Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


Among Brigands - Attacked by Goat-dogs - The Dogs Dismayed - A Grateful Albanian - Resna - Melons, Melons all the Way - Hard Life of the Albanian Peasants - A Thirsty Ride - Water at Last - A Young Turkish Soldier and his Devotions - Ochrida - The Chief of Police and his Horse - A Hotbed of Intrigue - Healing Water

THE main street of Monastir was swathed in the Cimmerian blackness of two hours before dawn. But there was the sharp click of horse-hoofs, and the shiver and neigh of cold and impatient animals. The clang of a sabre, the thud of a rifle-butt, the clink of spurs came with the muffled talk of deep Turkish throats.

When I pressed back the shutters of my room in the Greek inn where I stayed the thought came that the place was in siege. The flicker of my lamplight fell upon a jangle of unmounted horsemen, tawny complexions in sad contrast to the crimson of the fezzes which all wore. The lightened gloom was punctured with the glowing points of many cigarettes - for the Turkish soldier, though he may lack food, is for ever twirling or puffing a cigarette.

This was the escort which had been sent by the Vali of Monastir. I was going into the fastnesses of Albania. But there were other travellers proceeding as far as Ochrida, a day's journey on the


way. We joined forces and escorts. And when, after munching a poor breakfast by candlelight, we got away with the first glint of approaching day, we must have awakened half Monastir with our clatter, the scramble of hoofs on the cobbles, jolting of accoutrements, and sharp shouts of the soldiery.

The road was well marked. It curved to the sweep of a long range of bald hills. Goatherds, men living almost the life of the goats themselves-lank, sallow, half-frightened children of the wilderness, wearing cloaks of whole sheepskins - looked wistfully from the little fires by which they were crouching for warmth; they called off their dogs, which are half wolf, from the bare-toothed and snarling resistance they offered to our advance, jumping savagely before the horses as though they would grip them by the throat.

The morning shewed that across the valley the hills rose in soft cadence. Among the tree-clumps nestled villages, picturesque in the landscape, but forbidding on close acquaintance. Those hills, like the hills we hugged, were dun and unfertile; but the crevices and chasms, watered by the thousand rivulets of the mountains beyond, were streaked with the vivid green of prolific vegetation.

"Oh," said the captain of the guard, "this is a dangerous place. All the hills are infested with brigands. We are now approaching the village of Kazanihu. All the people are brigands. But you are safe - none dare attack when there is an escort of troops! "

If the villagers were brigands they were the most


wretched specimens of their profession imaginable: weasel-eyed, slinking creatures, with no flesh on their bones and the scantiest of rags on their backs. I doubted if they had the courage to attack a mule caravan.

"The brigands have gone into the hills," explained the captain;" we may see some later. You have a revolver?"

I fancy he was endeavouring to demonstrate that the life of a single foreigner would not be worth twopence if it had not been for the protection provided by himself and his soldiers.

Whilst the horses were getting ten minutes' rest before being put to a long climb into the hills I went for a saunter. I had not gone a hundred yards before two brutes of goat-dogs came bounding toward me, yelping and meaning mischief. I fingered my revolver. Naturally the first instinct was to shoot. It is remarkable what a lot of thinking you can do in five seconds when hard pressed. I remembered first a bit of serious advice given me by a British Consul, never to shoot a dog belonging to an Albanian goatherd unless you are prepared immediately afterwards to shoot its master before he has time to shoot you. Secondly, I recollected having read somewhere - goodness knows where - that a dog will never attack a human being who is sitting down.

With infinitesimal faith, but with the alacrity of a Japanese gentleman in comic opera, down I flopped. Incidentally I may remark that I prepared for catastrophe by whipping out my revolver, intent


on settling dogs and master if there were need. Sad to relate, however - in the interests of dramatic episode - the dogs evidently thought, as I subsequently concluded also, that I presented an extremely ludicrous appearance. Any way, they halted at about five paces, and stood in strained attitude and with bristling hair, showing their teeth at my collapsed self.

How long squatting on one's haunches is effective in restraining the bloodthirsty propensities of an Albanian dog I don't know. But the goatherd, with gun slung behind his back, came scampering over the rocks, using, I daresay, Albanian language to its full abusive extent on the dogs which had behaved so reprehensibly to a meek-eyed foreign gentleman. He was so characteristic a hillsman - and all the billies and nannies were racing over the rocks as though anxious to afford any little service in their power-making quite a picture, that I levelled my camera at him. Ignorant hillsman! He thought it was some infamous invention with which a "dog of a Christian" intended to inflict punishment on a faithful Mahommedan. He did not corroborate the warlike reputation of his race. Instead of swinging his gun into position and opening fire on his own account, he clasped his hands and pleaded I would check my wrath. I realised that much, though I could not understand a syllable he grunted. Up ran my dragoman full of respectful indignation that I had strayed from himself and the soldiers, and breathing furious curses in Turkish on all Albanian men, dogs, and goats.


