Edward Lear

Part 8





The muezzin’s call to prayer is more delightfully musical at Kroia than at any place I have yet been to – it is the wildest of singular melodies. We were off by 6 A.M. While the horses were being got ready Ali Bey desired to see me again, and accordingly we had series the last of coffee, pipes, ‘squish-squash, tikka-tok’ and the alphabet. He had asked Giorgio of his own accord how the Franks saluted each other, and hearing that it was by shaking hands, he seized both of mine and shook them as a London footman might a door-knocker. Long after I had left the palace he was watching me from his corner window, and doubtless will longer remember the Frank who ran about and wrote down houses and divulged to him the noises of steamships and coaches. Ali is representative of his uncles, Suleiman and Machmoud Beys, Governors of Tirana and as their deputy, judges all disputes in Kroia. Young as he is, he has a good deal of energetic character, and keeps the people in strict order. ‘I took away all their guns,’ said he, ‘directly I was chief here: for why? they shot more men than birds.’ Among other amusing questions which he asked, one was, after long and accurate observation of my dress: ‘How does the Frank make the collars of his shirt stand upright?’ Giorgio informed him, by means of starch, on which he inquired the nearest place where he could purchase a Frank laundress; and being told Trieste, he expressed his determination to send for one shortly.
The morning was clouded and grey, and a heavy mist over the northern plains and shore foretells rains. We began to descend from Kroia through graceful olive woods and pretty scenery, above which, on the right, the tops of the high mountain range peeped out through gathering clouds. Great fragments of dark rock cumber the downward path, and on the left the distant view would have been glorious if the spreading mist had been less dense. Crossing a stream by a high-arched bridge, the route lay through ever-increasingly beautiful oak forests, stretching from hill to hill and wrapping the bald and gloomy mountains in their grey and brown robes; and had not the day become more threatening each minute, I should have enjoyed the scenery more. In the thickest of the wood down came the rain in torrents; the paths were slippery, our progress was slow; and Giorgio, who considers Albania and Albanians as the most depressing of horrors, made the morning truly melancholy by incessant croaking about robbers; besides all which evils, a most odious impish little Soorudji, who had brought me from Tirana, and who was aggrieved at being taken, as he called it, up into the hills, delayed me out of spite in every possible way, by rushing into quagmires and leaving the path suddenly to search for imaginary pools of water in impenetrable copses, that his horses might drink thereof; these symptoms of unruliness we were at last obliged to check, by leading his horse forcibly, spite of his yell ‘Sui-sui’ [drink, drink!]. In about three hours from Kroia, we reached the Skodra road once more and in half an hour arrived at a khan situated in a close jungly wood, a small spot of ground being cleared around the tenement, which, says the Khanji, is five hours from Alessio, the place meant to be the end of my day’s journey. Here I resolve to halt, as the rain cannot be more violent than it is at present. Moreover, there is a fine fowl roasting, which I seize on and purchase for two piasters. These byroad khans are infinitely preferable to the vile places in the towns of Albania; a floor and a fire are comforts, and the stable at the far end of the long building did not incommode me, whose luncheon on the fowl, with rice, was only more or less disturbed by little chickens and kittens, who continually ran over me, snatching at casual bits of fugitive food. No parasitical creatures are more worrying to a traveller in Albania than chickens; they swarm by scores in these khans, and their incessant chirp and flutter are incorrigible, nor until they have shared the picking of their ancestors’ bones can they be quieted.
At eleven o’clock – the rain ceasing unexpectedly – we were off again, ever through a thick wooded tract of country, the tangled branches heavy with the rain, greatly impeding our progress, and the roads being deep in mud and water. Often, to avoid the high raised causeway (the Government post-road) – the unequal pavement of which it is misery to ride over – we went aside into quiet glades of green, returning when the too thick foliage prevented the secondary pathway being followed. At an hour’s distance another khan stands on the right of the road, and beyond this the wood gives place to more open glades, until we reached the plain of the broad and rapid River Mathis, which, always a disagreeable process, was forded about 1 P.M. Hence the hills we had passed began to gleam in returning sunshine, and covered with thickest foliage, seemed like vast piles of moss; while northward, and to the west, flat ground, with occasional spots of cultivation, appeared to spread to the sea – the high rocks of the ancient Lissus rising directly in front of our route. Having passed a third khan on the left at half past one, the road enters a thick copse or jungle, a belt of underwood stretching over the low marshy grounds near the Drin. The staple productions of this region are tangled brambles and low ilexes through whose green growth tall whispering reeds shoot up, while, above all, trees scattered at intervals tower, their branches bending with the weight of vines and creepers which swing in graceful festoons, in all the luxuriant rankness that surely indicates a condition of atmosphere fatal to man but favourable to vegetable life.
In these narrow and intricate paths we met many peasants returning from the bazaars of Alessio, the women clad in fringed and tasselled dresses, the men all armed; for the Gheghe Albanians, from not having formed any union with their brethren of Toskeria and Tzamouria in the last rising against the Turkish Government, are still allowed the privilege of carrying arms, which is denied to all south of the Skumbi.
