BULGARIA, ROUMELIA, AND INTO TURKEY.
The road leading into Bulgaria from the Zaribrod custom-house is fairly good for several kilometres, when mountainous and rough ways are encountered; it is a country of goats and goat-herds. A rain-storm is hovering threateningly over the mountains immediately ahead, but it does not reach the vicinity I am traversing: it passes to the southward, and makes the roads for a number of miles wellnigh impassable. Up in the mountains I meet more than one "Bulgarian national express " - pony pack- trains, carrying merchandise to and fro between Sofia and Nisch. Most of these animals are too heavily laden to think of objecting to the appearance of anything on the road, but some of the outfits are returning from Sofia in "ballast" only; and one of these, doubtless overjoyed beyond measure at their unaccustomed lissomeness, breaks through all restraint at my approach, and goes stampeding over the rolling hills, the wild-looking teamsters in full tear after them. Whatever of this nature happens in this part of the world the people seem to regard with commendable complacence: instead of wasting time in trying to quarrel about it, they set about gathering up the scattered train, as though a stampede were the most natural thing going.
Bulgaria - at least by the route I am crossing it - is a land of mountains and elevated plateaus, and the inhabitants I should call the "ranchers of the Orient," in their general appearance and demeanor bearing the same relation to the plodding corn-hoer and scythe-swinger of the Morava Valley as the Niobrara cow-boy does to the Nebraska homesteader. On the mountains are encountered herds of goats in charge of men who reck little for civilization, and the upland plains are dotted over with herds of ponies that require constant watching in the interest of scattered fields of grain. For lunch I halt at an unlikely-looking mehana, near a cluster of mud hovels, which, I suppose, the Bulgarians consider a village, and am rewarded by the blackest of black bread, in the composition of which sand plays no inconsiderable part, and the remnants of a chicken killed and stewed at some uncertain period of the past. Of all places invented in the world to disgust a hungry, expectant wayfarer, the Bulgarian mehana is the most abominable. Black bread and mastic (a composition of gum-mastic and Boston rum, so I am informed) seem to be about the only things habitually kept in stock, and everything about the place plainly shows the proprietor to be ignorant of the crudest notions of cleanliness.
A storm is observed brewing in the mountains I have lately traversed, and, having swallowed my unpalatable lunch, I hasten to mount, and betake myself off toward Sofia, distant thirty kilometres. The road is nothing extra, to say the least, but a howling wind blowing from the region of the gathering storm propels me rapidly, in spite of undulations, ruts, and undesirable road qualities generally. The region is an elevated plateau, of which but a small proportion is cultivated; on more than one of the neighboring peaks patches of snow are still lingering, and the cool mountain breezes recall memories of the Laramie Plains. Men and women returning homeward on horseback from Sofia are frequently encountered. The women are decked with beads and trinkets and the gewgaws of semi-civilization, as might be the favorite squaws of Squatting Beaver or Sitting Bull, and furthermore imitate their copper-colored sisters of the Far West by bestriding their ponies like men. But in the matter of artistic and profuse decoration of the person the squaw is far behind the peasant woman of Bulgaria. The garments of the men are a combination of sheepskin and a thick, coarse, woollen material, spun by the women, and fashioned after patterns their forefathers brought with them centuries ago when they first invaded Europe. The Bulgarian saddle, like everything else here, is a rudely constructed affair, that answers the double purpose of a pack-saddle or for riding - a home-made, unwieldy thing, that is a fair pony's load of itself.
At 4.30 P.M. I wheel into Sofia, the Bulgarian Capital, having covered one hundred and ten kilometres to-day, in spite of mud, mountains, and roads that have been none of the best. Here again I have to patronize the money-changers, for a few Servian francs which I have are not current in Bulgaria; and the Israelite, who reserved unto himself a profit of two francs on the pound at Nisch, now seems the spirit of fairness itself along-side a hook-nosed, wizen-faced relative of his here at Sofia, who wants two Servian francs in exchange for each Bulgarian coin of the same intrinsic value; and the best I am able to get by going to several different money-changers is five francs in exchange for seven; yet the Servian frontier is but sixty kilometres distant, with stages running to it daily; and the two coins are identical in intrinsic value. At the Hotel Concordia, in Sofia, in lieu of plates, the meat is served on round, flat blocks of wood about the circumference of a saucer - the "trenchers" of the time of Henry VIII.- and two respectable citizens seated opposite me are supping off black bread and a sliced cucumber, both fishing slices of the cucumber out of a wooden bowl with their fingers.
