Et in arcadia ego

On Maundy Thursday (2022) I set out alone from Frome station for Durres in Albania to walk the route of an ancient Roman road, the Via Egnatia, to Thessaloniki. Crossing Europe by train took six days, although for the last 20km I walked along, rather than rode the railway tracks since most of the Albanian railway system had been shut down.  I intended to “lift up my eyes to the hills” but it was immersion in the spring mountains and a chance to break the usual patterns of demands of work and social life that attracted me, rather than any conventional sense of pilgrimage. I knew little of Balkan history so curiosity was another factor

A solitary walk in mountain country has certain requirements – fitness, lightweight gear, a good map and a means of occupying one’s mind. Having failed to do any advance training beyond walking Lola the spaniel, I knew from previous long walks that I would acquire fitness gradually as I went, and more important, find my own sustainable rhythm and pace. It took four days to get into my stride, and I completed the 500km in 23 days, just over 20 km (12.5 miles) a day – not a huge distance but not too bad for a 68 year-old with 20 kilos on his back, including a small tent.

Camping under a Hawthorn Tree in North Macedonia

I camped often because there was little accommodation outside the main towns (the Romans built one every forty miles).  This meant carrying food and water as well.  In fact, finding water became a significant feature of my days. In many of the villages I found shops and cafes had closed and water fountains dried up. Living mostly out of doors I adjusted to waking at dawn and going to sleep at dusk. In the evenings I read in a bar or in my tent – first Hemingway’s passionate A Farewell to Arms which I found in a Serbian hostel, and then The Odyssey in a vivid new translation by Emily Wilson. Edward Lear, who painted extensively in the Balkans during the Ottoman period, claimed to have seen Mt Olympus from this route, but his sight must have been better than mine. However, the nearer mountain peaks offered a suitable backdrop to Homer’s world of jealous gods and confused mortals.

Towards Mount Korab on the Albanian/North Macedonian border

The route is not waymarked and maps not easily obtainable, so a book by two Dutch researchers, Marietta van Attekum and Holger de Bruin, was my guide.  It contains basic practical instructions as well as a mine of historical context. They also kindly emailed me GPS files.  I was initially sceptical about “e-walking” but when I got lost on Day One I quickly learned that GPS on my phone was invaluable for choosing between forks in a path. Later, when faced with rock falls or impenetrable vegetation, I could easily plot an alternative route.

The route crosses three countries – Albania, North Macedonia (“North” is a sensitive geopolitical issue) and Greece – not only three unfamiliar languages but three alphabets. Few people I met spoke much English so my contact with locals was limited to very basic functional exchanges. In fact, I did not have a meaningful conversation for five weeks, so the walk became a powerful experience of solitude. I hoped to visit churches and mosques en route but most were locked. Albania famously declared itself an atheist state in 1967 and all its two thousand religious buildings were demolished or repurposed. Now new Turkish or Saudi funded mosques are springing up in every village, but no new churches that I could see. Until I reached Thessaloniki, an uninspiring modern city but peppered with superb ancient buildings, the most impressive religious building I encountered was a vast art nouveau synagogue in Szeged (Hungary), fabulously restored but silent, amputated from its Jewish community by the Nazis.

As the body moves through space, the mind wanders along its own separate paths.  After a while you notice the same thoughts returning, revealing how patterned is our thinking. Krishnamurti talks of the goal of walking without a thought in one’s head, since often we’re so wrapped up in thinking that we fail to actually experience world around us. Impossible advice, but after a while when I observed thoughts recurring I tried consciously to switch my attention outwards to focus on, say, the changing temperature of the air, the intense range of spring colours (a million shades of green) or the different voices of birdsong. As I got better at this I felt increasingly peaceful and content.   