About four o’clock I reached Alessio – a miserable village representing the ancient Lissus, many remains of which exist around and upon the remarkable pointed hill (the ancient Acropolis) rising above the streets of bazaars which forms the chief part of the modern town; the rest of Alessio consists of houses standing in gardens on the banks of the Drin – in which the Christian population chiefly dwell – or in suburban residences of the Mohammedans on the hillside. On the summit of the rock is a mosque, and here tradition says that the remains of Scanderberg repose beneath the ruins of a Christian church.
The khan of Alessio was too bad to think of as a lodging; so, by means of a letter from the Bey of Tirana, we proceeded to a quarter in the house of a Greek Christian residing here as agent to the Austrian Consul at Skodra; and leaving Giorgio to make the best of this refuge – a sort of loft in a courtyard, bearing all the tokens of vermin – I went forth with its master, Signor Giuseppe, and by way of finding a general view of Alessio, crossed the river in a punt-ferry and proceeded to a Latin convent which stands on a height opposite the town. Nearly all the Christians in this part of Northern Albania (that is, on the north-western coast, where the Venetian Republic was once so powerful) are of the Latin Church, and the residents of the Greek persuasion are the minority. From this spot the views are most exquisite. Looking south, they extend towards the high mountains above Kroia and Tirana; and northward they range over a beautiful river which winds down from the heights above Skodra, reflecting trees and hills in the clear water.
The sole tenant of the convent, a Capuchin Friar, came forth to meet me, when, having advanced a few yards, he set up a shout, ejaculating, ‘O, possibile! Sì – è il Signor Odoardo!’ while I on my part recognised him as a monk I had fallen in with some years back when staying with some friends in the Maremma near Corneto, and afterwards had frequently seen at Ara Coeli in Rome; but the singularity of the circumstance – that we should meet again in this remote corner of Illyria – was one of those events that we should reject if in a novel as too impossible to happen. Fra Pietro exhibited great glee at seeing a ‘Christian’, as he called me. ‘But,’ said I, ‘the people of Alessio are Christians, are they not? – ‘Cristiani sì, lo sono,’ said the monk; ‘ma se domani volesse il buon Dio far crescere il fiume per portargli tutti in Paradiso, ci avrei gusto! – Cristiani? Ladri! Cristiani? – porchi! – Cristiani? Lupi, animali, sciocchi, scimmie, brutte bestie, Grechi, Turchi, Albanesi – che gli piglia ad uno ad uno e tutti un accidente. O che Cristiani! Che rabbia’ [Yes, they are! But if pleased Heaven tomorrow so to swell the river as that they might be all swept off into Paradise, I should be happy, etc. etc. May they all die of apoplexy!] Seeing that a sojourn in the Latin bishopric of Lissus had by no means improved my friend Fra Pietro’s disposition to suavity (he was never, in the days when I formerly knew him, of the calmest or happiest temper), I hastened to change the conversation, but during the rest of our discourse this victim of exile in partibus continued to growl out bitter anathemas at all his Alessian flock. At sunset I left the angry friar (after all, a solitary life here must be no slight penitenza), and, promising to visit him on my return, I recrossed the Drin to Signor Giuseppe’s house, where I found bed and supper ready in the upper chamber.
An old Skodrino, who talks Italian, squats on the opposite side of the fire, and tells me a great deal about Skodra and other places hereabouts, which I ought to have remembered, but I fell asleep. Eight hundred Latin Christians, according to him, live at Skodra; and he says, ‘there may be some twenty Greek Christian families’. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Lissus resides there. In spite of all his intelligence, the old gentleman was a bore, as he was seized with a literary fit in the middle of the night, and smoked and scribbled and coughed, to the utter driving away the little chance of sleep which mice, mosquitoes, and fleas had left me.




It is half past four A.M. and torrents of rain are falling; they may fall for two or three days, in which case I am a prisoner here, as all the rivers will be impassable, so I order the horses to proceed to Skodra at all risks, though of course the obstinate little Soorudji would not bring them till seven.
The journey was of the wettest, and kept always along the banks of the Drino, beneath enormous abele trees, with fine forms of mountains looming through the downward mist. To a man who wears spectacles a fez is not advantageous as a covering for the head on a rainy day; the glasses are soon dimmed and little does he see of all above, below, and around. In three hours we arrived at the ferry over the Drino, having passed two or three scattered villages which were proclaimed as Christian by the fact of pigs (lean, hairy pigs they were) roaming around them. Nothing in the world could be more picturesque than the ferry and its capoted rowers; but the incessant rain forbade attempts to draw, nor did I halt again till at eleven, when we reached a khan, distant still three hours from Skodra. A small bit of salt cheese and some very bad wine was all the food I could obtain; but the loss of luncheon was compensated for by the increasing interest of the costumes of the peasantry; their scarlet and crimson capotes, short coarse kilts, long black hair, dark faces, and immoderately long pistols gave them an air of romance and savageness I had not yet seen.