Life at the Bulgarian Capital evidently bears its legitimate relative comparison to the life of the country it represents. One of Prince Alexander's body-guard, pointed out to me in the bazaar, looks quite a semi-barbarian, arrayed in a highly ornamented national costume, with immense Oriental pistols in waistband, and gold-braided turban cocked on one side of his head, and a fierce mustache. The soldiers here, even the comparatively fortunate ones standing guard at the entrance to the prince's palace, look as though they haven't had a new uniform for years and had long since despaired of ever getting one. A war, and an alliance with some wealthy nation which would rig them out in respectable uniforms, would probably not be an unwelcome event to many of them.
While wandering about the bazaar, after supper, I observe that the streets, the palace grounds, and in fact every place that is lit up at all, save the minarets of the mosque, which are always illumined with vegetable oil, are lighted with American petroleum, gas and coal being unknown in the Bulgarian capital. There is an evident want of system in everything these people do. From my own observations I am inclined to think they pay no heed whatever to generally accepted divisions of time, but govern their actions entirely by light and darkness. There is no eight-hour nor ten-hour system of labor here; and I verily believe the industrial classes work the whole time, save when they pause to munch black bread, and to take three or four hours' sleep in the middle of the night; for as I trundle my way through the streets at five o'clock next morning, the same people I observed at various occupations in the bazaars are there now, as busily engaged as though they had been keeping it up all night; as also are workmen building a house; they were pegging away at nine o'clock yesterday evening, by the flickering light of small petroleum lamps, and at five this morning they scarcely look like men who are just commencing for the day. The Oriental, with his primitive methods and tenacious adherence to the ways of his forefathers, probably enough, has to work these extra long hours in order to make any sort of progress. However this may be, I have throughout the Orient been struck by the industriousness of the real working classes; but in practicability and inventiveness the Oriental is sadly deficient.
On the way out I pause at the bazaar to drink hot milk and eat a roll of white bread, the former being quite acceptable, for the morning is rather raw and chilly; the wind is still blowing a gale, and a company of cavalry, out for exercise, are incased in their heavy gray overcoats, as though it were midwinter instead of the twenty- third of June. Rudely clad peasants are encountered on the road, carrying large cans of milk into Sofia from neighboring ranches. I stop several of them with a view of sampling the quality of their milk, but invariably find it unstrained, and the vessels looking as though they had been strangers to scalding for some time. Others are carrying gunny-sacks of smear-kase on their shoulders, the whey from which is not infrequently streaming down their backs. Cleanliness is no doubt next to godliness; but the Bulgarians seem to be several degrees removed from either. They need the civilizing influence of soap quite as much as anything else, and if the missionaries cannot educate them up to Christianity or civilization it might not be a bad scheme to try the experiment of starting a native soap-factory or two in the country.
Savagery lingers in the lap of civilization on the breezy plateaus of Bulgaria, but salvation is coming this way in the shape of an extension of the Roumelian railway from the south, to connect with the Servian line north of the Balkans. For years the freight department of this pioneer railway will have to run opposition against ox-teams, and creaking, groaning wagons; and since railway stockholders and directors are not usually content with an exclusive diet of black bread, with a wilted cucumber for a change on Sundays, as is the Bulgarian teamster, and since locomotives cannot be turned out to graze free of charge on the hill-sides, the competition will not be so entirely one-sided as might be imagined. Long trains of these ox-teams are met with this morning hauling freight and building-lumber from the railway terminus in Roumelia to Sofia. The teamsters are wearing large gray coats of thick blanketing, with floods covering the head, a heavy, convenient garment, that keeps out both rain and cold while on the road, and at night serves for blanket and mattress; for then the teamster turns his oxen loose on the adjacent hill-sides to graze, and, after munching a piece of black bread, he places a small wicker-work wind-break against the windward side of the wagon, and, curling himself up in his great-coat, sleeps soundly. Besides the ox- trains, large, straggling trains of pack-ponies and donkeys occasionally fill the whole roadway; they are carrying firewood and charcoal from the mountains, or wine and spirits, in long, slender casks, from Roumelia; while others are loaded with bales and boxes of miscellaneous merchandise, out of all proportion to their own size.
