SNOW CAFE: Drawing Plovdiv in Winter

The Gossips ©2009 Trici Venola

Oh, it’s cold now in Istanbul. Days like diamonds: brilliant sunshine, icy in the shadows. The sun fools you into wearing a lighter coat, and then it sets. Such a fantasy, Istanbul, amid seas and waterways. But its magnificent trees, butchered for years now by misguided municipal pruning, look in winter like spindly desiccated fingers sprouting from wizened fists. All I can think about is how it feels to get off the train in Plovdiv and look up, up, up into the exquisite embroidery of those natural trees against the sky.

©2014 Krasimira Marinova

I found Plovdiv quite by accident. I just needed to go someplace in Bulgaria by train, because the bus had become impossible.

Bulgarian Turkish BorderGRIM CROSSING  Bulgarian/Turkish border, Winter 2007, 3AM. Turkish side. Dark and cold. Dogs and uniforms under guard towers. Leaping light from huge bonfires at the edge of a crowded parking lot piled with our opened suitcases. The ground glittered: sugar, slashed from people’s packages, littered with dark islands of flung spices. At the bonfires, yelling uniformed men hurled bottle after bottle of confiscated booze and watched them explode. People were crying. My seat-mate had lost all her sugar and spices, bought cheap in Bulgaria for her restaurant in Istanbul. Laughing, shouting customs agents had ripped them out of her luggage. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. We all kept our heads down, praying to be allowed to repack our belongings and get back on the bus to Istanbul.

The Girls from Kosovo ©2004 Trici Venola

Long ago before the laws changed, it was possible to live for years in Turkey on a tourist visa. One simply left the country for one day every three months. The bus was cheapest.

Border Check

The border crossing could go into six hours at that time, what with all the queues and checkpoints. A friend had asked me to buy her four bottles of Johnny Walker and two cartons of cigarettes, advertised on the Internet as legal. Trudging along the row of duty-free border stores, my seat-mate and I saw 4-packs of whiskey, labelled “4 for the price of 3.” I bought the smokes, but the bus driver told us that the Turks were confiscating alcohol over one bottle per passenger, so I bought only two and asked my seat-mate to carry the other one. We got back on the bus and crossed to Turkey, where we ran into that Inferno-like parking-lot luggage check. We were allowed to keep our one bottle each, but one of my cartons of cigarettes was confiscated by our friend the bus driver. Back on the bus, the air turned thick as the entire bus illegally smoked my swiped carton.

Cops ©2007 Trici Venola

We were eventually told that sixty Turkish customs agents had been arrested for corruption, and their cohorts were taking it out on the rest of us. When I got back, sick from smoke and sleep deprivation, I gave my friend her two bottles and one carton. She said, “What? Why, I would never have put up with that, I know my rights. I’m an American.”

After that, I quit the bus for the train. You can lie down on the train.

MARILYN MONROE IN PLOVDIV

Spelled “Merilyn” to avoid the long arm of MGM, this cigarette campaign was all the rage a few years ago. I also bought Ray Ben sunglasses. Drawing in a cafe, it thrilled my Los Angeles soul to see it snow and snow. I was less thrilled later, when I realized my boots were too slick to go anywhere.

Marilyn in Plovdiv ©2009 Trici Venola

Compared to the bus, the night train border crossing was a picnic. Still it had left me groggy. I got off the train, that first time, and staggered up out of the underpass to see trees. Huge thunderhead trees. I cried out loud at the sight, there in the street. In Bulgaria, the parks are lush and the trees gloriously crowned.  I loved Plovdiv so much that I went there thirteen times, every three months for three years, until I got my Turkish Residence visa. I’d take the overnight train to Plovdiv, walk around all day, and catch the midnight train back to Istanbul.

Fashions in Plovdiv ©2008 Trici Venola

In my favorite cafe, trees grow up through the roof, and there’s ham for breakfast. Every trip, I’d draw myself awake. I saw the same people winter and summer, but this fellow, I saw only once.

A Cat and A Drunk in Plovdiv ©2008 Trici Venola

Sure, you can get pork in Istanbul. After all, Istanbul is an international, eclectic, tolerant city. But their hearts just aren’t into serving pig. One friend told me “they say the air stinks of pork in Plovdiv.” I hadn’t noticed, I was eating pork ribs, juice running down my chin. Someone needs to do a T-shirt: I GOT PORKED IN PLOVDIV.

Snow Cafe ©2010 Trici Venola

PAGEANT OF NAMES

Roman Theater in Plovdiv

Reading Plovdiv’s history, I see a regal figure enduring a continual costume change, its integrity as eternal as its ancient walls. Little old Plovdiv, Bulgaria, is the oldest continuously occupied city in Europe. It’s so old it fell to Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon, who gave it one of its ancient names: Philippopolis.

