THE LANDS OF THE SERB
Mary E. Durham
is not easily reached from Cetinje. You can retreat to Cattaro and then
take the weekly steamer. If, however, you have come to Montenegro to see
Montenegro, it is better to choose the 'cross-country route. I have
been there more than once, but the first .journey thither will suffice.
We were raw to the country and knew nothing of the language, so everyone
tried to persuade us not to go, or at any rate to take an interpreter.
But unless a route is so complicated that a guide is absolutely necessary,
I infinitely prefer worrying it out alone ; and as for languages, everyone
knows that one wants food, drink, and sleep. The only precautions we took
were to ascertain that there was an " inn with three beds" at Prstan, the
port for Antivari, and to get the hotel to telegraph for a couple of horses
to meet us at Virbazar, and we started from Rijeka in the early morning,
by steamer. Arrived off Vir-bazar, we clambered down into a large canoe,
along with sixteen Montenegrins, to whom we were a deeply interesting sight,
and proceeded very slowly up the river, for the boat was heavily laden
with freight and passengers. Neither Montenegrins nor Albanians have much
idea of paddling their own canoes. They merely stab and prod the water
at irregular intervals with wooden shovels, expending a good deal of energy
with very little result; but they wobble along somehow. We speculated anxiously
as to what we should do if the horses had not turned up, and were much
relieved to see a respectable pair of steeds on the bank. Virbazar is a
tiny village on an island on the river, and has no particular features
save its bridge. This is a singular structure. It is built of stone, but
is so narrow that it is only passable by foot passengers single file. Even
if wide enough, though, vehicles would find a difficulty in tackling it,
for it changes its style of architecture abruptly in the middle, and, having
begun well and loftily, drops suddenly and proceeds to the farther bank
with smaller arches and a narrower path at a much lower level. Whether
rival architects started from opposite sides, or whether one-half is a
"restoration" of the other, and if so which, I do not know. I think, however,
it must have been evolved by Turks.
We picked our way across it, attended of course by a fair proportion of the
population, and made our way towards the horses. The population objected
strongly to our claiming them, but as we persisted, someone had the sense
to go and fetch the horse-boy. He, a swarthy Albanian - a wiry, cheerful
thing about twenty - produced from the recesses of his garments our telegram.
This was read aloud, everyone was satisfied, our mysterious appearance
was explained, and the "two good horses" were led up on to the high road.
In Montenegro one must always ride astride. Of course it would be possible
to take a side-saddle, but I do not think it would be any advantage. The
horses are not accustomed to it, and the mountain tracks are very bad.
It is much easier to balance on a scrambling horse when astride ; it is
possible to dismount in a hurry on either side, and it is far less tiring
for a very long day's ride, both to horse and rider.
There is a very good carriage road to Antivari, but no carriages to go on it.
The only diligence runs once a week; sometimes it fits the boat, and sometimes
it doesn't. There is a bridle path which is a short cut, but is so rough
that a good deal of it must be done on foot. The road winds up the Crmnitza
valley green, rich, and fertile, a land of vines, maize, and tobacco. Higher
up, the mountain sides are well wooded. At the top of the pass the scenery
is superb. There is always a strange fascination about the top of a pass.
When once it is reached there seems to be no limit set to our wanderings
; we enter a new land, and plunge into the beyond - the beyond that is
ever a calling. The top of the Crmnitza valley is crowned by the ruins
of a Turkish fort; twenty-five years ago this was Turkish territory, and
our horse-boy was a son of the conquered soil. He was a Mohammedan Albanian
and seemed to think he had got a most amusing job. He made the most violent
efforts to talk to us, roared with laughter when we did not understand,
and poured out torrents of conversation when we did. We plunged down the
old bridle track, and scrambled over rocks and bushes along the mountain
side. At one point he stopped us and treated us to an amusingly realistic
pantomime of cutting off heads and throwing bodies down the rocks. It was
a pity we had not command of his language, for this pathless, rugged hillside,
with the battered remains of another Turkish fortress on the shoulder below
us, was a fine background for a gory tale. Far away below us, beyond the
silver-grey olives on the slopes and the fertile plain, gleamed the blue
Adriatic; a few cottages clustered on the edge of the bay, and the road
led straight to them. "Prstan !" said the boy, and we thought we were nearly
there ; but there were weary zigzags before we reined up our tired beasts
in the waning light by the edge of the sea.
