Touring the Balkans with the Ladies of Ploutarchou 9

Posted by Jack L. Davis

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here writes about women travelling alone through the western Balkans in the late 1930s, on the eve of WW II.


The second half of the 19th century saw the advent of mass tourism in the Mediterranean and Balkans. Despite a few blips (e.g., the Dilessi Murders in 1870 that resulted in the death of three Englishmen and an Italian at the hands of brigands; J. Gennadius, Notes on the Recent Murders by Brigands in Greece), travellers could be reasonably certain of their personal safety. Their passage was also facilitated by travel brokers and books of advice for tourists.  Thomas Cook tours began in Greece in 1868. The Baedeker guide for Greece was published in 1889 while and Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Greece was already in its 7th edition by 1880.

Group and individual tourism became ever more common and secure.  American students in Greece experienced violence only on three occasions. In 1872 John Williams White, first chairman of the Managing Committee of the ASCSA, was the target of an attempted kidnapping. In 1886 University of Michigan student Walter Miller was commissioned a captain in the Greek army, so that he could hunt down his assailants. Only once did lawlessness end in death, in 1925 when John Logan was shot in Aitolia by attackers who fired on members of the American and British schools, in an apparent case of misidentification (http://www.ascsa.edu.gr/pdf/uploads/ASCSA-1882-1942.pdf, p. 179).

Since the late 19th century trips for the students of the ASCSA had been institutionalized, with a Peloponnese and an island trip led by Wilhelm Dörpfeld.  The Peloponnese trip was considered too rough for women, although the first woman member of the School (1885-86), Annie Smith Peck, travelled extensively there with friends. Several of the School’s female students would also hire Angelis Kosmopoulos (foreman for many excavations, including Olympia and Corinth) and his son George (later the husband of Alice Leslie Walker), as guides for their travels throughout Greece.

The more northern reaches of the Balkans began to attract tourists, including women travellers, a bit later than Greece, and there was an explosion of women travel writers there and elsewhere in the late Victorian period (http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/essay-07-07.html).

“The mid to late 19th century and early 20th witnessed an extraordinary number of European and American female travelers who wrote of their adventures. Industrialization had increased women’s mobility and women more easily could travel by train and streamer. As important, by end 19th century, European imperialism had made many areas of the world “safe” for women travelers. Annie Taylor, first European woman to enter Tibet, stated after she was captured, “I am English and do not fear for my life!”

In A Woman in the Balkans, “Mrs. Will Gordon” introduced her adventures in Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Albania, Montenegro, and Dalmatia in 1919.

“Before the war much of the current literature of the day was written for the ‘man in the street’ and the ‘women at home.’”

Winifred Gordon, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, was attracted to the Balkans by: “much that is interesting in their peoples and problems, much that is unfamiliar in their lives and customs, survivals of a medieval age.” These were people only recently wrested: “…out of a state of virtual subjugation and misrule to the rank of modern powers…”.

But relatively few American Classical archaeologists were drawn to the reaches north of Greece.  Most members of the ASCSA arrived and departed by ship at Piraeus or travelled overland from Northern Europe via Italy. Nonetheless, the creation of Yugoslavia, carved from former Ottoman and territories of the Hapsburg Monarchy after WW I, and the founding of a monarchy in Albania, made travel safer and more comfortable, as touristic infrastructure was established, some of it, especially in coastal Dalmatia, not only comfortable but luxurious.

The new Balkan environment did attract the curiosity of two prominent members of the School, Ida Thallon Hill and Elizabeth Pierce Blegen, who, in both 1937 and 1938, planned an elaborate Balkan itinerary that would lead them from Athens to Italy through Northern Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Croatia to Rome, and, the following year, through Albania to Dalmatia.  It is our good fortune to be able to experience these areas through the eyes not only of two distinguished scholars, but of two prominent woman archaeologists — since their diaries and letters are preserved in the Archives of the School.

Ida’s diaries provide a complete, continuous account of the two trips.  In them she records hers and Libbie’s daily activities in near excruciating detail, with sentences flowing like streams, often without punctuation and always heavily sprinkled with abbreviations and references to others by one initial only.  She clearly intended her diary to serve as an aide-de-memoire and not to be shared with others.