Albanian goats

Initially, walking up into snow-capped mountains was a powerful, sensuous pleasure. The world was fresh and lively, “apparelled in celestial light”. I started singing to myself, particularly enjoying “How sweet is the shepherd’s sweet lot” which seemed to connect me to the flocks of sheep and goats which are still common in the Balkan mountains.  I held in mind Jesus’ image of the lilies of the valley exceeding Solomon’s glory.  But as the days passed this joyfulness became tinged with melancholy.  I could not put aside thoughts of two friends dangerously ill who would probably never be able to wander in wild country again. And as the scenery became more familiar I began to notice increasingly the degradation of the natural world – jagged holes in mountain from quarrying, spoil heaps from the lignite mines, crude tracks carved out of every hillside and forest, abandoned cars and agricultural machinery, and even in remote places fly-tipping and plastic waste, often tipped into streams. In Albania no vista is free from decaying concrete bunkers, 200,000 of which were built by the Hoxha regime, paranoid about invasion.

The Balkan mountains are rapidly depopulating as people leave ancient villages and pastoral lifestyles for a more modern life in towns on the plains. I passed several abandoned villages where streams and wells had run dry. In others I found a macédoine of derelict houses and holiday homes padlocked behind new iron gates. Everywhere there were crudely-built new houses in various stages of construction, concrete shells roughly walled in with blocks, often with animal quarters on the ground floor. There is clearly no regulation of building standards and I supposed these to be peasant homes being built piecemeal as money arrived from relatives sent abroad. The legendary Albanian corruption was perhaps visible in the omnipresence of Mercedes cars, supposedly stolen from Northern Europe. What I was witnessing, of course, was poverty.

Abandoned cars near Durres

One day, after walking through rain for several hours, I was happy to find a modern hotel in Trnovo, a village in North Macedonia populated by mainly by Vlachs. They are an Aromanian-speaking race whose way of life traditionally revolved around transhumance, moving large herds of sheep and goats between different seasonal pastures, ignoring national borders.  A hot shower was my first priority but once settled in front of a plate of “white meat” (lamb in a cheese sauce) I began to read of the dramatic history of the village. In 1915 the Aromanian population was deported to Serbia when Bulgarian Army invaded.  In September 1918 every building was destroyed as Greek and British forces fought to regain the territory. I realised that to experience the rustic scenery through which I was walking as some kind of ancient pastoral Arcadia was to turn a blind eye to the vast human tragedies that had played out here. From this point on I looked at my surroundings differently and saw everywhere the marks of conflict on the land. “Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” asks Wordsworth.

I arrived in Thessaloniki on May 19th to find it designated the day of Memorial of the Genocide of the Pontic Hellenes. This marks the systematic killing of 300,000 Christian Greeks in Anatolia between 1916 and 1922 by mercenaries linked to the Ottoman government. Although this is less well-known, it sits alongside the Armenian and Assyrian (Syrian Christians in Kurdistan) genocides as one of the calculated horrors visited on Christian minorities in the dying days of the Ottoman empire. (They were cited by Hitler as a perverse precedent for the Holocaust). Another epic cruelty, of which I was entirely ignorant, was the enforced population exchange between Greece and the newly founded state of Turkey in 1923. 400,000 Muslims were expelled from Greece whilst 1.2 million Greek Orthodox were deported from Turkey. The imbalance of numbers created vast and lethal refugee problems in Greek Macedonia, a trauma still haunting Greece. I hoped in Thessaloniki to seek out the rebetiko music which enshrines this terrible story but the virus had closed the bars where it lived on.

Greek refugees at the Port of Moudania Turkey in 1922. From the archives of the Society of Friends of the People, Athens, Greece

I suppose this walk was a kind of pilgrimage in the sense that it was a journey into an unknown place in search of new meaning.  Solitude imposed a contemplative dimension, something I tried to capture in a daily journal. It took me from innocent delight to an uncomfortable place of horror at the human capacity for evil. It challenges me to consider what it really means to be a “child of light”, in a dark and disordered world, as Paul advised the people of Thessaloniki a while back.

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