Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


A Dismal Journey - Berat at Sunset - A Fever-breeding Town - Koritza - A Specimen of the Eastern Christian - Goodbye to Berat

ALMOST due south from Elbasan lies Berat. How far the distance is as the crow flies I do not know. In the East you never reckon by distance, but by length of time. By hard riding, and with only two halts of half an hour each, the journey was accomplished in fourteen hours. With the exception of the last half-hour it rained during the whole of the time.

We were to have started at two o'clock in the morning. The Albanian guide, whom I had hired to show the way, and my dragoman and myself were ready. The Turkish soldiers, however, were not eager to turn out into the rain and the dark. Two days' halt in a town like Elbasan, where there were the attractions of the coffee-houses and cheap tobacco, had demoralised them.

When the men who acted as advance guard were ready some of us made a start. The guide, on an ambling nag, which made a terrible fuss in progress, but never seemed to go very fast, led the way through the dark alleys of the city, whilst we were challenged alternately by ducks and soldiery.


Beyond the city I cried a halt to let the soldiers catch us up. We sat with bent heads and backs toward the slashing rain, waiting for the laggards. At the end of half an hour, as there were no signs of them, I sent back the guide. He gave spur to his nag, and disappeared into the darkness. Soon came the sound of shouting from the city, and one of the guard raised an answering yell. Up rode the captain and his men, swearing they had been scampering all over Elbasan trying to find us. We were ready to go on; but we had lost our guide. Another half-hour was wasted before he came back. We were cold and wet, and I was in no amiable temper at the waste of considerably over an hour before a real start was made.

A disconsolate crowd we were during the first hour or two. Nobody spoke. The only sound was the splash of horse-hoofs in the mud.

Daylight came slowly and with no joy. The country was flat and swampy, cut by innumerable racing streams, which growled angrily over huge boulders. Frequently the curve of a stream had to be followed for half a mile before a place could be found to ford. The waters rose higher than the girths, even up to our knees, and there were moments when the animals, uncertain of their foothold in the icy swirl, were like to lose balance and bring disaster.

I do not know how many times we crossed streams or the same stream in serpentine twist. In heavy rains the whole of the valley, a couple of miles wide, can be no other than a river. There


were patches of willows, but the track was over mudbanks and stretches of grey cobbles.

Rain was continuous. I was wearing a much-advertised macintosh, but even that got soaked right through. The soldiers were muffled and heavily cloaked. They were too melancholy even to smoke cigarettes - which showed they were melancholy indeed. We stood in the rain within the shelter lent by our horses, and munched sodden bread for our midday meal.

There came a crack in the clouds, and far to our left we could see the crest of Tomorica, the great mountain of Central Albania. But the rain settled down again, and shut out the view. Then, of course, our guide lost his way. It was little wonder he should, in that wilderness of desolation. But all the Turks and the solitary Briton cursed him for an ignoramus. He led us up streams, made us climb steep mud-banks, made long detours. Then he confessed he had never been to Berat before, but thought he knew the way from what some muleteers in Elbasan had told him.

By the pocket compass I knew the direction, and my maps showed that the valley would lead to Berat. For an hour we floundered. At last we struck a trail which we followed. Then we fortunately met a peasant with a couple of mules. He put us on the right way. Instead of following the valley we could take a cut over a spur of the hills which would save us three or four hours. We found the short cut. It was a piece of the old Roman path, made of huge boulders, but worn into


cups with centuries of wear, so that there was imminent danger of one or more of the horses breaking a leg. It was as steep as a stair, completely overhung with trees. We were compelled to bend our bodies until cheeks rested on the manes of the horses. So close-knit were the trees that at some points the passage was almost as dark as a tunnel.

It is to be hoped that the Roman legions, when they travelled this way to Berat, found the path more easy than the Turkish soldiers and myself found it that wretched drizzling afternoon. The one satisfaction was the firm knowledge we were on the right road.

On the mountain top the rain ceased, the clearest of blue skies was revealed, and down below us the valleys were filled with billowy clouds.

The evening of that soaked day made recompense. Our way was through continuous slush. Being inured, we did not mind. We raised a shout when Berat hove in sight. It is not a city you come across casually. It raises its walls from a great knuckle of black rock which guards the entrance to the valley. With the sun shining full upon it, it looked the kind of battlemented city one finds in illustrations of mediaeval chivalry. But Berat has outgrown itself, and, like Ochrida, tumbles down a slope to the River Arum, on the muddy flats of which, and near a fine specimen of a Roman bridge, it stretches itself.