These sources present a picture of two women comfortable in their relationship, devoted to each other and to their husbands, to whom they sent letters along the way. They had, after all, been a couple for three decades, since first meeting as professor and student at Vassar in 1906, and had been living together for a decade as components in the so-called Quartet at No. 9 Plutarchou St. in Athens. The depth of their shared interests is also clear. Both women were endlessly fascinated by landscapes and ethnography as well as antiquities, by Renaissance architecture and medieval, and both were thrilled at the opportunity to see with their own eyes what was already familiar to them from books.  Ida’s most commonly used adjective in her trip diaries is “splendid.”  She and Libbie downed a lot of vermouth on the trip and Ida, at least, read a dozen popular novels, appropriately among them Princess Pro Tem: A Story of High Adventure in the Balkans (1932), in which a dying king attempts to convince his American granddaughter to assume his throne.

Ida Thallon Hill and Elizabeth Pierce Blegen in their travelling gear. ASCSA Archives.

The right for Ida and Libbie to travel by themselves was a fundamental concession that had been established in 1924, only a month before the so-called Quartet was formed through their marriages to Bert Hodge Hill and Carl Blegen (see R. L. Pounder, “The Blegens and the Hills: A Family Affair,” in N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J. L. Davis, and V. Florou, Carl W. Blegen: Archaeological and Personal Narratives, Atlanta 2015). And they continued to exercise their right to travel together until Ida’s death in Libbie’s arms, during a trans-Atlantic crossing in 1954.

Guide books of the period, such as Baedeker’s for Dalmatia and the Adriatic published in 1929, cautioned travellers to prepare for bedbugs and malaria, but Ida and Libbie found no such impediments to their enjoyment. American Express offices in Athens and in Dalmatia were of assistance in helping them, and generally they were able to find someone along the way who spoke Greek, English, Italian, or German.  Failing that, there were always “’hello’ boys.”  Libbie took photographs and painted when there were opportunities. (Unfortunately, her photos and watercolors from this trip have not been preserved.)

In truth, the roads were not always the best, nor clearly signposted.  The two became lost on several occasions.  There were frequent stops for repairs to their car, typically to patch punctured tires but once to have a new part manufactured on the spot.   Their Greek driver Athanassi was up to such challenges.

Neither woman drove, and success depended on Athanassi, who, back home in Athens, tended their car at Ploutarchou 9.  It was Athanassi who drove the women as far as Italy in both years.  Both Ida and Libbie were too old to have been impacted by movements in the U.S. that encouraged women to drive.  (In 1916 the Girl Scouts had instituted an Automobiling Merit Badge.) In 1937 Ida was 61, while Libbie turned 48 in Dubrovnik.

Highlights from Ida’s 1937 diary can convey the essence of their experiences:

In Ochrid: “Hotel Bellevue, [room] 22, 2nd floor over lake, grand breeze, unpacked, washed a little before dinner, incl[uding] the famous trout.  Have to use shaky German… Hotel manager took us to bank but they didn’t know exchange rate so he lent us 500 d[inars] and said to send it from Skopelzi [Skopje].”

In addition to the citadel of Ochrid they travelled to the famous monastery of St. Naum, then only recently presented as a gift to the King of Yugoslavia by King Zog of Albania. They: “drove along side of lake, splendid, partly by shore, past a fishing village with strange boats, up and around in hills.  S[t.] N[aum] is close by Albanian frontier, fascinating site and fine old church.  By great luck got G[ree]k speaking monk. Very fine Pantok[rator] in dome … Tomb [of St. Naum] for cures with many offerings.  Went to new church with a lot of awful modern things.  To rooms of K[ing] Alex[ander I of Yugoslavia] and Q[een] Mary [of Romania], kept just the same, black ribbons and wreath.”

Alexander had been assassinated in 1934.

St. Naum Monastery in Ochrid

On the way to Skopje they experienced a: “… magnificent drive, after Struga, went past it on wrong road and were started for Albania, then back to right one.  Through splendid gorges, high banks, cliffs, well wooded, rushing rivers.  Bad washouts in places, quick repairs.  Rocks in river.  Two very fine gorges with big open valley between, grand broad basin of river.”

In Skopje: “Had tea and under escort of small G[ree]k boy Ath[anassi] picked up went, eventually, to Hrsumli House [Kursumli An] now converted into a most int[eresting mus[eum], things chiefly Rom[an], a few G[ree]k, Byz[antine], Turk[ish] etc.” This former Ottoman han still attracts visitors today and is near the new archaeological museum.