The Albanian, through my dragoman, was profuse in apologies, and hoped the effendi would not have him punished by the soldiers. When I assured him that he had done nothing except the right thing, and followed this up by my usual peace - offering of a cigarette, the poor fellow seemed as grateful and as obliged as though I had rescued him from the bastinado.

As, in the glowing heat of a cloudless day, we climbed slowly, many Albanians were met. They were not wearing the cotton kilt in which they are depicted in pictures, but white, tight-fitting trousers of blanket-like material, with a broad, black stripe down the side of either leg. Their shirts were full and loose, and their caps were white or black and of collar-box shape - a little evidence, as the fez was not worn, that Turkish supremacy was not acknowledged. As a rule they rode neat, quick-stepping ponies. Better proof than the terrorising language of the captain of the escort that danger was about was afforded by the fact that instead of their rifles being slung behind the shoulder, they were invariably lying across the lap of the horseman.

From the summit of the bleached hill, with not a blade of grass on the way, a rich plain was revealed. The dull, leaden breast of Presba Lake was on the left, and the little town of Resna just discernible on the right: welcome to the eye, for hunger had set in, and Resna was to provide a meal and a rest in the heat of the day for a couple of hours.

It was Saturday, market-day, and the Christian villagers from the hillsides, mostly Bulgarian, some


Greek, had the market-place choked with produce. The Turks were few; the Albanians were in the hills. But here was one of the phenomena of Macedonia - for Albania lay much further on - a mixed town of Bulgarians and Greeks. Politically they are at daggers drawn, and occasionally at daggers sheathed in one another. It was not, however, murder which now concerned them; it was the sale of melons.

Every market-place I visited in the whole of the Balkans was half-piled with melons. It almost seemed as though the people, emulating Sydney Smith's report that the inhabitants of the Scilly Isles eke out a precarious living by taking in one another's washing, maintained existence by purchasing and eating one another's melons.

The place was a hubbub of barter. It was dirty, and, of course, it was picturesque. It was easier to note the difference between the Greek and Bulgarian women than between their men-folk. Not only were there distinctions in attire, but there was difference in physique. Like peasants all the world over, they were heavy, stodgy, and with little intelligence in their countenances.

Occasionally, I know, it is possible to catch a glimpse of a pretty peasant girl. But working hard, which comes early in life, with cares, brood of children, and labour in the fields from sunrise to sundrop, wears and tears, and by early middle age the women are haggard and worn. They have that set despondency of feature which you ever find with those who labour close to the starvation limit.


There are no improvement committees in this region, no scientific enquiries into physical degeneracy. The people have the mute contentment of ignorance - except where politics and religion are concerned. Half the children born in Macedonia die of malnutrition.

A level but big-bending road makes round the hills from Resna to Ochrida. A near cut is over the hills by a faintly-marked mule-track. It was by this road we went. We scampered across a basin of a plain, struck the hills abruptly, and started climbing. The way was up a jagged, broken tangle of rocks. We sat forward in our saddles, and gripped the manes of our horses whilst, with strained sinews, they made the toilsome ascent.

We passed through a medley of vegetation and barrenness. We pushed up clefts of rock which had in them the pant of an oven, and we sheltered in leafy glades where there was cool and the trickle of water. On a brow of scarped sandstone we wheeled our horses, looked to the valley from which we had ascended, looked beyond the shimmering lake to where the world was cut off by a long range of red and arid rocks.

Horses and riders were in a lather, pressing a slow way up that mountain side, beneath the fierce onslaught of a midday sun. Again we reached a patch of woodland. The trees were all crooked and gnarled. They were bent and twisted by the fury of a thousand gales. We endeavoured to ride through, but the trees stretched long arms of branches as though determined to wrest us from the


saddle. We crouched, keeping our cheeks to the necks of our horses. That did not suffice, for there were Turkish curses when a bough secured one of the soldiers in its grasp. For a long distance we walked.

Then to the bald highland, with not a shrub, not a blade of grass, the ground crumpled earth that burnt to the touch. With a challenge to ourselves that there should be no stop till the summit was reached, we kept steadily to our work. There was no urging of the horses. They took their own gait, ploddingly, ceaselessly, and covered with the spume of exertion. Not a breath of wind tempered the furnace heat. The water in our canteens was lukewarm and nasty. When it gave out, mouths became gluey. The one wish of my heart was to have a good long gulp of cold spring water. One of the soldiers knew there was water ahead, and that gave us patience.

