Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Three Swiss-born women travel writers slipped from our shared literary consciousness until they were rediscovered by feminist critics. hidden europe editor Nicky Gardner finds in the writing of Isabelle Eberhardt, Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart a dash of inspiration for her own writing.

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There was a moment once, on a warm late September day by Lake Shkodër, when I paused on the long drive south towards the mountains. Travel is the ultimate refuge for souls in distress. But I was tired of driving, and I waited for an hour by the roadside, gazing out over the silent lake. For no reason other than to be still in the wilderness. The sweet air of a summer sliding slowly into autumn, stains of lichen on the rocks, Albania's hills shrouded in distant haze and a donkey bemused by the impertinence of this interloper. A snake slithered across the road and slipped effortlessly into the water right by my feet. How perfect, how elegant to be able to move between realms with such consummate ease. This was a special moment. If you travel away from popular routes, you run across such moments from time to time. For me, sitting on that lakeshore, having over the preceding days experienced escalating tension in and around Dubrovnik (this was 1991), and seen forces mobilising in Montenegro, it was as if suddenly the whole history of the Balkans was being distilled just for my benefit.

There are certain special times, certain mysteriously privileged moments when, intuitively and fleetingly, a country will reveal its soul, in some way its own essence, when we see it in a unique and clarified way, which months of patient study could neither improve on, nor change.
Isbelle Eberhardt, writing in Au Pays de Sables, about her arrival in El Oued (Algeria) in August 1899

I have had that experience elsewhere too. A lifechanging journey through the Sonoran desert in 1995. And, when I was much younger, in El Oued in the Souf area of eastern Algeria. Over a year or two, I visited El Oued four, perhaps even five times. If the title of this magazine did not impose an obligation to write almost exclusively about Europe, you would surely have read a lot over the last years about El Oued and its magnificent desert hinterland.

I have had that experience elsewhere too. A lifechanging journey through the Sonoran desert in 1995. And, when I was much younger, in El Oued in the Souf area of eastern Algeria. Over a year or two, I visited El Oued four, perhaps even five times. If the title of this magazine did not impose an obligation to write almost exclusively about Europe, you would surely have read a lot over the last years about El Oued and its magnificent desert hinterland.

I really liked El Oued. The scent of the desert, the dunes at sunset. I liked its grittiness too. The rubbish in the back streets, the hittistes who lounged bored and angry by the market - Algeria's dispossessed creating a raw and edgy mood, numbing their minds with zombretto. But most of all I liked that sense of exile wandering the palm groves by the light of a crescent moon on a warm summer evening. El Oued is utterly seductive. As Isabelle Eberhardt found when she arrived in the desert oasis in 1899. I have been over the years to most of the places that touched Eberhardt's life. Including Annaba, in Eberhardt's day known as Bône, where she first set foot on the African continent.


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About

Nicky Gardner is a travel writer and editor of hidden europe magazine. She is also a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Nicky specialises in writing about off the beaten track communities in Europe.

This article was published in hidden europe 26.