Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


A Sunday Evening at Philippopolis - Individuality of the City - A Passion for Education - Bulgarians not Speculative - Agriculture - Industry of the Peasants - Return of the Turks - Bulgar Characteristics - Fleeing from the Heat - Monastery of St. Petka - A Night in the Open

THE Plain of Thrace is flat-curiously flat - and encompassed by high, black and jagged mountains. All over are dotted what look like exaggerated molehills - tumuli. The plain reeks vapourish in the summer, and through the quivering haze rises a giant molehill, not looking large in the far distance, but on nearer view showing several hills, almost like a crouching animal. It is a great knuckle of uneven granite rising out of the plain. On it Philip of Macedon reared a city. That is the Philippopolis of to-day.

It was on Sunday night that I arrived after sixteen hours of hard travel over dusty roads. The horses put down their heads and raced madly along the tortuous, cobbled streets. The driver halloed, swung his whip and cracked it; for however drowsy the pace may be away from a town, the Bulgarian driver always finishes his journey in a welter, imagining, innocent man, that people will think that is the way he has been travelling all day. Which nobody does even for a moment think.

I was weary and aching with long travelling, and had an irritable premonition of the kind of sleeping


accommodation that would be waiting me. Then a lighted street, a garish cafe, the ecstatic thrill of gipsy music! Hotel porters tumbled into view. There was salaaming. The proprietor appeared. Ah, yes, the telegram had arrived! Rooms were ready. This way! Capital rooms, clean, neat, simple, rather French. I glanced in a glass at my begrimed condition - countenance unrecognisable, hair grey with dust. A bath! Ah, a bath was ready! And then a little dinner. Capital! And a good bottle of wine, eh? No; a pint of the local wine. By all means! So a change, and then to the courtyard.

Picture the scene. A garden, lit with many lamps. Beneath the trees innumerable tables. At the tables sat "all Philippopolis," sipping coffee, drinking beer, toasting one another in litres of wine. At one end of the garden was a little stage. There was a Hungarian band which played rhapsodically, there was a skittish damsel in short skirts who sang songs, there was a big basso profundo who roared, then there was more gipsy band, and more of the young lady in short skirts.

It was Sunday night and Philippopolis was enjoying itself. I suppose anything like that would be considered wicked in England. But it did not strike me that the folk of Philippopolis were enjoying the cool evening in anything but the most innocent of ways.

As I sat enjoying the happiness around me, I thought that in my own land of England, far off, there were perhaps other ways of checking the evils


and the degradation of drunkenness besides the closing of public houses and the shrieking denunciation of those who make no pretence to be strictly teetotal. I mused that maybe in time my own countrymen would get more sense, when the standup bar would be abolished, when there would be no private bars, no shutters to hide from others your countenance when having refreshment, no general atmosphere of discredit about drinking. I thought perhaps we shall see places where a man can take his wife, yes, and even his children, of an evening; where they may have a little table, the husband have his glass of ale if he wants it and his pipe, the wife her cup of tea, and the children their cakes, and they may all listen to a band. It is our rigorous puritanic system which sends the workman - who has no wish in his heart to neglect wife and bairns - to seek relaxation in an over-crowded, ill-ventilated bar, where he meets mates and drinks more than he intends; finds, when it is too late, that drink is his curse, and becomes the subject of a temperance leaflet. A man would not drink so much if he had some inducement to spend his evenings with his wife and children. The gentleman we Britons call "the foreigner" is no more virtuous than ourselves, but he has not the drunkenness we have, simply because the customs of his country provide he shall drink in full view of the public, and nobody wag the head and think he is going to the devil. I thought this, as, in the ease of laziness after a hard day, I watched the Bulgarians enjoying themselves. But I was drowsy. I went off to my neat


little room, and fell asleep to the strains of gipsy dance music.

