Dalmatia : the land where East meets West.
Holbach, Maude M.
Page  17


"Far, far from here, The Adriatic breaks in a warm bay Among the green Illyrian hills."


DALMATIA is the land of the past and the land of the future ! The land of past history, the land of future travel! Little by little globe-trotters and pleasure and health seekers, weary of more hackneyed paths, are becoming familiar with its island-studded coast, Roman remains, medieval cities, and last, but not least, medieval costumes; for the dress of the peasant to-day differs little, if at all, from that worn by his ancestors, when Ragusa was a powerful republic and the Dalmatian sailors formed the backbone of the navy of Venice. Nothing is more striking to Northern eyes than the riot of colour in the streets; the keynote is red- every Dalmatian wears a cap of this vivid hue --it may be a jaunty little affair with a tassel Page  18over one ear, which fashion prevails in Northern Dalmatia, or a pork-pie shape corresponding in form to that worn by subjects of the Prince of Montenegro, which is the fashion of the Bocche di Cattaro, or it may be the crimson turban often seen in the streets of Ragusa. Blue and red mingle in the embroidered vests and jackets of the men; but red is specially favoured in the broad scarves twisted round their waists which hold their weapons, and the picturesque full cloaks, too, in which they wrap themselves when the Bora blows cold, are almost always of crimson. In such a garb the Dalmatians look more like stage brigands than peaceful subjects of the Austrian Empire !

They are a fine race of men, tall for the most part, with graceful athletic figures, and a natural dignity which sits well upon them. The women, too, are good to look upon when young; but hard work in the fields, which seems to fall mainly to their lot, ages them even more quickly than the women of other Southern lands.

The population of Dalmatia at the census of 1890 was 507,000 souls, of whom 417,ooo are of Croatian, 90,000 of Servian stock, and 16,000 Page  19were returned as Italian, the rest being German-speaking Austrians, Hungarians, and Poles. Of these about 440,ooo are Roman Catholics, and 87,0oo belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, or rather to its Servian branch.

The mixture of races naturally does not make for unity; great jealousy exists between the Italian-speaking Dalmatians of Roman descent and the Slavs, and both are anxious to give the new-comer their version of things political-sometimes to his great amusement ! It certainly must be a hard matter for the Austrian Government to satisfy both parties and offend neither.

You need only look at the map of Dalmatia -its long coastline and countless islands-to know that the harvest of the seas must employ the larger number of its inhabitants. The sardine fishing is the most important; it lasts from April to October, and is mainly carried on at night, the fish being attracted to the surface by means of a lamp fixed at the side of the boat so that the light is thrown upon the water.

Anchovies are also caught in large quantities, and both are salted and packed in barrels for Page  20export; only on the islands of Lesina and Lissa are they packed in tin boxes as in France, and on our Cornish coast of late years.

The tunny fisheries here, as on the Quarnero, are very profitable; in good years the catch is sometimes over two million pounds in weight, of which the greater -part is despatched by steamers to Triest and Venice, and sold at a high price.

The famous Dalmatian sponge fisheries are almost entirely in the hands of the inhabitants of a village called Crappano, near Sebenico, who keep eighty to ninety boats employed from February till October. Besides the Dalmatian boats, the Italian chioggia frequents Dalmatian waters, and certainly adds much to their picturesqueness.

The Adria is extraordinarily rich in the number and variety of the fish found in its waters, no less than 300 different kinds are known, as compared with 216 off the English coast, and only 108 in the Baltic. Of the perch family the most important is the sea perch (Perca labrax), mentioned by Aristotle and Plinius as highly esteemed by the ancients. It is not infrequently two to three feet in Page  [20b]

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Page  [20a]Page  21length, and sometimes weighs as much as twenty pounds. Among the fish peculiar to this coast is the orada, which plays an important part in the hotel menus. The Mullus barbatus of the epicurean Romans, commonly known as red mullet, is also found in these waters, with its iridescent colouring, which is so beautiful that it is said the ancients kept it in basins of sea water beneath their tables, so that their guests might feast their eyes on the living fish before tasting its delicate flesh.

A book might well be written on the waters of the Adria and their inhabitants, among which the dolphin and the spermaceti whale are numbered; but in the limits of this unambitious little book, which aims only to sketch Dalmatia in outline, and give a hint of all that it offers to the traveller who is seeking for "fields afresh and pastures new," there is but little room for detail.

We must turn from the water to the land again, and see what other industries employ the inland folk and those of the coast not engaged in fishing.

At the first glance, save in some very Page  22favoured spots such as the Riviera dei Castelli and Val di Breno near Ragusa and the smiling shores of the Bocche di Cattaro by Castelnuovo, Dalmatia appears on the whole such a stony barren land that it is difficult to believe its inhabitants can earn a livelihood from the fruits of the soil. Yet the Dalmatian wines are famous, especially those of Lissa and Brazza, the muscatel of Almissa and the maraschino of Zara and Sebenico. Maraschino liqueur, which is world famous, was regularly supplied to Queen Victoria direct from the distillery in Zara, and held in great esteem in the Royal household.

The failure of the vintage in France, some years ago, when the vines were attacked by the phylloxera, was the ill wind that blew good to Dalmatia; for the deficit of red wine was supplied from here, and gave a fillip to the wine trade of these countries of which the effect has been permanent.

