The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon

The insurgent provinces


"I HAVE found a room," says Dimitri with a joyful countenance, "and the view is wonderful."

" 'Tis good," we respond laconically, though inwardly rejoicing. The prospect of a night in this most miserable of hans - where unclean beds lie like sardines in a tin, and below in the courtyard the mud is ankle deep and reeking - was far from pleasing.

At the further end of the village of Rilo, straggling irregularly along the banks of the noisy torrent, stands our abode, clean and sweet, and commanding a view of snowcapped mountains for which Swiss innkeepers would charge exorbitantly. Huge rocks have tumbled down the ravine, constructing massive gateways, through which the little road turns and twists beside the roaring stream. Some of the distant peaks glisten fitfully as a gust of wind clears away the clouds for a brief moment. Down their vast slopes stretches the virginal snow of the first autumnal fall, white and delicate like powdered sugar. Cold as it is, we sit long upon the verandah watching the everchanging panorama, as clouds lift and fall, disclosing fresh beauties.

Then we visit the nuns, still worldly enough to show obvious pleasure at the appearance in their midst of British travellers. We talk platitudes and escape after disposing of very evil-tasting liqueurs, which make the newcomer to


the Balkans pull wry faces as politely as he can. Burly soldiers slink away as we emerge once more outside, and we fear that the holy nuns are very human, for surely those were giggles, and very feminine ones at that, that we heard a moment before.

The room next to ours is occupied by a captain of infantry and the sole officer in Rilo. We waylay him as he enters, somewhat uncertain as to what language to address him in, but he solves the difficulty by speaking in English. Like all his comrades, he is enthusiastic at our presence and invites us straightway to his quarters.

Supper is spread in his room, with contributions from us, and we feast together till our watches proclaim the witching hour of nine, the midnight of mountaineering travellers. We have conversed on many topics, on war and the Turk as a matter of course, on the captain's lonely post, and on the subject of diet, when the captain becomes fanatical. He advocates grapes and milk as the only true food, but we are fain to disagree.

"Well enough in their way," says Jimmy, "but give me an occasional repast of meat."

This motion is carried by a majority of two to one.

It is nine o'clock before we start for the Monastery next morning. We have a steady climb of four hours before us, up that gloomy ravine, threading our way tortuously between lofty ridges of forest-clad mountain, a very kaleidoscope of colour. Leaving our steeds far behind, we tramp briskly forwards, keenly enjoying the nipping air and unparalleled view. Patrols with fixed bayonets we pass constantly, but no one stops us, in spite of the fact that permits are necessary in these parts. They salute us smartly and wish us a pleasant journey, telling us the distance



still to be covered. (It was only a few days later that an unlucky German correspondent was summarily arrested and marched down under guard as a suspicious character.)

That walk to Rilo Monastery, with its grand mountains, the picturesque log huts and humming saw mills beside the foaming torrent, will long remain in our memories. Truly, in autumn God has given us an ample recompense for the departed summer. Other pens than this have painted the glories of autumnal tints, but seldom were they so brought home to us as on the Rilo mountains. It was one long feast of colour.

Suddenly, barring our way across the narrow valley, rose a massive wall pierced by a great gateway and deep-set windows. Rilo Monastery at last!

There can be few more striking buildings in the world. It is when inside the huge courtyard that the unique effect is most felt. A square, four stories high, painted vividly in black and white, surrounds the newcomer; in the centre is the church, an almost gaudy Byzantine edifice; beside it an ancient and very majestic tower, the oldest part of the Monastery. Galleries run round the entire length, now thronged with hundreds of Macedonian refugees. Black cassocked monks with the Greek sugar-loaf hat hurry to and fro, while grey-coated, flat-capped soldiers and smart gendarmes lend a military air to this strange scene. Seemingly overhanging the vast building rise the lofty mountains, now sparkling with fresh fallen snow in the sunlight. It is a wonderful sight, and we linger on the gallery as a monk leads us to our cell, a comfortably furnished apartment on the first floor, No. 87 (which gives some idea of the vast number of rooms).

Then the monks come and visit us, bearing us off to their


Abbot's room, where we are regaled with sweet conserves, coffee and spirits, and take us over the church and the library crammed with holy relics of most beautiful workmanship; numberless gold and bejewelled crosses borne once upon a time by the monks as a badge of office when visiting their flocks in far-away villages; wonderfully illuminated vellums, the charters from long dead Sultans; gigantic candles presented by forgotten princes, one even from the Sultan Amuruth, who broke for ever the Serb Empire on the bloody field of Kossovo. The church itself is most curious, with its weird and crude frescoes of most vivid colouring, and its altar screen a mass of gilt; while decorating (!) the outside walls are ghastly pictures of the torments of hell, depicted with true Oriental fervour. How sad to see a religion dependent on these horrors for the belief of its adherents, playing thus on the credulity of ignorant peasants!

Then we are taken up the ancient tower to the tiny chapel on the topmost floor, where once a month a Mass is celebrated, and down into the dungeon without light or air, and shown the iron rings to which unhappy madmen were chained in olden times, till they had beaten out their brains in savage frenzy upon these massive walls. Shuddering, we emerge, to realize that there is something in modern civilization after all.

We inspect the refugees and their quarters. They are mostly women, children, and old men. Poor wretches, they have found peace, warmth, and food at least, but all that was dear to them, husbands, honour, home, is lost. Their stories? The same as we have heard countless times in Macedonia - a fight in the neighbourhood, the arrival of infuriated Turkish soldiers, then massacre,violation, plunder,


and fire. There are 800 here now, last week there were over 2,000, but they have been taken into the interior of Bulgaria to more comfortable lodgings. To-morrow more will arrive with fresh stories of mutilation and horror.

A sound of singing, deep-chested and melodious, approaches. It is the Bulgarian infantryman's marching song. Now it echoes sonorously, and bending over the balustrades we see the company stationed in the Monastery swing in with the slow springing stride of the mountaineer after their afternoon drill on the little square outside the walls.

Later on in the evening we hear them again, as we sit in our well-warmed cell over the remnants of a sumptuous meal, with a flagon of the monks' best wine between us, singing the "Evening Hymn" to the martial accompaniment of a roll of drums. Ere the echo has died away we go out on to the corridor. The moon is shining brightly, illuminating the great courtyard with her silver light, throwing fantastic shadows over the chequered walls and church. Beyond are the gloomy pines, chequered too where a clearing shows a patch of snow, and soaring away into the starlit heavens rise the wild peaks. Then all is still. The soldiers have quickly retired to their rooms. There is not a sound to disturb this perfect harmony of black and white. The sentry with his gleaming bayonet makes no sound as he paces to and fro in his soft solid opankis, and then we shiver, for the cold is very intense.

Back into our well-warmed room we go, pipes are refilled, and we talk. Ah! how a man can talk in such surroundings.

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