Philippopolis has individuality. It has certainly more character than Sofia, because whilst Sofia has been making itself over again in likeness to other European capitals, Philippopolis has remained itself, and is proud of the distinction. Its inhabitants have something of the superior air of folks in an English cathedral city for the neighbouring parvenu town of go-ahead manufacture. Its commerce is not large, but it congratulates itself on the excellence of its productions.

An interesting institution is the Alexander Gymnasium, which, founded in 1885, cost nearly £26,000, and is maintained at an annual expense of over £5,000. It gives instruction to youths from ten to twenty-two years of age, quite free of charge, except twenty francs per annum in the higher and ten francs per annum in the lower classes, the money going towards providing the poorest children with books and clothes. The Lycee is a similar institution for girls, where they are educated on a corresponding plan in all subjects, except, apparently, classics. The Bulgarians have a positive passion for education.

What impressed me forcibly in my wanderings through Bulgaria was the absence of people who are either very rich or very poor. I doubt if throughout the whole of the Principality more than half a dozen persons can be found with a capital of over £50,000.

On all hands I heard laments that the commercial expansion of Bulgaria was hindered by the


lack of capital. But if the Bulgars had it, I doubt whether they possess the qualities necessary for modern success in business. They are not a speculative race. There is an absence of lively competition. A merchant asks a price for a thing. It is too high, and he will not yield, though he knows it is probable you will get the same thing cheaper elsewhere. He does not yet grasp the advantages of small profits and quick returns. The consequence is that most of the big businesses are in the hands of foreigners. Twenty years ago England led the way in the Bulgarian market. Now England has fallen behind. France also has not been able to hold her own. Austria has been improving her trade relationship all the time. Though, of course, the ambitious Bulgars would like to jump to the front as a manufacturing country, the wise spirits do well in focusing the national energy upon the development of its agricultural resources.

Bulgaria has immense opportunities in agriculture. Its size, including Roumelia, is about that of Ireland and Wales. Everywhere the soil is fertile, though in places I saw tracts most difficult of cultivation, because of the mixture of stones with surface soil. It is a land rich in the smaller timbers; its vegetables and fruits, including vineyards, are excellent; not only are there wheat but also many tobacco fields. Of cattle there is plenty.

Concerning the industry of the peasants I have already written. The tenure under which they hold their land is partly a remnant of the system when the Turk held sway. In those old days


holders of land were obliged to pay a tithe of the gross produce of their farms to the tax-collectors of the Sultan. When this tithe was not paid, or the land remained uncultivated for three years, or the owner died without heirs, the Sultan became the possessor. Since the Liberation, the only material change is that the State occupies the place formerly held by the Sultan. Under the Turkish regime, payment was usually in kind. Of recent years the Bulgarian Government has endeavoured to secure payment in cash, but not very successfully. To part with a tenth of the produce does not seem hard to the peasant, but when he has converted the produce into hard cash, then, in truth, it wrings his very heart to open his purse.

All along the Turkish borderland there is a mixture of Christian and Mahommedan villages. Naturally, when the rule of the Sultan was broken, there was a great rush of Turks out of Bulgaria into Turkey, because they dreaded reprisals for the atrocities to which the Bulgars had been subjected. Now, however, that Bulgaria is more or less settled, there has, certainly of recent years, been a considerable reflux of Turks. Out of the three and a half million population of the Principality there are, I believe, something like three-quarters of a million of Mahommedans.

I made an excursion into the mountains south of Philippopolis - a region practically unknown to the rest of Europe - and there saw something of the Pomaks, or Bulgarian Mahommedans. Some authorities are of opinion they are a separate race.


Personally, I am inclined to the belief they are just Bulgarians whose ancestors changed their religion.

Going about the country, I got to admire the characteristics of the Bulgars. I do not say they are a lovable people. Indeed, their taciturnity, their sullenness, even their uncouthness - especially the Bulgars outside the towns - have produced a feeling in some travellers amounting almost to dislike. But though stolid they are solid, and they have a virtue which is really above all price in a land so near the East - they are truthful. They are all keen on the ownership of land, and every Bulgar is a politician.

