At seven or eight o'clock in the morning, when it is comparatively cool and people are patronizing the market, trafficking and bartering for the day's supply of provisions, the streets present quite an animated appearance; but during the heat of the day the scene changes to one of squalor and indolence; respectable citizens are smoking nargilehs (Mark Twain's "hubble-bubble"), or sleeping somewhere out of sight; business is generally suspended, and in every shady nook and corner one sees a swarthy ragamuffin stretched out at full length, perfectly happy and contented if only he is allowed to snooze the hours away in peace.
Human nature is verily the same the world over, and here, in the hotel at Nisch, I meet an individual who recalls a few of the sensible questions that have been asked me from time to time at different places on both continents. This Nisch interrogator is a Hebrew commercial traveller, who has a smattering of English, and who after ascertaining during a short conversation that, when a range of mountains or any other small obstruction is encountered, I get down and push the bicycle up, airs his knowledge of English and of 'cycling to the extent of inquiring whether I don't take a man along to push it up the hills!
Riding out of Nisch this morning we stop just beyond the suburbs to take a curious look at a grim monument of Turkish prowess, in the shape of a square stone structure which the Turks built in 1840, and then faced the whole exterior with grinning rows of Servian skulls partially embedded in mortar. The Servians, naturally objecting to having the skulls of their comrades thus exposed to the gaze of everybody, have since removed and buried them; but the rows of indentations in the thick mortared surface still bear unmistakable evidence of the nature of their former occupants.
An avenue of thrifty prune-trees shades a level road leading out of Nisch for several kilometres, but a heavy thunder-storm during the night has made it rather slavish wheeling, although the surface becomes harder and smoother, also hillier, as we gradually approach the Balkan Mountains, that tower well up toward cloudland immediately ahead. The morning is warm and muggy, indicating rain, and the long, steep trundle, kilometre after kilometre, up the Balkan slopes, is anything but child's play, albeit the scenery is most lovely, one prospect especially reminding me of a view in the Big Horn Mountains of northern Wyoming Territory. On the lower slopes we come to a mehana, where, besides plenty of shade-trees, we find springs of most delightfully cool water gushing out of crevices in the rocks, and, throwing our freely perspiring forms beneath the grateful shade and letting the cold water play on our wrists (the best method in the world of cooling one's self when overheated), we both vote that it would be a most agreeable place to spend the heat of the day. But the morning is too young yet to think of thus indulging, and the mountainous prospect ahead warns us that the distance covered to-day will be short enough at the best.
The Balkans are clothed with green foliage to the topmost crags, wild pear-trees being no inconspicuous feature; charming little valleys wind about between the mountain-spurs, and last night's downpour has imparted a freshness to the whole scene that perhaps it would not be one's good fortune to see every day, even were he here. This region of intermingled vales and forest-clad mountains might be the natural home of brigandage, and those ferocious-looking specimens of humanity with things like long guns in hand, running with scrambling haste down the mountain-side toward our road ahead, look like veritable brigands heading us off with a view to capturing us. But they are peacefully disposed goatherds, who, alpenstocks in hand, are endeavoring to see "what in the world those queer-looking things are, coming up the road." Their tuneful noise, as they play on some kind of an instrument, greets our ears from a dozen mountain-slopes round about us, as we put our shoulders to the wheel, and gradually approach the summit. Tortoises are occasionally surprised basking in the sunbeams in the middle of the road; when molested they hiss quite audibly in protest, but if passed peacefully by they are seen shuffling off into the bushes, as though thankful to escape. Unhappy oxen are toiling patiently upward, literally inch by inch, dragging heavy, creaking wagons, loaded with miscellaneous importations, prominent among which I notice square cans of American petroleum.
