Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Lear, Rethymnon and Gortyn

Potter's shop, Rethymnon

Edward Lear visited Crete in 1864. His journal notes were unpublished in his lifetime. He did not manage to complete their revision before he died - the writing up, editing and expanding process that would turn them into the flowing, witty and often amusing prose that characterized his other ‘Journals of a Landscape Painter’ in various parts of the world. But a surprise delight was in store for me when I came across Edward Lear The Cretan Journal – in a bookshop in Rethymnon.

Cafe by the mosque, Rethymnon

Street in Rethymnon's old town

The book contains Lear's unedited notes and many of the drawings he made while in Crete. Just because these journals are raw and unedited, they give us a glimpse of Lear’s state of mind, his very immediate feelings and reactions, as well as his formidable dedication to his work. He would regularly rise about 4 or 5 in the morning and set off early, hoping to find good views for his drawings. 

Lear's Rethymnon

He was beset by many difficulties, only one of them being the lack of those good views - partly because of the bad weather, rain or cloud obscuring what he wanted to draw.

I initially became interested in Lear’s writings because he was one of the few western Europeans in the 19th century who had spent time in Albania and had written about it. His quirky often amusing writing was and is a delight, and his drawings and paintings of the landscape, superb. So I read more of his journals, and Vivien Noakes’ biography of him. I’ve also written about his connection with Corfu.

When he visited Crete, the great 20th century excavations of Minoan sites, such as Knossos and Phaistos, had not yet taken place and so were still unknown. He did visit Gortyn however, where there are Roman remains. Nowadays, it is a fenced off heritage site where you pay an entry fee, but in his time, the ruins were just lying around.

(quotes from Lear in italics)

..all the plain is covered with great or small masses of ruins: masses of Roman rubble, and brickwork and columns, etc. 

Roman remains, Gortyn

At the theatre, several portions of which are standing, I drew till six: the view of the plain is beautiful thence, and greatly pleased me. But it began to rain(!) for the morning is very cloudy: and earwigs and fleas provoked me.

Theatre, Gortyn

So I went on to the ruined Cathedral of St Titus ....

Cathedral of St Titus

....I drew.... till 7.15. Stopped by heavier rain showers. Desolate yet beautiful spot!’

But Gortyn’s fame reaches back into mythic times. According to the guidebook, "Zeus, in the form of a bull, brought the princess Europa to Gortyn, in southern Crete, and beneath this plane tree, their sacred marriage was contracted."

Surely a very significant spot for Europe, not just in ancient times, but for the present day too. And – this has to be a good sign - the plane tree is still here!

The plane tree, Gortyn


Katholiko Akrotiri, Crete - by Edward Lear

(images of Lear’s work from wikigallery)

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Crete - mountains, sea and small buildings

Triopetra Bay

One solitary streetlight shines on the corner where the road twists as it comes downhill to run alongside the sea and passes underneath Stelios' taverna and rooms above it, which is where we are staying, in Triopetra. The taverna is of course, closed just now. The roof above the patio is of frayed, discoloured straw. Two large terracotta pithoi stand outside, in front of the taverna, by the steps. The paint on the signs has faded and is almost illegible, with faint pink and green tones. Everything left untended seems to merge into sand colour, return to its original shades, varying from the bleached flax colour of dried stalks to the light brown of salted wood. On the beach too, the small pieces of wood, broken branches, forked, splintered, rounded, have forgotten their tree origins and turned into separate objects, become themselves, smooth, apart creamy and sea tumbled, tossed, worn, polished into being. Letters and fragments, runes and geometry, waiting to be placed together, to form a new whole, of angles and alphabet, shore script, patterns tossed up by the sea.

The patches of sand are as thick and soft as sugar, your feet sink into them. But the round stones of all sizes are flattened into disks, imitation oyster shells, uncorrugated, hardened droplets of sunlight, cooled on sea surface, than sank to the bottom, and thrown up here, on the shore. They fit in your palm, they are made to be held, to be thrown out to sea, to come back, and grow warm in the sunlight again.


After two days of wet and cloudy weather, on the following morning there was brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies. I set off early, following the road that led to Akoumi beach, on the other side of the three rocks that jut out into the sea.

I walked past the farm, turning left at the fork. A shepherd comes down from the slope with a flock of sheep – cream, beige, brown, a few black. Tinkling of bells. A couple in the rear stop to argue, butt their heads together a few times. 

I walk slowly behind them. The shepherd, walking jauntily, whistles now and again. The sheep follow. All the way down to the beach, where they go off to the grassy area on the left. I walk along the beach to the right, a long wide beach. 

The road I followed has continued as a track, concrete-surfaced but covered in sand. I make my way back to it and about a kilometre further on, it veers sharply to the right up a hairpin bend, and turns into a surfaced road. But straight on ahead is a rough track, or the remains of a track, which looks much more inviting, so I follow it. It climbs up a mountainside, gradually. 

