Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Apollon Beach Mosaics, Greece

A variety of beautiful beach stones combined to make a sunburst mosaic
This winter (2013-14) I am spending 3 incredible months in Greece, island hopping from north to south.   I started on the beautiful island of Lesvos, home to the Muse Sappho, and worked my way down to largest and most breathtaking of them all, Crete via 10 other islands.  Each of them has a different character, varying in their geology, climate, flora, culture, style of architecture, and cuisine.  And there is an ancient tradition of pebble mosaic dating back 2,400 years to the time of Alexander the Great in Greece.
A pebble mosaic of Dionysos riding a panther at Pella, in Macedonia, Greece
The tradition continues to this day, having been influenced by cultures covering several millennium.
An ornate Ottoman mosaic at the entrance to a mansion in Mytilini, Lesvos
As I made my way from island to island I would visit various beaches for which Greece is justly famous.  Many are made up of fabulous pebbles.  Some even have tumbled remnants of ancient civilizations, tossed by the waves of the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean in to smaller and smaller pieces.  There are bits of Minoan palaces dating back 5,000 years on Crete, mixed with Mycenaean, Dorian, Delian, Ionian, Genovese, Venetian, and Ottoman structures that have toppled in to the sea over the ages.   I've been collecting handfuls of special stones from historic and sacred places to incorporate in to the the mosaics of the Labyrinth that I am building at Halls Hill Park on Bainbridge Island in Washington.  I'll be completing that project when I get home this Spring.
Rain and autumn light enhances the colors of the completed circuits of the Halls Hill Labyrinth
This has been one of the most wonderful winter trips I have made out of the 30 or so in my life so far.  The weather has been decent, and there are virtually no tourists, so I have had incredible solitude in places that are mobbed in the summer season.
A mosaic I made on Komitos Beach on the Island of Syros, deserted on the day I visited

Lesvos has a geologic past and the stones I found on the beach in the beautiful Ottoman town of Molyvos are lovely pastel colors in a variety of nice shapes.  It was here that I started the first of what has become a series of temporary beach mosaics, mostly in circular designs dedicated to the idea of Apollo, the God of the Sun.  Others I've made are dedicated to different Greek Gods and to people I know or have met along the way.

My first beach mosaic in Molyvos on the Island of Lesvos
 This got me to obsessing on making mosaics whenever the opportunity arose.  If I was on a beach that had nice stones and I had the time and the inclination, I would set to work gathering and composing a mosaic, usually for Apollo, as I wanted to encourage as much sun as I could conjure in the winter months when I am able to travel for any amount of time.  It seemed to work, because when it rained it usually did so at night, and most days were dry or a brief drizzle.  If there was rain in the forecast it usually meant spectacular clouds in skies that could easily inspire the stuff of mythology.  I figure there is a reason all of these Gods chose to be born on these islands.
The sun framed by clouds on the island of Naxos, birthplace of Dionysos
The second island I visited was Chios, south of Lesvos within view of the Turkish mainland.  Chios is where the Mastic tree, Pistacia lentiscus grows so well and the first chewing gum was made from the resin of this tree.  It was a prized commodity that gave the people who harvested the resin a special status when invasions took place.  The production is still controlled by a consortium of Medieval villages which were fascinating to visit.  The most interesting of these is the fortress like town of Mesta, where I found the main church to be surrounded by pebble mosaic medallions and zigzag patterns.
Mosaic panels at the church in Mesta
I didn't make it to any beaches while I was on Chios and instead focused on the fantastic villages of hilly interior.  The last place I visited before catching the infrequent winter ferry south was the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Byzantine Nea Moni Monastery, known for the remnants of its fine religious mosaics.  Surrounding the restored chapel are bands of simple pebble mosaics probably dating from the 19th Century.
Crude pebble mosaics surround the Katholicon at Nea Moni Monastery on the island of Chios
From Chios I took a ferry to Samos, where I spent the Christmas holiday.  I was the only guest in the large hotel I stayed in there, but there was a party with a band every night in the bar downstairs, so it was socially the busiest place on the island.  The rest of the island was deserted and stunningly beautiful.  Samos was the birthplace of the Goddess Hera, the understandably jealous wife of Zeus.  She is an ancient Goddess and was worshipped at a magnificent temple near the town of Pythagorio that was 4 times that of the Parthenon, though practically nothing remains today.  A lot of pilfering has gone on over the centuries and everything gets recycled in to something else.
All that remains of the Temple of Hera on Samos Island
The cost of a rental car runs half in winter what it does in summer and the roads tend to be empty, so it is a joy to drive around and discover the beauty that lies in the countryside.  There is lush greenery and the ravines are flowing with water in winter, and the light is gentle and dramatic.  Samos is a popular beach destination and I was frequently asked why I was there in the winter when I had it all to myself.  I'm a hardy Northwesterner so I was able to sunbathe while Greeks don their winter attire.  And since the beaches were empty, it was entertaining for me to beach comb and gather stones and create mosaic medallions.  The stones on Gagou Beach near the main town of Vathy are so beautiful, in soft shades of grey and buff with lines indicating their sedimentary limestone origins.
The Gagou Beach Mosaic is more than a meter across, Samos Island

