Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


A Refuse-heap of Nature - Benighted - A Dangerous Path - A Cheerless Night - Cigarettes for Breakfast - On the Mountain Top - The Down Grade - Permet - A Short Cut over the Mountains to Liaskovik - Turkish Courtesy - Albanian Wedding Festivities - A Turkish Bride - A Sixteen Hours' Ride - Koritza Again - An Antiquity! - Back at Monastir

THOUGH it was a blessed relief to escape from pestiferous Berat, there was no room for enthusiasm in regard to the track we were following. It was no wider than a sheep trail, and at places was indefinite. We should assuredly have gone wrong had not the Governor of Berat given me an Albanian gendarme who had been that way before. He had a fresh horse, and we moved as briskly as the broken country would permit, because we had only four hours of daylight, and he promised to land us, before darkness fell, in the han where we were to sleep.

We followed Indian file, pushing our horses to the utmost, up shallow river beds and through defiles which rose like frowning walls on either side. Though, when we reached a hill ridge, there was revealed an impressive vista of sombre mountains, we seemed to be travelling over a refuse heap of Nature.

There was nothing definite; the slopes were cracked; patches of bleached grass alternated with


bog. Then came a declivity covered with loose stones, which, when started by a horse's hoof, went clattering to the valley below.

For four hours we travelled quickly through that gaunt and weird part of the world. We had met no one; we had seen no hut. Darkness enfolded us. Our guide never ceased his pace as he spurred across rivers and hugged the side of the hills.

A night of pitch blackness. It was impossible to see a dozen yards. The wind soughed and shrieked over the mountains. There was the patter of rain, the sudden blaze of lightning, the boom of thunder. The vivid flashes showed our dangerous way, and lit up the country with the eerie glare of a magnesium light.

It was up precipitous hill and down steep dale that we went. Dwarf trees scrubbed us with their branches as we hastened along. We crossed a river where the water surged frothingly to the girths. Across a swamp we went slowly, with the horses plunging to the knees in the mire.

"How much further to the han?" was the demand. Ten minutes on. We followed for a full half-hour.

"How much further to the han?"

Another five minutes! We followed for threequarters of an hour. Still nothing but desolation on every hand.

The Turkish soldiers began swearing at the length of an Albanian ten minutes. We climbed to the hills again, and once more began a fearsome descent. A blaze of lightning showed the path was


down a rocky ledge with a dangerous precipice on one side. I have never laid claim to being a courageous man. I was not courageous then. I slipped from the saddle, and decided to walk. I think the Turks were glad of an excuse to do the same.

Picking our way, we lost it, and got separated. It was only by shouting that we kept in touch with one another. It was a good thing that the night was pitch, for had we been aware of the dangers of the route we should have hesitated to pursue it. It was not so difficult to leap from a ledge of rock to boulders, but the trouble was to compel the horses to follow. How we escaped disaster will be a wonder as long as I live.

When some of us got to a swampy hollow we waited for our fellows. It was raining. We were in a wretched condition whilst exchanging halloas with the men who could not find a track. We lit matches, and by the tiny flare gave indication to our friends where we were. The Albanian guide assured us that the han was only a minute or so away. He was comparatively correct, for, after a long paddle through swamp with willows reaching to our cheeks, we heard the swirl of a river, forded the turbulent stream, reached higher ground, and suddenly came upon the han.

We clamoured at the outer gate for admission. All was stillness. Looking over the wall, as I was able to do from my saddle, I distinguished someone crawling along in the dark. I shouted to my dragoman in English; the dragoman shouted in Turkish to the captain of the guard, and the captain of the


guard shouted in Albanian to the guide. At last the old han-keeper, who had imagined he was being besieged by a Greek "band," was made to understand we had no evil intentions. But he kept us shivering for long before he appeared with a dim light and opened the han gates. I was glad to throw myself down in my wet clothes upon the mud floor whilst the old man got some sticks and lit a fire which nigh reeked us out of the place. With the exception of munching some sodden bread we had in our bags, there was no supper. We all fell asleep where we lay.

We were on the move again at half-past three in the morning. The only breakfast any of us had was cigarettes. Even cigarettes, when you are cold and clammy, are welcome and refreshing. For hours we followed the river, splashing along its muddy banks, and frequently fording it. My dragoman told me that in the space of that morning we had crossed the river thirty-one times. In places were chasms of black rock. What struck me as peculiar was that the rocks were cracked exactly as though the rock-side was a mass of black bricks, the cracks in most places being absolutely regular.

When we first struck the river it was a tremendous volume of water. We tracked it into the hills until it became a trifling trickle.

