LYCIAN TOMBS and BURNING CITIES: Kas 2000

LYCIAN TOMBS & BURNING CITIES

A Slant on Perge ©2000 Trici Venola.

Have you ever seen Perge?  A plain, under an endless sky, littered with the broken remnants of a city old when Alexander came.  There’s a big square stone gate, and through it the remains of a huge fountain: chunks of carved stone balanced on either side; and beyond that an expanse of broken columns, some fallen, some standing, marching off in a colonnade into an infinity of arches and turrets and giant stones lying on the cracked streets polished with centuries of feet. In the center two fragmented towers go up into the sky. Oh, yes, a Roman amphitheater too.  This one is all busted up and weedy, next to a stadium with an oval chariot track.

Perge Longshot ©2000 Trici Venola

I saw it with Pierre, a French chef turned wandering watercolorist. “They told me of you,” he introduced himself in the Kas square one morning over breakfast. We’d been drawing together ever since. Most of these drawings are from that summer, exactly 12 years ago, when I made so many of the decisions I live with today. They were done on the run, so to speak, and worked on later during a convalescence from an illness. I love them.

Night Bus ©2000 Trici Venola.

In 2000, I ripped up my marriage and my comfortable life in Los Angeles and moved to Turkey. Numb with the pain of divorce and the loss of much of my family, I was also in a tortuous affair with a Kurdish man. There was a deal of passion, but we could not be easy together. We fought in Side, we fought in Istanbul. During a truce we took a night bus to Kas, (in English Kosh), a little town on the southernmost tip of Turkey. We fought again and he left for Side. Exhausted, I stayed in Kas, where my friend Rayan was managing a hotel.

Tiny Rayan ©2000 Trici Venola.

I rented rooms in an old Turkish stone house covered with Bougainvillea.  My place had a big balcony with  a view of the little boats in the harbor and beyond them the sea. This was Kas before they built the present huge marina.

Kas from Afar ©2000 Trici Venola.

Kas is in the ancient kingdom of Lycia. Here and there in the sunstruck green and gold of the hillsides are the square carved faces of plundered Lycian tombs.  The land has the most amazing color: peach-colored, salmon, saffron, shading down into rose and maroon; the dirt is the color of dried blood.  In places where a landslide  has broken open a hill, the bright rock contrasts with the grayed stone and growth on the surface  like a geode.  Pine and cypress trees march along ridges and cluster in gulleys, and olive trees are everywhere. Below the rocks the sea is sapphire-black, turquoise, jade.  There are black goats and red rock houses and boats and friends.

Olive Tree ©2000 Trici Venola.

I needed all of it.  I had realized I couldn’t have Kazim. I craved that crazy love, you know, that wild nutso glorious reckless stuff, and he’d gotten too dark. Still I burned, and the beauty of the land was painful. I drew incessantly.

Married for Life ©2000 Trici Venola.

Hanife & Her Son ©2000 Trici Venola.

  At sunset these days the people of Kas are waiting to break their Ramazan fast, but back in 2000 they would gather at the ruined Roman amphitheater on the edge of town.

Sisters in the Ruins ©2000 Trici Venola.

In the middle of Kas is a big tomb that has never been moved since it was placed there 2500 years ago. It looked easy to draw, but when I started it took five hours.  At the time it was the longest I’d ever spent on one drawing, and in one sitting, too. The guys in the street brought me sandwiches.

Big Tomb in Kas ©2000 Trici Venola.

I spent a couple hours the next day drawing down the hill in the other direction. The view is still pretty much the same.

View from the Tomb ©2000 Trici Venola.

