Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


Lake Ochrida - Struga - A Nation of Dandies - Why the Turks Provided an Escort - Confidence of Albanians in the English - A False Alarm - Kjuks - A Beautiful Prospect - A Start at Daybreak - A Perilous Descent - Roman Bridges - Rudimentary Roads

WEST of Ochrida I entered into Albania proper. In the course of a day's horse ride I passed from Bulgarian villages to where there were only Greek villages, and by night-time I was in a country which was purely Albanian.

The first stage, as far as the town of Struga, is along the northern shore of Lake Ochrida. A good, broad, but dusty cart-road joins the two places, and cattle and charcoal-laden mules and horsemen are always to be met.

There are plenty of boats on the lake, rather gondola-shaped, propelled with huge, shovel-like oars. Curiously, sails are never utilised on any of the Ochrida boats. However excellent may be the breeze, and however long the journey, taking sometimes a full day, the whole distance is done by oar-pulling. This is not because the natives lack the intelligence to take the advantage of sails, but because the mountain gales are so sudden and tempestuous that in an instant a boat with canvas might be swamped.


The old-fashioned water-wheel utilised for irrigation is often to be seen. To a sort of treadmill are attached twenty or thirty tin cans. A man, as he works the treadmill with his feet, turns the wheel which raises the water, which is spilt into a trough and carried off to the adjoining fields. It is a simple combination of healthful exercise with usefulness. A man can take a pleasant four or five hours' walk before breakfast and never get any further than home.

In Struga are few Bulgarians or Greeks. The dominant population is Turkish. A more striking people are the Albanians. The men are tall and dark, and have handsome, regular features. There, and, indeed, all through the country, the Albanian struck me as something of a dandy. He loves his jacket to be braided with silver and gold. His kilt is usually spotlessly clean. His shoes, often of red leather, have a huge puff-ball on each toe, which did not strike me as beautiful, but which the Albanian himself thinks particularly "swagger." The brace of revolvers carried at his waist are invariably carved and inlaid, whilst if he prefers a gun it is long and slender and also carved and inlaid, often with precious stones, with an inset gold inscription running along the barrel.

Beyond Struga the country became wild. There were no villages, and few people were met. By a gradual rise through sparsely wooded country we struck into the hills. We halted at a little caracol, a kind of outpost, where rest some dozen Turkish soldiers to keep a ready eye for brigands in the hills.


After that came hard work crossing a range rising some 3,500 feet above the lake, and called Cafa Sane. We led our horses. The scenery was like a Scotch moorland - humped, and for miles covered with bracken.

Thus to a high-placed plain, where we met plenty of tall, fearless-eyed Albanians. Farmsteads were to be seen, but no villages. The Albanian prefers the solitary life of his own little farm among the mountains, though it may be many miles from a neighbour. When he drives his buffalo into the fields to plough the soil he always takes his gun with him. He never knows who may be coming along.

We were now in a bandit-infested land. The captain of my guard began to show nervousness, though I confess that I personally, getting a little weary of sitting long hours in the saddle, would have enjoyed a brush with these gentlemen. I happened to know, or I thought I knew, a little fact of which the Turks who accompanied me were ignorant. They took the utmost precautions - too zealous precautions, I thought - to save me from capture. I knew well that in the Greek-Bulgarian country I might have been a fairly useful prize to one of the revolutionary "bands," not because of my sympathies with their movements, but on account of the thousands of pounds at which I might be valued and which could be squeezed from the Turkish Government. But here I was all right.

Let me explain. I paid nothing for the escort which accompanied me. The Turkish authorities did not give me the escort because they desired to do


any personal honour to myself. I should have preferred to travel alone with my dragooman. Had I done so the Turks knew there was a large possibility I might have been captured by one of the revolutionary "bands" in the hills, that there would probably have been a rumpus, and that I should not have been released until the ransom, be it £6.000 or £12,000, or whatever else the sum, had been paid. The Turks, therefore, provided the escort, first, to save themselves from the rebuke that their country was so unsettled that a peaceful traveller could not pass through it; secondly, because they preferred to spare soldiers to accompany me to being called upon to pay a heavy sum of money in ransom.

This was all right from their point of view so long as I was in districts where "bands" were at work. It did not, however, apply in the least when I got into the wildest part of European Turkey. The fact is that the Albanian has his hand against every Turk because he is his hereditary enemy. But he has no quarrel at all with Europeans. Certainly he has no quarrel with anybody who comes from England. In the Albanian mind there is a firm belief that England is the friend of their country. I talked with many peasants; and although at first they did not know whether I was an Austrian, a German, an Italian, or a Frenchman, the instant they knew I came from England I noticed a change of demeanour and an anxiety to do me honour.

