south-eastern Albania. It is an interesting city from an historical and cultural point of view. It has fascinating architecture that dates back to the Ottoman period and it boasts one of the greatest and best known mosques in Albania. The city flourished in the 19th century when it became a very important cultural and political centre. In 1887 the first school for Albanian education was established, whereas the first Albanian educational establishment for girls was established in 1891.

Korca scuola

I was received with very great hospitality at the Albanian girls' school, which is so much 'up-to-date' that I felt as if I had been suddenly dropped back into Europe. It is the only recognised school in all South Albania in which Albanian children can learn to read and write their own language. It uses the special Albanian, and not the Latin alphabet.” Here Durham means that the alphabet used by the linguistic school of Korchetries to represent also graphically particular sounds of Albanian language, namely a phonetic transcription. However, the political situation is always the background of Durham’s journey in the Balkan countries:


 In the lands that are yet Turkish it obscures the heavens and pervades all space. Many wanderings had shown it me from the Servian and Montenegrin points of view. I had seen it at Resna and Ochrida through Exarchist and Patriarchist eyes. I knew what it looked like in the vilayet of Kosovo, and was now to be shown it in a new light. You cannot escape it; if you shut your eyes to it someone will rub your nose in it. I stayed a few pleasant days at Korche.”

In Korche there are other museums and an orthodox cathedral. One of the most interesting places to visit is the National Museum of Medieval Art, established in 1980. This museum is dedicated to a period in Albanian history, which goes from the 5th to the 19th century, and it contains works by the most important Albanian painters: Onufri (the 16th century) and David Selenica (the 18th century) and other sophisticated works by master goldsmiths, silversmiths, engravers and armourers. The most important work is an icon dating back to the 10th century, engraved by master Dhimiter.

Onufri                 voskopoja.jpg

On the left, a picture by Onofri, on the right a fresco by Selenica

Around Korche, another small town has to be visited, that is Voskopoja. It arouses artistic interest and a number of international missions for the repairs of its sophisticated ecclesiastical and pictorial monuments have taken place here. This is the end of the first leg of Edith Durham’s journey, but whoever wants to go beyond these suggested itineraries can follow the suggestionin the fully transcribed text in our section of the library.   


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