Exterior of Kursumli An in Skopje

In Kosovo there was the monastery of Decani: “all in most beautiful country – esp]ecially] chestnut groves.  Fascinating place, built by King Stephan [Oros III in the 14th c.].  Archit[ecture] astonishingly like Ital[ian], esp[ecially] Lomb[ard] … Has G[ree]k monk and did the place thoroughly …  Went later to the spring w[ith] monk for drink.  He had been before in Ath[ens].” Since 1999 the monastery has been the target of escalating attacks by Islamic radicals and is today guarded 24/7 by UN forces.

After stopping at Pec, the couple crossed the forbidding landscape of the Dinaric Alps, passed Cetinje in Montenegro, descended to Kotor (which they toured), and arrived in Dubrovnik. The stay there was special: “glad to unpack and clean up after tea in garden.  Dinner out too, dancing etc. Lovely breeze.  L[ibble] had good birthday.” Their hotel, the Grand Imperial (today a Hilton) had provided top of the line accommodations for visitors to the old city of Ragusa since 1897.

Hotel Imperial in Dubrovnik

Shopping for embroideries and for a belt and handbag for Libbie’s birthday was followed by a side trip to Cavtat (“dear little town”) to see the mausoleum for the Racic family, designed by Ivan Mestrovic, the renowned Croatian sculpture of the early 20th century (“splendid place”).

The following morning they departed for Mostar in Herzegovina, where they admired the famous (destroyed in 1993) bridge, then spent the night in Sarajevo, which turned out to be an impressively civilized place. There the couple stayed in a: “Big hotel, rather ruined splendour but all well run.  Huge room.  Tea in café, also ILN [Illustrated London News], had seen Times [of London] at Mostar.”

The next day (July 1) Ida and Libbie arrived early at the city’s museum, and she found the: “coll[ection] far richer than I imagined and beautifully arranged, a splendid place.”

The highlight of the remainder of the 1937 Dalmatia trip was a visit to Salona, the Roman capital of Dalmatia, and Diocletian’s palace at nearby Split.  After that, we leave them as they cross the border at Babindub into the Italian territory of Zadar.

The following year, when the two women repeated their journey, and we have a long letter sent by Libbie to Carl Blegen Dubrovnik.

Libbie’s letter to Carl, June 26, 1938. ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers.

After Skopje, this time, they headed west over the high pass at Qafa e Thanës, where Libbie wrote: “it felt as if we were on top of the word.  The roads are magnificently engineered but lacked hard surface and we got one puncture.”

They then descended to lunch in: “in a beautiful locust grove outside Elbasan where they had chairs and tables and coffee for picnickers and washed our cherries for us, ”not realizing that the well-known Scottish ethnographer and archaeologist Margaret Hardie Hasluck, whom they had formerly known from the British School at Athens, lived there — until it was too late.

In Tirana they did find an old acquaintance, the U.S. Ambassador Hugh Grant.  The cavass (the guard) of the legation helped them with further travel plans, including booking a good hotel room in Shkodra, which was flooded with German tourists.  Libbie and Ida dined with Ambassador Grant where they met the famous English major-general Sir Jocelyn Percy, commander of the Albanian gendarmerie under King Zog.

Tirana, ca. 1938

The highlight of the following day was a visit to the new Agricultural School at Kavaje.  Founded by American Protestant missionaries, the school’s central building was designed by W. Stuart Thompson, architect of the Gennadius Library and long a friend of the Hills and the Blegens.

The Agricultural School at Kavaje built by W. Stuart Thompson, architect of the Gennadius Library.

Did Ida and Libbie have any sense of what was to come in 1939 – a breakaway semi-autonomous Croatia, formed under pressure from fascist Italy and Germany? – the Italian invasion of Albania? These events would change the world and the invasion of Greece in 1940 would further shake and reshape the Balkans. It would be more than a decade before a trip through Yugoslavia like theirs would again be possible, and for Albania not until the early 1990s when I first visited.

In 1937, Rebecca West, acclaimed British authoress, was also exploring Yugoslavia with her husband. Who knows? They may have passed Ida and Libbie on the road.  Her acclaimed account of what she saw, heard, and read presaged the ultimate fate of Yugoslavia as a failed state. The writing was on the wall. But if Ida and Libbie imagined the calamities to come, we find no thread of it in the writings they have left behind.


