Overland Among the
Slovanians of Istria
Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine (1868-1935); Oct 1906; Vol. XLVIII, No. 4.
One of the most charming excursions the lower Austrian Empire affords lies in the land of the Slovanians, in the primitive province of Istria, Slovenians, Slavonians and Slovaks, the names are curiously alike, and yet each of these folk are widely different, as peoples differ in this polyglot empire, where Italian, German, Croatian and patois are constantly heard side by side, and where it would seem that all history to the contrary notwithstanding, the builders of Babel must have set up their tower, and been visited with their linguistic calamity. Equally picturesque and far cleaner than most of Franz Josef's people are the Slovanians, occupying a sort of intermediary social caste between half-civilized and civilized peoples, or probably better, living on the borderland between present and long distant centuries.
The excursion into the Slovenian land lies out from Divaca, on the railway from Trieste. At the depot, curious Istrian landaus await the sojourner. Curious affairs are these carriages, built after the fashion of our open surrey, but with broadly extended sides, so that the result greatly resembles the goe-cabs of the Kentucky Mountains.
Whirled out a delightful country road in these, the Slovanian peasant comes in sight, tanned and tall; his hair a sandy brown, when present at all, and the distinguished characteristic of his countenance, a much-prized mustachio. Ordinarily, these men wear modern apparel, leaving it to their wives and daughters to perpetuate the national dress.
Picturesque, if not pretty, are these Slovanian women, in loose-fitting waists of dark blue or black, and short skirts of coarse, heavy material. Over the rear of the head a gaudy scarf is drawn, tucked beneath the chin in front, and then drawn out in the rear so as to leave a broad, gay triangle upon the back. This scarf serves the purpose of a hat, and is invariably removed indoors. Ear-rings, half-crescents of brass or gold, dangle in the women's ears to complete the picture. Like the Japanese, these peasant dames remove their sandals on entering the house, boat or train, but whether to do proper courtesy to the building or to save the costly leather sole, at expense of coarse white socks; or possibly to give the feet greater freedom, one scarcely dares to decide.
Rambles out-of-doors in this part of Istria are characterized in memory, as against those of all the rest of Europe, by the real symbol of the Slovanian, the circular basket of wicker about the size of a bushel measure.
In these baskets the women garner their harvest and carry the produce to market; in them the food for the day is secreted, whether for field or town, and on the return from the metropolis the weekly purchases are stored therein. Everything in these baskets is wrapped in coarse gray-black paper, excepting the fig-bread, which always lies atop of everything else. On train or boats, in field or home, the women are ever repairing to the bastkets, and drawing a single-bladed pen-knife of enormous proportions from the bottomless pockets, cleave a bit of the bread and munch it complacently, for fig-bread is to the Slovanian woman what cigarettes and coffee are to the folk of more southerly Europe. Herodotus, or some other early geographer, told of a race that carried their beds about them. Such with the Slovanian of masculine gender is his basket. When he is tired, and there is no place to sit, he flops down in the basket. When night comes on, and he is on the train, without a seat on which to doze, the basket is his bed. That is his castle, and once within, he is beyond disturbance.
Slovanian women take great care of their hair. The line of division of the inky locks runs directly down the center and from it the hair is brought down and about to the rear, with a single narrow braid across the top of the head, just above the forehead. Now and then it is true, a woman will be seen bending her head into another's lap that her skill may be searched for that which may exist there, but we are in peasant Austria, away from the proprieties and custom, and such things are to be expected.
Nothing is more interesting, on an out-door ramble, than to halt a group of these peasants, and lead them into a chat, for the Slovanian peasant is a true conversationalist—men, women and children chattering away whenever or wherever they may meet, and many of their little mannerisms of speech remind one of the lower-class German.
Istria is, for the most part, farm land, and like the founders of our Republic, the greatest enemies of these people are the rocks. Everywhere that fields are at all possible one finds the rock walls thrown up by the tiller. Possibly, when the Pan-Slavic scrisis arrives, these boulder walls will serve the folk as did those at Lexington and Concord. Between the walls the sun beats down little oases of cultivation, until the grass is yellow and sere, and only the thistle manages to survive in the intense Adriatic heat. Over hill and dale the pastures roll, sprinkled everywhere with slabs of rocks—pretty to the passer-by, but tantalizing to the peasant, for this land would support crops in paying amounts could the stones be exhausted and the soil given over to tillage. As it is, only a few wild fig trees manage to manage to make headway against the rocks, so that the vistas of these vales of grass and cold rock slabs resembles greatly those of the glacial deposits about Put-in-Bay, on Lake Eirie.
Beyond Herpelje the scenery becomes somewhat drearier, as the karst, or true rock country, is entered; and the peasant more and more desperate in his battle against the stones. One cannot but admire the "stick-to-it-ness" that the little farms reveal. Corn and oats, vineyears and orchards, little gardens of potatoes and cabbage, and meadows reasonably clear of stone, have been forced from the stony-hearted land. Each generation has exhumed a few more of the rock slabs, and so, through the centuries, little clearings have grown. At best, however, even to-day the year's income don't average these men a gulden, or florin, a day—not even 40 cents. What tide of fortune scattered Slovanians into this God-forsaken country and induced them to remain, is difficult to conjecture. Like the Albanians at Zara, they are maroons from some gerat Volkerwanderung possibly, and have been bid to remain, have stayed through the ages.
