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The Threshold of the Near East: Istria and Dalmatia (Extract)
By William Miller

[Source: William Miller. Travels and Politics in the Near East, Frederick A. Stokes Co. (New York, 1898). Chapter 1, p. 1-11.]

Of the countless travellers who pass through Trieste every year on their way to the East, few have the curiosity to explore the peninsula, which runs far out into the azure-blue waters of the Adriatic and divides the great Austrian seaport from the lovely gulf of the Quarnero. Istria is stiill the least known of aill the Austrian provinces, although the "discovery" of Abbazia by an enterprising railway company has in recent years attracted the attention of Viennese society to the charms of its eastern coast. But, in spite of the excellent service of steamers, which call at all the principal places on its shores, and the state railway, which traverses the interior from end to end, the Istrian peninsula is less familiar to British tourists than that of Sinai, and many educated Englishmen have never so much as heard its name.

Yet no country in Europe presents such rapid and remarkable changes of scenery. At one point you have waving groves of laurel and smiling vineyards, with a climate which recalls that of the French Riviera; at another, barren rocks and a total lack of vegetation remind you that you are in the domain of the bora, that terrible wind, which is the scourge of the Adriatic, which [2] blows railway trains off the track and sweeps away trees and unroofs buildings in its headlong course. The soil, too, is aill the colours of the rainbow. White Istria, yellow Istria, red Istria follow each other in quick succession, and, when lighted up by the rays of the setting sun, the red earth becomes a gorgeous purple, marvellous to behold.

The Istrian railway, which slowly winds its tortuous path up the hills above the gulf of Trieste, enters the stony desert of the Karst, a region which for barrenness is unequalled in all Europe. Yet there is something quaint and even attractive about these limestone boulders scattered hither and thither broadcast over the land, like missiles in some battle of the giants. We pass by deep ravines, formed by almost perpendicular walls of rock, with here and there a tiny chapel clinging on to the mountain-side, while, far below, the sea shimmers in the sunlight. And then the line turns down into the peninsula, and the quaint old towns of Istria, with names as picturesque as their situation, begin to appear. The fat fingers of a very loquacious lady, who is going to Pola, wave to and fro in front of the carriage window, as she discusses her family affairs with a new-found acquaintance, and prevent us from seeing as much of the view as we could wish. But a lucid interval fortunately intervenes as we approach Pinguente, once the seat of the margraves of Istria, who built the walls which still surround it. Perched on a hilltop, Pinguente seems the very ideal of those old Italian cities which Virgil has so graphically depicted as "piled by force on the summit of steep rocks" congesta manti procruptis oppida saxis.

It was evening when we arrived at Pisino, the most interesting place in the interior of the peninsula, and we wondered whether a habitable inn existed in so primitive a spot, for we had read strange descriptions of Istrian [3] accommodation. But our fears were speedily set at rest by a smart young fellow, who at once stepped forward and offered to escort us to the Aquila Nera. The "Black Eagle" proved to be a comfortable inn, such as one finds in small Italian towns, where the linen was of spotless whiteness and the Istrian wine at 80 kreuzers (or 1s. 4d.) a litre, as sound a vintage as the heart of man could desire. Our host, though an Istrian by birth, was, like some of his compatriots, an Italian by sentiment. He had, indeed, hung up in his parlour the inevitable portraits of the Austrian Emperor and Empress, which adorn every inn, however humble, throughout the length and breadth of the Monarchy. But his real interest was centred on a map of the seat of the war, then going on in Abyssinia, by the aid of which he was following the fortunes of the Italian troops with the closest attention. Indeed, some Italian extremists go so far as to include Istria in that "unredeemed Italy" which they hope one day to see comprised within the kingdom of Umberto. It is true that, though Istria has been in the uninterrupted possession of the House of Hapsburg ever since 1814, a large section of the population, amounting at the last census to 45 per cent., is Italian by race and language, just as it was in the days when, prior to 1797, Venice owned the peninsula. Three years ago the Italian element in Istria was particularly demonstrative against the Slavs, for here, as in Dalmatia, though in vastly different proportions, these two races practically divide the country between them. When it was decided that public notices at the Courts of Justice should be put up in both languages, and that jurymen should be expected to understand the two idioms, the indignation of the Italian party found vent in acts of violence. At Pirano the military had to be called out; at another place the mob tore down the offending notice-boards; and finally [4] the commotion was such that the Government dissolved the local assembly, which meets to discuss the internal affairs of the province. At the beginning of ths year that body was convoked, not, as usual, at Parenzo, but at Pola. Since then, encouraged by a section of the Italian press, the agitation has gone on intermittently. But no sensible statesman in Italy regards the Irredentists as serious persons, or the cession of Istria as within the range of practical politics.

