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

—-

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.

Advertisements

Rolling the Boukoleon Bones

How strange to know exactly where you will be and what will be happening with the weather. This seems an incalculable luxury to me, but that was part of what I signed up for when I moved here. Something in me has always wanted to crouch on the edge of an alien civilization, making art. Just now I’m looking out over dull silver drifts of sea fading into the mist, peppered with minute black birds in an erratic line. The entire bottom of my view is crusty Byzantine brick ruins. It’s all that’s left of the Boukoleon Palace, built in the ninth century as the First Palace in Christiandom, burned by Crusaders in 1204 but spared by Mehmet the Conqueror 250 years later, when he wept to see, as he wrote, the owl flying, the spider spinning a tapestry in the House of the Caesars.

In 1873 the Sultan ran the Orient Express through the remains of the Palace, bisecting it and leaving a considerable chunk of the Palace facade facing the sea. What remains of that is one huge arch, some piles of rubble atop a honeycomb of arcs and mysterious wells going down to Byzantium, and one magnificent double stand of arches surmounted by marble portals on the sea side. The top row was torn off, presumably when the government filled in the area between the harbor and the seawall, and built the highway. I live on the other side, across the tracks, looking out over the arches to the sea.

Below my balcony in the weeds of the railroad bed is a huge ziggurat-cut chunk of marble, carved around the sides and scored across the surface with holes for fixing a bas-relief, or perhaps a sheet of marble in contrasting colors. There’s also one pillar and its capital, and some smaller chunks of the ziggurat-cut piece, all decorated with spray-paint graffiti. Computer-generated concepts of the Palace show it as a vast bald grey expanse rising out of the sea, but I have seen dozens of chunks of multicolored marble from all over the Palace site. They’re grey until it rains, and then they are a rainbow: wine-purple porphyry, speckled green malachite, white flecked with carnelian, saffron, deep emerald green veined with black, glittering white, translucent pale amber. I think the Palace looked like a painting of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s, now in the Getty, entitled Spring. Brilliant colors juxtaposed with statues and frescoes, a painting in polished marble, and a porphyry birth chamber, giving rise to the expression born to the purple. Sir Lawrence painted this in 1901, and I will bet a Byzantine brick that he visited Istanbul first and saw what was left of the Palace. The layout is the same, and so are the colors of the marble.

Whatever we have most of, humans seem to take for granted. When I first moved here I was horrified to see three guys hauling a wheelbarrow of marble fragments out of the Palace to decorate their cafe. I called the Tourist Police and got an embarrassed reaction, but despite all those stories about dire consequences for removal of souvenirs from ancient ruins, there simply was no provision made to keep such things from happening here at the Boukoleon. The Palace has been left to rack and ruin for decades.The good part was that, for years, we could walk up into it, but the bad part was that homeless people, some of them drug addicts, lived in the ruins and made it risky to go in there. I used to get along with most of them, but never sat and drew in the ruins as I longed to do because one never knew when some glue-sniffing idiot would show up dangerous.

But many a time I went in there, alone or with friends, to marvel at the rising walls of brickwork, the piles of marble rubble all around. One massive malachite pillar lies in there, its thickness up to my hips. Weed-fringed holes go down into the area below, peopled by denizens of the dark amongst the trash. The one remaining sea gate, the sides of a marble keyhole shape rising from vast marble pediments carved with egg-and-dart borders, was choked with trash, dumped furniture, garbage and dead things. There had been a fig tree, but the Belidiye- the local government- lopped it down, the dead branches rotting on the edge of the track leading up over the marble pediments up into the ruin.

We would clamber from the gate over the pediment and up through the weeds along the ridge of masonry, and suddenly be looking down into exposed rooms and arched portals and mystery.Up top was a toothed ridge over the big arch, one lone standing pillar marking the airspace of an entire colonnade. We’d jump down past more shoots of fig saplings and over a massive pile of potsherds and into what had been a sort of hall, open to the sky, with the remnants of walls and arched doors and windows all around. The ground surface was rubble and weeds, punctuated with the remains of campfires. Once I saw a carved piece of alabaster, burned on top and littered with mussel shells. Once we found an empty purse, still where it was tossed long after the thief had run into the ruins. Once we walked in to see somebody huffing fumes out of a sack, and left in a hurry. More often, friendly bums would show up to watch out for us. Then

