Edward Lear

Part 5



In spite of the apparent discomforts of the place, I slept well enough. The lively race of ‘F sharps’ do not abound in these solitary khans half as much as in an Italian locanda. The Albanians never stirred; and as the fire burned more or less all night their feet must have been handsomely grilled. Once only I was awakened suddenly by something falling on me –flomp–miaw–fizz! – an accidental cat had tumbled from some unexplored height and testified great surprise at having alighted on a movable body. Would that her disturbance of my slumbers had been her only fault, and that she had not carried off a whole fowl and some slices of cold mutton –the little all I had to rely on for dinner through tomorrow’s journey! Our Albanian co-tenants of the khan would assuredly have been blamed for this mancanza [loss], had not a fierce quarrel over the fowl, between the invading robber and an original cat belonging to the establishment, betrayed the cause of evil – the bigger cat conquering and escaping from the roof with the booty.
At half past five A.M. we were off; the red morning sky and the calm shade of that broad valley were very striking; and the line of country we were to pursue promised a hard day’s work. Continuing to ascend, on the left bank of the Skumbi, towards those gigantic rocks I had drawn yesterday evening, and once or twice pausing to make hasty memoranda sketches, we advanced by perilous paths along the mountainsides towards a village at a great height above the river. It is very difficult, on such days of travel as this, to secure anything like a finished drawing. Even let the landscape be ever so tempting, the uncertainty of meeting with any place of repose or shelter obliges the most enthusiastic artist to pass hastily through scenes equal or superior to any it may be again his lot to see. Our progress here, too, is of the very slowest: either along sharp narrow paths cut in the rock, at the very edge of formidable precipices, or by still narrower tracks running on the bare side of a perpendicular clay ravine – or winding among huge trunks of forest trees, between which the baggage-mule at one time, is wedged – at another loses her load, or her own equilibrium, by some untimely concussion; such was the order of the day for travelling ease and accommodation; so that Dragoman Giorgio, greatly desirous of reaching Elbasan ere nightfall, strongly besought me not to linger. Nevertheless, after diving by a tortuous path into the depths of an abyss (the home of a lateral stream which descended from the mountains to the Skumbi), and after mounting a zigzag staircase out of it to the village above-mentioned, I could not resist sitting down to draw when I gazed o n the extraordinary scene I had passed; it combined Greek outline – Italian colour –English luxuriance of foliage – while the village, with its ivory minarets peeping from the huge walnut and chestnut groves, was hanging, as it were, down the stupendous precipices to the stream below – all these formed one of the wildest and grandest of pictures.
Beyond this (to appease Giorgio I made but a slight outline of that which I should gladly have employed a day to portray), the road was perhaps more dangerous and our progress still slower; at the narrowest point we encountered some fifty laden mules and a long time was consumed in arranging the coming and going trains, lest either should jostle and pitch into the abyss beneath. At another sharp turning lay a dead ox, skinned, filling up half the track (the edge of that track a sheer precipice of sixty or eighty feet in depth), and by no measures could we cause our horses to pass the alarming object; nor till our united strength had dragged the defunct to a niche in the rock could we progress one foot’s length. At a third cattivo passo [bad pass] a projecting rock interfered with the sumpter horses’ idea of a straight line; and, lo! down went all the baggage, happily to no great distance, but far enough to occasion a half-hour’s delay in readjusting it. Every stony descent and every toilsome climb up this mountain ridge side, brought us, if possible, to more vast and wondrously beautiful scenes; far below in the valley the river wound among dark dense oaks, sparkling like a silver thread, while above towered a mountain screen, whose snow-crowned, furrowed summits frowned over slopes richly clothed with hanging woods. Perhaps the extreme beauty and variety of the colour in these scenes was as attractive as their sublimity, and in some degree offered a compensation for a certain clumsiness and want of refinement in many of the larger mountain outlines; while tracts of green wood, of bright pink or lilac earth, of deep grey hollows, or silver sides of snowy barriers, fascinated the eye from hour to hour.
On approaching the midway khan (really four hours and a half from Kukues, but which it took me till eleven to reach) I drew till dinner was ready, many peasants opportunely passing on their way to a fair or bazaar at Tirana. The female costume is a blue dress and white petticoat, with white or yellow aprons, embroidered with crimson. The khan was situated, as most of these halting-places are, in a dell, whence there is no discernible object of interest; and as soon as dinner was dispatched, two old cats and an army of ducks and fowls assisting at the repast, I was again en route by noon.
After three hours of winding along frightful paths at the edge of clay precipices and chasms, and through scenery of the same character, but gloomier under a clouded sun, we began to descend towards the seaward plains, and were soon effecting a steep and difficult passage between trunks of oak trees to the purple vale of the Skumbi, which wound through the plain below till it was lost in a gola or chasm through which is the pass to Elbasan. We crossed the Skumbi, here a very formidable stream, by one of those lofty one-arched bridges so common in Turkey , and as the baggage-horse descended the last step down came the luggage once more, so that my sketches would have been lost, senza rimedio [without remedy], had the accident occurred two seconds sooner. Two hours were occupied in passing the opening between the rocks, which admitted only a narrow pathway besides the stream, and after another hour’s ride through widening uncultivated valleys, and Elbasan is in sight, lying among rich groves of olives on a beautiful plain, through which the Skumbi, an unobstructed broad torrent, flows to the Adriatic. The same deceptive beauty throws its halo over Elbasan as over other Albanian towns; and, like its fellows paesi [towns], this was as wretched and forlorn within as without it was picturesque and graceful. It was 6 P. M. ere we reached its scattered and dirty suburbs and threaded its dark narrow streets, all roofed over with mats and dry leaves and so low that one had to sit doubled over the horse to avoid coming into sharp contact with the hanging sticks, dried boughs, loose mats, and rafters. The gloomy shade cast by these awnings did not enliven the aspect of the town, nor was its dirty and comfortless appearance lightened by a morose and wild look – a settled, sullen, despairing expression which the faces of the inhabitants wore. At length, thought I, these are fairly the wilds of Albania!
Three khans did we explore in vain, their darkness and vermin being too appalling to overcome; luckily there was still a fourth, which was a palace in comparison, though its accommodations were scanty, consisting of a row of perfectly dark cells, cleanly whitewashed and empty, but without a glimmer of any light but what entered at the doors, which opened into a corridor exposed to the street; so you had your choice of living in public or in the dark.



