Correspondence for the New York Evening Post

Albert Sonnichsen




Across the Servian frontier

By Albert Sonnichsen


New York Evening Post (Saturday, September 9, 1905)

Saturday supplement

Pages 1 to 8


[Special Correspondence of The Evening Post]




Scans as a .pdf file (0.7 Mb)



Where Serbs and Bulgars meet to forget past quarrels


A Typical "Sobor" Heid This Year at Vlacina — Smuggling on the Frontier, from Which King Peter Has Removed His Guards — Characteristics of the Serbs and Bulgars Contrasted



KUSTENDIL, Bulgaria, August 17. — There is s road leading out of our town in a westerly direction which forks some ten kilometres away at the foot of the mountains. The left fork will take you over a nearby ridge into the land of Abdul Hamid and barbarism, if you are provided with a leather-bound passport covered with the signatures of Turkish diplomatic agents and consuls and pashas. Those who travel by the more direct route to the steel passport do not take the road at all, but cut across the beech and pine-covered mountains.


The fork to the right loads to milder and pleasanter country, into the kingdom of King Peter of Servia, where you do not need a passport at all. It is a longer road, two days' travel over forbidding looking mountains and through dark, silent forests on foot or on horse, for no wheels ever roll along those narrow trails. I have just returned from a ten days' trip into Servia along that way, the impressions of which will linger pleasantly with me for some time to corns. After a year among the Bulgarians, I have seen something of the Servians, and I have been drawing comparisons that are not odious.




We set out on foot. My companion was a man who came on his own business, but he knows the country about the frontiers here as I know the walks of my garden. So it was that we came across mountains in thirty-six hours at an easy gait which ordinary traveller crosses in two days of hard walking. The night of the second day we spent in a small village hid in a dark canon close up to the Servian frontier. The houses were large and well built, the people were well clothed, and looked prosperous.


"How can these people prosper so," I asked, “away off here in the mountains, where even a goat must toil early and late to make a living?"


"It is just because they are far off from anywhere," replied my friend, "that they prosper. They toil early and late, but in the day they sleep."


He held up in his fingers a pinch of tobacco, which he was rolling into a cigarette, and I saw it was not the Government cut.


Early next morning we started with a company of twenty villagers and frontier merchants, with whom we should travel to the first town in Servia on our way. The trail was up, winding through ravines and up the sides of high ochre buffs. Below us dropped the small valley, and now I could see that trails from Various directions converged in this one point. Here and there in the distance short strings of villagers or travellers tolled upwards along these trails, the brilliant colors of the women's costumes, some mounted on ponies, being visible long before the sober brown of the men. I saw hundreds of them, all coming the same way, toward the frontier.


"It is a great occasion," said a villager; "there is to be a sobor, " in the next town across the frontier; Serbs and Bulgars meet there to drink and dance together and forget the quarrels of the year."


We came suddenly upon a small, half-unroofed house on the brow of a bare hill. As we approached I saw weeds and shrubs were growing in the doorless doorway.


"That’s the frontier," said my companion.


"But the guards?" I asked. I had in my mind the posts along the Turkish frontier swarming with dirty, white-fezzed Albanians and fluttering red flags above.


"Abolished two years ago," replied my frient; "abolished with the passports. Since Peter cape to the throne the Servians spelt Progress with a big P." And so it was; we crossed the frontier unchallenged and caught not a glimpse of an official uniform till we got some kilometres into Servian territory, when we came suddenly upon a small customs house in the forest, whose purpose seemed to be the collection of fifteen centimes on each horse that passed either way. Of persons on foot they took no notice whatever.




By this time the road became well crowded with the Bulgarian villagers in their holiday costumes, those of the women weighted with gold braid and lace and strings of gold coins. By their costumes we could distinguish the villages from which they came, or my friend could, at least, for the differences were trining.


The town if the sobor, Vlacina, was on the top of a huge, round, bare hill that rose front the midst of a great swamp which we were two hours in traversing by a winding trail. Once it had been the stronghold of some feudal pasha. Even before we reached the base of the hill we heard the low, monotonous tum-tum of big drums and the blare of trumpets and fifes. Servian peasants were now intermingling in our procession, the men distinguishable by their national caps of blue cloth, whose stiff flaps rise slightly above the crowns, such as men wore in the time of Henry VIII. and Elizabeth. The women were especially attractive in flaming red skirts and yellow kerchiefs embroidered in gold, flung across their heads or shoulders, their thick, blond hair hanging below in big braids. Unlike the women of central Bulgaria, their feet and hands, though not small, were well shaped and their figures tall and slim.


We climbed the hill and entered into the noise of the town, a brilliant, gay confusion of sounds. and colors. Strings of dancers circled about groups of swarthy gypsy musicians with the slow, halting step that is peculiar to the hora, or threaded their way down the narrow lanes between the booths of the vendors of drinks and fruits and cloth stuffs, who sat squatting under awnings behind their wares, Turkish fashion. There must have been five thousand people in the small town, and as I looked over the assembly I failed to see one European costume. In the dances Servian and Bulgarian girls and young men clasped heads indiscriminately. The sun was out blazing hot now and the feet of the dancers stirred up the dust in a golden haze, but still those untiring peasants continued swinging to and fro and around hour after hour lost in the ecstasy of the music, the beating of drums, and the movement.




The uniform of a Servian cavalry officer caught my eye; he was dancing in the same string with several common soldiers. I had never seen that in Bulgaria, and probably never shall, but for all that the young fellow's dignity seemed in no danger of detraction. There were some Bulgarian officers there who looked on with cold disapproval. Racially the two peoples are near, Serb and Bulgar, but in temperament they are wide apart.