The road southward from Sofia is abominable, being originally constructed of earth and large unbroken bowlders; it has not been repaired for years, and the pack-trains and ox-wagons forever crawling along have, during the wet weather of many seasons, tramped the dirt away, and left the surface a wretched waste of ruts, holes, and thickly protruding stones. It is the worst piece of road I have encountered in all Europe; and although it is ridable this morning by a cautious person, one risks and invites disaster at every turn of the wheel. "Old Boreas" comes howling from the mountains of the north, and hustles me briskly along over ruts, holes, and bowlders, however, in a most reckless fashion, furnishing all the propelling power needful, and leaving me nothing to do but keep a sharp lookout for breakneck places immediately ahead.
In Servia, the peasants, driving along the road in their wagons, upon observing me approaching them, being uncertain of the character of my vehicle and the amount of road-space I require, would ofttimes drive entirely off the road; and sometimes, when they failed to take this precaution, and their teams would begin to show signs of restiveness as I drew near, the men would seem to lose their wits for the moment, and cry out in alarm, as though some unknown danger were hovering over them. I have seen women begin to wail quite pitifully, as though they fancied I bestrode an all- devouring circular saw that was about to whirl into them and rend team, wagon, and everything asunder. But the Bulgarians don't seem to care much whether I am going to saw them in twain or not; they are far less particular about yielding the road, and both men and women seem to be made of altogether sterner stuff than the Servians and Slavonians. They seem several degrees less civilized than their neighbors farther north, judging from tieir general appearance and demeanor. They act peaceably and are reasonably civil toward me and the bicycle, however, and personallv I rather enjoy their rough, unpolished manners. Although there is a certain element of rudeness and boisterousuess about them compared with anything I have encountered elsewhere in Europe, they seem, on the whole, a good-natured people. We Westerners seldom hear anything of the Bulgarians except in war-times and then it is usually in connection with atrocities that furnish excellent sensational material for the illustrated weeklies; consequently I rather expected to have a rough time riding through alone. But, instead of coming out slashed and scarred like a Heidelberg student, I emerge from their territory with nothing more serious than a good healthy shaking up from their ill-conditioned roads and howling winds, and my prejudice against black bread with sand in it partly overcome from having had to eat it or nothing. Bulgaria is a principality under the suzerainty of the Sultan, to whom it is supposed to pay a yearly tribute; but the suzerainty sits lightly upon the people, since they do pretty much as they please; and they never worry themselves about the tribute, simply putting it down on the slate whenever it comes due. The Turks might just as well wipe out the account now as at any time, for they will eventually have to whistle for the whole indebtedness. A smart rain-storm drives me into an uninviting mehana near the Roumelian frontier, for two unhappy hours, at noon - a mehana where the edible accommodations would wring an "Ugh" from an American Indian - and the sole occupants are a blear-eyed Bulgarian, in twenty-year-old sheep-skin clothes, whose appearance plainly indicates an over-fondness for mastic, and an unhappy- looking black kitten. Fearful lest something, perchance, might occur to compel me to spend the night here, I don my gossamers as soon as the rain slacks up a little, and splurge ahead through the mud toward Ichtiman, which, my map informs me, is just on this side of the Kodja Balkans, which rise up in dark wooded ridges at no great distance ahead, to the southward. The mud and rain combine to make things as disagreeable as possible, but before three o'clock I reach Ichtiman, to find that I am in the province of Roumelia, and am again required to produce my passport.