Half past eleven – on again, through clay and water and willowy tangles and high broken causeway. Turkish paved roads, even when in repair, are miserable ways and means of travel; but when you have twenty yards of elevated stonework and then a four-feet interval of mud, the causeway being often two or three feet in height, the alternation of ups and downs is not pleasant. Vast mountain forms are lowering remotely on all sides, till the castle of Skodra, or Scutari, appears in sight. In all the objects of this, to me, new district extreme wildness is the dominant impression. The peasantry were picturesque to an incredible degree. Flocks of sheep and goats, guarded by the most savage-looking fellows, armed to the teeth and magnificent in all the colours of Gheghe clothing, were frequently in our path, and more than once fierce dogs sprang out on our half-wild Soorudji from hidden ambushes. Once the young pickle made as if he would pursue one of the invaders with his raised whip, but the herdsman rose from his lair and coolly pointed his long gun at the offender till he resumed his course.
Skodra is situated to the south of the lake of the same name, on a point of land between two rivers, one of which – the other is the Drino, or Drin – the Boyana, sweeps below the south side of the isolated ridge of hill on which the fortress stands, which ridge, shutting out the plain and lake, is, as it were, split into two by a deep hollow immediately to the eastward of the fortress wherein, and on the southern side of the hill, appears to stand the town. But this is all deception; for having crossed the Boyana – at this season a fordable stream –you arrive at the southern suburbs, only to discover that they are deserted; the walls of numerous houses, ruined in some of the late sieges of this unquiet capital of Illyrian Albania, one or two handsome mosques, and a considerable extent of garden constitute the real condition of the place; while, ascending through this scene of desolation to the long lines of bazaars which cluster below the domineering fortress and fill up the hollow pass in the ridge of hill, you are still surprised to find that you are not yet in Skodra. For these bazaars, by the oddest arrangement possible, are only tenanted by day; a busy scene throughout the forenoon, they are regularly closed an hour before sunset; every male inhabitant coming to his warehouse early in the morning and returning as regularly to what is now really the town of Skodra (though it is sometimes called ‘The Gardens’), namely, a wide collection of villages and detached houses scattered over the plain on the northern side of the castle hill and bazaars, between them and the lake. The lake, stretching far and wide to the mountains of Montenegro, is not seen except by climbing high up the rock toward the castle.
On arriving in the piazza in the centre of the bazaars, I was told that Signor Bonatti (the English Vice-Consul to whom I had letters) resided at some distance: it might be a mile, or two, or four, said the bystanders, with happy vagueness – the mercantile world of Skodra seemed unprepared to give a decided opinion. However that might be, the odious little Soorudji of Tirana instantly vowed he would go on no farther, and in spite of threats and entreaties became unmanageable. Unloading all the baggage in a rage, he threw it into the mud in the piazza and decamped with the horses, swearing at all Christians with most emphatic zeal. All the Gheghes looking on maintained a provoking composure. To have sent to the Pasha in his castle would have been an operation of an hour’s length, and after all of uncertain result: the Consul’s abode was far off, and so little seemed known of him that it was to be doubted if his succours would have availed anything: so, in this climax of discomfort – hard rain falling all the while – we had to wait until another horse was procured for the baggage; and with a very lame guide we left the bazaars and descended to the suburban or ‘garden’ part of Skodra, in the northern plain. A pretty chase ensued for the Consul’s dwelling; for in this strange place your house, or your mosque, or your garden stands, independently of any other building, among walls and labyrinths of lanes intricate beyond belief. Much of this flat ground is afflicted by inundation – the communications across it being formed by very narrow raised causeways, crossing intervals of mud or water as the case may be; and a full hour was consumed in walking among these weary pavements without apparently being any nearer the object of our search. At last we arrived at a door at the end of a cul-de-sac lane, when the lame old man stopped and said: ‘to spiti’ [the house], Ingliz Consul.’ But this was wholly an invention of his own, for no consul lived there; and had not a friendly scarlet-cloaked Christian woman volunteered acting as a guide, I cannot tell when the real house might have been found.
Signor Bonatti, native of Corfu, and British Vice-Consul in the city of Skodra, is an active and lively little man, full of kind anxiety to do the agreeable to the few passers-by in these region; but having a large family of nine or ten children, he is unable to exercise it so much hospitality as he is known formerly to have done: the more the pity, for a more amiable set of people one could not be indebted to. He recommended me to a lodging in the village-city; and after a short stay with his family, thither I went.
By sunset I as settled in the house of Signor Marco, a Venetian apothecary, whose substantial dwelling, standing in a good cortile and garden, contains two or three large rooms. Here – possibly the last place in which rest will be accessible before I arrive at Yannina – I purpose staying three days before turning down southward – Skodra being the farthest point of my Albanian wanderings; even were not money becoming scarce, autumn advances, and I shall have scarcely time to reach Malta ere Christmas.