Gloriously impressive though the upper city looks in the glow of the setting sun, all romantic thoughts disappear during a walk within its gates. The foul-


ness of the upper city is only equalled by the disgusting condition of the lower. I was told there had been no rain for three months; now there had been a couple of days' downpour. The sun blazed upon the mass of damp filth, and the conditions were vile indeed. The upper town is inhabited by Albanian Christians, whilst the lower town is chiefly occupied by Albanian Moslems. Each section seemed to be desirous to outrival the other in making the place a stew-pan of fever.

Perhaps it is because for a couple of days I was racked with fever, and only secured relief by hastening to the hills in desperation of pain, that my recollections of the place are not quite so genial as I admit I should like them to be. I had the customary foul sleeping accommodation, and my diet consisted largely of quinine. I should have made my escape the first morning had it not been that I was almost prostrate, and because it was impossible to find anybody willing to act as guide over the mountains to Koritza, lying to the east. Austrian maps which I carried indicated that there was a way. I saw the Governor of Berat, but he had never heard of a path. I told him I was making my way back to Monastir. What I could not make him understand was that I was anxious to go by land. His constant argument was, why not make for the coast, to Valona for instance, and there find boat which would take me round to Salonika quite comfortably in a week, and another day would land me at Monastir by train? It was so easy, so comfortable compared with the trials of crossing the


mountains, which, he assured me, nobody had ever accomplished. I interviewed muleteers, rather awkwardly I confess, because it was by means of double translation - through my dragoman who spoke Turkish, and then through the captain of the guard, who spoke both Turkish and Albanian, while the muleteers spoke Albanian only. The information lost much in the transit, especially as the captain was not at all desirous of making the journey. He, though protesting he was willing to follow me anywhere, was positive there were no villages, that no food was to be obtained, and that with the rains the precipitous paths would be quite impossible for the horses.

Very reluctantly, therefore, I had to abandon getting across to Koritza by the way I wanted, which I calculated could have been done, allowing for the extremely mountainous and broken state of the country, within three days.

When, a week later, I arrived at Koritza by another route, everybody there assured me that the journey between Koritza and Berat was quite usual, and that, although muleteers took three days, anybody willing to travel fast could easily have accomplished it in two! This is the kind of discrepancy which makes the endeavour to understand the Eastern mind so difficult.

Most people I talked to were certain the only way I could get back to Monastir was by the way I had come, or to go to Valona and thence travel by boat. However, I learnt there was a road which ran from Valona to Janina (in Epirus), and I knew


quite well from reading and from maps that there was a track from Janina to Koritza. It seemed to be beyond the Albanian mind to understand that although it might be impossible to get to a place direct, the journey could be accomplished by a land detour.

So I was delighted when I found a man who was willing to guide me, in a day, from Berat to the Valona-Janina road. But he was a Christian, and, I am sorry to say, like so many Eastern Christians, a liar. First of all he insisted that as he was running risk of his life he must be paid five Turkish lira for the hire of three horses and himself as guide. That was an extravagant sum in a country where horse hire is cheap. I was desirous of starting at once, in the middle of the day, but he swore by his religion we could not possibly get to a sleeping place that night. A soldier attendant at the Governor's residence was sure there was a han four or five hours' journey further on. He was sneered at; that han had been in ruins for years. Then I learnt that the reason the good Christian, who wanted twice as much as would have been excellent pay, did not desire to start until the next morning was because he had no horses of his own, but some ponies were expected in with loads from the south that would have to start back unladen the next morning, and he was trying to conclude a "deal" to send myself and my dragoman upon them to the Valona road in charge of the peasants, who, of course, knew the way, of which he, personlly, was entirely ignorant. He would have given


perhaps a couple of lira to the men, which would have been excellent pay, and have pocketed three lira himself. When I learnt the truth I fancy I bundled him rather unceremoniously out of the place. Later he came whining round, saying he could arrange to have me shown for two lira. I told him I would not let him have anything to do with the journey if he was willing to take me for a medjedeh. Then he whined about being a brother Christian. I told him that one of the reasons I would have nothing to do with him was that he was a Christian, instead of being an honest Mahommedan like his fellows.

As soon as it was known I had made up my mind to bargain with the incoming caravan myself I had owners of ponies tumbling over one another to let me have the hire of animals. I picked up one man, got his solemn word he was no Christian, and hired him and three ponies for three lira. A very excellent fellow he proved to be. Though my limbs ached and my head was in a buzz with fever and quinine, I insisted on starting in the middle of the afternoon. It was heaven itself to breathe fresh air after the stinks of Berat. Within three hours the fever had gone, and I was glad to have bidden good-bye to Berat and its pestilence.

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