I am now getting well down into territory that quite recently was completely under the dominion of the "unspeakable Turk" - unspeakable, by the way, to the writer in more senses than one - and is partly so even now, but have as yet seen very little of the "mysterious veiled lady." The Bulgarians are Christian when they are anything, though the great majority of them are nothing religiously. A comparatively comfortable mehana is found here at Ichtiman, and the proprietor, being able to talk German, readily comprehends the meaning of hune-hen fabrica; but I have to dispense with cherries.
Mud is the principal element of the road leading out of Ichtiman and over the Kodja Balkans this morning. The curious crowd of Ichtimanites that follow me through the mud-holes and filth of their native streets, to see what is going to happen when I get clear of them, are rewarded but poorly for their trouble; the best I can possibly do being to make a spasmodic run of a hundred yards through the mud, which I do purely out of consideration for their inquisitiveness, since it seems rather disagreeable to disappoint a crowd of villagers who are expectantly following and watching one's every movement, wondering, in their ignorance, why you don't ride instead of walk. It is a long, wearisome trundle up the muddy slopes of the Kodja Balkans, but, after the descent into the Maritza Valley begins, some little ridable surface is encountered, though many loose stones are lying about, and pitch-holes innumerable, make riding somewhat risky, considering that the road frequently leads immediately alongside precipices. Pack-donkeys are met on these mountain- roads, sometimes filling the way, and corning doggedly and indifferently forward, even in places where I have little choice between scrambling up a rock on one side of the road or jumping down a precipice on the other. I can generally manage to pass them, however, by placing the bicycle on one side, and, 'standing guard over it, push them off one by one as they pass. Some of these Roumelian donkeys are the most diminutive creatures I ever saw; but they seem capable of toiling up these steep mountain-roads with enormous loads. I met one this morning carrying bales of something far bigger than himself, and a big Roumelian, whose feet actually came in contact with the ground occasionally, perched on his rump; the man looked quite capable of carrying both the donkey and his load.
The warm and fertile Maritza Valley is reached soon after noon, and I am not sorry to find it traversed by a decent macadamized road; though, while it has been raining quite heavily up among the mountains, this valley has evidently been favored with a small deluge, and frequent stretches are covered with deep mud and sand, washed down from the adjacent hills; in the cultivated areas of the Bulgarian uplands the grain-fields are yet quite green, but harvesting has already begun in the warmer Maritza Vale, and gangs of Roumelian peasants are in the fields, industriously plying reaping-hooks to save their crops of wheat and rye, which the storm has badly lodged. Ere many miles of this level valley-road are ridden over, a dozen pointed minarets loom up ahead, and at four o'clock I dismount at the confines of the well nigh impassable streets of Tatar Bazardjik, quite a lively little city in the sense that Oriental cities are lively, which means well-stocked bazaars thronged with motley crowds. Here I am delayed for some time by a thunder-storm, and finally wheel away southward in the face of threatening heavens. Several villages of gypsies are camped on the banks of the Maritza, just outside the limits of Tatar Bazardjik; a crowd of bronzed, half-naked youngsters wantonly favor me with a fusillade of stones as I ride past, and several gaunt, hungry-looking curs follow me for some distance with much threatening clamor. The dogs in the Orient seem to be pretty much all of one breed, genuine mongrel, possessing nothing of the spirit and courage of the animals we are familiar with. Gypsies are more plentiful south of the Save than even in Austria-Hungary, but since leaving Slavonia I have never been importuned by them for alms. Travellers from other countries are seldom met with along the roads here, and I suppose that the wandering Romanies have long since learned the uselessness of asking alms of the natives; but, since they religiously abstain from anything like work, how they manage to live is something of a mystery.