Detail of the stones in the Gagou Beach Mosaic, Samos Island
The Gagou Beach Mosaic, Samos Island
Because the limestone is flat I also made an interesting twisting form inspired by the action of waves on the shore and the shapes of fishing nets I've seen around Greek fishing boat harbors.
An undulating line of flat limestone rocks on Gagou Beach, Samos Island
A twisted seam in a net cover at the harbor of Naoussa on the Island of Paros
I made a second small mosaic before I caught the ferry to Syros, on a thick mat of dead beach grass on a beach near the old port.  This one I dedicated to the Goddess Hera because of its moody location.
A small Hera mosaic on thick mat of beach grass, Samos Island
The fourth island I visited is called Syros.  Ermoupolis, the main town, is the capital of the Cyclades group of islands.  Some of Greece's most famous islands lie in the Cyclades group, including Mykonos and Santorini.  The capital town of Ermoupolis, being an administrative and transport hub, has some life in the winter, and I came here hoping there would be a festive atmosphere to start the New Year.  Except for the arrival of a midnight ferry, Syros passed quietly in to 2014.  I had a drink in a lovely bar with half a dozen other people and toasted the New Year with a drunk former sailor, of which there are many in Greece.  Ermoupolis has the largest and most impressive pebble mosaic I have seen so far in the islands.  Two large 150 year old patios and a wide walkway at the Church of Metamorfosis are paved in the finest black and white pebbles with small red/brown accents in a bold variety of crisply executed patterns.
A compass and geometric shapes in a section of the pebble mosaics at the Church of Metamorfosis, Ermoupolis, Syros
The island is not large but it is exceptionally beautiful.  I was able to cover most of it in a day in a car.  In the south of the island on a pretty beach called Komitos I gathered an array of pebbles and made a large mosaic by laying the stones flat.  It isn't my favorite as it was built rather hastily, with the stones laid flat because of their angular shapes.
The Komitos Beach mosaic is more than one meter in diameter
Before I left the island I created a much lovelier green stone mosaic on a tiny beach surrounded by cliffs that I dedicated to the English pebble mosaic artist Maggie Howarth who I had recently been in contact with, wishing her good health in the coming year.
Maggy's Mosaic, made from green stones dislodged from the beautiful surrounding rock formations
Maggy's Mosaic, Syros Island
On the ferry from Samos to Syros I met a young man named Alexandros who recommended that I visit the Island of Tinos, as it is known for its marble quarries and a stone carving tradition that continues to this day.  It is a short distance from Syros so I went over for 4 days.  The island is known as a holy pilgrimage destination because of a revered icon of the Virgin Mary that resides in the splendid Church of Panagia Evangelistria.  I stayed in a tiny apartment in a complex that was otherwise deserted in the main town within walking distance of the church.  The owner's 106 year old grandfather, the oldest man on Tinos Island passed away the day after I arrived and I was left to man the place solo during my stay.  The holy day of Epiphany occurred while I was there and perhaps 1,000 people arrived for the day to watch a priest throw a golden crucifix in to the sea, after which a group of strapping youth dove in to the harbor in a competitive effort to retrieve it.  I was told that the one who gets it is granted very good luck and possibly a substantial amount of money as gifts from people in the community.
The Epiphany ceremony in Tinos Town
The church has an expansive mosaic terrace fronting it made of larger pebbles that are much more crudely laid than the fine mosaics in Ermoupolis, but the effect is still dramatic.  The carpeting laid across it is for penitents who approach the church on their knees from the harbor to make such a journey less grueling.  I walked, and so did everyone else while I was there.
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The island proved to be spectacular to explore in a car, but I didn't spend much time on any beaches.  I made a tongue in cheek medallion from plastic bottles that washed up on shore near Tinos Town the afternoon I arrived.
Water bottle medallion, Tinos Island
I also made a small rather uninspired mosaic a day later dedicated to Icarus, who fell to his death in the sea near the island of Ikaria, which I reluctantly bypassed on my way from Samos to Syros due to the infrequent winter ferry schedule.  Ikarus was the son of the master craftsman Daedalus, who designed the Minoan Labyrinth near Knossos to hold the dreaded half man/half bull Minotaur, who was the unfortunate offspring of the wife of King Minos of Crete's after a tryst with a bull.  Daedalus was imprisoned by Minos after he gave the King's daughter a ball of twine called a klew, which she gave the Athenian prince Theseus so that he could find his way out of the labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur.  Daedalus fashioned wings with feathers and wax in order for he and his son to escape from Crete by flying, but in his enthusiasm, Icarus, although warned not to, flew too close to the sun, thus melting the wax and causing the wings to fall apart, plunging him to his death.  The tale is one of warning to those with unbridled ambition.  My homage to Icarus certainly lacked ambition, but its cute.
