Through savage Europe, Harry De Windt, 1907

Posted on September 13th, 2009 by admin and filed under Dacia Felix
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Through savage Europe, being the narrative of a journey (undertaken as special correspondent of the “Westminster gazette”), throughout the Balkan States and European Russia (1907), De Windt, Harry, London : T. F. Unwin, 1907

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CHAPTER XVII

THE CITY OF PLEASURE

THERE are few countries in the less civilised portions of this globe which do not possess their “Paris,” or some town so called on account of its resemblance to the French capital which resemblance generally exists solely in the imagination of the inhabitants. Thus Saigon is called by French colonists the ” Paris of the Far East,” by reason, I suppose, of its solitary boulevard of mangy trees and two or three garish cafSs ; but why Batavia, with its hideous streets and ill-smelling canals, or Irkutsk (that gloomy dust-trap in Eastern Siberia) should ever have been likened to the fairest city on earth is beyond my comprehension. Bukarest is also called the ” Paris of the Balkans,” but here, at any rate, there is some reason for the simile, for I do not know of a more attractive little city in
Europe or elsewhere. This may indeed be called, without fear of exaggeration, a miniature Paris, but amongst Rumanians Bukarest is more generally known as the ” City of Pleasure,” a name equally suitable, and one which the native word “Bucuresci” literally implies. For the first [p. 248] things that strike a stranger here are the brightness and gaiety of the streets and lavish display of wealth, not only in the daily life of the people but in public and private buildings, hotels, and shops. And it soon dawns upon a visitor that he will have to pay Monte Carlo prices for everything he buys, be it a riviere of diamonds or a mutton chop. Petersburg has been called the most luxurious capital in Europe, but there a veil is drawn over the dazzling splendours of the Court, and Midas squanders his millions within four walls. The Eussian capital gives the impression (outwardly, at least) of a poverty-stricken city, whereas you must explore the most remote quarters of Bukarest (there are no slums) to realise that people of modest means exist. When I was here in the eighties I paid twenty-five francs for a pint of inferior champagne, and prices appear to have increased rather than diminished since that period, notwithstanding the increased facilities of communication. On this occasion, the fare I paid for a fiacre to the hotel from the railway station was about double that which I should have given the driver of that most costly vehicle in the world, the New York hansom. But here the cabs are smarter and better turned-out than two-thirds of the private carriages in London or Paris, and, without numbers, would never be taken for public conveyances at all. A stranger is apt to be startled by the rapidity with which his fiacre gallops away the moment he has taken his seat for the driver is never told where to go, but guided by touching his left or right

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A street in Bukarest, Photo by Author

A street in Bukarest, Photo by Author

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arm as the case may be. Every cab you see is drawn by magnificent horses, while the driver wears a blue velvet coat embroidered with gold lace, rather suggestive of a Lord Mayor’s show, but gay and pleasing to the eye. Most of these cab-drivers are of Russian nationality, and belong to a sect proscribed in their own country the ” Skoptsi,” a number of whom I found exiled near Yakutsk in
Northern Siberia on my way from Paris to New York.

The principal street here (or ” Calea Yictoriei “) is an avenue of palatial buildings, for fabulous sums have been spent on the city in recent years, and much of it wasted in useless display. The post office, for instance, is unquestionably the finest in the world, architecturally speaking, but its marble halls generally seemed deserted, for they are ten times too large for the business transacted. The Palace, on the other hand, is a comparatively modest building, so near the street that you may see into the royal apartments, and participate (from a distance) in any state or private function which may be in progress ! For the Court here is as informal as that of Sofia is the reverse. Queen Elizabeth is chiefly responsible for this laxity, for Her Majesty’s unconventional views are only equalled by the kindliness and tact which have rendered ” Carmen Sylva ” the idol of her people. King Carol the First does not share this popularity, especially amongst the nobility, which resents German methods and manners. Some of the
* See ” Paris to New York by Land,” by the same author.

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” Boiards ” would eagerly acclaim a Rumanian ruler ; but the country, on the whole, is loyal, and the Hohenzollern dynasty therefore seems likely to flourish for an indefinite period, especially as the heir-apparent (a nephew of the present ruler), who married Princess Marie of Coburg, is liked by all for his personal charm and sterling qualities.