Men on horseback are encountered, the long guns of the Orient slung at their backs, and knife and pistols in sash, looking altogether ferocious. Not only are these people perfectly harmless, however, but I verily think it would take a good deal of aggravation to make them even think of fighting. The fellow whose horse we frightened down a rocky embankment, at the imminent risk of breaking the neck of both horse and rider, had both gun, knife, and pistols; yet, though he probably thinks us emissaries of the evil one, he is in no sense a dangerous character, his weapons being merely gewgaws to adorn his person. Finally, the summit of this range is gained, and the long, grateful descent into the valley of the Nissava River begins. The surface during this descent, though averaging very good, is not always of the smoothest; several dismounts are found to be necessary, and many places ridden over require a quick hand and ready eye to pass. The Servians have made a capital point in fixing their new boundary-line south of this mountain-range.
Mountaineers are said to be "always freemen;" one can with equal truthfulness add that the costumes of mountaineers' wives and daughters are always more picturesque than those of their sisters in the valleys. In these Balkan Mountains their costumes are a truly wonderful blending of colors, to say nothing of fantastic patterns, apparently a medley of ideas borrowed from Occident and Orient. One woman we have just passed is wearing the loose, flowing pantaloons of the Orient, of a bright-yellow color, a tight-fitting jacket of equally bright blue; around her waist is folded many times a red and blue striped waistband, while both head and feet are bare. This is no holiday attire; it is plainly the ordinary every-day costume.
At the foot of the range we halt at a way-side mehana for dinner. A daily diligence, with horses four abreast, runs over the Balkans from Niseh to Sophia, Bulgaria, and one of them is halted at the mehana for refreshments and a change of horses. Refreshments at these mehanas are not always palatable to travellers, who almost invariably carry a supply of provisions along. Of bread nothing but the coarse, black variety common to the country is forthcoming at this mehana, and a gentleman, learning from Mr. Popovitz that I have not yet been educated up to black bread, fishes a large roll of excellent milch-Brod out of his traps and kindly presents it to us; and obtaining from the mehana some hune-hen fabrica and wine we make a very good meal. This hunehen fabrica is nothing more nor less than cooked chicken. Whether hune-hen fabrica is genuine Hungarian for cooked chicken, or whether Igali manufactured the term especially for use between us, I cannot quite understand. Be this as it may, before we started from Belgrade, Igali imparted the secret to Mr. Popovitz that I was possessed with a sort of a wild appetite, as it were, for hune-hen fabrica and cherries, three times a day, the consequence being that Mr. Popovitz thoughtfully orders those viands whenever we halt. After dinner the mutterings of thunder over the mountains warn us that unless we wish to experience the doubtful luxuries of a road-side mehana for the night we had better make all speed to the village of Bela Palanka, twelve kilometres distant over - rather hilly roads. In forty minutes we arrive at the Bela Palanka mehana, some time before the rain begins. It is but twenty kilometres to Pirot, near the Bulgarian frontier, whither my companion has purposed to accompany me, but we are forced to change this programme and remain at Bela Palanka.
It rains hard all night, converting the unassuming Nissava into a roaring yellow torrent, and the streets of the little Balkan village into mud- holes. It is still raining on Sunday morning, and as Mr. Popovitz is obliged to be back to his duties as foreign correspondent in the Servian National Bank at Belgrade on Tuesday, and the Balkan roads have been rendered impassable for a bicycle, he is compelled to hire a team and wagon to haul him and his wheel back over the mountains to Nisch, while I have to remain over Sunday amid the dirt and squalor and discomforts - to say nothing of a second night among the fleas - of an Oriental village mehana. We only made fifty kilometres over the mountains yesterday, but during the three days from Belgrade together the aggregate has been satisfactory, and Mr. Popovitz has proven a most agreeable and interesting companion. When but fourteen years of age he served under the banner of the Red Cross in the war between the Turks and Servians, and is altogether an ardent patriot.