It was bitterly cold. We were chilled to the marrow. When morning came, and at last the sun reached us, we were grateful. We were above the clouds. To look back from our height was to see hunchbacked mountains rising out of the sea of


cloud. Occasionally came a break, and we gazed into darksome ravines. They brought to my recollection some of Doré's pictures. But we had not yet reached the summit of the range. We corkscrewed among the broken hills like going upstairs. Indeed, some of the way was just as steep as the stairs in an ordinary house. But there was no balustrade; nothing, if the horse missed his footing, but a tumble into the clouds below.

I shall never forget the morning we were able to stand on the top of that mountain. Behind us were the black ravines; ahead was a mass of billowy cloud, whilst beneath we could gain peeps of a sunlit valley. Away beyond the clouds was another great range of grey mountains.

Down we went into the clouds, which touched us like a sea-fog; down, until we got amongst the shepherds, shaggy and uncouth; down, until we reached fields of maize and saw Albanian huts; down, until we actually struck a road - a poor thing, but still a road - and reached a han. There we had a couple of hours' rest. We were worn with long riding and no food, and did not object to the dirty rice which we were able to procure from the soldiers in charge.

We were now on the road which comes from Valona, making for Janina toward the Greek frontier. It was pleasant to jog along comfortably with no ragged hillsides to climb. We were thankful when, in the late afternoon, we came in sight of the town of Premedi or Permet, which seems to have been stuck out of the way in a crevice of the Nime-


retchka Mountains, a tremendous, imposing range, charmingly wooded near its base. The townspeople sighted us from a distance, and as we crossed the narrow cobbled bridge several hundreds were gathered to witness our arrival.

Permet is quite a pleasant little town, and though it was inconvenient being followed about by gaping crowds, the Turkish officials who called upon me were kind, and helped to hire horses to proceed further on the journey. Here again, however, just as at Berat, I had the utmost difficulty in gaining information about the way. I had been travelling S.E. from Berat, and I wanted to reach Koritza, which was in the N.E. I knew well about the great road which comes up from Janina through Koritza, making for Monastir. I was assured that the only way would be to journey further south until I hit that road, and then my way north would be without difficulty.

Money will do most things, and I was able to get hold of a man who assured me he knew a short cut over the mountains to the town of Liaskovik, which would save the better part of a day's journey. Off we went! It was nothing but a peasants' foottrack, but after my experience of what Albanian horses could do, I had no hesitation in putting them to the work of climbing this range.

The scenery was charming, and much like that of the Austrian Tyrol. The valley, cut by a pretty stream, was backed by the Nimeretchka Range, with clouds trailing the mountain tops. The weather was good and bright. It was curious, after climb-


ing the hills for long hours, to come upon little cups of cultivation, as it were, tiny patches where the Albanians grow their maize. I believe many of the Albanians prefer to live in these fastnesses rather than down in the apparently more agreeable valley, where they would be subject to attack by other clansmen.

Sunshine has a good effect on the spirits. Although we were grimy and unshaven, and in a land of brigandage, we cared nothing, but sang as we rounded shoulder after shoulder of the hills until Liaskovik came into sight. All the country about seemed burnt and barren; so the dark trees in the Liaskovik gardens were pleasant to the eye.

It was Sunday afternoon when we arrived, and as the trading inhabitants are Christians all the shops were closed, the Albanians had on their best Sunday garb, and were out promenading the narrow streets. Again I had evidence of Turkish courtesy. The Kaimakam (local Governor) had heard by telegram of my coming. He had sent a party of horsemen down the Janina road to meet me, but as I had come over the hills this additional escort was missed. Further, the Kaimakam had unkindly turned some Greeks out of the best room in the local inn, had actually had it washed, and had had the place decorated with curtains of outrageous pattern. This Turkish official was quite a pleasant young man. We had a walk together, whilst he waxed enthusiastic about the future of Liaskovik what a magnificent health resort it would make, because it was so high and dry, and because of the


sulphur springs in the district, and the sport of shooting bear, pig, goats, and partridges, to be had within half a day's journey.

In our walk we came to an outlying bunch of houses where festivities were in progress over a wedding which had taken place some weeks before. A month or six weeks of junketing always follows a wedding. The picturesquely garbed peasants were gathered in front of their little houses. There was the twanging of guitars and the shrill music of reed instruments. The Albanians danced and postured and sang, and were the lightest-hearted people on earth. Though poor, they were full of courtesy. I watched their happiness from a distance. Soon they sent one of their number with a tray bearing Turkish delight and mastic. The Turkish delight was not particularly pleasant to the palate, and the mastic burnt one's throat; but the kindly greeting to the stranger was there, and I appreciated it. When I turned to go the dancing stopped everybody stood, and the musicians played a good-bye air.