My drawing buddy Pierre and I rode all over Lycia with a cabdriver with an immaculate taxi, stone face and no English, actually named Ali Baba.  He’d driven me on a sortie to Side when I’d gone to see Kazim. It was a four-hour drive, and for the last two I sang. Ali Baba kept exclaiming, “No Turkish  music!  Chok guzel!”–which means Very Good or Fat City or You’re Pretty—  Anyway he liked my singing.  Since he didn’t speak English I just sang anything regardless of how appropriate it was, from Big Mama Thornton to Rogers and Hart.  What really got Ali Baba off was Gilbert & Sullivan.  So I wailed away on Pirates of Penzance and The Sorcerer, and we went to Phaselis, where Alexander the Great once wintered:

Busted Old Arch in Phaselis ©2000 Trici Venola.

a high pine forest with stone ruins in the pine needles between two sweet shady beaches, and on to Aspandos, where the theater is as big as the ruined one in Side and completely intact; it still has its looming square proscenium wall, startling after so many open theater craters.

Simena ©2007 Trici Venola.

All this history is strung like a pearl necklace along the spectacular Mediterranean coast of Southern Turkey, between Bodrum to the west and Side to the east. We had already been to Myra, where the square-cut Lycian tombs, carved in golden rock, ornament the hill over the ruined Roman arches of the theater built centuries later. The basic drawing below was done in 45 minutes standing bolt-upright in the singing heat, and darkened later.

Roman Stone Mask & Gargoyle ©2000 Trici Venola.

In Myra a chalky Byzantine church rises out of the sunken ground in perpetual restoration, a church built in honor of and once housing the bones of… Santa Claus. There’s a bashed-in stone sarcophagus, vaguely sleigh-shaped, but alas, no reindeer, only a brass plate saying in several languages: Here lay the remains of St. Nicholas. Italians stole his body in AD1007.

Noel Baba One ©2000 Trici Venola.

The Church of St. Nicholas is powdery pale with mosaics in the floor, treble arched windows and very old brickwork like embroidery among the ancient stones.  It was built by Justinian and Theodora in the 6th Century to honor St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra two centuries earlier. A wealthy man who gave all his money to the poor, his original gifts were dowries for two destitute sisters, dropped down the chimney to save their pride —or, on a hot night, put in the open window in their shoes, depending on which story you read. That’s supposed to be what started the tradition of Christmas stockings.

Cliffs at Big Pebble Beach ©2006 Trici Venola.

Ali Baba took me out to the beach the next day and made a serious pass, but he backed right off and I just went on singing at the top of my lungs.  And him a family man. He took me to Letoon, where Leto, one of Zeus’ many conquests, took her infants Artemis and Apollo to bathe in the river. The townspeople threw stones at her, so she turned them into frogs.  Nevertheless they built her a temple. There’s this one to Leto, one to Apollo and one to Artemis, all Hellenic. The Letoon temple, being built by frogs, regularly floods. It looks beautiful in the guidebook but in the dog days of August, when I was drawing it with sweat stinging my eyes, it was sun-baked, crusted mud. My self-appointed guide Mehmet, a lithe 12-year-old, scampered nimbly across the old scored stones, while I stepped carefully between the clumps of brittle dead reeds and broke through right down into sucking sticky swamp. My foot felt like it was being digested. I pulled up hard, swearing at Mehmet, and nothing happened for the longest time.  I was wearing a pair of flip-flop platform sandals from LA.  I was fond of them; I would not let my foot slip out, and finally with a great sucking sound the sandal came free loaded with about five pounds of mud. I limped out of the temple swamp and it took a helpful attendant with a hose and a brush ten minutes to get the mud off, but I got a hell of a drawing.

Letoon ©2000 Trici Venola.

Then Ali Baba took me to Xanthos.  The cab turned down a hill and I saw the toothed ridge of old wall.  We came around a bend and there was the ridged theater crater and some high capstone sarcophagi; then we came all the way around and I saw it, a city entire all ruined on the hill, excavations for fifty years, ringed with walls in disrepair, chunked rock and old rooms and carvings and columns overgrown with bushes and trees.  Much of Xanthos has been spirited away to various museums worldwide but there is plenty of fabulous pitted glory left there in situ: Lycian and Roman with Byzantine overtones.  It was so hot in all the ruins that I’d taken to putting my whole head under the restroom tap just before we left each one.  It was always sweaty-dried by the next stop.