The Slovanian farm house fits well into the out-door picture; four-square buildings of concrete over stone, with the roof rising up from either side to form an apex over the center. Pretty little gardens, combining the artistic and the practical, and flanked with the sun-flowers in stately rows, surround these homes.
Many of the houses, and almost all the arable land in this region, is held by well-to-do "ober-bauers," or landed farmers, each of whom will have from his lands a florin a day and fare. Occasionally, hwoever, the peasants turn capitalist from the "ober-bauer," will engage laborers to assist at the work at a wage of from 16 to 36 cents a day. Plums, grapes and apples are their chief marketable products. Lunch is given these laborers at ten in the morning and four in the afternoon, and at nine in the evening there is wine. There are no labor unions among these peasants, and one works until the task is completed. Nor is the educational status of labor such as to unfit it for outdoor work. Children are compelled to attend school between the ages of six and fourteen. Then they take to the fields. At twenty-one the men enter the army for a three-year term, and with that, one's education is complete. A little German and a bit more of Italian, in addition to the Slovanian, make up the usual accomplishments.
One of the world's natural wonders lies out-doors in this land of stone—the Cave Region of St. Canzian. This is a series of canyons, palisades and caverns, that in many ways rival our Mammoth Cave saving that the American cavern is much larger in its subterranean possibilities.
To tour the caves of St. Canzian is to put oneself completely under "one-man power." For upwards of two hours, the visitor is alone with an old Slovanian guide, and at many points the stranger could be suddenly stunned with a blow, robbed, and thrown over the precipice, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to convince a jury that he had slipped and fallen. Where this palisade-land a few hundren miles further to the southward, no one would dare to go through thus unattended. An Austrian club, howevedr, has taken over the touristry—despite the general friendliness of the peasants to the turist—and already railings, etc., are being provided.
The scenery among these palisades is magnificent. Virgin forests, interlaced with trails, hide the canyons, and until one reaches their very brink—whence one may look up some narrow defile, or far down the steep wall of rock to a roaring, foaming torrent, just beyond the cavern mouth he has just left, or is about to enter—he is unsuspicious of their presence.
From the town of St. Canzian the Reka River winds to the first of these cliffs, whence it makes a plunge of some 320 feet, partly in full view of teh visitor, and otherwheres through hidden ways whence it finds passage through the massive gorge to the next palisade. There a narrow defile makes place for it and the stream next appears to view as a little pool, dimpled by the breezes blowing every in this land of mystery. High up, on every side, sheer and uncompromizing, the rock walls, with only a stray bit of weed to indicate a trace of soil, tower; while at their tops, where a mere rift of sky peeps in, the creepers overhang. Again, as far below, a placid pool of blue marks the river's resting place. Not even the camera can do justice to the scene.
The caves themselves, also, are interesting. Although containing fewer curious forms than does our Mammoth Cave, many of the chambers in these cavers are decidedly larger and equally impressive as the best in the Kentucky cave. The entries, reached by narrow trails hewn from the face of the precipice, and overlooking wide gulches of glistening rock, moreover, are far more romantic. The entire region, in fact, is just such a one as romanciers delight in. One looks for Cavemen to-day about the place, and half fears for ghosts of the Romans.
After a few hours among these caverns, the visitor returns to the open again, and takes a trail leading to the inn at Mattovan, beneath whose arbors the cooling Istrian wine awaits. Save, perhaps, for a stray German tourist, with "wander-pack " on back and cane in hand, the scene is typically Slovanian. One sees the Emperor-King's assessor chuckling the comely peasant girls beneath the chin as he questions them of listings and tax-ables, while they take it all in very good part, and respond with sly quips and jestings. Round the wooden tables of the inn there are gathered the old men of the village, smoking a bit of tobacco purchased with the kreusers of passers, and nodding their heads sagely to whatever may be said by their cronies.
Close beside stretch the thick, plastered walls, joining the low, thatched homes of the peasants with the barns, and through their open door-ways chickens and ducks meander, while in the barnyard, inside, great oxen nap in the shade. Over the road the peasant folk, women as well as men, cut the grain with the sickle, while the merry Slovanian songs rise above the rhythmic swish of the falling grain.
Kith and kin of these folk have come to the States, and their letters of life and of wages across the seas fill the peasants with wonderment; for here at Mattovan, where the best room in the inn is to be had for thirty cents, one breakfasts on coffee or milk, and at noon there are beans and fresh cabbage and salad and in the evening the ubiquitous chicken the year round; while meat is for the feast day alone.
But the hand of change is beginning to invade quaintly-primitive Istria. In the winter, the young men are coming more and more to leave their homes, for Trieste and other cities, where guldens are to be gained more readily, and the tiresome work of tending the stock and clearing snow from the King's highway, and perchance digging a rock or two, is substituted for something more lively. As a result of these annual migrations, changes are crowding on. City dresses attire the young Slovanian women, and city watches in the vests of the men replace the good old-fashioned clocks. It is the old story of the city coming to the farmer, and of the husbandman yielding to the new, and before the world is half aware of it, the primitive Slovanian of Istria, with his charming out-of-door life, will be a thing of the part.
This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran