Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Beautiful Stonework of Molyvos on the Island of Lesvos in Greece

A typical detail in an Ottoman wall in Molyvos, with raised pointing
Each winter I travel for 3 months to different parts of the world.  I have been focusing on the Mediterranean region for the last 6 winters.  This time I am exploring the beautiful islands of Greece.

I have two adventurous English friends that I met over 10 years ago in South America who travel extensively on epic journeys usually spanning years rather than months.  We are kindred spirits in that regard, although my explorations are broken up in to shorter periods of the year than theirs.  They are currently cycling across Europe and Asia, having started in Norway above the Arctic Circle, with their ultimate destination being Japan.  This journey will take over 3 years to complete.  Last year I met up with them in Palermo, Sicily, and when they told me they would be spending the fall of the next year in Greece, I decided to meet them again before they moved on to Turkey.  They have been cycling in Greece now for 3 months and the island of Lesvos will be their departing point from the country since it is a short ferry ride to Ayvalik in Turkey, from where they will be cycling to Istanbul.

John and Gayle on hewn rock steps in the town of Petra
I spent a marvelous and far too brief week in Paris, stopping off as my Air France flight to Athens had a connection there.  It was my second time to Paris and I have fallen in love with the city.  I went to the Louvre on a quiet day for the first time and nearly wept in the Italian painting galleries.  I was amazed that they actually let you photograph the art so I catalogued everything that moved me.  I also spent a spectacular afternoon at Versailles and visited the wonderful Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, all deserving of their own essays.  The light in late fall is so magical and the crowds of tourists are smaller so it is a great time to visit the city.
Leonardo Da Vinci's stunning painting Madonna of the Rocks
In order to meet up with my friends I booked another flight from Athens to Mytilini on the island of Lesvos rather than staying in Athens, which I visited 4 years ago.  I'll spend more time there before I return home in March.  Gayle and John had based themselves in the beautiful town of Molyvos on the northern coast of the island, so I took a bus there the next day and met them at the bus stop.
Molyvos from the road to Petra
It is always wonderful to connect with them.  We can talk endlessly of travel and the many experiences we have had throughout the world.  All in all I have spent over 8 years of my life exploring foreign countries, almost always in the months of December through March.  These adventures have immensely enriched my life.  As an designer and artist I doubt that my work as a builder of gardens would be anything like it is without the profound influences of the places I've visited.

