SERVIA, YOUNGEST MEMBER OF THE EUROPEAN FAMILY (1845), II/XXXV
Updated: Apr 8
YOUNGEST MEMBER OF THE EUROPEAN FAMILY:
RESIDENCE IN BELGRADE,
TRAVELS IN THE HIGHLANDS AND WOODLANDS OF THE INTERIOR,
DURING THE YEARS 1843 AND 1844.
ANDREW ARCHIBALD PATON, ESQ.
Varna.—Contrast of Northern And Southern Provinces of Turkey.—Roustchouk.—Conversation with Deftendar.—The Danube.—A Bulgarian interior.—A dandy of the Lower Danube.—Depart for Widdin.
All hail, Bulgaria! No sooner had I secured my quarters and deposited my baggage, than I sought the main street, in order to catch the delightfully keen impression which a new region stamps on the mind.
How different are the features of Slavic Turkey, from those of the Arabic provinces in which I so long resided. The flat roofs, the measured pace of the camel, the half-naked negro, the uncouth Bedouin, the cloudless heavens, the tawny earth, and the meagre apology for turf, are exchanged for ricketty wooden houses with coarse tiling, laid in such a way as to eschew the monotony of straight lines; strings of primitive waggons drawn by buffaloes, and driven by Bulgarians with black woolly caps, real genuine grass growing on the downs outside the walls, and a rattling blast from the Black Sea, more welcome than all the balmy spices of Arabia, for it reminded me that I was once more in Europe, and must befit my costume to her ruder airs. This was indeed the north of the Balkan, and I must needs pull out my pea-jacket. How I relished those winds, waves, clouds, and grey skies! They reminded me of English nature and Dutch art. The Nore, the Downs, the Frith of Forth, and sundry dormant Backhuysens, re-awoke to my fancy.
The moral interest too was different. In Egypt or Syria, where whole cycles of civilization lie entombed, we interrogate the past; here in Bulgaria the past is nothing, and we vainly interrogate the future.
The interior of Varna has a very fair bazaar; not covered as in Constantinople and other large towns, but well furnished. The private dwellings are generally miserable. The town suffered so severely in the Russian war of 1828, that it has never recovered its former prosperity. It has also been twice nearly all burnt since then; so that, notwithstanding its historical, military, and commercial importance, it has at present little more than 20,000 inhabitants. The walls of the town underwent a thorough repair in the spring and summer of 1843.
The majority of the inhabitants are Turks, and even the native Bulgarians here speak Turkish better than their own language. One Bulgarian here told me that he could not speak the national language. Now in the west of Bulgaria, on the borders of Servia, the Turks speak Bulgarian better than Turkish.
From Varna to Roustchouk is three days' journey, the latter half of the road being agreeably diversified with wood, corn, and pasture; and many of the fields inclosed. Just at sunset, I found myself on the ridge of the last undulation of the slope of Bulgaria, and again greeted the ever-noble valley of the Danube. Roustchouk lay before me hitherward, and beyond the river, the rich flat lands of Wallachia stretched away to the north.
As I approached the town, I perceived it to be a fortress of vast extent; but as it is commanded from the heights from which I was descending, it appeared to want strength if approached from the south. The ramparts were built with great solidity, but rusty, old, dismounted cannon, obliterated embrasures, and palisades rotten from exposure to the weather, showed that to stand a siege it must undergo a considerable repair. The aspect of the place did not improve as we rumbled down the street, lined with houses one story high, and here and there a little mosque, with a shabby wooden minaret crowned with conical tin tops like the extinguishers of candles.
I put up at the khan. My room was without furniture; but, being lately white-washed, and duly swept out under my own superintendence, and laid with the best mat in the khan, on which I placed my bed and carpets, the addition of a couple of rush-bottomed chairs and a deal table, made it habitable, which was all I desired, as I intended to stay only a few days. I was supplied with a most miserable dinner; and, to my horror, the stewed meat was sprinkled with cinnamon. The wine was bad, and the water still worse, for there are no springs at Roustchouk, and they use Danube water, filtered through a jar of a porous sandstone found in the neighbourhood. A jar of this kind stands in every house, but even when filtered in this way it is far from good.