The Icarus Mosaic,  Island of Tinos
In the winter the only way to get to Mykonos by ferry is via Tinos.  My Mother had been to Mykonos in 2009 and told me she saw gay men everywhere wearing practically nothing.  I had to see for myself. Nothing of the sort in winter.  Instead, of being wild, the town in January is a beautiful, peaceful Cycladian village with white washed churches, windmills, and the infamous succession of pelicans Pete's.  The current Pete is pink and missing part of one wing.  The real reason I came to Mykonos was to visit the sacred island of Delos, a place that has no permanent population beyond archeologists and care takers of the ruins.  The boats to Delos don't go very often in winter due to a lack of tourists, but I was fortunate enough to meet Irene Syrianou, a woman who has a mosaic shop in the town and teaches classes and makes reproductions of some of the classical floor mosaics found on Delos Island.  She had worked for some time doing restoration there and had some pull with the surly boat captain, so eventually we were able to visit.   In the mean time I walked a lot and at one point made a very pretty mosaic on a beach in town.  I also started cleaning beaches of the amazing amount of trash that washes up on shore.  You can read about that endeavor in the last essay I posted 'Giving back to the Earth'.
The Mykonos Mosaic
The Mykonos Mosaic with Little Venice in the background 
A small group of people made the journey to Delos on a beautiful day.  An archaeologist named Martha who works on the island guided us around the ruins, focusing on the beautiful mosaic floors that lie in situ in villas that toppled over 1,000 years ago.  Delos is considered the birth place of Apollo and his twin, Artemis, as it is the island with most sunny days during the year.  Perhaps the most famous of the floors is a circular design with pairs of dolphins at the corners bearing riders in an aquatic competition akin to trick riding.
A section of the mosaic floor in the House of the Dolphins, Delos Island
We were busy exploring the ruins all day so we didn't have a lot of time to linger on a rocky trash strewn beach, but I managed to make a quick stack from the pancake flat stones there.
A slightly blurry image of my Delian Rock Stack
From Mykonos I returned to Syros and then took the ferry to the Island of Paros.  Parian marble is famous for its luminosity and helped make the island prosperous in ancient times.  The Venus de Milo and the Winged Samothrace at the Louvre Museum in Paris were carved from Parian marble.   I rented a little apartment in the main town of Parikia with a view of the bay, near the remnant of an extraordinary defensive wall made from parts of a dismantled temple dedicated to the Goddess Athena.
A Frankish wall built from parts taken from an ancient Temple of Athena in Parikia, Island of Paros
There are nice stones on the beach in town and I spent part of my first afternoon there making a large mosaic medallion not far from where I was staying.
The Parikia Mosaic
Many Greek towns are built on top of ancient ones.  Next to a parking lot on the edge of town I found the excavated remains of floors from the Hellenistic era.  Pebble mosaics were often used later for sub flooring with fine cut stone mosaics overlaying them.
Pebble mosaic flooring in Parikia, Island of Paros
From Paros I took the ferry to one of my favorite islands from this winter's travels, Naxos.  This is the largest of the Cyclades group, with high mountains and a rugged coastline.  Chora, or Naxos Town has a fine Venetian fortress crowning the small hill in its center, and the Portala, a grand entrance to what remains of the Temple of the Delian Apollo that is the main symbol of the city.  The beach next to the ruins of this once grand temple are the subject of my previous essay about cleaning up beaches of the debris that washes up on shore.  The lovely mosaic that I built there was dedicated to the boy who helped me clean the beach that day.  This young man is a glimmer of hope for humanity to me and I will never forget his selfless assistance in aiding me to gather an enormous amount of garbage from this otherwise beautiful beach.
The Mosaic of the Delian Apollo
Mosaic with the Portala of the Temple of the Delian Apollo in the background
I rented a car for two days to explore the island and drove up to the majestic Mt. Zeus, the tallest mountain on the island, and did a beautiful hike to the cave said to be where the King of Greek Gods, Zeus was raised as a child, being kept safe from his father Kronos, who devoured his siblings.  It was an incredible day in the majesty of the mountain and fascinating to explore the mysterious cave.  Being the only person there made the experience very special.
Cave of Zas
I collected small shards of stone and made little lightning bolts in honor of Zeus outside the entrance to the cave.  I brought some pieces back with me that I will use to make a similar lightning bolt design in the Labyrinth in the 5th circuit, which is dedicated to the planet Jupiter, he being the Roman incarnation of the Greek God Zeus.
Lightning bolts dedicated to Zeus
An earlier visitor left a bouquet with a pink lily that remained fresh in the divine coolness of the cave.