My Sunday in Bela Palanka impresses me with the conviction that an Oriental village is a splendid place not to live in. In dry weather it is disagreeable enough, but to-day, it is a disorderly aggregation of miserable-looking villagers, pigs, ducks, geese, chickens, and dogs, paddling around the muddy streets. The Oriental peasant's costume is picturesque or otherwise, according to the fancy of the observer. The red fez or turban, the upper garment, and the ample red sash wound round and round the waist until it is eighteen inches broad, look picturesque enough for anybody; but when it comes to having the seat of the pantaloons dangling about the calves of the legs, a person imbued with Western ideas naturally thinks that if the line between picturesqueness and a two-bushel gunny-sack is to be drawn anywhere it should most assuredly be drawn here. As I notice how prevalent this ungainly style of nether garment is in the Orient, I find myself getting quite uneasy lest, perchance, anything serious should happen to mine, and I should be compelled to ride the bicycle in a pair of natives, which would, however, be an altogether impossible feat unless it were feasible to gather the surplus area up in a bunch and wear it like a bustle. I cannot think, however, that Fate, cruel as she sometimes is, has anything so outrageous as this in store for me or any other 'cycler.
Although Turkish ladies have almost entirely disappeared from Servia since its severance from Turkey, they have left, in a certain degree, an impress upon the women of the country villages; although the Bela Palanka maidens, as I notice on the streets in their Sunday clothes to-day, do not wear the regulation yashmak, but a head-gear that partially obscures the face, their whole demeanor giving one the impression that their one object in life is to appear the pink of propriety in the eyes of the whole world; they walk along the streets at a most circumspect gait, looking neither to the right nor left, neither stopping to converse with each other by the way, nor paying any sort of attention to the men. The two proprietors of the mehana where I am stopping are subjects for a student of human nature. With their wretched little pigsty of a mehana in this poverty-stricken village, they are gradually accumulating a fortune. Whenever a luckless traveller falls into their clutches they make the incident count for something. They stand expectantly about in their box-like public room; their whole stock consists of a little diluted wine and mastic, and if a bit of black bread and smear-lease is ordered, one is putting it down in the book, while the other is ferreting it out of a little cabinet where they keep a starvation quantity of edibles; when the one acting as waiter has placed the inexpensive morsel before you, he goes over to the book to make sure that number two has put down enough; and, although the maximum value of the provisions is perhaps not over twopence, this precious pair will actually put their heads together in consultation over the amount to be chalked down. Ere the shades of Sunday evening have settled down, I have arrived at the conclusion that if these two are average specimens of the Oriental Jew they are financially a totally depraved people.
The rain ceased soon after noon on Sunday, and, although the roads are all but impassable, I pull out southward at five o'clock on Monday morning, trundling up the mountain-roads through mud that frequently compels me to stop and use the scraper. After the summit of the hills between Bela Palanka and Pirot is gained, the road descending into the valley beyond becomes better, enabling me to make quite good time into Pirot, where my passport undergoes an examination, and is favored with a vise by the Servian officials preparatory to crossing the Servian and Bulgarian frontier about twenty kilometres to the southward. Pirot is quite a large and important village, and my appearance is the signal for more excitement than the Piroters have experienced for many a day.
While I am partaking of bread and coffee in the hotel, the main street becomes crowded as on some festive occasion, the grown-up people's faces beaming with as much joyous anticipation of what they expect to behold when I emerge from the hotel as the unwashed countenances of the ragged youngsters around them. Leading citizens who have been to Paris or Vienna, and have learned something about what sort of road a 'cycler needs, have imparted the secret to many of their fellow-townsmen, and there is a general stampede to the highway leading out of town to the southward. This road is found to be most excellent, and the enterprising people who have walked, ridden, or driven out there, in order to see me ride past to the best possible advantage, are rewarded by witnessing what they never saw before - a cycler speeding along past them at ten miles an hour. This gives such general satisfaction that for some considerable distance I ride between a double row of lifted hats and general salutations, and a swelling murmur of applause runs all along the line.
Two citizens, more enterprising even than the others, have determined to follow me with team and light wagon to a road-side office ten kilometres ahead, where passports have again to be examined. The road for the whole distance is level and fairly smooth; the Servian horses are, like the Indian ponies of the West, small, but wiry and tough, and although I press forward quite energetically, the whip is applied without stint, and when the passport office is reached we pull up alongside it together, but their ponies' sides are white with lather. The passport officer is so delighted at the story of the race, as narrated to him by the others, that he fetches me out a piece of lump sugar and a glass of water, a common refreshment partaken of in this country.