We were aroused early in the morning by the sound of the bells, which were being rung with tremendous energy in the adjacent campanile. It was a great festival of the Church, and a long line of peasants, cap in hand and with their fingers devoutly clasped in front of them, defiled through the streets behind the priests, who were bearing the sacred banners before them. The men were excellent types of the Istrian people stolid, phlegmatic fellows, who never manifest the smallest interest or curiosity in a stranger, though strangers are none too common in their country. In Sicily I have known a whole crovvd of street loungers come up to my bedroom for the mere pleasure of hearing me order my dinner or pay my driver, while a single question, addressed to a bystander, would at once attract a host of inquisitive onlookers, each eager to know my business, and have a finger in it, if possible. But your Istrian is not of that sort. He goes on his way, perfectly regardless of the stranger within his gates. In his rough frieze coat and short breeches he looks intensely bucolic, but the huge earring, which he wears in one ear, gives him a distinguishing characteristic which is quite his own.

Pisino possesses in the Foiba a natural attraction, which is at present undefiled by the hoof of the tripper. If situated in Germany or Switzerland it would have long ago been disfigured by advertisements of chocolate, a [5] cog-wheel railway, tin edifices from which to admire the view, and aill the other abominations invented by tourist associations for the "improvement" of nature. Here the Foiba is left in its native wildness, and the visitor to his own devices. Suddenly, at the end of the main street, one comes upon a grand old donjon, dating from the eleventh century, whose walls are still emblazoned with the arms of the counts who once dwelt there, while a whole colony of swallows have made their nests beneath its hospitable eaves. The castle is built on a terrace of rock, and 300 feet below it the river Foiba winds its way along the bottoni of the ravine, and disappears in a deep chasm beneath the earth. Slowly and by a precipitous path we descended into the gulf and climbed over the boulders of rock, which mark the course of the stream, up to the mouth of the chasm. No human being has ever explored its inmost recesses and discovered where the river ultimately emerges from its subterranean channel. A young Austrian official, Count Mathias Esdorf, once made the attempt in a small boat, but with no other result than to inspire M. Jules Verne with the plot of one of his most exciting novels. In the French romance a prisoner escapes from his cell in the donjon, climbs down into the chasm and gains his freedom through the hole, or buco, as the natives call it, into which the Foiba pours its waters. It is, however, supposed that the channel communicates with the fiord of Leme, which runs inland towards Pisino from the west coast of Istria. At any rate, objects thrown into the buco have been picked up near the estuary of the fiord. I have seen several of these mysterious underground passages in the Balkan Peninsula, where they are not uncommon, but only one of them, that near Mostar, can compare in grandeur with that of the Foiba. The view from below of the beetling rocks, rising perpendicular from the chasm, with the [6] town nestling on the summit, the grey old walls of the donjon, and the distant roar of the waters beneath the ground, make a great impression, only partially conveyed to those who have not seen and heard them by the aid of a travelling photographer from Pola, whom we unearthed in a back-yard.