Lesvos is the third largest island in Greece, and was the home of the famed poet Sappho, who lived during the 7th Century BC.  She was one of the first women to attain fame as a lyricist, writing poetry that would be performed with the accompaniment of a Lyre.  Her poetry was considered to be so beautiful that Plato elevated her to the status of a Muse.  Her writings are best known as odes to other women.  The loving bond between the same sexes was believed to have been common and accepted at the time.  The words Lesbian and Sapphic are derived from the island and the poet.  "If you forget me, think of our gifts to Aphrodite and all the loveliness that we shared…all the violet tiaras, braided rosebuds, dial and crocus twined around your young neck…myrrh poured on your head and on soft mats girls with all that they most wished for beside them…while no voices chanted choruses without ours, no woodlot bloomed in Spring without song."
A statue of Sappho in the city of Mytilini on Lesvos
Molyvos is an ancient town that has been inhabited for many centuries.  The name has been changed back to the old one, Mythymna, but the locals still call it Molymos.  Just by the bus stop is an excavated area that dates from the 8th Century BC, with remnants of stone foundations and sarcophagi.
8th Century BC ruins in Molyvos
The town's hill is dominated by a fortress that takes much of its present form from the time of the Byzantine empire, which was centered in Constantinople, now the city of Istanbul in Turkey.  In the 12th Century it passed in to the hands of the Venetians who ruled maritime commerce in the region during Venice's golden era.  The island was then transferred to the control of a Genoese Lord after an arranged political marriage with the sister of a Byzantine ruler in the 14th Century.  Lesvos is known for its fine olive oil, considered to be the best in Greece, and Molyvos was an important port for exporting the product for at least 2,500 years.   Today the Island is known for the production the the Anise flavored liquor Ouzo, which we have taken to drinking nightly before dinner.
Inside the Fortress at Molyvos
A view of the Olive Press from the Fortress
A crenelated wall on the fortress
When the Ottoman Turks took control of the island the fortress underwent further expansion in the 15th Century for a period of more than 200 years.  The town on the slopes of the hill below the fortress is predominantly Ottoman in style, with handsome stone houses with red tile roofs and shuttered windows, which are often painted a wonderful shade of dark purplish red.
This shade of red is the predominant color of paint in Lesvos
An estimated 500,000 Muslim Turks were expelled from Greece in the population exchange that occurred after the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 while 1,500,000 Orthodox Christians were forced to leave Turkey.  It was one of the largest population exchanges in history.
Ottoman houses spilling down to the sea in Molyvos
Red Shutters on fine Ottoman building by the harbor
Much of the stonework in the buildings here is very handsome and artfully composed.  My favorite walls are those built with a mix of the pastel shades of volcanic stone found on the island's beaches.  There are pinks and greens and grays, with a rough texture that can be easily shaped.
A lovely wall in the nearby beach town of Petra
In America stone work is usually used as a decorative feature.  But in Europe and Asia stone and brick have always been the preferred material if you overlook the ugly concrete buildings that have become so much more common in modern times.  There is still a workforce of masons that build with stone.  Some of them are talented artisans with high standards.  One of the reasons we based ourselves in Molyvos for a over a week is because the town is so beautiful, and one of the main reasons the town is beautiful is because of its stone work.  There must be a building ordinance because new construction tends to blend fairly well with the older town.
Stepped stone lanes meander past handsome stone Ottoman era houses and shops
A cobbled street reflect light in the late afternoon
Molyvos is volcanic in origin and is quite rocky, but the soil is rich and fertile.  The beach between the comfortable Michaela's Apartments where we stayed and the town is made up of a variety of colors of stones.  Whenever I walk on it I catch myself scanning the stones for shapes and colors since I was doing this almost daily while I worked on the Labyrinth project on Bainbridge Island for the two months preceding this trip.
Pastel volcanic beach stones in the clear waters of the Aegean in Molyvos
Eventually I would give in to inspiration and compose a mosaic on a patch of sand on the beach by the apartments, just because I couldn't help myself.  It only took an hour to compose and I didn't aim for perfection, but the stones are so lovely that it turned out to be quite beautiful.
The mosaic I created using beach stone
As I become intimately engaged with the beach, I couldn't help but want to make it a better place by picking up the trash that had washed up along the shore line.  Greece is not a particularly clean country and there is garbage everywhere.  Plastic in our seas is one of the great environmental problems we face today.  I made a very small impact but I cleaned a good quarter mile of the beach near where I am staying and it looks all the more lovely as a result.  I encourage everyone to do the same on a regular basis and to teach your children to do the same.  Giving back to the gorgeous planet is the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and the environment we inhabit.

One colder day we were walking the four kilometers to the Eftalou hot spring, one of many on the island.  The baths at most of the springs date from the Ottoman era and this one is quite charming, being by the sea.  Just on the edge of town there is a large garden with stone terraces and tiled patios that were obviously built by an artisan with a great love for patterns and fine composition.  There is a bench near that road that I found to be extraordinarily beautiful in the way stone and brick were combined.

The back side of a wonderful stone and brick bench
One of the nicest stone benches I've ever seen
Passing lush green fields and well tended olive groves, the road follows the shore line and is collapsing in many places in to the sea as water levels rise and erode the coast.  So this charming old bath house may not be around in 100 years, but we spent a divine afternoon soaking in water that has chloride and radium in it (which makes it somewhat radioactive).  The springs on the island have been used curatively for many centuries and this one is believed to relieve a number of ailments ranging from arthritis and rheumatism to skin diseases.
Eftalou Hot Springs
Gayle and John and the resident cat at Eftalou Hot Spring
The interior of the simple whitewashed masonry vaulted enclosure has pierced holes in the ceiling to allow light to penetrate, and a nice stone ledge around the perimeter of the rectangular pool who's floor is covered in smooth black pebbles that feel lovely to wriggle your feet in.  The very kind old Greek sailor who was attending the place for his wife that day lit candles to set in the niches and a stick of incense which made the room atmospheric and rather idyllic.