All Albanians may be said to be brigands in regard to Turks. Though brigands were in the hills,


I was quite certain they had no evil intentions towards myself, for though an Albanian will kill you he will not thieve from you. Had I and my dragoman worn the Turkish fez, I daresay we might have had an encounter with the brigands. But the hillmen, who may have watched us from a distance, knew perfectly well it was a European going through the country, and they had no desire to offer molestation. I pleased myself with thinking, and have often thought since, that instead of the Turkish soldiers saving me from attack, it was myself who saved them from the leadstorm of Albanian rifles.

Be that as it may, the captain of the guard was careful. He always had two, and sometimes three, of his smartest men about a couple of hundred yards ahead keeping a sharp look-out. Whenever there was a bend in the way the soldiers spread so that no opportunity was presented for myself to be picked off. It was all very interesting, and to me rather amusing. It recalled the days when, as a little chap, I used to play "robbers" with my schoolfellows.

Once there was a moment of excitement. We were on a patch of level country, when suddenly round the back of a wood wheeled half a dozen Albanians armed to the teeth. The advance guard pulled rein, swung round their horses, unslung their rifles, and stood in their stirrups ready for eventualities. I confess that, as these hillsmen came dashing along, my hand wandered to my hip pocket where my revolver was carried. The soldiers spread as though to be ready to open fire. But the Albanians,


warlike though they appeared, had no warlike intentions. They rather enjoyed the fright of the Turks, of whom, however, they took no notice, although they gave me a smile and a salute as they rode by.

Like a white speck in the distance we saw our resting-place for the night. It was a new han which had been built at a spot called Kjuks. It looked the most romantically situated spot imaginable, resting on a ledge of rock, overlooking a beautiful valley, and with an interminable view of mountain tops.

With the fall of the sun and the valleys deepening into gloom, and all the mountain peaks flushed rosy, it was one of the most exquisite scenes conceivable. What a place for a holiday! Only in these degenerate days we like to take our appreciation of scenery with the additional prospect of a good dinner, or in the comfortable enjoyment which follows a good dinner. There was no good dinner at Kjuks. Charming though the han was at a distance, close at hand it was just like any other han. It was a big, dirty, badly whitewashed barn. The kitchen was a fire on the earthen floor. There were apartments with windows, but no glass in the windows. There was no furniture, nothing but dirty boards. I took three of the rooms: the largest I gave to the soldiers, another I gave to the captain of the guard and my dragoman, and I kept the other to myself. We made tea and drank much of it, though it was smoky. Then an hour was spent in bargaining for three chickens to provide food addi-


tional to the gritty rice which the soldiers were carrying in their saddle-bags.

I could have raved about the scenery if only I had been staying at a comfortable hotel. The colouring of the leaves in the wood which trailed down to the noisy river would have been worth ecstatic description. I could have gone into raptures over the conformation of the grey and creviced rocks, standing like solemn castles guarding the way. I could most certainly have burst into a rhapsody in regard to the crimson haze over the mountains - if only I had been sitting on a hotel verandah with no other care in the world than to hear the gong for dinner. As it was, I smoked my pipe, admitted it was all very beautiful, promised myself I would come again when some hotel company had built a palace on the eminence, and then went to the kitchen to see how the boiling of the fowls was proceeding.

The only illumination I had was a candle stuck in a crack in the floor of my room, and the floor itself served for seat and table. The soldiers sat downstairs in the murky, vagrant light of the fire, singing doleful Turkish love-songs. With my boots as a pillow, and my hands in my pockets for warmth, I took my sleep.

I doubt if, in travelling, there is anything more eerie than journeying through a strange land in the mysterious light which hangs over the world at dawn.

Traveller, dragoman, and soldiers were all in a shiver as, in the darkness, we set out for Elbasan,


which we had promised ourselves we would reach that night. We had climbed high the night before to reach Kjuks. Now in the black of the morning we had to climb further. None of us spoke. We were too cold to speak. The leaders kept within a dozen paces. We had to ascend broken clefts of rock. Though now and then the animals hesitated and pawed, they put forth effort. Day came with the thinnest haze hanging over the world and clouds still resting in the great black ravines beneath us which looked like monster graves.

The descent was zigzag. The torrents of innumerable centuries had worn out chasms, so that our route cut into the sides of the mountain, cut out again, dropped, and then seemed to slice further in. At the bends tumbling stone had obliterated the track. Rarely at such points was it more than twelve inches wide. At first one held breath, whilst the horse, picking its way as though on a tight-rope, walked round a precipice edge where was a sheer drop of a thousand feet. The heart jumped into one's mouth when a horse belonging to one of the soldiers slipped. I dared not turn round, for fear of disturbing my own horse. For an instant there was the excited struggle of the animal regaining hold. Instinctively we halted till the frightened beast regained its nerve.