Naxos was the birthplace of the God Dionysos, and the faint remains of an ancient temple dedicated to him lies to the south of Naxos town.  Further on is another temple in a more recognizable form dedicated to the Goddess Demeter.
The Temple of Demeter, Island of Naxos
From Naxos I took a ferry further south to the Island of Ios to see the mosaics of Yiannis Loukanis, who I met 5 years earlier on a short trip to Athens.  In 2013 he competed a series of finely executed mosaics around the island's harbor.
A beautifully crafted pebble mosaic by Yiannis Loukanis at the harbor in Ios
Ios is a party island in the summer but was very sleepy in winter.  I rented a car one day and drove the nearly deserted roads through rugged mountains to the supposed grave site of the great ancient Greek writer Homer.  Later at Agia Theodotis Beach I made a mosaic in honor of Homer after collecting most of the garbage from the shoreline.  A friendly dog joined me for a time while I collected pebbles and assembled a tidy medallion of concentric rings.
Homer's Mosaic, Agia Theodotis Beach, Ios Island

A mosaic dedicated to Homer, Agia Theodotis Beach, Ios 
 I stayed an extra day on Ios because the ferry to Santorini was canceled due to rough seas.  Before I left I went to Koumbara Beach across a peninsula from the harbor and made a mosaic there using pretty green schist that I collected from the beach.