The pierced vaulted ceiling allows atmospheric illumination of the room
A cat who loves to be petted kept us company while we soaked, and we did cold plunges in the sea, which is still relatively warm even though it is the middle of December.  It was a wonderful way to spend the day and we were so relaxed we wound up going to bed early that evening.

Even though Molyvos is very quiet in the winter and many of its inhabitants have gone to Athens for the winter I never seemed to tire of walking through the town.  The light is always changing.  Sometimes it is blustery and windy.  Other days are sunny and calm.  It must get quite hot and busy with tourists in the summer, but the streets in the center are covered with pipe trellises tangled in Wisteria, Parthenocissus, and grapes forming a shady canopy.  It must be extraordinarily beautiful in the Spring when the Wisteria is in bloom.
Twisted old Wisteria vines line a street in the town center.
Parthenocissus quincifolia with rich red fall color trailing over a wall

But in the mid December there are still brilliant red leaves on some of the Parthenocissus and clusters of grapes on the vine.   The streets are paved in stone cobbles, sloping toward the center to keep water away from the buildings.  On the steeper slopes the lanes turn to quiet steps devoid of scooters and cars.
Rustic stone steps climb the slopes between houses
The lanes twist and turn in the Medieval style, which made it harder for invaders to navigate if they were to raid the town during times when the population would retreat to the fortress for protection.

If a path is seldom used then lush growth may fill it like a garden, blending the man made with the wild.
An unused flight of steps becomes a garden
I love old towns where houses are sometimes abandoned.  If the roof collapses then a stone house becomes something like rock formations harboring an ecosystem of colonizing plants.  A view through a window can frame a wild garden that has taken over inside.  The town of Ragusa in Sicily is like that.  You can read about Ragusa in my essay from last year at:
An abandoned house and garden turning in to a thicket of trees
Remnants of an old house wall

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When buildings are very old they often undergo many incarnations and changes.  Doorways and windows are sometimes filled in leaving a footprint of what was once there.  If the mason is talented the results can be interesting.
An old doorway is filled in creating a work of stone art
Old walls take on the character of the skill used by a variety of masons
The old Ottoman Mosque in the center of town is now an auditorium.  The minaret has been taken down and only the base remains.  On Saturday nights they show movies there, which in the winter seems to be the main social event.  We went to see "Lady Sings the Blues" this last weekend starring Diana Ross in a biopic of the singer Billie Holiday (a strange choice).  The building is large and the narrow street passes underneath it in an atmospheric tunnel that has windows piercing the outside wall that frames views of the sea.  It is artful details like this that add to the magic of the place.

The base is all that remains of the minaret of the old mosque
The street passes under the old Mosque in the town center
There are fine old Ottoman fountains scattered around the town that provided water to the houses before the advent of indoor plumbing.  They always have a pointed arch and a niche in the center and a basin for animals to drink from.

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The oldest known pebble mosaics in the world are found in Greece and I hope to see many fine examples while I am here.  They don't seem to be such a popular art form in Molyvos although there are a few to be found, usually a little vignette or pavement made by somebody who has the desire to try their hand at it.

Oil jars set in masonry are a common way to create a planter in a paved area
The logo for a Hotel Molymos is set in pebble mosaic at the entrance
There is a beautiful old house that has been turned in to a branch of the Athens School of Fine Arts which has an entry done in the classic white pebble mosaic with black details.  These pebbles were imported from another island where white marble pebbles are common.
The entrance to Molyvos' Athens School of Fine Arts
Greece is known for its cats.  They are everywhere, in every color and personality.  Sometimes they are wild and wary, or affectionate and wanting to be petted depending on how much kindness is bestowed on them.  They often cluster around the garbage bins waiting for appealing discards.  People often feed them so the majority aren't too dreadfully mangy although the population is huge.  Sometimes they want to follow you home if you indulge them with petting.  I like to interact with them but have never wanted to have one as a pet.

Cats with collars are relatively rare
Every day I go for a walk up in to the labyrinth of streets and always discover something new.  The views across to Turkey and to the north are beautiful and the Autumn skies in the late afternoon often have a divine quality to them, with Angel ladders descending from the heavens.  It will be hard to leave this wonderful place, but I have many islands to explore this winter.  Chios, to the south is my next destination.
One of a number of breathtaking skies that make it understandable why Greece is the home of so many Gods
Thanks for reading always, Jeffrey