Ere I am five kilometres from Tatar Bazardjik the rain begins to descend, and there is neither house nor other shelter visible anywhere ahead. The peasants' villages are all on the river, and the road leads for mile after mile through fields of wheat and rye. I forge ahead in a drenching downpour that makes short work of the thin gossamer suit, which on this occasion barely prevents me getting a wet skin ere I descry a thrice-welcome mehana ahead and repair thither, prepared to accept, with becoming thankfulness, whatever accommodation the place affords. It proves many degrees superior to the average Bulgarian institution of the same name, the proprietor causing my eyes fairly to bulge out with astonishment by producing a box of French sardines, and bread several shades lighter than I had, in view of previous experience expected to find it; and for a bed provides one of the huge, thick overcoats before spoken of, which, with the ample hood, envelops the whole figure in a covering that defies both wet and cold. I am provided with this unsightly but none the less acceptable garment, and given the happy privilege of occupying the floor of a small out-building in company with several rough-looking pack-train teamsters similarly incased; I pass a not altogether comfortless night, the pattering of rain against the one small window effectually suppressing such thankless thoughts as have a tendency to come unbidden whenever the snoring of any of my fellow-lodgers gets aggravatingly harsh. In all this company I think I am the only person who doesn't snore, and when I awake from my rather fitful slumbers at four o'clock and find the rain no longer pattering against the window, I arise, and take up my journey toward Philippopolis, the city I had intended reaching yesterday.
It is after crossing the Kodja Balkans and descending into the Maritza Valley that one finds among the people a peculiarity that, until a person becomes used to it, causes no little mystification and many ludicrous mistakes. A shake of the head, which with us means a negative answer, means exactly the reverse with the people of the Maritza Valley; and it puzzled me not a little more than once yesterday afternoon when inquiring whether I was on the right road, and when patronizing fruit-stalls in Tatar Bazardjik. One never feels quite certain about being right when, after inquiring of a native if this is the correct road to Mustapha Pasha or Philippopolis he replies with a vigorous shake of the head; and although one soon gets accustomed to this peculiarity in others, and accepts it as it is intended, it is not quite so easy to get into the habit yourself. This queer custom seems to prevail only among the inhabitants of this particular valley, for after leaving it at Adrianople I see nothing more of it. Another peculiarity all through Oriental, and indeed through a good part of Central Europe, is that, instead of the "whoa" which we use to a horse, the driver hisses like a goose.
Yesterday evening's downpour has little injured the road between the mehana and Philippopolis, the capital of Roumelia, and I wheel to the confines of that city in something over two hours. Philippopolis is most beautifully situated, being built on and around a cluster of several rocky hills; a situation which, together with a plenitude of waving trees, imparts a pleasing and picturesque effect. With a score of tapering minarets pointing skyward among the green foliage, the scene is thoroughly Oriental; but, like all Eastern cities, "distance lends enchantment to the view."
All down the Maritza Valley, and in lesser numbers extending southward and eastward over the undulating plains of Adrianople, are many prehistoric mounds, some twenty-five or thirty feet high, and of about the same diameter. Sometimes in groups, and sometimes singly, these mounds occur so frequently that one can often count a dozen at a time. In the vicinity of Philippopolis several have been excavated, and human remains discovered reclining beneath large slabs of coarse pottery set up like an inverted V, thus: A, evidently intended as a water-shed for the preservation of the bodies. Another feature of the landscape, and one that fails not to strike the observant traveller as a melancholy feature, are the Mohammedan cemeteries. Outside every town and near every village are broad areas of ground thickly studded with slabs of roughly hewn rock set up on end; cities of the dead vastly more populous than the abodes of life adjacent. A person can stand on one of the Philippopolis heights and behold the hills and vales all around thickly dotted with these rude reminders of our universal fate. It is but as yesterday since the Turk occupied these lands, and was in the habit of making it particularly interesting to any "dog of a Christian" who dared desecrate one of these Mussulman cemeteries with his unholy presence; but to-day they are unsurrounded by protecting fence or the moral restrictions of dominant Mussulmans, and the sheep, cows, and goats of the "infidel giaour" graze among them; and oh, shade of Mohammed! hogs also scratch their backs against the tombstones and root around, at their own sweet will, sometimes unearthing skulls and bones, which it is the Turkish custom not to bury at any great depth. The great number and extent of these cemeteries seem to appeal to the unaccustomed observer in eloquent evidence against a people whose rule find religion have been of the sword.