Koumbara Beach Mosaic
I was excited to be traveling to Santorini.  This dramatic volcanic island is famous for its huge caldera, and on arrival I couldn't help but notice the similarities to Crater Lake in Oregon which was formed in the same way.  I worked on the tour boats there for a summer when I was 18 years old.  Santorini's eruption and collapse is considered to be the most violent in human history, and is believed to be responsible for the demise of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, which was the first advanced civilization in Europe.  I stayed in the picturesque village of Oia on the stairs where what may be the island's most famous view is photographed by zillions of tourists every year.
Posing on the stairs to my Cave House in Oia, Santorini
Santorini was the first island that I visited that had any noticeable number of tourists, mostly Chinese because they were on their NewYears holiday.  Because the cliffs are so steep leading down to the sea, the caldera side of the island doesn't have any real beach.  The hike down is steep and wonderful, passing layers of sculpted ash tufa and black and red lava flows.  At a small dock area I made a little wreath of red lava dedicated to the forces of volcanism.
A ring of red lava filled with small black lava pebbles, Oia, Santorini
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My 5 days on Santorini were blissfully beautiful, but the largest island in Greece beckoned, so I caught the ferry to Iraklio at the ridiculous hour of 3:00 AM.  We arrived in the early morning at the not so attractive but bustling capital of Crete and I moved in to a bizarrely decorated ultra modern hotel that was in sharp contrast to my atmospheric cave dwelling in Oia.  One of the main reasons I came to Greece was to visit Knossos, the ancient Minoan citadel and site of the fabled Labyrinth near Iraklio.  I'll post an essay about this later.  The weather was wet for the longest period yet this winter and my day at Knossos was very soggy.  The collection at museum in Iraklio was amazing although the most famous artifacts that I had studied in Art History at the University of Oregon were not on display for some reason.  Still, the art of the Minoans is very inspiring, especially for their love of nature.
A beautifully decorated plate reminds me of the mosaics I have been making on Greek beaches
A fragment of 5,000 year old Minoan fresco also reminds me of the mosaics I have been making
A gold wreath
Much prettier than Iraklio is the town of Rethymno in the middle of the north coast of the island.  The cities of Crete were heavily bombed by the Germans during World War ll, annihilating a significant amount of their historical charm.  Rethymno and Chaniá fared better than Iraklio and had more to salvage and restore.  I rented a car for four days here and explored the extraordinarily beautiful countryside on quiet little roads.  My adventures felt legendary as I was a lone traveler in most of the places I ventured.  I visited the picturesque Amari Valley, dotted with whitewashed villages amidst lush greenery.  Snow capped Mt. Ida dominates the region being the tallest mountain on Crete.  It is a dramatic surprise to see snowy mountains across the island.  My favorite drive was up a narrow crumbling mountain road to the tiny town of Kallikratis, something straight out of a Washington Irving fairy tale.  I met some sheep along the way.
Before I left Rethymno I made a rough limestone mosaic below the walls of the Venetian Fortress that kind of disappears in to the surrounding rock.
A rough limestone Mosaic, Rethymno, Crete
A limestone Mosaic amongst the rocks in Rethymno, Crete
Another day I visited the Minoan ruins at Phaestos where the oldest known form of typography, the Phaestos disk was found.  I bought a copy of this famous round clay disk imprinted with small symbols in a spiraling order to set in the Labyrinth when I get home.  Nearby is the famed hippy beach of Matala which inspired lines in the Joni Mitchell song 'Carey'.  "They're playing that scratchy rock n roll beneath the Matala Moon".  A golden bluff dotted with caves dug as Roman tombs became the free troglodyte lodging for hippies on a budget and the town still honors this heritage with amply painted peace signs and bright flowers.  I sang Carey over and over while I made a mosaic on this beautiful afternoon.
The Matala Moon Mosaic, Matala Beach, on the Libian Sea, Crete
The Matala Moon Mosaic
"The wind is in from Africa"  The Matala Moon Mosaic, Matala Beach on the Libian Sea, Crete
I made another small mosaic on the beach at Agia Galini on my way home during a breathtaking sunset.  Another one dedicated to the God Apollo.
Apollo Sunset Mosaic on Agia Galini Beach, Crete
The next day I drove to the famous Cretan mountain town of Anogia and up to the Nida Plateau at the base of snowcapped Mt. Ida.  It is an amazing area of rugged limestone hills and tenacious forests.  Turning off on a dirt road I came upon a beautiful little round stone church modeled after the regional stone huts called Mitatas, in which the shepherds make sheep milk cheese.
A stone church near the Nida Plateau, Crete
From Rethymno I moved further west to the ancient port town of Chaniá.  This is a beautiful place with an old Venetian lighthouse gracing the harbor.  I made a sunburst using tumbled pieces of Ottoman era roof tiles and remnants of Chania's Venetian fortress walls on a small quiet beach.

The Chania Mosaics
It grew a couple of babies the next day.

A full rainbow formed before the full moon rose while I worked on the second and third sunbursts by the Venetian walls, Chaniá, Crete
 My last full day in Chaniá was warm and beautiful and I am wondering why I am leaving.   I went swimming in the sea for only the second time this winter.  It was wonderful.  I also made two mosaics.  One looked like a little cake as the pebbles were very small where I went swimming.
A little cake mosaic
Further down the beach the pebbles were much larger and more plentiful so I couldn't help myself.  I worked on this simple set of colorful concentric circles until it was almost dark.  I can't really say why I do this, OCD perhaps?  I like the results, and they do catch people's eyes as they pass.  I suppose it keeps me in shape for when I return home and go back to work.
 My last full day in Chaniá was warm and beautiful and I am wondering why I am leaving.

The sea is ready to reclaim this one
None of these mosaics is meant to last very long.  The sea often takes them back in a day or two.  I like that.

Thanks for reading another very long essay, but then its been quite a long journey,  Jeffrey