Recently discovered Roman tunnel on Nebet Tepe Fortress.

Some sources say it’s 6000 years old, some say 8,000. A city on a plain, at the Maritza River, with seven rocky tower-like hills. Nobody knows the name of the original Neolithic settlement. The Thracians called the city Eumolpias, after the son of Poseidon, and then Pulpedeva. Later, under Roman rule, it was a major crossroads and cultural center, called Trimontium, after the three largest hills.

©2014 Jodi Hilton

©2014 Jodi Hilton

Plovdiv’s Roman ruins are plentiful and immaculate, like this well-preserved stadium under a shopping center. The most famous is the Roman theater, still open for business, clinging to a rocky cliffside.

Roman Theater Plovdiv ©2009 Trici Venola

In the Middle Ages the city was Byzantine, once again called Philippopolis, as the residents sang songs of Alexander’s heroics 1300 years before. After the Byzantines, Slavs called it Peldin, Plepdiv, Ploudin. Ottomans seized the city in the fourteenth century, re-naming it Filibe, from “Philip.”

©2014 Krasimira Marinova

Here’s a Byzantine arch attached to a Roman wall, and below it, the layout for a drawing of the gate. It was just too darned cold, so I finished in August.

Layout Arch ©2008 Trici Venola

©2014 Krasimira Marinova

Next to it, a tall gabled house boasts an enormous door. I banged on it one icy day and met Krasi, who was ensconced with colleagues in a toasty back room of what turned out to be a museum: The House of Dimitar Georgiadi. I gratefully accepted tea and a spot on the couch.  “Oh, you live in Istanbul,” they said, “Here’s a book by your countryman.” They handed me a book written by an American in the 1800s. A sentence leaped out: …there were still traces of chemises on the small skeletons scattered through the rocks and trees…  It was an account of the conflict leading to the Battle of Philippopolis, which expelled the Ottomans in 1898. The city has been “Plovdiv” ever since.

Warrior Trappings in the Museum ©2009 Trici Venola

Upstairs in the museum are glass cases with all manner of things. I gathered that the people who wore this clothing, shot these guns, were fighting Ottoman forces. Krasi and her colleagues welcomed me many times and I was able to get this drawing of all-felt guerrilla clothing and weapons. I imagine the fierce young men in the mountains, nothing to do but decorate those guns and fire them.

THE ICE PALACE

Lucien Chevallaz and Tree Hugger ©2009 Trici Venola

In 1892 Lucien Chevallaz, the moustached gent on the statue above, created Tsar Simeon’s Garden: a large rambling park full of giant trees, floored in winter with thick snow. The drawing above was done before snowfall, but on the trip when I got stuck in the cafe, this was how it looked.

An Ice Church ©2010 Trici Venola

Me, Snowed In ©2010 Trici Venola

Walking was so slippery I couldn’t risk it. I had no Bulgarian, my phone didn’t work there, and I had only enough money for the day. So I stayed inside. Not much of a view in there. I was miserable because all I wanted was to see Old Town in the snow.

©2014 Krasimira Marinova

But from all those one-day trips, Krasi and I had become friends. She sent me these pictures she took on that day, and permission to share them with you. Thank you, Krasimira Marinova! Here she is in summer.

Krasi in Summer ©2010 Trici Venola

This is how Old Town looks in snow. Fairyland!

©2014 Krasimira Marinova

It’s full of these multistoried gabled wooden houses, centuries old and lovingly maintained, many of them built in Ottoman times by Turkish merchants.

©2014 Krasimira Marinova

I’d never seen woodwork like this, combining long curving planes and sharp angles.

©2014 Krasimira Marinova

The Old Town covers the biggest of Plovdiv’s rocky hills, stone streets lined with ancient walls, huge trees and these storybook houses.

©2014 Krasimira Marinova

DARK CRYSTAL CHURCHES

There are Christian churches all over Plovdiv, preserved behind the Iron Curtain, now flourishing. These old churches are dark and beautiful with the glint of gold and crystal, Orthodox Christian churches with icons that help me to imagine how the Byzantine churches were here in Istanbul, before they became mosques.

Dark Crystal Church ©2008 Trici Venola

I wander through them in pleasant melancholy, lighting candles to my mother and aunts, to departed friends and lovers. I wasn’t raised with such traditions but find them comforting and appropriate.

Church Wanderings ©2008 Trici Venola

Bulgarian moneyThere are mosques in Plovdiv, pagan temples, and synagogues, although most of the Jews departed for the new state of Israel. They were able to because 20th-century Plovdiv saved its Jews: in 1943 Cyril, Archbishop of Plovdiv and future Bulgarian Patriarch, intervened to prevent 1500 deportations to the camps.