On hearing that the Deftendar spoke English perfectly, and had long resided in England, I felt a curiosity to see him, and accordingly presented myself at the Konak, and was shown to the divan of the Deftendar. I pulled aside a pendent curtain, and entered a room of large dimensions, faded decorations, and a broad red divan, the cushions of which were considerably the worse for wear. Such was the bureau of the Deftendar Effendi, who sat surrounded with papers, and the implements of writing. He was a man apparently of fifty-five years of age, slightly inclining to corpulence, with a very short neck, surmounted by large features, coarsely chiselled; but not devoid of a certain intelligence in his eye, and dignity in general effect. He spoke English with a correct accent, but slowly, occasionally stopping to remember a word; thus showing that his English was not imperfect from want of knowledge, but rusty from want of practice. He was an Egyptian Turk, and had been for eight years the commercial agent of Mohammed Ali at Malta, and had, moreover, visited the principal countries of Europe.
I then took a series of short and rapid whiffs of my pipe while I bethought me of the best manner of treating the subject of my visit, and then said, "that few orientals could draw a distinction between politics and geography; but that with a man of his calibre and experience, I was safe from misinterpretation—that I was collecting the materials for a work on the Danubian provinces, and that for any information which he might give me, consistently with the exigencies of his official position, I should feel much indebted, as I thought I was least likely to be misunderstood by stating clearly the object of my journey to the authorities, while information derived from the fountain-head was the most valuable."
The Deftendar, after commending my openness, said, "I suspect that you will find very little to remark in the pashalic of Silistria. It is an agricultural country, and the majority of the inhabitants are Turks. The Rayahs are very peaceable, and pay very few taxes, considering the agricultural wealth of the country. You may rest assured that there is not a province of the Ottoman empire, which is better governed than the pashalic of Silistria. Now and then, a rude Turk appropriates to himself a Bulgarian girl; but the government cannot be responsible for these individual excesses. We have no malcontents within the province; but there are a few Hetarist scoundrels at Braila, who wish to disturb the tranquillity of Bulgaria: but the Wallachian government has taken measures to prevent them from carrying their projects into execution." After some further conversation, on indifferent topics, I took my leave.
The succeeding days were devoted to a general reconnaissance of the place; but I must say that Roustchouk, although capital of the pashalic of Silistria, and containing thirty or forty thousand inhabitants, pleased me less than any town of its size that I had seen in the East. The streets are dirty and badly paved, without a single good bazaar or café to kill time in, or a single respectable edifice of any description to look at. The redeeming resource was the promenade on the banks of the Danube, which has here attained almost its full volume, and uniting the waters of Alp, Carpathian, and Balkan, rushes impatiently to the Euxine.
At length the day of departure came. The attendant had just removed the tumbler of coffee, tossing the fragments of toast into the court-yard, an operation which appeared to have a magnetic effect on the bills of the poultry; and then, with his accustomed impropriety, placed the plate as a basis to my hookah, telling me that F——, a Bulgarian Christian, wished to speak with me.
"Let him walk in," said I, as I took the first delightful whiff; and F——, darkening the window that looked out on the verandah, gave me a fugitive look of recognition, and then entering and making his salutation in a kindly hearty manner, asked me to eat my mid-day meal with him.
"Indeed," quoth I, "I accept your invitation. I have not gone to pay my visit to the Bey, because I remain here too short a time to need his good offices; but I am anxious to make the acquaintance of the people,—so I am your guest."
When the hour arrived, I adjusted the tassel of my fez, put on my great coat, and proceeded to the Christian quarter; where, after various turnings and windings, I at length arrived at a high wooden gateway, new and unpainted.