At times the heat from the plains of Thrace makes the atmosphere of Philippopolis as hot and clammy as a Turkish bath. I remember one day, having panted and perspired in the palpitating heat, a Bulgarian friend - a journalist - and I decided to escape by hastening to a monastery in the hills, and there secure a night's sleep in coolness. We rode south, where lies Macedonia.

Part of the way was along the old main road to Constantinople. It was at least a foot deep in dust. Any buffalo-cart or horseman was only distinguished by a cloud of dust. Trying to overtake a cart or jogtrot equestrian was to push through a white, choking, blinding, tongue-coating cloud.

We were making for the little monastery of St. Petka. There had been one of the innumerable church festivals, and crowds of gaudily-clad peasants were returning home from their junketings. Here was no trifling with the garb of civilisation. The


shirts and waistcoats of the men were radiant with ornamentation. The women all wore "the fringe," long and greasy; their jackets were green, and their wide bulging petticoats were staring red; on their heads, round their necks, encircling their arms, were masses of silver decorations made of coins - a simple way of holding wealth, easy to disperse when money is wanted, and explaining why nearly all the Bulgarian and Turkish coins you get in the borderland are pierced. On patches of withered, dust-soaked grass, groups were enjoying themselves. A man sitting on the ground droned at the bagpipes. A big circle was formed, and in the furious heat the peasants were slowly and monotonously stamping round, going through the hora dance.

We got to a dirty village called Stanimika - inhabited by Greeks who make wine and silk, and idle their time in the vile cafes. I sipped cherry syrup whilst my friend went out to bargain for mules to take us to the monastery. There was much haggling. No riding saddles being procurable, we got pack saddles, borrowed greasy pillows and rugs from an inn-keeper, and set off. Stirrups were formed of rope. My mule was a huge and gaunt animal, and when I was perched on the top of the packing the sensation was like that of being stuck on the summit of a camel's hump.

In the glowing warmth of the fading day, we clambered the steep and rocky path. At places the going was slow; the mules had to pick their steps gingerly up the staircase of broken boulders.

The hoofs clattered with an echo as we cantered


into the courtyard of the monastery of St. Petka, a plain, bare-walled retreat built long ago by a brigand who had done well in business, and wanted to do something for the peace of his soul before he passed into the shadow to settle his account. Monks bubbling with greeting ran to give us welcome, all save the chief - a short, shaky, ghostlike old man, ninety years of age, who had lived here for forty years, and decided twenty years ago that descending and ascending the mountain path were too much for his age, and had never descended or ascended since.

I went upon a balcony perched like an eagle's eyrie on a jut of rock. The plain of Thrace lay dun, like a faded carpet, before me. Suddenly through the hot breath of the atmosphere came a long-drawn icy sigh which made the trees shiver. Through the opaque glow crawled a leaden bar, which broke and showed an amber sky streaked with blood. The world was clouded with grey, the spirits of tempest shrieked along the mountains, the trees groaned. Then came the rain, in slow heavy blobs at first, but hastening to a deluge. The world was obliterated. There was nothing but an awesome cavern cracked with lightning streaks, and shaken by the mighty turmoil of thunder. It was grand. Then it all ceased. A pale blue sky peeped through a cloud-rift. The birds, which had been terrified, carolled again. Evening came like a prayer.

I had gone to the monastery to get a night of cool sleep. But, high-perched though my chamber was, the night was sultry and listless, and sleep was


impossible. So I lit a lantern, gathered a rug and a pillow, picked my way over the sleeping peasants who were slumbering on the broad balcony, got beyond the monastery, climbed higher, till, on the hill, I came to soft foot-tread beneath a fir tree. There in the open, with the fragrance of night in my nostrils, I slept till at dawn the clang of the monastery bell woke me once more to the beauty of this kind old world.

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