That afternoon Liaskovik was in the throes of much excitement. The son of the Bey was taking to himself as wife the daughter of a rich pasha of Koritza, and the damsel was expected to arrive at sundown that evening. The young couple had never seen one another, for the marriage had been arranged by the relatives. There was, however, as much jubilation and band-playing as though the wedding were the triumph of long years of affection between the pair. The groom and about a hundred


of his Albanian friends, all in Albanian garb and on horseback, had ridden earlier in the day along the Koritza road to give the young lady welcome. I went out to witness the arrival. It was an exciting scene. There was a rush of horsemen: the Albanians were in their most picturesque coats, with silver girdles, and kilts dancing, the tassels of their red fezzes on the constant swing, their red shoes stuck in high stirrups - thin Albanians, fat Albanians, all clinging to their animals as they came pell-mell, beating into one another, through the streets of Liaskovik. Then a procession of ramshackle landaus, dusty themselves with the two days' journey from Koritza, but not so dusty, it seemed, as the guests they were bringing, who were masked in dust, but smiled through it all as they returned the innumerable greetings of the townspeople. At last came the carriage with the bride. It was the most tumbled-about old four-wheeler I had ever set eyes upon; but it was tricked out with coloured streamers, whilst on the top was a kind of red bedquilt. The windows were closed, but one was broken. Inside sat a tiny figure wrapped in red. She was shrouded, except the upper part of her face. Her eyes looked affrightedly on the strange, howling, turbulent mob that filled the streets and gave her raucous welcome. Poor little Turkish bride!

The following day I did the longest ride of my life. We were in the saddle at one in the morning, and it was half-past seven that night before our tired horses took us into Koritza. Excepting a halt


of two hours, between nine and eleven in the morning, we were on the move practically the whole of the time. I fancy the Turkish soldiers used vigorous language in regard to myself for bringing them out in the middle of the night, for, as I have said, if there is one thing the Turk hates it is to travel in the dark. I was given the customary stories about the brigandage in the district. I do not know how many men had been picked off who had presumed to travel out of broad daylight. My reply was that I did not want to break through their habits, but that I was going on, and that they could come on later if they wished. The moment they realised I meant what I said they were willing to sacrifice their lives by accompanying me and resisting the attacks of any brigands who might be on the road.

The country opened out and was pleasantly undulating, but without any striking features. During those sixteen hours we trotted along without any adventure.

At Koritza I heard through my dragoman that it was possible to pick up interesting antiquities in the town. I sent for the men who were supposed to have valuables. They brought me wretched newly-made Austrian rugs and villainous Greek oleographs. I made them understand I wanted antiques, and nothing but antiques. One man was struck with a sudden inspiration. He had a wonderful antique, two thousand years old at least! It was Greek - it was Roman - he did not know what it was, but it was very, very valuable! It was the head of a bull, small, wonderfully cut in precious


metal - a most valuable antique! I was interested, and asked him to bring it to me. He did. It was wrapped in a handkerchief; he unfolded the precious thing. It was just an ordinary tin-opener with a bull's head - such as you can purchase for 4 ½ d., but with the blade broken! Some traveller had thrown it away because it was useless.

More difficulty about horses. I desired to cross country to Kastoria. Quite impossible! There was no road, and what road there was would take two days. And then, when I learnt there was a very good road, there were no horses to be obtained. The fact of the matter was that between Koritza and Kastoria Bulgarian revolutionary bands were in the hills, and the owners of horses were not going to run any risk of having them captured. They did not mind the foreigner being seized, but they had qualms of conscience about their animals.

So once again I changed my route, and made back to Monastir by following a road along the western side of Lake Presba. I did not regret it, because the way was pleasant, and the scenery really beautiful. The lake-side road was fringed with fir-trees; little farmsteads were by the way; there was shade under the vines, and grapes were a penny a bunch. On Presba Lake are a couple of pretty little islands, and on these islands are Greek monasteries. It would have been a delight to spend a month in this exquisite spot, boating on the charming waters, and visiting the grottoes by the lake-side.

In the course of that day I left behind the


country of the Albanians, and got back into Macedonia, where the population was Bulgarian. The men of my escort were pleased to turn their horses into the lake and let them splash in the cool water.

My dragoman and myself rode on ahead. We were going through a wood, and came to a bend, when we suddenly encountered a priest on a pony having conversation with a Bulgarian. The fact that the Bulgarian was armed was proof he was a revolutionary. The two men were a little startled at a couple of European-clad individuals approaching them. We saluted them pleasantly, and I managed to get a photograph. Within a minute along came the Turkish soldiers. When the Bulgarian "bandsman"' sighted them he stood not upon the order of his going, but went at once. He sprang into the adjoining wood and disappeared. The priest became particularly meek, and sent his pony ambling along, pretending he was altogether too religious a person to be connected with the revolutionary movement.

We reached Resna that night, and were back at Monastir by the middle of the next day.

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