A gipsy camp, a post - office, half a dozen dilapidated cottages, a harbour about
the size of a pocket-handkerchief, the Prince's country house, and a lonely
beach where the waves splashed - this was Prstan, and the farthest and
smallest of the cottages was the "inn with the three beds." The beds are
all in the same room, which is also the dining-room, and there is nothing'
of the stiff conventionality about the establishment that one finds in
a hotel starred by Baedeker, but all is clean and the food is excellent,
and Maria Bulatovich, the kindly hostess, speaks Italian.
We started betimes next morning to see Antivari. The local coffee stall -
a packing-case set up on end with an Albanian coiled up inside it - was
doing a roaring trade, and the gipsy camp hard by was getting up and shaking
itself. Antivari lies some three miles inland. You don't see it till you
are nearly arrived, as it is stowed away between two great mountain spurs.
The road twists and twines through magnificent olive gardens, where huge
hoary giants sprawl in a thousand grotesque shapes ; you turn a corner,
suddenly Antivari appears, and the first sight of it is very startling.
On a rocky eminence in the midst of the hollow stands gaunt and grim the
dismantled Turkish town - battlements, walls, roofless houses and shattered
churches - just as it was left after the war, a terrible relic, the grey
bones of a city mouldering under the sun and sky, like a gibbeted felon.
We climbed up the steep street of the modern bazaar, with its cranky little
wooden shops and gay Albanian inhabitants, to the big gateway of the old
town. A sentinel is always on guard here, but in response to the magic
word "Engleske" he smilingly passed us in. It is a dead, creepy, ghostly
city, strangled and throttled with a tangle of vines and brambles which
rend the walls and wreathe door and arch. A forest of fig trees and cherry
plums run riot in room and court, and find root-hole on the topmost battlements.
Grass grows knee-high in streets that, even now, are thickly strewn with
rusty fragments of shells ; beautiful pieces of mouldings and a window
or two tell of the old town of the Venetians, and the remains of fresco
still fade and crumble on the church walls. Man has departed, and nature
has stepped in, and is surely and silently finishing the work of destruction.
We wandered for an hour in this ghostly spot, looking over the battlements,
a sheer drop into the valley below, wrestling with the vegetation, and
haunted by a feeling that in spite of the blue sky and sunshine none of
it was real.
Antivari fell in January 1878, after a long siege. The defenders made a gallant
resistance, and, when forced to surrender, laid a train to the powder magazine.
Prince Nikola had a very narrow escape from the ensuing explosion, and
the already shattered city was ruined beyond the possibility of repair.
Antivari is marked on the map, but one's first impression of it is that
there is now no such place, so scattered are the houses and so scanty the
population. Yet it speaks three languages - Turkish, Serbian, and Albanian
; is divided by three religions - Mohammedan, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic
; and has a Roman Catholic Archbishop all to itself. The bishopric is a
very old one, established originally at Dioclea, but transferred, to Antivari,
some say as early as the tenth century. Antivari was Venetian till 1479,
and the flock must then have been a large one ; now it is reduced to some
six hundred souls, all Albanian. At least, so they call themselves. But
just as every Mohammedan tells you he is a " Turk," and every one of the
Orthodox that he is a Montenegrin, so does every Roman Catholic say that
he is an Albanian ; and three men who in feature, complexion, and build
are as alike as three individuals can well be, will all swear, and really
believe, that they all belong to different races. It is not improbable
that they are a blend of all three. Most of the inhabitants are Mohammedan.
The district is but thinly populated, and is said to be fever-stricken.
Down below on the plain, among the scattered houses, are the ruins of the konak
of the former Turkish Pasha, Selim Beg, whose tyranny is still fresh In
the minds of the people. The Christians especially were his victims, and
many are the tales of the tortures he inflicted. To one unfortunate man
he gave a thousand blows upon the soles of the feet. When Antivari fell,
Selim Beg, who was as cowardly as he was cruel, fled in terror to hide
himself from the victorious Montenegrins. Fate so ordained that he rushed
for shelter to the house of this same tortured Christian. Terror
- stricken, Selim recognised his former victim, and abjectly begged for
mercy, and the man to whom he had shown none threw himself on his knees
before the crucifix and in an ecstasy poured forth his thanks to the Lord,
who had thus permitted him to witness the humiliation of his enemy. "He
hath thrown down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree."