On another occasion we were making our way along the edge of a crevice where the path was soft and uncertain because of a tumble of slaty shingle which had slid from the mountain top. I happened to be leading, letting the reins hang loose, for I was


confident the horse could pick its way much better than I could guide it. I turned my face to the slaty wall because to look into the gulf, which seemed to fall from my very knee, made me feel positively sick. Just then a defiant shepherd's dog appeared and raised a barking protest. The horse stopped dead. Had it reared in fright I should never have been able to tell this story. To have pressed the horse on might have led to disaster. My Turkish "Tommy," who was away at the back of some seven or eight other horsemen and on safer ground, slipped from the saddle, climbed into the rocks, crawled somehow overhead and past me, and with stones drove the dog off. Then we went on. In a second or two we were on safe ground. It had been amongst the most tense two minutes of my life. My dragoman was as pale as paper, and if a mirror had been handy I probably should have found I was not looking particularly pink.

At other places the road was through a defile, just wide enough at the bottom for the horses to find a tread, and rising slantingly to a dozen feet above the head. Now and then were patches of cobbled way, which seemed to begin anywhere and end nowhere. These were remnants of two thousand years ago, when the Romans were in possession of the country. All through Albania we came across pieces of Roman way. Sometimes we lighted upon them abruptly, and lost them with equal abruptness. Occasionally they led to a precipice side and then disappeared, telling that the country had altered somewhat since they were built. Fre-


quently the modern track diverged from that made by the ancient conquerors; but up a hillside could be seen the stone path like a broad, grey ribbon stretching over the hills. Broken and hazardous as was the route I happened to be following, it was the highway across Albania, running from Macedonia to Durazzo on the coast; and along it, though now deserted, a mighty army of long dead and forgotten had travelled in the story of over twenty centuries.

The Turks had done nothing to improve this road. It was just as Nature and the Romans had left it. At one place we seemed to make a sharp drop amongst black rocks. The winding, zig-zagging track had been worn for so many hundreds of years that a channel was cut out of the rock which was knee-deep when walking. Though the place was just a mass of knuckled rocks, it would have been impossible even for a blind man to miss his way, so well had the feet of countless generations worn the path.

That path led into the valley, where flowed the muddy Skumbi River, purling on its way toward the Adriatic. It led also to a bridge, built by the Romans, well arched, and as serviceable to-day as it was when they used it.

I saw a number of these Roman bridges in Albania. Some were useful as ever they were; some were in part decayed, with slabs and boulders gone into the stream; others had broken in twain. But I never saw a bridge which the Turks had repaired. There were great sections of ancient


bridges, partly stretching over rivers as though appealing to one another to be joined. The mending would not have cost much; would often have saved making detours of miles to find a fordable point. Not in a single place did I see a piece of road that was serviceable in joining one town with another.

I did see roads, however, which were monuments of futility. Between the Skumbi bridge and Elbasan the country is fairly level. Here were evidences of heroic, but silly, efforts to make a way. The authorities gave instructions to all the inhabitants of the region that they were to give four days' work a year to provide a good road to run from Elbasan to Struga. At the present pace it will not be accomplished for four thousand years, and will then not be any good. I saw this road-making going on, but only in those places which happened to be the easiest to travel over. The ground was smooth and level. It looked quite nice. A little rain, however, would turn the whole thing into slush. Then would come a mile or two of district where the people had not done their four days' work, and no vehicle could possibly travel along. Then there would be a mile of road made by the Government: plenty of earth thrown up like a railway embankment, with chiselled granite culverts, which were quite needless because they allowed escape for tiny streams you could jump across at their worst, and now all dry. Turkish officials at Elbasan were pleased with this "carriage way," as they love to call it. They overlooked the fact that before the carriage way could be reached from


Struga there were some forty miles of wild mountains, and before it could be reached from the Elbasan side the Skumbi River had to be forded at least five times, and the route along a hillside was no wider than a footpath. When I suggested that the difficult, rocky parts should be attacked, the invariable reply was, "Yes, but that is the hardest part, and so we don't do it."

A year or two ago an Italian engineer was engaged to oversee the making of a road. He began on an easy slope in the hills, and spent a million or two of medjedehs cutting out a broad way. It started from nowhere, and it ended where the rocks began. Then the Turks thought the engineer had better return to Italy. As it is, the patches of road are sheer waste. Nobody ever uses them, because they are not so easy to travel over as the rough track which has been worn haphazard. As things are now, even when the Skumbi River is reached there is much rank scrub to be pushed through, and there are many torrents to be waded, to say nothing of the several miles to be splashed up the bed of a dribbling stream, before the minarets of Elbasan rise above the trees which encircle the city. On the day we reached Elbasan we had been in the saddle for fourteen hours.

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