In the Archives of the Classics Department of the University of Cincinnati, there is a film from a trip to the western coasts of the Balkan peninsula shot in 1935 by George Warrington of Cincinnati. You can view an excerpt (1′) of this valuable film showing Sarajevo here:


The End of the Quartet: The Day the Music Stopped at Ploutarchou 9

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes an essay about the last days of Carl W. Blegen, Elizabeth Pierce Blegen, Bert Hodge Hill, and Ida Thallon Hill, the archaeological “Quartet” of Ploutarchou 9.

The Blegen/Hill house on Ploutarchou 9 in the 1950s

The Blegen house at Ploutarchou 9 in the early 1960s. Saved from the demolitions of the 1970s, today the “Blegen house” is the seat of the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation.

This short essay was composed to satisfy my own curiosity. Having recently edited Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives (Atlanta 2015) with Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan and Vivian Florou, it occurred to me that virtually the only aspect of Blegen’s life that had received no attention was its end. Nor had we, or indeed any of the authors who contributed to that volume, written of the later lives of the four amazing individuals who formed “The Quartet” that resided at 9 Ploutarchou St. in Athens: Blegen, Elizabeth Blegen, Ida Thallon Hill, and Bert Hodge Hill.

The start of that Quartet was tumultuous, as Bob Pounder has described it, but once ground rules were established in 1927, the Hills and the Blegens lived in perfect harmony, an arrangement that persisted for four decades until Blegen died in 1971 (Pounder 2015). Their relationships, although of an uncommon character, were no less significant for being unusual. The four loved each other and were totally devoted to their common cause. At the same time they left sufficient space in their marriages for each to address his or her individual needs. Read the rest of this entry »


Grèce en vogue: A New Wave of American Philhellenism in the 1920s

Raymond, Penelope, and Menalkas Duncan, 1912. From the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

Raymond, Penelope, and Menalkas Duncan, 1912. Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

In early October of 1924, Elizabeth Pierce Blegen, together with Ida Thallon Hill, was planning one of their first (perhaps the first) official dinners in the Director’s House at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (hereafter, the School or ASCSA). They were both new brides. In July Elizabeth (Libbie) had married Carl Blegen at Lake Placid, New York. Blegen was then assistant director of the School. Within a month, Ida, her lover and former professor at Vassar College, married Bert Hodge Hill in England. Hill had been the director of the School since 1906. Robert L. Pounder has recently written about the complicated nature of the Blegens’ and Hills’ relationship (or partnership as they themselves described it) [“The Blegens and the Hills: A Family Affair” in Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives, edited by N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J. L. Davis, and V. Florou, Atlanta 2015, pp. 83-96]. Libbie kept a social diary recording the activities of the two couples during the academic year 1924-1925. Read the rest of this entry »


Two Academics “Ruin” the Spirit of Valentine’s Day: A Response to “My heart is beating.”

 Emily Egan and Jack Davis, two “over-intellectuals” from the University of Cincinnati, could not resist the temptation to explore the Bronze Age antecedents of the Valentine card sent by Carl Blegen to Elizabeth Pierce in 1923. Check out their remarks below.

It is always dangerous to over-intellectualise love, particularly when expressed by a man to a woman on Love’s own holiday, but it is difficult, nonetheless, for scholars to avoid casting an academic eye on the caricature produced by Piet de Jong for Carl Blegen’s 1923 Valentine to his future wife, Elizabeth Pierce (see “My heart is beating: February 13, 1923”), as posted recently to this blog by Natalia Vogeikoff.  For the drawing that de Jong produced must be a caricature of Blegen himself, one immediately recognizable from the distinctive blond hair. That makes this modest little drawing one of the very first in a series that de Jong famously executed in Greece during the 1920s and 1930s, and that were later collected and published by Rachel Hood in 1998. Read the rest of this entry »


“My heart is beating…”: February 13, 1923

This little Valentine was included in a letter mailed from Athens to Rome in early February 1923.   Carl Blegen, Secretary of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, asked his friend and artist Piet de Jong to draw the Valentine for his beloved Elizabeth Pierce. The Bronze Age figure on the card alluded to his recent work with Alan Wace which argued that the Mycenaean culture of mainland Greece had nothing to do with Minoan colonization, as Sir Arthur Evans had believed, and should instead be called “Helladic.” The image certainly hits the mark. Read the rest of this entry »