last spring, one guy, Mehmet, set up his mattress on the marble fragments right under the huge arch, keeping dogs in the ruins and stringing his laundry up on the top, a fine sight for tourists. “I may be poor,” he said, “but I live in a palace.”Mehmet was friendly but his dogs were not. They prevented my forays into the Palace, and interfered with my walking through it to climb through a hole in the wall to the railroad bed. I would go down there with my friend CJ and huge plastic bags and pick up the trash, something the railroad only did about every three months, despite the fact that every housewife in the houses overlooking the railroad would throw plastic bags of trash down into the train bed every single day. We had a fine time cleaning it up. People thought we were crazy. Having braved Mehmet’s dogs to climb into the railroad, we would not be able to alert Mehmet before getting bitten on the way back through the wall, so we had to leave our huge bags of collected trash under the bridge– where the railroad could find it– and walk the rails until we came to an exit and boost and pull each other out. After CJ went home, I did it alone but couldn’t get myself out. I walked forever past bewildered scarved housewives and screaming children, under the arc of a hurled garbage bag flying out of a window, at last coming to a low railroad bridge over one of the innumerable streets through the city wall. There I was able to hail some local guys who produced a ladder and a cup of tea. I pantomimed trash pick-up and we went through my sketchbook and several more cups of tea and that was a good Saturday. One reason I live here is that you never know what’s waiting outside the door. It’s also the reason I think about leaving here every so often, when the thing outside is a butchered tree or some other atrocity rather than a pleasant adventure with friendly working stiffs remind me of my dad, only in Turkish.

I dreaded renovation since the prevalent attitude is to sandblast everything into looking like bad CGI, destroying the integrity of the antiquity in the process. Well-intentioned idiots, mostly liberal Americans married to Turks and living far from the Old City, contribute to this by calling for trash cleanup, little dreaming what the powers that be consider “cleaning:” sandblasting the entire surface, replacing the third-to-twelfth-century surface bricks, sharpening every corner and re-grouting with a hideous pink compound probably made by grinding the original bricks into dust and mixing it with cement. Experts are available from all over the world and financed by UNESCO, yet things continue to be badly restored. Kucuk Ayasofya Camii (Mosque), built onto the remnants of the Church of Sergio & Bacchus 1500 years ago, was stripped and re-surfaced. The carved capitals on the interior columns, which were so old as to appear melted, were actually re-cut and sharpened by workmen far less talented than the original craftsmen. The Byzantine Christian mosaics were covered with cement, impossible to remove, which infuriated educated Turks powerless to stop it. The magnificent Triple Gate of Constantinople, out at the city walls leading to the rest of Europe, was one of the most important sites here, and the restoration destroyed it to the point where, I am told, UNESCO threatened to revoke Istanbul’s World Heritage Site status if it wasn’t stopped. Too late to save the Gate or the mosque, but perhaps they listened with the Palace.

Surface age can be removed in a day, but only God, in the form of time and all its effects, can make something old. New-looking antiquities are all over Europe. Fake antiquities are the province of Disneyland and the movies, but no amount of money can create something old that looks old. That’s why people like me cross oceans and continents to see it. When they fence off your favorite ruin, it’s an emotional challenge, a real crapshoot, because while it might get wrecked, there is hope. There is intelligent restoration going on in Turkey. There’s the massive ongoing dig at Aphrodisias, arguably the best in the world. There’s the work being done at Çatal Hoyuk and cities even older. There are individuals and financial institutions funding digs and beautiful restorations all over the country, there are magazines and preservation societies and museums fighting to preserve without destroying. So I watch, and I pray.

Last week men in yellow hardhats swarmed all over the Palace and hauled out the burned mattresses, the mounds of trash and garbage choking the ruins. They fenced it off, presumably after re-locating Mehmet and the denizens of all those dark doorways leading under the railroad. Last year I tried to get the History Channel interested in exploring the Palace, but one of their people is Turkish, and he flatly refused to go anywhere near it. Addicts and murderers, ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties, he said, or so I gathered. I admit that looking into the blackened, trash-strewn foundations of Western Civilization can be pretty damned daunting, but I was dying to explore. Now I think that the mysteries in the dark should stay there. They give a resonance to what’s happening on the surface.

Back to my view: the top of the stand of arches was covered in bushes, grasses and vines raining down over the portals, the colors marking the seasons. Very romantic, but the growth does tend to turn the bricks into dirt. Now the top is exposed, a bony, crusted ridge of brickwork like a dragon spine lying below the expanse of the Marmara. It’s absolutely magnificent, and just for the moment it is too wet for the restoration to proceed. Meanwhile, my rent is going up, so I may leave this place. I don’t care to watch what they may do to this precious irreplaceable thing in the name of improvement. I ask for guidance and tend to my drawing. I look out at the sea and the lovely lorn bones of the Boukoleon and love it as much as I can, while I can. I look out at the sea and try to see my ship coming in.

Last night I was so scared with all this change, I said to an old friend, a writer, Please tell me it will all be all right. “You’re living on the heroic plane,” he said, “God looks after heroes.” I’ll say: God sent me a hero like that.

Trici Venola, Istanbul, Christmastime 2009

Art from top: Sea Haven Morning, The Inheritors, Boukoleon Arcade, Brokedown Palace, The Sea Gate, Ahmet Dal: Eager Student, Boukoleon Window, The Little Door, Boukoleon Manzara OneShot, Dog In the Ruins ©2008, 2005, 2009 by Trici Venola.