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Review of ‘The Land of Eagles’ for Bookdealer
By Robin Hanbury-Tenison, published by I B Tauris, Hardback, £19.99 · ISBN 978-1845118556
The trouble with the Balkans, Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, is that they create more history than they can consume. And while, as with so many of the old Bulldog’s more epigrammatic sayings, this may on the surface appear to make sense, it’s also an expression with hidden shallows. Certainly, the geographical region we now call Albania (or more likely ‘plucky little Albania’) has had more than its fair share of invasions, bloodshed, ethnic cleansing and political upheaval over the centuries, largely because of its being on the political fault-line between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires. But paradoxically, from the 21st century perspective at least, as Robin Hanbury-Tenison points out in his superb Land of Eagles, it is also one of the most dormant, remote and traditional countries in a fast-changing Europe that has apparently forgotten all about it.
Obscured by communism and locked away behind ramparts of impassable mountains, Albania may have been overlooked economically and may well lack what we today call development, but it has long attracted the literary and cultural traveller. As Hanbury-Tenison points out, the country is awash with literary and cultural references. Shakespeare set Twelfth Night in Illyria, an ancient region of the Balkan Peninsula on the Adriatic coast that is modern Albania. In Così fan tutte Mozart casts his two scheming lovers as ‘Albanian Noblemen’. Edward Gibbon described Albania as ‘a country within sight of Italy, which is less known than the interior of America’. And of course Byron set his lengthy narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in Albania, the country the romantic poet rode through with his friend John Cam Hobhouse in 1809. Edward Lear swung into the saddle to ride across the landscape, a journey ultimately expressed in his 1851 Journal of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania, and noted Victorian traveller Edith Durham – often described as the first woman war correspondent, and a great enthusiast for the Albanian people – also rode through the mountains before publishing her epic book High Albania. And just for the record, Hanbury-Tenison comments that up in the high mountain passes of the north ‘are the woods where Voldemort, the villain of the Harry Potter books, goes to lie low after being defeated. We could see why, as they felt quite divorced from the rest of the world.’
Hanbury-Tenison likes to do his travelling on horseback. A few years ago I interviewed him for the Royal Geographical Society’s magazine, and he told me that ‘on foot with a pack you see nothing but your feet. In a car you are insulated from the real world. But on a horse, you have an intelligent animal doing all of the work and most of the thinking, leaving you free to look and listen, to communicate with those you meet.’ These could so easily be the words of the explorer’s hero and mentor Wilfred Thesiger, and in emulating the great desert traveller Hanbury-Tenison is preserving something of a noble tradition that sees exploring as being about discovering things rather than breaking records. And it’s a formula that has obviously worked and stood the test of time, with Hanbury-Tenison previously riding through and writing about China, Spain, New Zealand and France.
And now Albania. Although the real question is probably ‘why Albania?’ Why not, the author seems to imply, recounting a story of how he first met the Crown Prince Leka of Albania at Sandhurst. The prince had been playing rugby with the explorer’s son, and was covered with mud. He clicked the heels of his boots together in the manner of a Prussian officer before announcing: ‘You will always be welcome in my country.’ Hanbury-Tenison took him at his word, and in 2007 he and his wife Louella led an expedition along the length of the country from Theth in the north to Erind in the south. The result is Land of Eagles, a good old-fashioned travel book of the sort that would win the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award if it were still going. It’s got just the right balance of travelogue and digression, contrasting a gruelling expedition journal with riveting trivia and occasionally complex political history. One minute Hanbury-Tenison will breezily relate an anecdote about how Norman Wisdom became a national hero, while the next he’ll describe the Balkan Peace Park Project, an initiative where an environmentally protected area is set aside to unite communities and encourage tourism into a war-torn region. This appeals to the campaigner in Hanbury-Tenison, who explains in some depth how substantial chunks of Southern Montenegro and western Kosovo have been joined to the Albanian section, making a total area of 3,000 square kilometres… ‘The fact that this just happens to be the most beguiling and least known corner of Europe makes it a winner.’
Although Hanbury-Tenison’s knowledge of the region, both historically and culturally, is impressive, he’s at his best when he’s in the saddle on the open road, which is quite often little more than the narrowest of tracks, with a precipice on one side and a cliff on the other. He makes no secret that it’s a hard journey: some of the mountain passes and suspension bridges would be terrifying to a man half his age (Hanbury-Tenison is now in his seventies). To make matters worse, the tracks he uses are dismally signposted in a land without proper maps or reliable guides. But for all his frustrations he is boyishly optimistic and genuinely enchanted by the hospitality of the people he meets along the road. In a sentence that only he could have written, he describes ‘the bucolic charm of Breughelesque farmers, who belong to the Byronic landscape so perfectly.’
Robin Hanbury-Tenison has always been an intensely busy man. Download his CV from his website and you’d be forgiven for thinking it describes several action-packed lives. Of course, he’s best known as an explorer – having led or taken part in more than 30 expeditions – in which capacity he’s brought to the wider public the plight of the tribal peoples of the world as well as the rainforest. The Sunday Times named him in 1982 as ‘the greatest explorer of the past 20 years’, and again in 1991 as one of the 1000 ‘Makers of the 20th Century’. He deserves to be much better known as an author, and perhaps with the publication of Land of Eagles this slight injustice is about to be put right.
Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York
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