Dear fellow travellers
The jeans and footwear worn by most folk in the Balkans these days are no different from those that might be seen in a dozen other parts of Europe. Levi's and Converse are much the same, whether they are paraded in the streets of Scunthorpe or Skopje. Yet it was not always so. When Edith Durham travelled through the Balkans in the first dozen years of the last century, she was easily able to differentiate between the dress of different regions. Be it by the material used, the style, the favoured dyes, the details of the cross stitch or the embellishment of a person's clothing, Durham was always quick to differentiate a Bulgar from a Bosnian, an Albanian from a Croat. And she knew who scooped the award for fashion sense: "The superiority of the Albanian as a designer is marked. He is the artist of the Balkans."
Albanians have not lost their way with clothes, as anyone walking the streets of Tirana's business district at lunchtime will quickly notice. Forget notions of an obscure Balkan nation, and look more for the same stylish chic that you might see strolling around the Quadrilatero d'Oro in Milan. Albania's changed, and Edith Durham just wouldn't know what to make of it.
Yet there are still parts of Europe where dress is deeply revealing of identity. The Sami kolt is as iconic as the Scotsman's kilt. And kolts, like kilts, may vary from village to village, from clan to clan, so allowing the informed observer to quite precisely identify the origin or affiliation of the wearer. In the September issue of hidden europe magazine (published next Monday) we have an article on the Sorbian communities of eastern Germany. In researching that piece, we travelled hither and thither across the territories where the world's smallest Slavonic nation lives. The variations in the traditional dress of Sorb women, often worn on a Sunday, are remarkable. A century ago there were a dozen or more regional variations in Sorbian dress. Nowadays, those differences are more muted, but even among the nine Sorbian Catholic villages in Upper Lusatia, one can still pick out subtle variation in the styles of hats, bodices and skirts. Good to stumble upon a bit of Europe that, on Sundays at least, still seems to be a Levi's-free zone. Edith Durham would surely be delighted.
It's always interesting to see how guidebooks evolve. Browse successive editions of nineteenth-century Baedekers to see how the fortunes of places rose and fell. So it was good just this very morning to receive a copy of a new edition of the Bradt Guide to Serbia, written, like the first edition, by Laurence Mitchell. Recognise the name? Laurence has been a regular contributor to hidden europe - click here to see what he has written for us.
It wasn't so long ago that declaring that you were Serbia-bound might have raised an eyebrow or two. But the country becomes ever more inviting for travellers, and it's good to see that the new edition of the guide gives coverage to areas and themes that received short shrift in the first edition. Among the new additions is a fascinating account of the Kremna prophecies, a series of predictions about the future uttered over one hundred years ago by a pair of oracles in the village of Kremna close to Serbia's border with Bosnia. Some of these were admirably simple: "People will ride on carts with no oxen, people will travel in the sky." Others were very specific and anticipated twentieth-century conflicts and political events that seem, in the main, to have come to pass. Like all fortune tellers, the Kremna prophets have attracted a healthy degree of scepticism. One Serbian journalist has even documented how the alleged prophecies have been massaged over time to suit events. Who knows. Meanwhile, though, the village of Kremna continues to make a modest living by trading on hopes and fears about the future.