He spared the life of his torturer, and Selim Beg, after making a servile
attempt to gain the friendship of Prince Nikola, retired to Corfu, where,
according to my informant, he died "like the beast that he was." This curiously
dramatic tale, the truth of which is, I believe, undisputed, throws a strong
light upon the Albanian and the sanctity of the "guest" - the man who begs
We returned to Prstan and Maria's hospitable roof, and all further explorations
in the afternoon were put a stop to by the weather. In rushed Maria and
shut and barred the door, for the wind was hurling the rain in sheets against
the cottage, and we sat in semi-darkness, lit up now and then by a blaze
of lightning. Suddenly there came a loud knocking at the door. I grappled
with the iron bar, dragged it back with difficulty, and admitted a tall
old Montenegrin, whose wet coat, dripping pony, and travelling-bag showed
he had come to stay. His amazement at seeing us was quite funny. I thought
of the third bed and my heart sank. But Maria transferred herself to the
kitchen, and gave up her room to the new-comer. It was evident from her
excitement that she considered him to be of great importance. He was, in
fact, a relative of the Prince.
We had a gay dinner that night. The little Austrian Vice-Consul, who was a
Hungarian, turned up, and the old Montenegrin was resplendent in his best
clothes, for he was going to the Palace that evening. He was a tall, thin,
handsome man, with a most kindly face and exquisite manners, and was painfully
anxious that we should have the best of everything the resources of the
place could supply. He told us (the Hungarian translating) that he had
met two English ladies once before, in 1865 ! It was a very long journey,
he wondered how we had dared to come. When once in Montenegro everyone
was safe - but travelling through all the other countries ! The English,
he had been told, wanted to see and know everything; they travelled everywhere.
It must be a very expensive habit! It had perhaps cost us one hundred florins
(about 8 pounds) to come this distance. We admitted that it had, and he
seemed overcome by the amount. "And it takes not only money but time,"
said my companion. He laughed merrily. "Time! What is time ? Time is nothing.
You live, and then you die." The idea of reckoning "time" tickled him vastly.
"Time," said the Hungarian, to show his superior knowledge, "is thought
very much of by the English. I have been told that they have a proverb
which says 'Time is money.'" We corroborated this report - to the astonishment
of both men, for even the Hungarian thought this was going rather far.
The Montenegrin thought it one of the wildest statements he had ever met
with, and shook his puzzled head, but his kindly eyes twinkled with fun.
I think I see him now as he wished us good-night - a resplendent figure in his
green embroidered coat, his crimson and gold waistcoat, his dark blue knickerbockers,
white gaiters and new sandals, bowing himself backwards through the little
door with simple. dignity, his tall lean form slightly bent by age - a
splendid type of the Montenegrin of the old regime. I had a strange feeling
of having known him years ago. As he passed from the room I recognised,
with a sudden illuminating flash, Chaucer's
"A knyghte there was and that a worthy man
That from the time that he first began
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Truth and honoure, freedom and courtesie.
Full worthie was he in his lordes warre. . .
He was a very perfect gentle knyghte," etc.
And had he not too "fought often for his faith against "a hethen in Turkeye"?
The truth of the mediaeval picture charmed me, and the knight armed with
a white cotton umbrella went off in a shandrydan to pay his respects at
the Palace on the beach.
The weather never cleared, so we saw no more of Antivari that time. Blinding
torrential rain and fierce blasts of wind crashed on the cottage walls.
The fat frogs in the pond sat up, and their hoarse shouts, " brek-kek-kek-kek-koax-koax,"
resounded in every lull of the storm. We waited for the only diligence,
and returned by it to Virbazar, and had as travelling companion our old
friend of the inn, who, to our distress, would persist in occupying the
small seat back to the horses, and was miserably uncomfortable in consequence.
At last neither of us dared stir, as the slightest movement on our part
brought an apology for the inconvenience he was sure he was causing us.