On the summit of the mountain we halted a brief moment to enjoy the blessed satisfaction of a gentle breeze. I believe there was a magnificent panorama of high-tossed mountain ranges to be obtained from that spot. Personally I had no particular interest in panoramas of high-tossed mountain ranges. Water was what I wanted. The horses must have sniffed water. They did not race, because the declivity was too steep, but they hastened, slitheringly, hardly able to keep their hoof-hold among the débris of stones which mountain torrents had washed into the path.

So to the brook in a shady dell, where the water gurgled with silver call to the thirsty traveller. We drank deep and often, and rested. After the furious


glare on the far side of the range it was welcome to loosen cartridge belts and sprawl upon the ground in easy attitude. The captain of the guard, myself, and my dragoman lolled in the luxury of laziness, whilst the Turkish soldiers slowly walked their horses beneath the trees, patting them, talking to them, before allowing them to drink. Then they tied the animals to branches, squatted, produced their pouches, and rolled cigarettes, not for themselves, but always for each other, so that they might exchange with courtesy. They, too, put aside their carbines and their cartridges, and stretched themselves within the shade. In the fragrant lush of a sultry afternoon most of the men, after their eight hours' ride, fell into the sleep of the tired.

There was one young Turkish soldier who attracted me. He was as well-set, and almost as fair, as an Englishman, and might, indeed, have been mistaken for a British "Tommy," were it not that he spoke nothing but Turkish, and wore the red fez. Later he became my servant during the rough journey through Albania; and although many of my intentions had to be expressed in pantomime, he was quick-witted and rarely failed instantly to grasp what I wanted. The first thing that turned my eyes to him was that he had an exceedingly fine horse. No two men could have been closer friends than that Turkish soldier and his steed. Whenever there was a halt and the soldier rested, the horse was close to him, having his nose patted and being talked to.

In the drowse and the stillness of the afternoon


my Turkish "Tommy" quietly separated himself from his fellows, and walked down the brook-side till he came to a patch of green. I watched him with idle curiosity. He produced from his jacket a piece of linen, not much bigger than a pockethandkerchief. This he carefully washed-indeed, I thought he was utilising a spare half-hour for washing.. He removed his heavy riding-boots and washed his feet. Again I thought he was performing a simple act of ablution. He was very careful the handkerchief should be clean and spread on the greenest spot of grass. Very caretul, also, was he that his feet should be clean.

All the preparation was for prayer. He stepped, barefooted and clean, toward the little improvised prayer-carpet. His face was toward Mecca. He clasped his hands before him and prayed; he knelt and prayed again; he lowered his forehead to the prayer-carpet, and with flat palms outstretched upon the ground he prayed a third time. When his prayers had ceased he folded his little prayer-carpet and stowed it within the breast of his jacket. It was an impressive little scene, this pious Turkish "Tommy" taking opportunity during a midday rest to go through the devotions of a true Mahommedan.

A shout of command and the soldiers were up, swinging their carbines across their shoulders, springing into the saddle, and off. There was a break in the trees; we could look, as though from a darkened room, out upon the sun-splashed scene beyond. There was a pleasant maze of hills, and soon we were riding amongst them at a jaunty pace.


That pace had soon to be slackened. There was the descent to be made. So broken was the way, choked with boulders, that no horse could be put to it. We dismounted and walked. The whole hillside was a turmoil of detached rocks and innumerable mountain streams. There were gullies choked with sodden slaty refuse. To walk through it was like walking through the yard of a coal mine on a rainy day. We jumped from ledge to ledge, halting at times to allow the more slow-going and more cautious horses to catch us up.

Ochrida edged into sight. A little rock-perched place by the great lake of the same name, and behind it a beautiful valley - like all the Balkan valleys, absolutely flat - every yard of it under cultivation; a prayer-carpet of fertility and thankfulness.

We got somewhat ahead of our companion travellers from Monastir. They had their own guard; and not knowing when they would appear, we decided to push on to the city. We arranged ourselves in dignified order. Two of the escort with rifles balanced on their thighs rode ahead. Then came the captain and myself with my dragoman in close attendance, whilst two by two the reinainder of the guard followed behind. I daresay we made a very imposing array as, with our horses at a gallop, we scampered into the town, bringing the inhabitants out with a rush to see us, whilst affrighted mothers, like affrighted mothers all the world over, were in shrieking terror that their little Jimmies and Susans and Freddies and Betsies would


be trampled to death by the horses. I don't think we killed a single child.