A Lion from Xanthos, British Museum, ©2006 Trici Venola.

Xanthos was a glaring furnace with no scrap of shade.  I wandered around the sandy mosaics pouring sweat and wondering how on earth I could stand still to draw them.  I was too black to burn by then but the sun on my arms and legs was painful.  There was a gang of workmen, nice guys I could ask for a chair and some kind of rigged shelter but they were away across the mountain. Before they left, I did some sketches and took a photo. Later I did a drawing from it–my personal favorite from this era– and digitally incorporated it with some Plein Air bits.

Working Stiffs In Situ ©2000 Trici Venola.

That day in Xanthos I had a sarong and a big hat, so I broke off some dead reeds and jammed them into the steps going down to ancient baths overlooking the olive groves and the power lines in the distance.  There were cicadas buzzing in a gasping chorus in the heat.  I draped the sarong over my hat and the sticks and thought of Lawrence of Arabia. It gave just enough shade to endure drawing for about twenty minutes.  Sweat ran down my face and dripped on the page.  I  looked at the drawing.  It was enough to go on.

Xanthos ©2000 Trici Venola.

This is the fabled city where the Xanthians, finding themselves c540 BCE overwhelmed by Persian hordes, slaughtered all their loved ones: wives and concubines, parents, children and slaves– by ringing the walled city with fire and burning everyone alive.  Then the warriors put on their armor, charged fighting into the Persian waves and were killed to the last man.  Yet the city rose again, and again was besieged, this time in 42 BCE by Brutus, as in Et tu Brute.  The Romans would not go away and the Xanthians would not give up and finally the horrified Romans saw a woman with her dead baby slung around her neck torching her roof as she hanged herself.  “Enough!” called Brutus and offered a substantial reward for any Roman to save a live Lycian.

Rock Tombs in Myra ©2000 Trici Venola.

Nevertheless they are all gone now.  Only the cities and tombs remain, square rock faces shining gold and bronze and red in the gray sides of mountains, all tumbled with emerald and jade bushes.  Gray-green leaves mist around the black sticks of olive trees parading down the bright meadows, gold in the afternoon sun.  Gothic-arch-topped barrels of sarcophagi rise up like great stone mushrooms in forests, on mountaintops, on the edges of towns and amphitheaters and in that main street of Kas, each with its looted black hole.  If I were a Lycian I would never ever want to leave, either.  I would tell them to put me on the hill over the sea, and I would arrange an earthquake to hide my tomb to keep them from coming later and stealing my skull and my jewelry.  Squint at any hill here and there’s a tomb.  Surely some must be hidden, and the Lycians sleeping inside, undisturbed bones clothed in the splendor they deserve for keeping this kingdom so long and so well.

A Tomb With A View ©2007 Trici Venola.

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A Slant on Perge, Perge Longshot, and Working Stiffs In Situ were partially drawn from  the author’s photographs. All other drawings Plein Air. All drawings done with drafting pens on rag paper in sketchbooks. All save Tiny Rayan measure 18 cm X 26 cm / 7″ X 20.”

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GREEN MAGIC: A Summer Day in PLOVDIV

GREEN MAGIC

Boris (Nicolay) and the Empty Plate © Trici Venola 2007

The trees in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, are huge green thunderheads. The parks are magnificent, with paths running among lush grassy hillocks dotted with flowering bushes and amusing statues. There is no litter. The Roman ruins are immaculately preserved and the churches have icons. Their unique Old Town, picturesque without being kitsch, is full of tall old wooden houses with high angles and sweeping curves.