Toward evening the merriment and commotion in the big town square abated, while hundreds of fires in the open were set burning under pots hanging from tripods. A number of Serbs, among them the young cavalry officer, joined our party at supper under an awning before the inn. I then had demonstrated to me the fact that the difference between two tongues is too slight to affect a fluent conversation. Hearing that I was a foreigner the young officer entered into conversation with me on the Macedonian question, in which he proved himself a hopeless Chauvinist, the charge that is always brought up against the Serbs by the Bulgars. The latter have that melancholy virtue of ever regarding themselves with critical self-analysis, ever self-conscious of their own shortcomings.


The Serbs, a rather vain and self-glorifying people, light-hearted, never serious, leave that to foreigners. They are better company for it, perhaps. I never met such a merry, entertaining young fellow in Bulgaria as our guy, lieutenant; he kept the Bulgars in a steady glow of amusement with his wit. His manners, his evident good breeding, and refinement formed a marked contrast to the rather boorish Bulgars, which is characteristic of the two peoples generally.


We slept that night under the clear, blue sky, and rose early to continue our travels. Three school teachers on a walking tour had augmented our party to five. We were ready to start, when the cavalry officer appeared in a Swiss Alpine costume, his uniform done up in a kerchief, and offere to join us.


"We are going on foot. " I said.

"Yes, on foot," he replied, and added with a touch of boastfulness, "and I can outwalk any of you."


It was another contrast.




We struck across a range so wild that at times the trail was lost in apparently hopeless tangles of brush, but our Servian companion knew the way, better even than my friend. It was hard travelling, but Georgie, as the young lieutenant insisted on our calling him, made the work seem light with his steady flow of funny stories. His exaggerated solicitude for his military casquet, which he carried in one hand, amused us; sometimes he put it over his slouch hat when his hand grew tired of holding it


Toward evening we descended Into a great valley, the further end of which was in Macedonia, affording us a view from the mountains of over sixty miles in extent. Far off in the purple-blue sunset loomed the filmy mountains of Albania. Below were scattered villages and larger towns, the River Morave running down the centre in a squirming, silver streak. Then, suddenly, we dropped, fell from the clouds, in half a dozen leaps, it seemed, and were down in a small village in the foothills.


Strangers though we were, the Servian officer carried his attentions so far as to introduce us to his friends and two sisters, who were spending the summer in the village. Another contrast. It took the Bulgars by surprise, a surprise mixed with astonishment. Under its influence, they became voluble as Bulgars seldom are; that evening they considerably changed their views of Servians.


Next morning we travelled on, taking a regretful leave of Georgie, with mutual promises of future exchanges of correspondence, which, strange to say, have since been kept on both sides. There has since appeared a glowing description of our trip in a Sofia paper, warmly commendatory of Servia in general, written by one of the teachers, but inspired by a Servian cavalry officer.


We travelled one hour in diligence, struck a railway station, and by noon were in the town of Vranje, the objective point of our trip. A large town, a long, wide, rambling town of low open Turkish shops, and poorly paved streets, but it boasted a monument to somebody who had been troublesome to the Turks there in former times. In all the shops, and coffee houses, and restaurants were portraits of the new king. In one dusty bookstore lingered a print of the slain Alexander. Of Draga, there never had been portraits, they told us. Even to-day, when Servians speak of her, their eyes glower, and they say the foulest things of her that men can say of women.


Our presence in town attracted attention, more than we had counted on. Some person of suspicious mind had telegraphed ahead, and presently two police officers called on us. They seemed convinced that one of us, at least, was a spy of the Macedonian Committee, and they went away only half trusting our denials. We must explain our business. In various conversations with persons we had met, we had probably shown too marked a curiosity regarding the bands of certain Bulgarian propagandists, who cannot pass the Bulgarian frontier into Macedonia, and so go through Servia. These conversations may have been reported, and caused suspicion. At any rate, as we had nothing further to keep us in Vranje, we deemed it judicious to invite no further police inspection, and decided to leave early next morning.


Rising with the sun, we struck out across the valley. By breakfast time we had reached the famous Vranje baths, a health and general summer resort. A beautiful spot it was, under tall trees, well-built hotels and houses, and a one boulevard, the resort of Servian aristocracy. Turkish officials in rich old trimmed dress promenaded the walks with gentlemen in the latest Parisian fashions. A band played in a kiosk in a great courtyard. Our breakfast cost us three francs apiece. This was no place for Bulgars to linger In. We shouldered our knapsacks, and in half an hour were in the heart of the wilderness.




It was an all-day tramp through the wildest, roughest country I had seen yet. On and up, ever up, climbing high peaks only to find higher ones beyond, till we had climbed out of a sultry heat into a bracing cold. And still we went up. The forest was thick, almost primeval. At times we rested, and then, when my companions were stretched out on the grass, I listened for the forest sounds one is used to hear in such a place. Not a chirp, not even the squeak of a squirrel. Not even the hum of an insect. There was something almost supernaturally oppressive in that all-pervading silence that made even the panting of my companions seem good. So it was all day. No signs or sounds of life. It deserved well the name of the Silent Forest.


We pushed on, resting only after the steepest climbs. Just as night had fallen and the moon came out we caught a glimmer of fight on the side of a nearby mountain. We pushed on with fresh energy and reached a small hut; then my companions gave a cheer. It was a Bulgarian frontier post, empty, but the lights of a village glimmered just below, and we were on Bulgarian soil again. It had been a forced march; by the map we had walked and climbed seventy kilometres, forty-four miles, through the Silent Forest. But we looked and felt it as we dropped on the benches of the village inn, and called for a liter of Bulgarian wine.


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