It would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between this mediaeval spot, which has not changed since the days of its ancient counts, and the lovely watering-place of Abbazia, the gem of the Istrian coast. Centuries ago a Benedictine Abbey was founded there and gave Abbazia its name, but until the last sixteen years that now celebrated health resort, patronised by emperors and kings, and striving to rival Cannes and Mentone, was nothing but a few fishermen's huts. But in 1882 the manager of the Southern Railway Company of Austria, struck with the charms of the place, resolved to make Abbazia into a fashionable Curort. Large hotels, the property of the railway company, now rise amidst groves of laurel, with gardens running down to the bright blue waters of the bay. Shops and a colonnade have been built to exhibit all the latest fashions of Vienna, and when we arrived at the little station of Mattuglie, which serves Abbazia, we realised at once from the photograph in the booking-office, which represented the meeting of the German and Austrian Emperors on the occasion of their visit in 1894, that the fortune of the place was made. But nothing could spoil the beauty of Abbazia, though its sweet simplicity was gone, and the scale of prices at its palatial hotels is somewhat different from the modest sum of 3 gulden, 27 kreuzers (or about 5s. 6d.), which we had paid for bed and a whole day's board for two persons at Pisino. The walk along the coast through luxuriant vineyards, the blue sea and sky, and, in the distance, floating as it were in the water, the islands of the [7] Quarnero broad Veglia, and long, rocky Cherso, where the old Argonautic legend placed the crime of Medea this may, indeed, compare with the view from the Corniche over the Mediterranean littoral. No wonder that to an ardent yachtsman like the German Emperor Abbazia was specially attractive, or that the poetic Queen of Roumania chooses it as a favourite spot. In fact, were it not for the occasionai blasts of the dreaded bora, the curse of the Austrian, just as the mistral is the bane of the French, Riviera, the place would be an earthly paradise.

Comparatively small as it is, Istria presents in Pola yet another contrast, which after mediaeval Pisino and nineteenth century fashionable Abbazia comes as a striking change. And, indeed, Pola is in itself a town of opposites, where the two extremes of ancient remains and modem naval works coexist side by side. For Pola is at once an Austrian Portsmouth and an old Roman town. Here a superb amphitheatre rises on the edge of the water, where the last new ironclad is lying at anchor; here the Golden Gate and the Temple of Augustus have dockyards and arsenals as their neighbours, and the statue of Tegetthoff, the Austrian Nelson, looks down on the narrow, stone-paved streets, where Diana's ruined fane affords silent record of the past. The malled figure of an Istrian margrave on the wall of the town-hall seems out of place among the naval officers, who are strolling in what was once the forum. But Pola is more prosperous now than it has been for centuries. The recent movement in Austria-Hungary for a development of the navy and the foundation of a newspaper this year for the express purpose of combating the old theory, which considered the Monarchy as essentially, and almost exclusively, an inland State, cannot fail to benefit the place, even though the Bocche di Cattaro are likely to divide with it in the [8] future, even more than in the present, the privilege of a great naval harbour.

Given fair weather, nothing can be more delightful than a voyage along the eastern shores of the Adriatic. There is none of the monotony of ocean travel in Dalmatian waters, for, with one or two exceptions, the steamer's course is never out in the open sea, and even then land is always in sight. For most of the way you glide as in a river between the islands and the coast, threading magnificent fords but fiords beneath a Southern sky or stopping beneath the grey walls of some mediaeval town, whose inhabitants, dressed in the most artistic of costumes, throng the quays and fill the steep, narrow streets and old-fashioned squares, like the chorus in Italian opera. Dalmatia, it is true, lacks vegetation, and the eye is somewhat wearied by the eternal whiteness of her conical hills and stony uplands. But the colour harmonises well with the intense blue of sky and sea, and the brilliant scarlet costumes of the peasantry. In places, too, as between Tra and Spalato, at Ragusa, in the island of Lesina, and on the hills above the lovely Bocche di Cattaro, trees and shrubs grow luxuriantly, and the great success which has attended the efforts of the Austrian Government at planting the shores of the Bocche and a part of Istria during the short space of eighteen years proves that in course of time the bare Dalmatian coast may, with proper care, become green and fertile. Last year alone 3,219,000 new trees were planted in the Karst regions of Grz and Gradisca at a cost of 9,782 gulden, so that in course of time the ravages of the Venetian shipbuilders and the destructive goats will be repaired. Dalmatia is, indeed, the Cinderella of the Austrian provinces, and she has been neglected in the past by the statesmen of Vienna. As a Dalmatian priest once remarked to me, "the Austrians regard Dalmatia as the other end of the [9] world," and I am told that nearly aill the roads in the country date from the brief French occupation between 1805 and 1814, when Marshal Marmont employed his soldiers in improving the means of communication. Indeed, far more has been done for Bosnia and the Hercegovina during the twenty years of the Austrian occupation than for Dalmatia in the eighty-four which have elapsed since she definitely became a part of the Monarchy. Politics have, unfortunately, had a great deal to do with this neglect. It is pitiful to read the bitter articles with which the Slav and Italian journals of Dalmatia attack one another, instead of uniting for the common weal and endeavouring to raise the material standard of the country. "Politics," said a very distinguished Dalmatian to me, "have been our ruin," and here, as in so many parts of the Monarchy, politics are entirely a question of race and language. But there are signs that Austria has at last begun to recognise the great value of the Dalmatian ports and the Dalmatian seamen. The Imperial navy is entirely recruited from the seafaring population of this coast; the captains of the merchant marine are all Dalmatians, in many cases Bocchesi, or natives of the Bocche di Cattaro, and the shores of that lovely fiord and the peninsula of Sabioncelio are dotted with white houses, where these veterans spend the evening of their days on the borders of that sea which they know so well. A British admiral once said that the Dalmatian sailors could alone compare with the men of our own eastern coast, thanks to the early experience which they gain of the treacherous currents, the fickle breezes, and the intricate navigation of the Adriatic. For, though on all my visits that sea was as calrn as a lake for days together, there are seasons when it well merits the epithet of "turbid," which Horace long ago applied to it. Woe betide the unskilled mariner who [10] ventures out in those narrow channels when the bora is blowing. Their very names are indicative of bad weather, and one of them is significantly called the Canale di Mal Tempo. But Hadria, as I know him, has always proved mild and gentle.