A grey, calm, pleasant morning, the air seeming doubly warm, from the contrast between the low plains and the high mountains of the last two days’ journey.
I set off early, to make the most of a whole day at Elbasan – a town singularly picturesque, both in itself and as to its site. A high and massive wall, with a deep outer moat, surrounds a large quadrangle of dilapidated houses, and at the four corners are towers, as well as two at each of the four gates: all of these fortifications appear of Venetian structure. Few places can offer a greater picture of desolation than Elbasan; albeit the view from the broad ramparts extending round the town are perfectly exquisite: weeds, brambles, and luxuriant wild fig overrun and cluster about the grey heaps of ruin, and whichever way you turn you have a middle distance of mosques and foliage, with a background of purple hills, or southward, the remarkable mountain of Tomorrit, the giant Soracte of the plains of Berat.
No sooner had I settled to draw – forgetful of Bekir the guard – than forth came the populace of Elbasan; one by one and two by two a mighty host they grew, and there were soon from eighty to a hundred spectators collected, with earnest curiosity in every look; and when I had sketched such of the principal buildings as they could recognise a universal shout of ‘Shaitan!’ burst from the crowd; and, strange to relate, the greater part of the mob put their fingers into their mouths and whistled furiously, after the manner of butcher-boys in England. Whether this was a sort of spell against my magic I do not know; but the absurdity of sitting still on a rampart to make a drawing while a great crowd of people whistled at me with all their might struck me so forcibly that, come what might of it, I could not resist going off into convulsions of laughter, an impulse the Gheghes seemed to sympathise with, as one and all shrieked with delight, and the ramparts resounded with hilarious merriment. Alas! This was of no long duration, for one of those tiresome Dervishes – in whom, with their green turbans, Elbasan is rich – soon came up, and yelled, ‘Shaitan scroo! –Shaitan scroo!’ [The Devil draws! – The Devil.] in my ears with all his force; seizing my book also, with an awful frown, shutting it and pointing to the sky, as intimating that heaven would not allow such impiety. It was in vain after this to attempt more; the ‘Shaitan’ cry was raised in one wild chorus – and I took the consequences of having laid by my fez for comfort’s sake – in the shape of a horrible shower of stones which pursued me to the covered streets, where, finding Bekir with his whip, I went to work again more successfully about the walls of the old city.
Knots of the Elbasaniotes nevertheless gathered about Bekir, and pointed with angry gestures to me and my ‘scroo’. ‘We will not be written down,’ said they. ‘The Frank is a Russian, and he is sent by the Sultan to write us all down before he sells us to the Russian Emperor.’ This they told also to Giorgio and murmured bitterly at their fate, though the inexorable Bekir told them they should not only be scroo’d, but bastinadoed, if they were not silent and obedient. Alas! it is not a wonder that Elbasan is no cheerful spot, nor that the inhabitants are gloomy. Within the last two years one of the most serious rebellions has broken out in Albania, and has been sternly put down by the Porte. Under an adventurer named Zuliki, this restless people rose in great numbers throughout the north-western districts; but they were defeated in an engagement with the late Seraskier Pasha. Their Beys, innocent or accomplices, were exiled to Koniah or Monastir, the population was either drafted off into the Sultan’s armies, slain, or condemned to the galleys at Constantinople, while the remaining miserables were and are more heavily taxed than before. Such, at least, is the general account of the present state of these provinces; and certainly their appearance speaks of ill fortune, whether merited or unmerited.
Beautiful as is the melancholy Elbasan – with its exquisite bits of mosques close to the walls – the air is most oppressive after the pure mountain atmosphere. How strange are the dark covered streets, with their old mat roofings hanging down in tattered shreds, dry leaves, long boughs, straw or thatch reeds; one phosphorus match would ignite the whole town! Each street is allotted to a separate bazaar, or particular trade, and that portion which is the dwelling of the tanners and butchers is rather revolting – dogs, blood, and carcasses filling up the whole street and sickening one’s very heart.
At 3 P. M. I rode out with the scarlet-and-gold-clad Bekir to find a general view of the town. But the long walled suburbs and endless olive gardens are most tiresome, and nothing of Elbasan is seen till one reaches the Skumbi, spanned by an immensely long bridge, full of ups and downs and irregular arches. On a little brow beyond the river I drew till nearly sunset; for the exquisite graceful lines of hill to the north present really a delightful scene – the broad, many-channelled stream washing interminable slopes of rich olives, from the midst of which peep the silver minarets of Elbasan.
The dark khan cell at tea-time was enlivened by the singing of some Gheghes in the street. These northern, or Slavonic Albanians are greatly superior in musical taste to their Berat or Epirote neighbours, all of whom either make a feeble buzzing or humming over their tinkling guitars, like dejected flies in a window-pane, or yell forth endless stanzas of a whining, monotonous song, somewhat resembling a bad imitation of Swiss yodelling. But here there is a better idea of music. The guardian Bekir indulged me throughout yesterday with divers airs, little varied, but possessing considerable charm of plaintive wild melody. The Soorudgi, also made the passes of the Skumbi resound with more than one pretty song.