An uncouth tuning of fiddles, the odour of savoury fare, and a hearty laugh from within, told me that I had no further to go; for all these gates are so like each other, one never knows a house till after close observation. On entering I passed over a plat of grass, and piercing a wooden tenement by a dark passage, found myself in a three-sided court, where several persons were sitting on rush-bottomed chairs.
F—— came forward, took both my hands in his, and then presented me to the company. On being seated, I exchanged salutations, and then looked round, and perceived that the three sides of the court were composed of rambling wooden tenements; the fourth was a little garden in which a few flowers were cultivated.
The elders sat, the youngers stood at a distance;—so respectful is youth to age in all this eastern world. The first figure in the former group was the father of our host; the acrid humours of extreme age had crimsoned his eye-lids, and his head shook from side to side, as he attempted to rise to salute me, but I held him to his seat. The wife of our host was a model of fragile delicate beauty. Her nose, mouth, and chin, were exquisitely chiselled, and her skin was smooth and white as alabaster; but the eye-lid drooped; the eye hung fire, and under each orb the skin was slightly blue, but so blending with the paleness of the rest of the face, as rather to give distinctness to the character of beauty, than to detract from the general effect. Her second child hung on her left arm, and a certain graceful negligence in the plaits of her hair and the arrangement of her bosom, showed that the cares of the young mother had superseded the nicety of the coquette.
The only other person in the company worthy of remark, was a Frank. His surtout was of cloth of second or third quality, but profusely braided. His stock appeared to strangle him, and a diamond breast-pin was stuck in a shirt of texture one degree removed from sail-cloth. His blood, as I afterwards learned, was so crossed by Greek, Tsinsar, and Wallachian varieties, that it would have puzzled the united genealogists of Europe to tell his breed; and his language was a mangled subdivision of that dialect which passes for French in the fashionable centres of the Grecaille.
Exquisite. "Quangt êtes vous venie, Monsieur?"
Author. "Il y a huit jours."
Exquisite (looking at a large ring on his fore finger). "Ce sont de bons diables dans ce pays-ci; mais tout est un po barbare."
"Assez barbare," said I, as I saw that the exquisite's nails were in the deepest possible mourning.
Exquisite. "Avez vous éte à Boukarest?"
Author. "Non—pas encore."
Exquisite. "Ah je wous assire que Boukarest est maintenant comme Paris et Londres;"
Author. "Avez-vous vu Paris et Londres?"
Exquisite. "Non—mais Boukarest vaut cent fois Galatz et Braila."
During this colloquy, the gipsy music was playing; the first fiddle was really not bad: and the nonchalant rogue-humour of his countenance did not belie his alliance to that large family, which has produced "so many blackguards, but never a single blockhead."
Dinner was now announced. F——'s wife, relieved of her child, acted as first waitress. The fare consisted mostly of varieties of fowl, with a pilaff of rice, in the Turkish manner, all decidedly good; but the wine rather sweet and muddy. When I asked for a glass of water, it was handed me in a little bowl of silver, which mine hostess had just dashed into a jar of filtered lymph. Dinner concluded, the party rose, each crossing himself, and reciting a short formula of prayer; meanwhile a youthful relation of the house stood with the washing-basin and soap turret poised on his left hand, while with the right he poured on my hands water from a slender-spouted tin ewer. Behind him stood the hostess holding a clean towel with a tiny web of silver thread running across its extremities, and on my right stood the ex-diners with sleeves tucked up, all in a row, waiting their turn at the wash-hand basin.
After smoking a chibouque, I took my leave; for I had promised to spend the afternoon in the house of a Swiss, who, along with the agent of the steam-boat company and a third individual, made up the sum total of the resident Franko-Levantines in Roustchouk.
A gun fired in the evening warned me that the steamer had arrived; and, anxious to push on for Servia, I embarked forthwith.