Rumanians resent the inclusion of their country with the so-called ” Balkan States,” to which they consider themselves, and not without reason, somewhat superior. The contrast even with Sofia was striking, and on the Sunday of our arrival the sunlit
and busy boulevards, crowded cafes, and military music recalled a summer’s day in Paris. There is no trace here of Eastern rule in the past mosques and minarets, dim bazaars, and veiled ladies have vanished to give place to palatial hotels, Parisian shops, and the latest creations of Worth and Redfern. The Latin races may have their faults, but few will deny that they are the pleasantest people to live amongst !

The H6tel Splendide, one of a score of equally luxurious establishments in this city of about 300,000 souls, is considered the best, and here we took up our abode, but not for long, having been warned that a prolonged residence would tax a millionaire’s resources. Two days were quite sufficient to prove this fact, but those forty-eight hours were certainly the pleasantest, if not the most profitable, throughout the whole journey. An Irish gentleman travelling in whisky who, judging from his normal condition, must

A Rumanian Lady. From a photo.

A Rumanian Lady. From a photo.

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have been an excellent judge of that product, was staying at our hotel. In his opinion the chief charm of Bukarest lay in the fact that ” you need never go to bed,” and although, in this respect, I did not share my friend’s enthusiasm, the Rumanian capital has almost limitless attractions for the pleasure-seeker. Dine at the Restaurant Capsa (where the cuisine rivals that at Paillard’s) in dress-clothes and go on to the opera, or partake of sausages and lager-beer in tweeds at Frascati’s, and drop into a music or dancing hall, and you are pretty sure, either way, to be amused. From dawn till dusk the cafds are ablaze with electric light, also other establishments which shall be nameless, for this is certainly the most immoral city in the world, now that one in the New World, which ran it very close in this respect, has ceased to exist. And yet a lady can walk alone at night in the streets without fear of insult, for Rumanians are the most polite people in the world, and a stranger here meets with nothing but courtesy, even in the lower quarters which we occasionally visited in order to hear the “Tziganes” play and sing a very different performance to that of the so-called “Hungarians”
in London restaurants. Only the genuine gipsy can do justice to the weird, barbaric melodies of his people certainly not the red-coated impostor who frequently hails from Berlin or Hamburg!

It was only in the outskirts of the city that we had any difficulty in making ourselves understood, for everywhere French is spoken almost

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as frequently as Rumanian. Russian is never heard in this Latin island in a Slavonian sea, and streets and shops are no longer designated in cryptic letters, but words of plain meaning. “Toiletta di Dama,” “Facultalea di Medecina,” and ” Carta Postala,” are some which caught my eye, and which show the close affinity between Rumanian and the French and Italian languages. Other boulevards here, almost as fine as the Calea Yictoriei, are the Carol I. and Calea Elizabeth, where, during the season, the street cars pass with difficulty through carriages, cabs, and even automobiles. For motoring is now the rage here, and one morning I noticed a crowd surrounding a large “Panhard” which, judging from the amount of baggage and provisions, was being prepared for a long and arduous journey. Presently a chauffeur and two passengers took their places, and drove off: amidst the cheers of the crowd. The owner of the car, a Rumanian prince, intended, if possible, to reach Teheran in Persia, via Constantinople and Asia Minor an adventurous trip which (being acquainted with those countries) I fear was never accomplished, especially as it was the hasty result of a bet only made late on the previous night at the Jockey Club ! The stakes were <5,000 a mere nothing for Bukarest, where there is higher play at the Jockey than even the Yacht Club in Petersburg. But Rumanians of all classes are passionately fond of gambling of any kind, and the reader may have noticed that whenever a prodigious sum has

Rumanian Tziganes. Photo by Schwaz, Bukarest.

Rumanian Tziganes. Photo by Schwaz, Bukarest.

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been won (or lost) at Monte Carlo, the player is generally a Russian or a native of this country. We came in for the fag end of the season (which is in winter) here, but the ” Chaussee,” or Hyde Park, was crowded on fine afternoons, and the Crown Princess’s Victoria, with its showy liveries and outriders, was still to be seen with its fair occupant, generally gowned in white, with the pretty Rumanian embroidery which has lately found its way to Paris. ” Capsa’s ” was the fashionable resort for afternoon tea, and here towards five o’clock you would generally find as many well-dressed men and women as at Eumpelmayer’s or Colombin’s in Paris. Rumanian women are generally blessed with more than their share of good looks, and have also the unconscious charm of manner which seems only natural to the fair sex east of the Danube. Some one has said that the woman of Bukarest combines the beauty
of the Hungarian, the grace of the Austrian, and the wit of her French sister ; and he was not far wrong. Moreover, her voice is generally low and melodious, and one could enjoy tea and a cigarette at “Capsa’s” without being under the impression that the place was a parrot-house. Nearly all spoke the national language interspersed with French words and expressions a kind of jargon which
was evidently confined to ultra-smart circles. Unmarried girls here are brought up as strictly as in France, but, on the other hand, marital infidelity is very common. Divorces are therefore frequent, but do not, as in other countries,