The streets were little more than alleys, paved with huge cobbles, and with enormous overhanging houses on either side. With tremendous hullabaloo we went through the town. We were met by the Chief of the Police, accompanied by a body of gendarmes, who had heard the news and were hastening out to give us greeting. The Chief of the Police was an exceedingly smart young fellow. But he was mounted on the most tempestuous brute of a horse I have ever seen outside Wyoming. The Chief and myself got through our salaams easily enough, but when we endeavoured to shake hands that fiery, untamed brute of his seemed to resent the arrival of an alleged Christian, and endeavoured to vent its hatred on the horse which was carrying me by trying to kick it into an adjoining coffeehouse. My animal retaliated. For about thirty seconds the air scintillated with hoofs.

It was the proper thing that the Chief and myself should ride together through the streets to the lodgings which had been got ready. The way was so narrow that we were constantly bumping with our shoulders into the walls, cannoning our horses into one another, and providing another display of kicking. The mounted police and the soldiery following made a roar like a train in a tunnel.

There was no hotel. But some relatives of the dragoman at the British Consulate at Monastir, Bulgarians, kindly placed their residence at our disposal. The dragoman was a Greek, but had mar-


ried a daughter of this Bulgar household - proof, in this corner of the world, that love laughs at political and racial animosities. Our Bulgarian hostess was in her widowhood. A few months before her husband had been murdered in the street by a Turkish enemy.

The house was by the lake-side. There was a vine-festooned balcony, and here, on the two nights of our halt, we dined. As we sat and smoked and looked out upon the lake, with a full moon overhead, we agreed that the surroundings were much more Italian than anything we had expected to find in Macedonia.

Viewed from a short distance, Ochrida looks like a mediaeval town, such as is represented in old plates. It is strongly walled, with the houses cramped and packed within the walls, but desolation beyond. Only, at one side, the wall seems to have fallen away and the town fallen after it, right down to the edge of the lake. It is a disjointed, higgledy-piggledy place, sinister and dark at night, the very spot where a romantic story of filibustering could find a picturesque locale, and where the dark corners seem specially made for lurking assassins.

Ochrida is a hotbed of intrigue. Nothing goes right, for Greeks and Bulgarians are ever plotting against each other, always lying concerning everything that takes place, and the muddling Turk who rules gets no thanks from either side.

Perched on the rocks above the town are the remains of an old castle, with walls fifteen feet thick, but now all tumbled and ramshackle. The Romans


were undoubtedly here - indeed, I came across some Roman remains - but no doubt the castle had its busiest days when the Servian Empire came south. A wretched body of dirty Turkish soldiers were in camp within the fortress. They had little tents, which were rather more foul than the tents of a gipsy encampment. They looked as though they never washed. Their clothes were greasy and torn, and their boots wofully down at heel. I talked to the men. They told me their pay was a medjedeh a month, they had not received anything for six months, and during their four years of service their pay had slipped twenty months in arrear.

Whilst we were sitting amongst the ruins a couple of bent and decrepit old women hobbled up from the town. One was ill, and had come to search amongst the wild vegetation which grew about the crumbled walls for a tiny trickling stream of which she was quite confident she had only to drink a few drops and she would be made well again. The soldiers found the place. The water was a muddy ooze. The old cripple gathered a little in a shell, drank it, confessed she felt much better, and hobbled away again absolutely convinced of the miraculous qualities of the water. I could not discover the origin of the belief concerning the virtue of this particular trickle of water. But faith in its efficacy is general amongst Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, and Albanians, and doctors' bills are saved by hauling the sick ones to this spot to drink the precious liquid.

A quaint old church, that of St. Clement, stands on a lower slope not far away. It is a squat build-


ing, constructed entirely of thin red bricks placed on end, and the tower is low and octagonal. The mother church of St. Clement stands further off, but it was seized by the Turks, who changed it into a mosque, and the Christians were compelled to build another. The interior, dark and damp, has about it the aroma of the mysterious. Little light filters through the cobwebbed, high-perched windows. The ikons and the silver decorations are all old but tawdry, and the priest who showed me round gave me a broad hint that if I cared for anything I could have it in return for a suitable present. I was not, however, a purchaser. Probably on this very spot stood a Roman temple. Indeed, two of the pillars are unquestionably Roman, and amongst the rubbish outside I noted a marble slab on which there were traces of a Roman inscription.

The great lake of Ochrida, with the far limit just discernible in clear daytime, is in places pleasantly wooded. On little promontories are Greek and Bulgarian monasteries, where daily they praise God and hate their brother Christians.

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]