To make up for tin's, he tried to tell us all about the road as we went
along, though speaking Italian was a great labour to him. He had taken
part in the siege of Antivari. "Ah ! " he said, "that was terrible. All
those weeks. And in the winter. They are brave men, the Turks." He pointed
down the valley where, through rifts in the mist, we could see the stream.
"The Austrian frontier," he said sadly. " Austrian. And we gave our blood
for that land. It was ours. And they took it from us. They gave it to Austria.
I do not understand it." I do not think that the affairs of the outer world
entered into his head at all. Montenegro and abstract justice were all
he wanted. Russia was a distant Providence who would assist the right to
prevail. But the wheels within wheels and the shuffling of international
politics were a mystery to his primitive, honest soul.
There were many things that puzzled him. We passed a village. "This is all Mohammedan,"
he said. "There is a mosque below. We have built them a school. It is a
good school, but they will not go to it. They say they do not care for
education ! They are strange people, these Albanians!" He sighed and shook
his head. He looked on the village school as the first step on the path
of sweetness and light. I had a vision of the Board School child, the "penny
dreadful," and the novelette with a paper pattern of the last new sleeve
included. I think he was double my age, but he made me feel very old. We
passed a school; the sun had come out at last, and the playground was full
of sturdy young Montenegrins. He smiled at them with pleasure, and I was
glad to think that he cannot survive long enough to have his dream of enlightened
Montenegro shattered. He said good-bye to us not long after, and we saw
the last of him as he entered his modest little house on the mountain side.
The remainder of the drive did not take long. We were soon in Virbazar, and
once again a cause of local excitement. By the help of a man who spoke
a little German, we were made to understand that we could go for nothing
in the common boat to the steamer, but that for a florin we could have
a very good one all to ourselves. It would have been too unkind to disappoint
them, and we were such rare birds !. We delighted every one by accepting
the offer of a private boat.
When the boat was ready, we did not feel quite so pleased. It was a canoe with
two bent-wood chairs arranged in it as a sort of throne at one end, and
looked remarkably topheavy. The crew, two tall youths and a boy, were in
great glee at having secured such a job, and conducted us to our seats
with much ceremony before a large crowd. Off we pushed, and made a lordly,
if somewhat wobbly progress down stream. All went well till we were suddenly
aroused by the steamer's hooter. Then our crew were seized with a wild
and irresistible desire to make a rapid, showy finish to the voyage. "Really,"
said my friend, "it requires all my faith in Montenegrins to feel safe."
The words were scarcely out of her mouth when round swung the canoe in
response to a violent stroke of the paddle, and out she shot, chair and
all, as if from a catapult I hadn't even time to grab at her. A vision
of grey skirts, a splash, and she was gone! "Well, never mind ; she can
swim," thought I, as the waters closed over her. The next instant I had
to hurl myself almost over the other side, to right the boat, as the two
men, completely scared, both leaned out at once, and as nearly as possible
capsized the whole thing. The boy came to my side, the men perceived that
the foreign lady was not going to drown, and the panic passed over. Their
idea of helping her in was remarkable - they grasped large handfuls and
tugged. I believe they pulled her in by one leg. The misery and dismay
on their faces when she at last stood up in the boat dripping and streaming
were so unutterably funny that we both roared with laughter. They were
greatly relieved at this, but most anxious to make her look respectable
before going on board the steamer, and wrung her out with such vigour and
muscle that I thought she would come to pieces. Then having picked up the
chair and hat, they paddled in a subdued and gingerly manner to the steamboat,
were shy about accepting the florin, and thanked for it repeatedly. The
captain, when he learned our plight, laughed as though he would never stop,
and put the one cabin and a bucket at our disposal. We improvised a costume
out of two nightgowns, a waterproof, and a brush-and-comb bag, poured olive
oil into her watch and brandy into her, and although it rained all the
rest of the way back to Cetinje no evil results ensued to either of them.
But the episode has become a legend of the lake, and two years after I
heard an Albanian retailing it to an interested audience. The point of
the story was the extreme cold-bloodedness of the English, as shown by
the heartless way I laughed at my friend's misfortune!
Our Lady Among the
Rocks | Contents | Kolashin-Andrijevitza-Berani-Pech
Land of Montenegro