I look down on the beach. 

At the top of the hill the track turns away from the beach and heads inland. And it soon joins up with the road. Which I imagine is the road I'd left behind. At this crossroads I sit down, eat an orange I brought with me. No cars pass. 

The sun beats down. I turn left and follow the road downhill, to another fork. One road going close to the sea, the one straight on, uphill, is signposted Spili. There’s an old abandoned church, with big cracks running down the walls. 

 I turn back. And this time, take the road, just to see where it goes. 

Eventually, after many hairpin bends, it leads back to the track along the beach.

Where Triopetra’s three rocks can be seen from the other side, and even more clearly. 

On the road, only two or three kilometers to go now, I sit down for a while. And listen to the different sounds – one cricket, and then another. A chirp chirp repetitive bird, another one that’s melodic, an occasional seabird, sounds of sheep...

Monday, 4 March 2013

"Just to be held by the ocean..."

'Just to be held by the ocean is the best luck
we could have ....'
Rumi (Buoyancy)

It’s an odd thing, this ticket buying. On arrival at Bari we’d expected there to be no problem in acquiring tickets for the crossing that evening. It was February, hardly the tourist season. But we were told that there were no tickets for that day (Friday), and none for the weekend either. There had been a strike it was explained, by the Greek ferries. Monday? Well we could come back on Monday and chance it but she could not promise anything for Monday. Surprised and disappointed, we withdrew to discuss alternative possibilities. This took some time and involved technology (total frustration) and the information desk (no luck there either). Just as we were about to leave the terminal building, one last question to the booking clerk – Monday, you said, there might just be a place then? Wait one moment she said, typing something into the computer. We waited. Her boss came past on his way out to lunch. She spoke to him. Turned back to the computer. We waited. And a few minutes later she said, yes, you can have tickets for tonight. Tonight? Yes. We could hardly believe our luck.


How no places for the next few days turned into a place for that day’s crossing seemed near miraculous to us. But Nicolas Bokov’s story A Ticket for the Holy Land (from his collection La Zone de réponse ) recounts two instances of even more astounding miracles. His first ferry crossing and first miracle, was from Brindisi, just a little further south from Bari, to Igoumenitza, in northern Greece.

At this time in his life, Bokov was travelling across Europe, a true pilgrim, picking up work when he could, visiting various holy sites, accepting lifts when they were offered, walking when they were not. But a ferry required a ticket, and a ticket required money. He asked how much the cheapest ticket was and was told [in the days before euros] 40,000. Just before the boat was due to leave, a passenger hurried up to the desk, bought a ticket, and asked him if he was going. Bokov explained that he wanted to but did not have 40,000 lira. The young man with the backpack rummaged in his pocket and pulled out 30,000 and gave it to him, saying I’m sorry, but that’s all I’ve got. He then ran off to the boat. The man at the desk asked him how much he was short. Ten thousand?
Wait, I’ll try... He’d had an idea and he was already preparing the longed-for piece of paper.
And so, thanks to a stranger’s generosity, Bokov got on the boat.
I was on the bridge, I felt almost weightless, I breathed in the sea air, and the powerful boat carried me effortlessly into the infinite blue.

(I’ve translated Nicolas Bokov’s fascinating story Coincidences. It seems that from a young age he has had premonitions and intuitions, and his book La Conversion recounts the story of the most astonishing of them all, which led to him abandoning home, shelter and possessions and taking up a wandering life for many years. He now has a settled abode in Paris.)

The Ionian Sea

This ferry is enormous. The lorry decks may have been packed full but there were few people in the seating area, plenty of room to stretch out and sleep. In the early morning, before light, I went out on deck and saw that we were passing an island, sliding past a few lights, sprinkled like rare seeds along the adjoining darkness. An L-shaped formation, like an arrow. Lumps of darkness, raw rock in between the small lights, resting on or just above the sea, faint fallen stars.

The waves roll out from under this large boat. Cream white on deep blue, tinged with green. When you split water, it seems that it is white inside, it's made up of a white cream and when this white water has run along the surface of the dark water, as far as it can, it rushes and crumples in on itself, making patterns small and wrinkled, almost like fingerprints. 

Its texture looks like cream, a sinuous liquid, solid enough to form, briefly, small scallops, curved rounded shells, with tiny clinging barnacles all in the same cream colour, scallop and oyster bed in formation, before the cream castles, cream shells and oyster beds disappear under sea surface, vanish into blue again, leaving traces like sand marks on shore, after the sea has left with its hissed and echoing goodbyes, its repeated greetings and farewells, its repeated reassurances.

The road bridge to Patras in the distance

In the afternoon, we dock at Patras.

Arrival at Patras