Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


Out of the World - Tirnova in the Sunrise - A Primitive Inn - The Tariff - " Ver' Good English" - A Litigious Community - The Churches - Monastery of the Transfiguration

TIRNOVA is the ancient capital of Bulgaria. Literally, Tirnova means "the thorn," and this quaintly perched city, to the north of the first Balkan range, is not only shaped like a thorn but has truly been a thorn in the side of Europe.

It is away from the tourist track. It has not been touched by the stucco civilisation which marks Sofia. It is old Bulgaria, picturesque, romantic, sleepy.

The plain of Plevna is to the north. The land becomes restless and knuckled before the Balkans push their black shoulders skywards. There is a gnarled rock-heave with the purling river Yantra making a pear-shaped sweep at its base. On the rock Tirnova rises.

If the rock on which Edinburgh Castle is built were ten times the size, and it were nigh circled by a river, and on the rock were built a ramshackle town, and hanging over the side of the rock were bits of the town that could not gain full foothold, it would give a fair idea of Tirnova.

I saw it first in a mixture of mist and gorgeous sunrise. It was as fantastic as a much-daubed stage-setting of a medieval town. I was down in


the chasm, and wraiths of vapour trailed along the river banks. There was cold shadow, and tall pines showing how straight they could stand on precipitous ledges. Above, like a picture through the clouds, was the town, bulging over the rocks, propped-up, wheezy: a hotch-potch of white buildings with garish yellow shuttering and balconies, festooned with the dead green of the vine, and, above the ragged house-line, a sky that was bluepure blue, with no qualification, no accentuation, just blue.

When I climbed into the town I felt as though I had trespassed upon a stage during a performance, when the scene is filled with swarthy peasants in kaleidoscopic raiment. My grey lounge suit was out of harmony with the splashes of rainbow hue among the traffickers in the market.

I had a cheery dumpling of a driver, who made himself all the more of a dumpling by entwining his waist with enough red baize to cover a stand for a royal procession. I was in a crooked, ricketty carriage, which banged and jolted over the cobbles, and seemed to be playing quite a clever game of cup-and-ball with me. I never fell out once, but I got more shaking in a two-mile drive than most folk get in a railway accident. When my friend had deposited me in front of a gaunt and darkbowelled inn he told me his fare was 1s. 3d. When I gave him 1s. 8d. he bowed to the ground.

A great and rich foreigner was visiting Tirnova! I found a seat on a shaky chair - everything in Tirnova is uneven: to keep everything else in


countenance, no doubt-and had half a pint of good wine for 3d.; a small glass of native brandy for my friend cost 1d. The landlord, a morose individual, led the way to a room, up stairs that were drunken, and through a door that absolutely refused to close. There was a bed which had four legs, but never stood on more than three at a time, and when I was in it was in a constant wobble, trying to show its cleverness in standing on only two but never succeeding. Water to wash - for I was grimy with an all-night journey. Certainly! A pint was brought. Not enough. In time I showed I was a mad Briton by having four pails of water brought in. That was all right; but two of the pails leaked, and the water escaped into a sort of restaurant below. The main ornament of my room was behind the bed - a sort of hearthrug in violent colours, depicting an Arab sheikh escaping with a plum-eyed damsel - who was sitting on the neck of the horse, whilst her arms were around the neck of her captor - and leaving far behind an Eastern town which apparently consisted of nothing but mosques. There was as much art in the mat as in the samplers our industrious grandmothers worked when they were young women. But there was more colour. There was a French door to the roomof course, it jammed - leading on to a balcony which was so flimsy that it ought to have tumbled down the rocks into the river. But it did not. That caused me much wonder.

Yes, I had got into an unfrequented part of the world. I had six eggs and plenty of fresh


butter; a plate of beans and another plate of sliced tomatoes; then half a litre of wine and a cup of Turkish coffee; and this - including a meal for my driver, two glasses of brandy for him, and feed for three horses - cost 1s. ½ d.

My conversation with the landlord, whose countenance suggested sour wine, was fragmentary and unsatisfactory. Delight, therefore, was consequent on the bouncing appearance of a fair and florid little man, who excitedly exclaimed, "Me speak English." "Capital," said I, "and where did you learn it?" "Me speak!" "Yes, I know, but where did you learn? In London?" "No - small boy - ver' small boy - two year - Australia; me Englishman; me speak eight languages. Me speak English good, eh?" "Then will you kindly tell the landlord that I should like my room swept." "Swep'? 'Me no 'stand swep' - me speak English, ver' good English, eh?"

He beamed and glowed and puffed and basked within the admiring gaze of the restaurant loungers as the one man in all Tirnova who could speak English. Later, through my interpreter, I brought him to positive tears by regretting that his knowledge of English was so limited. "What say? Me small boy - two year - Australia - me Englishman." Later he came to my room. He knew I was a great and powerful man! He also was an Englishman. He wanted to leave Bulgaria and go to London! But he had no money. Would I tell the British Government to send him £250? I mourned the callous-heartedness of the British Government,


and, whilst promising to do my best, should befitting opportunity occur, I besought him not to base too much expectation on the fatherly sentiment of the British Government towards a German born in Australia, who was removed when only two years old. I left him in renewed tears.

The streets of Tirnova are narrow, excruciatingly cobbled, foetid, but kept in a state of rank coolness by all the waste water being thrown into the way. The carts, hauled by slow and cumbrous black buffaloes, screech. Ponies, packed with wood, jostle along under whacking and much swearing. The vendors of melons - the cheap vegetable on sale in the gutters - wail and blaspheme when a cart-wheel crushes and squelches melon; a bony donkey, piled high with cocks and hens tied together with twine - rather uncomfortable for the poultry, one would think - is driven by a big, broad, brawny, red-petticoated woman, whose stick is plied on the nose of every buffalo or pony which does not swerve out of the way. Half the male population, even in mid-morning, are idling before the cafes, sipping gritty concoctions, puffing innumerable cigarettes, and playing dominoes.