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ostracise a divorcee. I was presented to a young and charming lady who had three divorced husbands living, and was about to be married to a fourth; and this is not an unusual occurrence.* [* A divorced couple here can never re-marry. ] The frivolity (to use no worse term) of the Rumanian woman is probably due to the fact that those of the upper classes live in a perpetual round of gaiety which leaves little time for serious pursuits or studies of any kind. There was a bookshop every ten yards along the Calea Victoriei, but it generally chiefly contained trashy Rumanian French and English novels. On the other hand, there are some excellent libraries, almost exclusively patronised by the middle classes. Rumania has two fine universities, one in Bukarest, and the other in Jassy, but, at present, most young men (and women) who can afford it complete their studies in Paris, Vienna, or Berlin, the first-named city being chiefly frequented by law and medical students. Some of them never return to their own country, but remain in Paris, to become celebrities in the world of science and letters. Amongst these are Jean de Mitty, now a famous writer on the Matin, the painter Simonidy, and Pal, the originator of the “Artistic poster” in France. Madame de Nuovina, the gifted soprano of the Opera Comique, is also a Rumanian.

Notwithstanding their superficial, pleasure-loving nature Rumanians are almost as morbid as the French. While at ” Capsa’s ” one afternoon I saw a funeral pass that of a young girl the

Rumanian Woodcuters. Photo by Schwaz, Bukarest.

Rumanian Woodcuters. Photo by Schwaz, Bukarest.

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daughter of a famous politician of the hour. In a moment every table was deserted, and the fashionable crowd, chattering and laughing the moment before, were congregated at the doorway silently watching the gloomy procession. The coffin was, as usual, open, and I caught a glimpse of pale, drawn features amidst a mass of white flowers. As the cortege passed the men uncovered, as in France, although this is not usual in the Orthodox Church. Rumanians are as strict and devout as Russians in their religious
observances, but it would be better if they sacrificed a little religion to the care and welfare of their domestic animals. A branch of the S.P.C.A. is sadly needed in Bukarest, although I never saw a case of cruelty in the provinces. There, on the contrary, horses and dogs appeared to be treated with more kindness than children.

The Rumanian almost excels the Servian Army in the splendour and variety of its uniforms, and on a Sunday the streets presented a brilliant sight with the black or scarlet hussars plastered with gold lace and the chocolate and dark blue of the artillery and line. These people are proud of their army, and rightly so, seeing that it is the third most efficient force in Europe. When, in 1877, Prince Carol led his Rumanians across the Danube to win undying fame before Plevna, the forces at his disposal numbered under 35,000 men. To-day
his army consists of 65,000 men and nearly 400 guns (on a peace footing), the active army with reserves 200,000, the territorial militia 150,000

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and the Levee en Masse (men between thirty-six and forty-six years of age) 200,000 a total force of some half a million men ! And all this has been accomplished since the proclamation of independence in 1877 or in under thirty years. The expense of keeping up a force of this kind in a country with a population of about six millions is of course enormous, but not a penny of the expenditure is grudged by the nation. Stay-at-home politicians never seem to consider what effect a military combination between this kingdom
and her neighbour Bulgaria might have, at any moment, upon the condition of affairs in the Near East, although I frequently heard its possibility discussed amongst military men in both capitals. Moreover, the fortifications of the Rumanian frontiers and capital are now as perfect as skill and money have been able to render them, and any attack on the Russian side has been specially guarded against. It is therefore unlikely that Rumania will ever again be made a cat’s-paw by the Tsar. Her sons do not forget that thousands of their countrymen sleep side by side with vanquished Turks outside the walls of Plevna, and that for this their reward was the loss of the rich province of Bessarabia (given them after the Crimean War), and the acquisition in exchange of the worthless steppes and marshes of the Dobrudja.* [* Report of H.I.H. the Grand Duke Nicholas : " Les resultats brillants obtenus a Plevna furent dus, en grande partie a la cooperation de la brave armee roumaine." ]

But the prominent position of Rumania as a

The Palace, Sinaia. Photo by Schwaz, Bukarest.