It is mostly shipped from Spalato, though some goes direct from the less important ports of Brazza, Lissa, Curzola, and Sebenico. Dalmatia is said to furnish thirty per cent. of all the wines produced in the Austrian Empire.

Page  23Olive oil, which is another important article of export, comes chiefly from the south of the country; but almost every little farm has a few olive trees, and the country people regularly bring to the markets oil from their home presses.

Wheat, maize, and barley are grown; all the operations of ploughing, sowing, and harvesting being carried on in the most primitive way; a bare-legged girl urging on the lean oxen which draw the Virgilian plough is a common enough sight of the countryside, or a sower with a basket on his arm scattering grain by handfuls, some of which falls on stony ground and some on good, exactly as in the Bible parable. -

Most of the fruits of Central Europe, in particular peaches, pears, and cherries, grow in Dalmatia, and are of excellent quality; almonds and figs are still more plentiful, and a quantity of both are exported.

Of late years some new industries have sprung up, of which the culture of the wild chrysanthemum for making insect powder is the most important. In May the hillsides, especially on the islands, are white with flowers, which look so beautiful that you regret to see Page  24them prematurely mown down and converted into an article of mere utility.

Beekeeping is also coming to the fore, and the rosemary, which grows wild everywhere, is now used for the manufacture of essence of rosemary for export.

Lace-making, too, a very old house industry of the Dalmatian women, is being fostered by the school at Spalato, where the beautiful old patterns found in churches and monasteries throughout the country are copied and sometimes improved upon by clever designers and skilled workers. The fine examples of modern lace shown at the Dalmatian section of the Austrian Exhibition at Earl's Court, were from the school at Spalato, where visitors are always kindly welcomed and can watch the lace-makers at their work. Orders are received from all parts of the world, and a good many of the finest pieces have found their way to America; while Carmen Sylva-the Queen of Roumania -and the elite of the Austrian aristocracy have been among the purchasers.

In the islands, and especially on Lesina, delicate-looking lace with a satiny sheen to it is made from the fibres of the aloe, which grows Page  25so abundantly everywhere in Dalmatia. At present this particular branch of lace.making is in its infancy, and I saw specimens only at Lesina.

The cloth of which the Dalmatians' dress is fashioned is very often of home manufacture, from the wool of his own sheep; so it is no uncommon sight to see the women standing in their house doors, or going about the streets distaff in hand.

One such old dame on the island of Lissa, which is visited so little that a camera is still regarded as something uncanny and photography as a species of witchcraft, was filled with vague alarm, when we expressed through a Dalmatian gentleman whom our Consul had courteously deputed to show us round, our desire to carry away a picture of her picturesque self. Having fortified herself with the sign of the cross, she yielded at last to his persuasions, but I am certain she lived for some time afterwards in fear of something terrible happening in consequence of her rashness.

Dalmatia claims the distinction of being the only country of Europe where the jackal still survives, and its home is the island of Curzola Page  26and the neighbouring peninsula of Sabbioncella. Accounts of its origin differ, the most amusing told to us being that the first jackals on Curzola were brought by the Venetians to destroy the islanders' flocks and thus bring them into subjection. This was the story of an Anti-Italian Slav, and I think he firmly believed it; the animal is certainly indigenous, as it was also found formerly in the other parts of the country.

Chamois are plentiful in the wild Velebit mountains, which form the backbone of Northern Dalmatia, where eagles, vultures, and other birds of prey have their home in the inaccessible cliffs; but the country is not as a whole sufficiently wooded to give shelter to much wild life.

Of the traditional forests, which once covered the mountains and supplied wood for the navy of Venice, but very little is left; there were formerly whole tracts of country covered with dark stone-pines, but of these there are left only a few woods here and there such as on the isle of Lacroma and the peninsula of Lapad near Ragusa, and on some of the other islands, notably Curzola. The stone-pine, or Pinus maritima, is Page  27such a lovely tree, very like the cedar in its growth, that its destruction is a great loss, and an effort is being made to cultivate it by new plantations.

Under the Austrian Government, especially of late years, Dalmatia has steadily increased in prosperity, and the opening up of the country to tourists will mean a fresh source of revenue and a gradual change from the medivalism that prevails in many aspects of life to-day to the twentieth-century customs of Western Europe.

That change may be long in coming, but it will surely come, and therefore the Dalmatia of to-day, which is still that of many yesterdays, is the more precious to every student of mankind in its making as well as to the antiquarian and the artist.

To what this curious mixture of races may evolve under the influences of modern civilization is a problem of the future; but remembering that the Dalmatians of old were the best soldiers of the legions of the Csars, that in the Middle Ages they were the pick of the navy of Venice and formed the trusted body-guard of the Doge; remembering too the glorious Page  28history of the republic of Ragusa, how her citizens excelled in diplomacy, in literature, and in science, as well as in commerce and in the more primitive art of war; and noting side by side with this the intelligence of the modern Dalmatian of Croatian or Slav race and the advance made in Slav literature since the revival of that language, together with the splendid physique of the people no whit inferior to that of their fighting forefathers, it seems not unreasonable to expect that under the Slav influence now undoubtedly paramount--except in Zara-fifty years hence "the forgotten country " will have regained her ancient prestige under the Romans and Venetians and materially advanced in prosperity if thereby lost in romance !

To-day Dalmatia dwells apart, in a borderland somewhat off the highway of the world's traffic, like a shadow left by the receding tide between the sea and shore, belonging more to the East than to the West-more to the past than to the present.