Yet a third time I am halted by a roadside official and required to produce my passport, and again at the village of Zaribrod, just over the Bulgarian frontier, which I reach about ten o'clock. To the Bulgarian official I present a small stamped card-board check, which was given me for that purpose at the last Servian examination, but he doesn't seem to understand it, and demands to see the original passport. When my English passport is produced he examines it, and straightway assures me of the Bulgarian official respect for an Englishman by grasping me warmly by the hand. The passport office is in the second story of a mud hovel, and is reached by a dilapidated flight of out-door stairs. My bicycle is left leaning against the building, and during my brief interview with the officer a noisy crowd of semi-civilized Bulgarians have collected about, examining it and commenting unreservedly concerning it and myself. The officer, ashamed of the rudeness of his country - and their evidently untutored minds, leans out of the window, and in a chiding voice explains to the crowd that I am a private individual, and not a travelling mountebank going about the country giving exhibitions, and advises them to uphold the dignity of the Bulgarian character by scattering forthwith. But the crowd doesn't scatter to any appreciable extent; they don't care whether I am public or private; they have never seen anything like me and the bicycle before, and the one opportunity of a lifetime is not to be lightly passed over. They are a wild, untamed lot, these Bulgarians here at Zaribrod, little given to self-restraint.
When I emerge, the silence of eager anticipation takes entire possession of the crowd, only to break forth into a spontaneous howl of delight, from three hundred bared throats when I mount into the saddle and ride away into - Bulgaria.
My ride through Servia, save over the Balkans. has been most enjoyable, and the roads, I am agreeably surprised to have to record, have averaged as good as any country in Europe, save England and France, though being for the most part unmacadamized; with wet weather they would scarcely show to such advantage. My impression of the Servian peasantry is most favorable; they are evidently a warm-hearted, hospitable, and withal a patriotic people, loving their little country and appreciating their independence as only people who have but recently had their dream of self-government realized know how to appreciate it; they even paint the wood-work of their bridges and public buildings with the national colors. I am assured that the Servians have progressed wonderfully since acquiring their full independence; but as one journeys down the beautiful and fertile valley of the Morava, where improvements would naturally be seen, if anywhere, one falls to wondering where they can possibly have come in.
Some of their methods would, indeed, seem to indicate a most deplorable lack of practicability; one of the most ridiculous, to the writer's mind, is the erection of small, long sheds substantially built of heavy hewn timber supports, and thick, home-made tiles, over ordinary plank fences and gates to protect them from the weather, when a good coating of tar or paint would answer the purpose of preservation much better. These structures give one the impression of a dollar placed over a penny to protect the latter from harm. Every peasant owns a few acres of land, and, if he produces anything above his own wants, he hauls it to market in an ox-wagon with roughly hewn wheels without tires, and whose creaking can plainly bo heard a mile away. At present the Servian tills his little freehold with the clumsiest of implements, some his own rude handiwork, and the best imperfectly fashioned and forged on native anvils. His plow is chiefly the forked limb of a tree, pointed with iron sufficiently to enable him to root around in the surface soil. One would think the country might offer a promising field for some enterprising manufacturer of such implements as hoes, scythes, hay-forks, small, strong plows, cultivators, etc.
These people are industrious, especially the women. I have entry met a Servian peasant woman returning homeward in the evening from her labor in the fields, carrying a fat, heavy baby, a clumsy hoe not much lighter than the youngster, and an earthenware water-pitcher, and, at the same time, industriously spinning wool with a small hand-spindle. And yet some people argue about the impossibility of doing two things at once. Whether these poor women have been hoeing potatoes, carrying the infant, and spinning wool at the same time all day I am unable to say, not having been an eye-witness, though I really should not be much astonished if they had.
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