How the tale of two lakes reveals the hidden history of the Balkans

A lyrical travel book focusses on the two lakes that divide and connect North Macedonia, Albania and Greece

January 29, 2020
Lake Ohrid in Macedonia Source: Charlie Marchant, Wikimedia Commons
Lake Ohrid in Macedonia Source: Charlie Marchant, Wikimedia Commons

The lakes of Ohrid and Prespa, cut by the borders of North Macedonia, Albania and Greece, are Europe’s oldest. It is impossible to study the maps in Kapka Kassabova’s blend of memoir, political and cultural history without feeling their lure. The landscape is dotted with sinkholes and mountain peaks; scant signs of human activity revealed by checkpoints and churches nestled in caves. “Generations of my predecessors had lived by the Lake,” she writes of Ohrid, “a land tattooed with untold histories.”

Kassabova, the award-winning author of non-fiction, travelogues and poetry, left Bulgaria after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, just as her grandmother had “abandoned” Ohrid and members of previous generations left home to seek pastures new. She seeks to understand the “transgenerational psychology” which impacted the lives of these ancestors. “I wanted to know what creates cultural… inheritance, and how we can go forward with it, instead of sleepwalking back into the geopolitical abyss.”

The irony inherent to one encounter with a great-uncle is that although he “wanted to keep shredding our Balkan tapestry into smaller, more pitiful pieces,” they sit together eating Greek olives and Macedonian tomatoes, drinking Bulgarian wine. Although Prespa flows into Ohrid, the two lake communities “didn’t mix.” The mountain between them “was no barrier to underground rivers, but it was to humans.” “Whose are you?” locals ask, remembering the family, its successes and tragedies. Lyrical prose produces startlingly clear images, but there is also dialogue with guides, carpet-sellers, ex-political prisoners. Kassabova interweaves her own memories with those of previous writers to visit the area. It is “fragmentation” and lack of communication she rails against. The water—a natural phenomenon, in all its “mutability” and “endurance”—can teach us a lot, if only we look into this “pair of eyes… in an ancient face.”

To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace by Kapka Kassabova (Granta, £14.99)