Tirnova is litigious. Perhaps it is an inheritance; maybe it is something in the air. But in all Bulgaria there is not another town where the people are always having the law on one another. The courts are busy. I do not believe it is because the Tirnovians are either rapacious or dishonest. They are famous for their lawsuits, famous for their street of lawyers, and they take a sort of civic pride


in upholding the notoriety of their town. The lawyers have shops - just like chandlers and dealers in cigarettes. In the window is a stack of musty and dusty volumes, but a good space is left so that the lawyer may be seen at his desk with important papers before him, a cigarette between his lips, and a cup of coffee at his elbow. If he have a client in hand a good view is provided for the passersby of the pair in confab. If not, he is usually to be seen wheeled round, sitting close to the window, gazing abstractedly at the wall across the way, but certainly in evidence, and on the spot if any Tirnovian merchant wishes to maintain his reputation by an action in the courts. In the eyes of Tirnova a man who does not go constantly to law has something wrong in his composition.

Further, the people are very proud of their decrepit city. For two hundred years, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it was the capital of Bulgaria. Here lived the kings, and I barked my shins clambering the crumbled walls they built to resist the invaders. Here were plotted the revolutions which drove south the Byzantine power. Kings died of their wounds beyond the gates. In the dim year of 1257, when kings and kings' offspring were slain, there gathered here the first National Assembly, and Constantine Ticho was chosen king. Ever since then, though the fortunes of Bulgaria were broken, though the hill lands between Bulgaria and Servia were often stained with blood, though Tirnova in its corner seemed out of the way and Sofia waxed large, the fortress town never forgot


and never failed to insist that it is the lord of Bulgarian towns and deserving reverence. When the unhappy Prince Alexander, not many years ago, was forced to abdication by Russia, the three men who composed the Regency came from Tirnova. When Ferdinand was elected Prince he was not really in the saddle till he had come to Tirnova and been proclaimed. The Tirnova man likes to tell the stranger how for centuries his ancestors fought the Turks. As he sits before his cafe trifling with the dominoes he may look a lethargic gentleman; but when the talk touches something affecting Tirnova there is a quick spark in the eye which tells much.

Here, as elsewhere, the quiet relics of a noble past are the churches. Wandering down the ragged hillside I came to the Church of the Forty Martyrs, low-roofed, dim, vault-like, but sturdy. John Osen, the king, built it in 1330. The Turks made it into a mosque in 1389. Christian worship did not take place in it again until 1877. Only a bit of the old edifice remains. The granite pillars are of various periods. One came from a Roman temple; another is undoubtedly Greek. The Christians had helped themselves to the ruins left by former worshippers. I turned the pages of books of prayer in the tongue of ancient Slav: wafer-like, brown, crumbling in the hand.

I went down grooved stone steps to the Metropolitan Church, its glory faded, and with only one service a year now. The old dame, the custodian, had lost the key; she had no hesitation in sug-


gesting that the lock should be broken. But, at the end of three-quarters of an hour, during which time I sat and smoked in the shade, the key was found. A dark interior, with indifferent frescoes of outrageous-visaged saints. The pillars were black marble - loot, no doubt, from a Grecian temple. In a cell, accidentally discovered by a crack in the wall, were found wonderful old manuscripts - a rich delving ground for the antiquary, I ween. The stalls for the monks, shades of memory, were cobwebbed. In the gloom could be discerned innumerable ikons; from a beam hung massive candelabra.

There was something eerie about this silent, gloomy, old place, with its pavements grooved by the feet of men and women long gone and long forgotten - forsaken now, save for its once-a-year ceremonial. But I wondered, as I prayed in that sanctuary of the dead, if there ever came the spirits of the little children given the kiss of greeting into the Holy Church, of tired old men who had hobbled there and given their thanks to God. For an hour I had the church to myself. I sat in the stall of a monk. From a slat, high in the roof, gushed a broad stream of sunshine and illumined the face of the Virgin. It was an hour of peace and thought.

The sun was high, the road was dusty, and the horses raced. I was off to visit the Monastery of the Transfiguration. The way twined and rose, and twined again.

We left the road and struck along in the cool of


high trees. The drowse was broken by the drip of water. A curve, and there was the Monastery. There were no old and hoary walls, no odour of sanctified centuries. It was bright and variegated. The sward was richest green, the sky was deepest blue. The walls were white, but blazoned with pictures in brilliant pigment. The tiles were warm to ruddiness, and vines trailed everywhere.

For an instant I forgot this was a Monastery. If damsels with short skirts and long hair had appeared, swinging garlands and singing and rhythmically kicking their heels, I should have accepted it all. But there was no peach-cheeked maiden. There was a kindly monk in long cassock who came forward and gave me a handshake. "Come and rest," said he. We went into a balconied alcove, high perched, shadowed, but overlooking heavily wooded hills, whilst away on one side stretched a vast bleached plain. It was cool; there was a breeze; eagles glided slowly on the wind.

And then a saunter. The monks were proud of the vines which drooped by the casements of their dormitories; they were prouder of the wine they made. The church was small and white. There were frescoes of saints - of estimable morals, no doubt, but certainly of quaint anatomy. There was the refectory, a long, low-roofed room; where the monks ate their vegetables on marble-topped tables, all keeping silence save the appointed brother who read a pious discourse. My host, a kindly monk, had as decorations in his room photographs


of dead friends-the photographs taken after the friends were dead, laid out on a table before the house, and relatives standing round looking their best - rather after the "wedding group" style with us. Cheerful pictures!

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