Edward Lear


Part 4





One more day in Akhridha and then westward and northward. There is a street scene below the castle, where a majestic plane shades bazaars rich with every sort of gay-coloured raiment. Though its drooping foliage gleams the bright top of a minaret and below it are grouped every variety of picturesque human beings. To carry away a sketch of this was the work of half the morning; the rest was occupied in a walk on the eastern shore of the lake, an excursion I was obliged to make alone, as the protecting Kawas was zent to procure horses for tomorrow's journey. Beautiful was the castle on its rock reflected in the clear bright water; but what most amused me was the infinite number of birds which, all unsuspectingly sociable, enlivened the scene; thousands of coots fraternising with the domestic ducks and geese – white egrets performing stately tours of observations among the reeds – magpies (a bird remarkably abundant in the vicinity of Akhridha), hooded crows and daws – a world of ornitology. Far away at the end of the lake (they count six hours journey from Akhridha to the southern end of the lake), glitters a solitary white speck, which they tell me is the monastery of St. Naum, but that is out of my track for the present; so I sauntered back to the khan, lingering now and then to look at the Greek women who, with embroidered handkerchiefs on their heads and dressed in scarlet and black capotes, were washing linen in the lake, when, having watched their opportunity, and seeing me unescorted, a crowd of the faithful took aim from behind walls and rocks, discharging unceasing showers of stones, sticks, and mud. May my spectacles survive the attack! thought I, as forced into an ignominious retreat I arrived at the khan considerably damaged about the nose and ears and not a little out of humour.
In the afternoon, with my guide, I was able to laugh at my enemies while I drew a fine old Greek church, now turned into a mosque, and obtained lastly an extensive view from the clock tower on the castle hill whence the town tranquilly lying among tufted planes and tall cypresses recalls the lines of Child Harold – And the pale crescent sparkles in the glen
Through many a cypress grove within each city's ken. Certainly Akhridha is a beautiful place. All the hillside below the fortress is thickly studded with Mohammedan tombs – little wedges of rough stone growing out of the soil, as it were, like natural geological excrescences – by thousands. From the strets below parties of women clad in dark blue and masked in white wrappers wander forth to take the air, and near me several crimson-and-purple-coated Gheghes smoke abstractly on scattered bits of rock; when the sun throws his last red rays from the high western mountains up the side of the castle hill long trains of black buffaloes poke hither and thither, grunting and creaking forth their strange semi-bark, which sounds like the cracking of old furniture. On the whole, the zoological living world of Akhridha is very oppressive; what with dogs, geese, buffali, asses, mules, and horses, jackdaws, goats, and sheep, the streets are a great deal too full of animated nature to be comfortable, however confiding and amiable the several species may be. As for the white-eyed buffali, they are lazy and serene brutes, very opposite in character to their relatives in the marshes of Terracina and Pesto. You may bully them, either by pushing their noses or tugging at their horns as much as you please when they are in your way, and they never resent the indignity.
The khan was swarming with magnificence when I returned to it, the Bey of Tirana and all his train having arrived. Simplicity is the rule of life with Albanian grandees; they sit silently on a mat and smoke, but their retinue bounce and tear about with a perfectly fearful energy, and after supper indulge in music according to their fashion until a late hour, then throwing themselves down to sleep in their capotes, and at early morning going through the slightest possible form of facial ablution – for cleanliness is not the most shining national virtue. These at Akhridha seem a wild and savage set and are not easy to catch by drawing. Yet tomorrow I enter the wildest parts of Ghegheria amd must expext to see 'a rugged set of men' indeed. In preparation, the Frangistan 'wide-awakes' are packed up, as having a peculiar attraction for missiles, on account of their typically infidel appearance. Henceforth I adopt the fez, for with that Mohammedan sign on the head it matters not how you adorn the rest of your person.