In Old Town Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2008

I discovered all this when on a visa run from Turkey in 2007. For years I’d done the one-day visa trot via bus, a marathon ordeal involving two border crossings in the same 15-hour period, always at the worst possible time and when I was most broke. But as long as you left every three months– that was on a US Tourist Visa– and got that visa stamp, you were legal. This is changing: soon tourists will have to leave for 90 out of each 180 days. Happily I have residence status now, but in 2007 I was grateful simply to take the train instead of the bus. You can lie down on the train. They wake you up at the border and you go through the usual bureaucratic checks. Then a little sleep until 8 AM, and the delights of Plovdiv. I’d walk around all day, get on the train back to Istanbul  at 11PM, and do the whole thing in reverse. I couldn’t afford to stay away a week, or even a few days, but I sure liked Plovdiv. I went there 13 times, in sickness and health and all weathers, one day every three months for three years.  Here I go again, and this time, I’m taking you with me.

Japan in Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2008

The first time was in May 2007, after a grisly forced move to a fixer-upper in a strange Istanbul neighborhood. I stumbled off the train, and everything was in Cyrillic. I knew nothing about the town. But I saw a double line of huge plane trees leading away from the station. They had commenced radically “pruning” all the trees in Istanbul the year before. Imagine cutting off both arms at the elbow to trim a cuticle. I’d nearly lost my mind over it. Now, bemused and scratchy-eyed with sleepiness, I stumbled along in the amazing shade between two stately rows of plane trees marching down the middle of a divided street. I had forgotten that green smell of big trees, how the air is fresher near them. Stoned on oxygen, I stopped right there and drew the building on the left below. Kept going and found this interesting juxtaposition: a beautiful girl in her first flush of attention from the world, and a woman who had looked like her, or so it seemed.

The Face She Deserves © Trici Venola 2007

I found a money-changer and a cafe with trees growing up through the roof. I sat there drinking coffee and coming awake. In Paradise. The coffee cost what it had in Istanbul in 1999. The Cyrillic menu had pictures on it. I realized I could get ham and eggs. Real. Ham. And. Eggs. Lazzarin, said the napkin. I was to spend thirteen mornings there over the next three years.

Lazzarin Cafe Day & Night © Trici Venola 2007

Some hours and half this drawing later, I staggered out of the cafe back to the line of plane trees, followed it to a park, lay down on a lush grassy hill surrounded by birdsong, and fell asleep.

Lovely Tree in Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2009

Hours later I woke, hungry again, and walked to a restaurant in the trees. I stayed there for hours, eating pork ribs, drinking coffee and drawing into the dusk, until it was time to take the train home. I had fallen in love with Plovdiv.

Summer & Fall at Lazzarin Cafe © Trici Venola 2009

I could hardly wait to go back. The following August, it was time again. My life in Istanbul was largely a matter of survival, and going away for even one day was so freeing…all I had to do was draw and catch the train. I hadn’t felt like that in years. The second trip, I walked a different way after the cafe and found a giant walk street lined with shops, casinos, restaurants, and this bronze clown.

Bronze Clown in Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2007

At the very end of that day, exhausted, I found the Plovdiv Old Town and I was a goner. I knew I’d come back again and again.

Angel Spot © Trici Venola 2007

The city is on a flat plain near a river. Jutting abruptly up from this plain are several steep rocky areas. One is a park entire, topped with radio towers. Another is Old Town. One side features the famed Roman Theater, a working theater with frequent productions. Three local women about my age told me in English about them.

Plovdiv’s Roman Theater © Trici Venola 2009

This drawing took most of a hot August day in 2009, and I learned a lot from onlookers. Plovdiv locals all seem to know the history of the town, which the Romans called Trimontium: Three Hills. And they’re proud of it. Coming out of Old Town is a pedestrian underpass which has table-sized stone blocks as the sidewalk. I was so tired it didn’t register, but coming up the steps I ran into two local guys who sent me back to see it, and was I glad. It’s a Roman street, and on it is the mosaiced lobby of a Roman apartment house, now an art and theater center with catwalks over the mosaics and a lively art scene. They will always have one of my books.