The Austrian-Lloyd and Hungarian-Croatian steamship companies, which divide between them the passenger traffic of the coast, do all they can to make the trip pleasant and comfortable. The vessels of both lines are well appointed, the officers are most polite, and the table is excellent. The only complaint which I had to make with the meals was that they were too long a criticism which could not be applied to the berths. The wine is everywhere good in Dalmatia, and in some places, such as Sebenico, far above the average quality. Dinner on board is always a most sociable meal, even for travellers who cannot speak any language but English, for the captain is sure to have been at some time or other in British ports, and has usually picked up a good many English words. I know one captain in the employ of the Austrian-Lloyd who speaks German, English, Italian, French, Serb, Turkish, and a little Albanian the last a very rare accomplishment even for those who have lived in Albania. So proud was he of his acquaintance with our country and speech, that he used to keep Whitakers Almanack on the dinner-table and read passages out of it for my edification. He could tell without reference to the precious volume the exact emoluments of every British Consul in the south-east of Europe, and I never saw him at a loss for a phrase, except when he endeavoured to translate into Austrian currencv the income of the Duke of Westminster for the benefit of his first officer. I fancied that I traced his handiwork in the 12th and last rule of the steamship regulations which adorned the cabin. The English version of this remarkable announcement [11] expressed the belief that "Passengers, having a right to be treated like persons of education, will no doubt conform themselves to the rules of good society, by respecting their fellow-travellers and paying a due regard to the fair sex."

The steamer from Pola soon passes the southern point of the low-lying Istrian peninsula, beyond which the lofty peak of Cherso, in the gulf of the Quarnero, is clearly visible, and begins its voyage among the hundred islands and islets which lie scattered along the north-east coast of the Adriatic. Lussin-piccolo is the place at which these vessels usually stop first a fine harbour formed by two arms of the island of Lussin. The town, though christened "the small" to distinguish it from Lussin "the great," on the other side of the island, has now outgrown its name. It has long been an important seatof the ship-building industry, and during the last few years, thanks to its mild winter climate, has blossomed out into a fashionable health resort. The presence of the Austrian heir-apparent here one winter at once drew attention to the charms of the spot, and Lussin-piccolo is rapidly developing into a Curort, with a Fremdenliste, a circulating library, and a special German guide-book, all to itself. But the visitors, who come to enjoy the balmy air of Lussin-piccolo, must occasionally be English, for I noticed on the library shelves a copy of Sir Edwin Arnold's poems, not just the sort of reading which one would expect to find on an island in the Adriatic, and a susceptible Austrian lieutenant confessed to me that he had lost his heart to a young English lady whom he had met there. Meanwhile, Lussin "the great" has remained stationary, and her old Venetian houses and battlements show that her "greatness" is of the past.

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Created: Friday, March 04, 2011; Last Updated: Friday, March 04, 2011
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