The wind which whistles through the planks and holes of my 'bedroom' here is conducive to cold in the head, and seems to prevent my neighbours, the ducks, from sleeping any more quietly than myself. Why these domestic animals inhabit the 'first floor' I cannot divine. Some fifteen of them thrust their heads through the lower crevices of the wall, and resting them on my mattress and pillow, look at me with one eye in the most comical manner, and seem to wish I was made of barley or duckweed. Although we were ready at 5 A. M., yet our guard was not, and it was six ere he joined us, flaunting in crimson drapery, and we made for the land of the 'poveretti, paurosi, disperati, fuor di loro, fuor di tutti' [poor, timid, desparing, afflicted; wanting sense; wanting everything], as Giorgio distinguishes the Albanesi.
On leaving the suburbs large parties of Zingari or gipsies, employed by Shereef Bey in various agricultural works, were setting out to their labour. These people are very numerous in Albania, and their peculiar physiognomy and dark complexion at once distinguishes them from the natives, who are mostly light-faced and yellow-haired. Our route lay westward by the shore of the silver lake, now enchanting quiet and bright in the cloudless morning sun. High in air was a large falcon – possibly an eagle – hovering over a great colony of jet-black coots, who were swarming together in dismay, every one drawn up in a long straight downward swoop. I saw three sets of these battles, waged by one against many, but could not observe that the preserving watchers gained aught by their warfare.
By eight we reached Istruga, a picturesque village not far from the egress of the River Drino, and as all the women here (with that caprice or love of variety which characterises the costume of every Greek province), wore white and pink capotes instead instead of black and crimson, there was a pleasant air of gaity in the bazar. From hence, the native place of Bekir, our Albanian guard (whon I had taken with me, not knowing certainly if the road were or were not unsafe), we proceeded after a short delay through pleasant groves of chestnut, until, quitting the beautiful Lake of Akhridha, we toiled for three hours up a dull pass, walled in by low hills covered with stunted oaks. The sun was hot; and a fez, if you are not used to wearing it, is an unsatisfactory substitute for a 'wide-awake' felt hat, so that, after a descent as uninteresting as the ascent and beyond that two hours of a narrow, dull valley, I was most heartily tired, and rejoyced to see a khan, never more welcome than when seven hours of sleepy riding in an abominable Turkish saddle have made a man anything but happy.
Luckily we had brought food, for at this forlorn place there was literally nothing to be procured, not even a drop of water, nor did the situation of the khan possess interest, though I contrived to pass an hour by sketching it from the shelter of an oleander-bush, surrounded by scores of tame kids. At half past 2 P. M. we were again in the saddle. A most desolate and wild country does this part of Albania seem, with scarcely a single habitation visible in so great a space; stern-wrinkled hills wall in the horizon, covered midway with oak forests; but after passing another range of low hills we came to the valley of the Skumbi, and henceforth the landscape began to assume a character of grand melancholy not to be easily forgotten. About five the infinitely varied lines of the western heights were most glorious, their giant-rock forms receding into golden clouds as the sun sank down, while below stretched the deep widening valley of the Skumbi, a silvery stream winding through utterly wild scenes of crag, forest, and slope as far as eye could see. By six we crossed over the river on a high single arch, and shortly began to ascend the heights on the left bank, where, among dark clusters of trees, a straggling village was perceptible far above a solitary khan, at which we were to rest, for there is here but little choice of a night's lodging.
Until it was too dark to discern either pencil or paper I worked away at a sketch of this lonely place, half hidden among huge rocks and walnut trees, and then turned into the single room or floor of the little windowless khan, which is the first and only inn of Kukues – so is the spot named. The accomplished dragoman had swept it perfectly clean. In the middle was a bright wood fire, the smoke escaping by a hole in the roof. On one side was my bed on a mat, while six or seven of the sons of the soil were preparing their kebabs at the blazing logs, squatting quietly enough, and busying themselves about their own cookery, without overmuch remarking the tea and toast Giorgio prepared for me. Scenes of this kind are most striking and picturesque, and the traveller lies down, as it were, with one eye open – the savage oddity of all around fixing itself with his last waking thoughts in the imagination. Long after all the inmates of the khan were fast asleep I lay watching the party by the dying embers. The Albanians were slumbering in their capotes, each with his bare feet turned, and closely, to the hot charcoal; and if years of shoeless walking have not hardened the said feet, they must inevitably become altogether broiled before morning.