Decades after the god-proscribing Soviet rule, the tone of Bulgaria is Christian. Saints decorate money and civic buildings. On a recent side trip to Sofia, I found a spectacular subway saint, and a tomb worth sharing.

Subway Saint in Sofia ©2013 Trici Venola

GOODNIGHT SWEET PRINCE

Prince Alex’s Tomb ©2013 Trici Venola

Attracted to its chartreuse roof I drew this before I went inside. And in there, I found the tomb of the original Handsome Prince, beloved Prince Alexander Battenberg, 1857-1893, First Prince of the new country of Bulgaria.

images

aleksandar_IRespected for his diplomatic and military skills, he ruled for only five years before being deposed at gunpoint, forced to resign because of dealings with Russia.

The Prince fell in love with Viktoria, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, but the other side of the family blocked the marriage. The disappointed princess, doomed to a short marriage and one miscarriage with another prince, eventually married a gigolo and died destitute and alone. Just look at her expression: she knows he’s a rotter, but she’s determined to wrest some semblance of happiness from life.

Viktoria

Left: Young Viktoria. Right: Viktoria and last husband.

johanna

Johanna, Countess Hartenau

Prince Battenberg fared better but not for long. After his forced abdication he married Johanna Loisinger, an opera singer everybody liked, and retired to private life. They had two children before he died. As the Countess Hartenau, patroness of the arts in Vienna, she outlived him by fifty years, dying in 1951.

The Battenbergs were a large and influential family. Because of anti-German sentiment, the British branch of the family changed their name to Mountbatten. Yes, Lord Mountbatten who helped India get ready for independence and who was blown up on his yacht by IRA terrorists. Lord Mountbatten carried on the family popularity: his murder brought down the wrath of the entire world on the Irish Republican Army.

Beloved Prince ©2013 Trici Venola

As to Prince Alexander, his only failing seems to have been a lack of ruthlessness. “Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest–” or at least the memory of two great loves.

SKULL CARAFE

Krum the Horrible, Medieval Woodcut

At the other end of the spectrum, a thousand years before Prince Alexander, Khan Krum the Horrible reigned over the Bulgars. No shortage of ruthlessness here! You remember him, don’t you? That 9th-century ruler who declared war on the Byzantines. He kept at it until Emperor Nicophorus had to suit up and gallop off to Bulgaria ahead of the Byzantine Army. Krum surrendered, but not until after he’d driven Nicophorus crazy. Berserk with rage, Nicophorus kept slaughtering, forcing Krum to summon allies to defeat him. The Bulgar forces found Nicophorus dead on a dung-heap after the battle. Krum beheaded him and had his skull made into a silver-lined beerstein, with which he drank his own health until the end of his days. Medieval artists did their best, but I always picture Krum as looking like something out of Frazetta. He certainly inspires art like this:

Painting by Frank Frazetta

Bulgarian Bar Girls ©2007 Trici Venola

VIRTUAL JUSTICE Eleven PM always found me exhausted on the train platform. Plovdiv’s train station is 19th-century grandeur that went through the Iron Curtain. In winter it’s grim and cold. Nobody speaks English, the bathroom is permanently broken, and the train to Istanbul is always late.

Train Station PlovdivFebruary 2010: In the tiny ticket office, four clerks huddled around a space heater. None of them wanted to tell me anything. Above them, grimy walls went up forever into peeling paint covered with frost and cobwebs. It was the back of the back of beyond, a Central European Kafka Gulag nightmare. Then I noticed they were riveted to a beat-up old computer, and on it was a DVD. They were not cold, they were not even there. In this grim technological desert, they were watching Avatar. State of the art, and you couldn’t get it online or in stores, it was still in US theaters but not yet in Bulgaria. It was the scene where the collective is trying to bring someone back from the dead. On Facebook, I had read endless griping from LA friends about Avatar. It was quite the fashion back home to hate this movie. But out here in the all-too-real world, Cameron’s archetypes and tableaux of war and oppression spoke to sympathetic ears; that blue tribal communion was gorgeous, a dream of freedom, beauty, triumph over hideous uncontrollable forces. I was glad to see this harbinger from my old hometown, and equally glad to be free of those LA attitudes. The longer I’m gone from the place I was born, the more I feel like myself. In this alien land full of strangers, where I can’t even speak the language, I feel at home.

Coffee Cup ©2009 Trici Venola

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All drawings Plein Air © Trici Venola. All photos copyrighted as noted. All drawings done with drafting pens in sketchbook format: 7 inches by 20 inches closed. Thanks for reading. We love your comments.

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.