High Angles in Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2007

The steep stone streets of Old Town are flanked by the angles, gables, windows and gates of Plovdiv’s historic wooden houses. I’ve never seen woodwork like this, with long stately curves inside and fantastic detail everywhere, the most draw-able stuff imaginable.

Ottoman Wooden Interior © Trici Venola 2007

The centuries-old fanciful woodwork is a legacy of wealthy Ottomans, and here are some now, as Coney Island cut-outs.

Ottoman Cutouts © Trici Venola 2010

Right in the center of Old Town is a Byzantine gate in a Roman wall, flanked by tall angled wooden houses.

Hissar Kapiya, Byzantine Gate in Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2008

It took me a few tries to draw Hissar Kapiya, but I got to meet Krasi, now a friend for years, who worked nearby:

Happy Krasi © Trici Venola 2010

Philip of Macedon

At the very top of Old Town’s hill is the ancient stone fortification over the river. Yes, ancient. Little old Plovdiv, Bulgaria, is over 8000 years old, in fact the oldest continuously occupied city in Europe. Another of its former names is Philippopolis, since in the 4th century BCE it fell to Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

Shriveled Stone Wall © Trici Venola 2007

Wooden Krum the Horrible

The land that is now Bulgaria and the land that is now Turkey have had their differences. Early in the 9th century CE, Krum the Horrible, the Great Khan of the Bulgars, went to war with  Byzantine Emperor Nicophorus of Constantinople, who went insane in the struggle. Khan Krum won. He found Nicophorus dead on a dung pile and made of his skull a silver-lined beerstein, with which he drank his own health to the end of his days. You can read all about Krum the Horrible in this History blog by Bruce Ware Allen.

Krum the Horrible

That second trip, I lingered in Old Town until dusk. Afraid I’d miss the train. I gave up all thought of trying to find my park restaurant in the trees. I walked back to Lazzarin Cafe and ran into a group of artists and poets. They made a big fuss over my sketchbook, which almost made me cry, I was so tired and they were so nice. Here’s a drawing of Sugar, and a first take on Hissar Kapiya.

Sugar and the Gate © Trici Venola 2007

After that the trips blended one into the other, a continuous flood of happy images always in May, August, November and February. I was stunned to discover, in pulling art for this post, that there are over forty drawings. So we’re dividing them up into Summer and Winter, large so you can read the comments on them. Something about Plovdiv loosed poetic feelings in me. Blame it on the trees!

Old Men in Plovdiv © Trici Venola 2008

Guys playing chess under the trees asked me to join, but I begged off to draw them:

The Chess Players © Trici Venola 2008

These guys remember the Iron Curtain. I wonder what it feels like for them to hear church bells again?

And Kissed My Hand © Trici Venola 2008

Two years ago, I got my Residence visa, and my trips to Plovdiv ceased. Right now in Istanbul the air outside is so hot and thick you can chew it. There’s a heat haze between my balcony and the one next door. The city seethes unceasingly, dozens of millions exhaling in the heat. Up in the bazaars, cats lie exhausted, ironed flat into the shade. Heat shimmers up off the vast cement of the new improved Hippodrome. All over Istanbul, people struggle for shade, but Istanbul’s wonderful trees are mostly pruned down small, these days, some into lollipop shapes and some just dead, amputated trunks jutting leafless into the sky. This ruthless pruning makes no sense to me, but it’s the way they do it here, and much as I love Istanbul, I can do nothing about it. Thank God I have a coping secret. I close my eyes and think of Plovdiv. Somewhere in the world is a town where they love trees as much as I do.

Church Spot © Trici Venola 2008

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All drawings Plein Air. All drawings pen and ink on sketchbook paper, full size 18 X 52 cm / 7 X 20 inches. All drawings © Trici Venola. We love your comments. Thanks for reading.