To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace

Kapka Kassabova

Granta, £14.99

Review by Nick Major

The Balkans is one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated regions of Europe. Politically, it is often stereotyped as a place riven by “ancient hatreds”. The ethnic conflict between states of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s stemmed not from supposed old grievances but from a modern phenomenon.

The term “balkanisation” was coined in 1918; it was the break-up of the region into mutually hostile nation states after World War One that created the ethnic-nationalist problems that arose thereafter.

Geographically, The Balkans have a broader terrain than many people think. The Balkan mountain range that gives the place its name, for example, stretches across Bulgaria. The Balkans are also home to Europe’s two oldest lakes, Ohrid and Prespa, which lie among the Galicia Mountains on the borders of Macedonia, Albania and Greece. Scientific estimates vary, but the lakes could be up to three million years old. Prespa is one of Europe’s most important marine wildlife refuges. They are subject of Kapka Kassabova’s To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace, a travel book that unravels the mysteries of our inner and outer landscapes.

John Muir’s oft-quoted line has become a cliché of travel writing: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” It says something of Kassabova’s originality that for her the inverse is true. The catalyst for her journey was her desire to understand her “maternal family’s existential landscape.” An “unnamed menace” had made “tragic Furies” of her mother and grandmother. Kassabova, fearful that she might be subject to this same oppression, and determined to understand it before it blighted her life, took to the road. But she also wanted to explore wider questions, such as how “big historio-geographies sculpt our inner landscape.”

Why the lakes? Kassabova quotes Thoreau: “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” Also, Kassabova’s grandmother, Anastassia, was born in Ohrid, the main town on the lake. Anastassia moved to Sofia, in Bulgaria, when she was young and became a journalist and radio broadcaster. An uncompromising and colourful woman, she was torn between these two places. For Kassabova, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria, Macedonia was her first taste of the outside world. She subsequently lived in New Zealand and is now resident in the Scottish Highlands.

To the Lake is not the usual tale of self-excavation. Over her last few books, Kassabova has developed an interesting methodology for her non-fiction. She enters a terrain and starts to absorb its character, collecting stories of its people along the way. Her last book, Border, winner of the 2017 Saltire Book of the Year, explored the triple border of Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. During the Cold War, this was a militarized zone where hundreds of people lost their lives trying to escape Communism. The book is a kind of folk history of the border people and an exposition on how borders penetrate our psyches.

In To the Lake, she repeats this feat, with fascinating results. She finds an explanation for her internal strife, one that is reliant on knowledge of the lake folk. In a sense, she re-maps the region, unveiling the polyphonic history of its people, from Illyrian tribes to modern day Sufis. She also follows the paths of other travellers, like Rebecca West and Edward Lear. In Lear’s day, Ohrid was called the “Balkan Jerusalem”, thought to have 365 churches on its shores. The town is still a bustling melting pot, with a classical history that runs through it, quite literally: the Roman Egnatian way passes to the north.

Anyone who is seeking to truly understand Balkan culture, in all its pain and glory, should know about the lakes, and read this book.