The Palace, Sinaia. Photo by Schwaz, Bukarest.

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military power, is not the only blessing which has been conferred upon his adopted country by the King and his beloved consort. Before the days of ‘66, when Prince Charles of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen left a crack Prussian regiment of cavalry to assume the reins of Government at Bukarest, the people here were almost as oppressed and poverty-stricken as the serfs across the frontier. Prince Carol found a land ruled by wealthy and unscrupulous nobles, tenacious of their rights, and indifferent to the sufferings of the poor, who were not even permitted to cultivate miserable strips of land save under the most restricted conditions. The petty official was then almost as great a curse here as the Tchinovnik in Eussia. The first act of the Prince, therefore, was to reorganise the then insignificant army, the second to provide the peasants with small holdings a drastic measure which rendered him very unpopular amongst the aristocracy. But inch by inch the wedge of reform was inserted, with the result that the Kingdom of Rumania is now
practically a constitutional State. Disaffection and oppression no longer exist, and even the humblest peasant has a voice in the government of his country. Agriculture is as yet in its infancy, from a scientific point of view, but nearly half of Rumania is now under cultivation, whereas thirty years ago less than a quarter was farmed. And although machinery and steam power are as yet only employed to a minor extent, the production of maize per head is only inferior to

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that of the United States. Mr. Alfred Stead, an English traveller who has made a special study of the subject, writes :

” It is as a wheat-exporting nation that Rumania ranks largest. A comparison with the exports of the United States is instructive. To the 47*16 millions of double quintals of wheat of the United States, Rumania exported (1900) 8-15 millions ; to the 3-25 millions of rye, 1-67 millions ; to the 26*29 millions of maize, 7*12 millions ; a total export of 16*94 millions as against the 76*70 millions of the United States. The quantity of cereals exported has trebled in twenty-three years, and the future contains enormous increases.
Even in 1898 nearly ten millions sterling worth of corn was exported. The Government is not behindhand in taking measures to encourage the export, and erected in 1892, in Galatz and Braila, the Danubian deep-sea ports, warehouses, grain-elevators and granaries to the number of forty-eight, valued at 720,000 and with a capacity of 750,000 tons. Since then further improvements
have been carried out and others are in contemplation.”

Although the industrial products of Rumania are at present very limited, she is said to possess extensive mineral resources, but save with regard to coal the country has as yet been only superficially surveyed in this direction. Gold and silver have been found and even worked in a primitive fashion, and at present more cannot be said on this subject. There can be no doubt, however,

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that the petroleum fields here are, or will be, the richest in the world, for every day fresh deposits are being discovered in the various districts. The manager of some wells at Campina (not many hours by rail from the capital) told me that his daily output of oil from one spring was estimated at about 1,200, and this is by no means one of the richest oil fields. Petroleum here is superior in quality to that obtained in the Caucasus, and is naturally exported to Western Europe with more ease and rapidity. At Kustendje, on the Black Sea,
large tanks have been erected by the Government, and there are modern facilities for expeditiously shipping the oil destined for the Mediterranean and the Far East.* [* The Rumanian petroleum fields are not included in the Standard Oil Trust.]

You must travel leisurely through this new and progressive kingdom to appreciate the changes and improvements wrought by its ruler during the past thirty years. We made only a flying visit to Sinaia, a fashionable resort with luxurious villas and beautiful gardens, clustering around the palace where Carmen Sylva generally passes the summer months, away from the dust and turmoil
of the city, amidst her books and flowers. No one who can afford to leave the capital remains there after the month of May, for the heat then becomes oppressive, and epidemics often occur. From Sinaia we went on to Jassy, through a fertile country as green as an emerald, and past pleasant

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country towns and picturesque villages, some of the latter surrounded by vineyards, for they make wines here as wholesome and palatable as those of Bulgaria and Servia are the reverse, and a Bordeaux firm lately acquired an extensive tract of land for
this purpose.

But Rumania becomes less attractive as you near its northern border, for here the landscape resembles that portion of the great sullen Empire which looms across the river Pruth dirty drab huts, bleak wind-swept plains, and half-starved, shivering cattle. Goodbye to the neat white homesteads and fertile fields and gardens of Southern Rumania ! Before me lies Russia, the land of mystery, gloom, and death. At Jassy Mackenzie leaves me to return to England, for, while at Bukarest, a friendly hint from the Russian Embassy warned me that, under present conditions, the presence of a bioscope artist in a disturbed city might produce unpleasant results, not only to the operator but also to myself !

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