Potamida, Ancient Cretan Village

Regional vases at the Archaeological Museum of KissamosA Potamida vase (lower left) on display at the Archaeological Museum of Kissamos

From as early as the seventh century BC, craftsmen of a river bank settlement took white clay from nearby hills to make pottery. The style, unique to the settlement, produced a simple, squat vase with sturdy handles. An example is held at the Archaeological Museum of Kissamos, along with similar wares from other regional towns.

Today, a village named Potamida, after the Greek word potam for “river,” straddles the Rema, a seasonal stream. A disused footbridge crosses the watercourse amid a jungle of bamboo, grapevines, and fig trees just below the modern bridge.

The clay hills, called Komolithi, sit above the village. Similar white clay can be seen in a thick, geologic layer all along Crete’s north coast. At Komolithi, embedded fossils of microscopic sea creatures indicate it was once a seabed. Only in two places, here and near Sitia in eastern Crete, has erosion produced such magnificent forms in the friable rock. The slender buttes reach up as high as 20 meters beneath shrubby caps.

White Hills of KomolithiKomolithi

The site has become a tourist attraction, though little visited. Perhaps this is best. Wind and rain will wear it away soon enough.

Another local attraction is the watermill, which is marked with a sign from the road. The mill, reconstructed in 2013, lies down a narrow path beside the home of Marika, who holds the key, should it be locked.

A chimney-type watermillWatermill

Marika is an ancient woman, stooped by age so low to the ground one must bend at the waist to shake her hand. When you do, she’ll peer up and flash a wide grin. Then she’ll treat you like an old friend, chattering in Greek. Whether you speak the language is of no consequence whatsoever. You’ll understand that Marika wants you to sit down and enjoy homemade cakes while she retrieves the iron key.

The door to the watermill should be closed, though it’s rarely locked. Inside, wall displays explain its workings. In addition to the olives that have taken over since World War II, Cretan farmers harvested crops of wheat and corn from ancient times. The grains were ground at windmills and watermills scattered around the island.

This one is a “chimney” watermill. A narrow canal, called a leat, diverts water from the stream higher up the valley. The leat is gently sloped to bring water to a point above the mill. The water then falls down a near-vertical shaft, like a chimney, and shoots out a nozzle two meters (6 feet) below the mill house. The spurting water turns a horizontal wheel. Its axle turns the millstone above.

Saint Peraskevi's ChurchSaint Peraskevi’s Chuch, Potamida; Peraskevi is the patron saint of eyes

Saint Peraskevi’s Church of Potamida is not so much an attraction as it is a curiosity. Not so much the church as its bell tower, which has a clock on each of its four faces, all showing different times, none correct. Not so much the tower as its bell that rings the hour every hour… at precisely eight minutes past. In Crete, even the Greek Orthodox Church is on island time.

Opposite the church is a ruin. Carved lintels still hold open windows in stone-block walls. The interior is filled with similar stones, fallen from ceilings and upper floors. Medieval plaster clings in a haphazard pattern. Central arches resist decay. Nothing remains to hint at a construction date, much less to tell us when the wooden door, now dust, was last closed.

Venetian manor house  secret schoolVenetian manor house, secret school

During the Ottoman occupation (1669-1898), Christians were forbidden to school their children as they were used. The now-ruined building, which had been a Venetian manor house, was used as a secret school.

Door with murder holeFacade, fortified palace

Atop a western hill overlooking the village, the Ottoman pasha’s fortified palace crumbles, year by year, into a pile of stones, held together by the roots of fig trees and caper plants that choke the interior. It, like the secret school, would have been in use until 120 years ago.

An archwayInside the ruins, an archway yet stands

Just outside the village is the home of two fine folk, David and Juliet, an English couple, who settled in Crete 20 years ago and built a house from the ruins of The Old Olive Mill. They teach yoga and invite friends and artists to stay in extra rooms. This summer they host yours truly as writer in residence.

800-year old olive treeIn front of The Old Olive Mill, an 800-year old olive tree still bears fruit and serves as support for a climbing trumpet vine


A Dark Hole on Zovigli Hilltop

“In one corner, a two-foot square opening in the floor captures one’s attention. Four rusty rungs set into the stone lead down a few feet. Below that, only a flat rock floats in cool darkness.”—from Exploring Zovigli

Ruin atop Zovigli

A dark, square hole in the floor of a ruin on a hill piqued my curiosity. The first time here, I was ill equipped and alone. So, with intrepid friends, Helen and Neil, I returned a month later to Zovigli hilltop at Akrotiri Spada. Neil brought rope and a pair of sneakers almost large enough for my feet. I carried the sneakers, tied together over a shoulder. We hiked to the summit along a faint, switchback trail on Zovigli’s east flank.

While Helen and Neil took in the magnificent view, I looped the rope around the first rusty rung and pulled with my weight to make sure the rung would hold. It did. Sneaker shod, armed with a small flashlight, and with two safety observers now present, I lowered myself down, testing each rung as I went.

Savety observers

Helen and Neil survey the descent

It’s a unique sensation: feeling your way down in darkness, toes reaching for the next hold, exposed to any looming danger. Perhaps decades had passed since anyone had been down here. What did they leave? What happened since? What waits in the dark?

The most dangerous thing I could imagine was a wild animal, recently fallen in the hole. A trapped badger in close quarters, scared and desperate, might shred my legs and rip off a sneaker before I could scramble out of reach.

The scariest thing I could imagine was a skeleton. Human or otherwise, the moment light catches curved bones and empty sockets would be a heart-stopper.

Rough hewn rock

Rough hewn rock walls

Ten feet down, the hole opened up into a small space only a few feet deep. Large rocks covered the bottom in an uneven mound. With outstretched arms, I could almost touch the rough hewn walls on opposing sides. I guessed it to be a bomb shelter.

 

There were no badgers, no skeletons—nothing of interest whatsoever. To be sure, I displaced a few rocks, exposing black, damp dirt in two separate places, finding only spiders and snails.

“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.”—Dr. Linus Pauling

Emerging


Exploring Zovigli

“When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”—Walt Disney

Akrotiri Spada is the northernmost point of Crete and the very end of Rodopou Penninsula. It’s marked by Zovigli, a conical hill that rises 70 meters above the surrounding terrain, which is 300 meters above the sea. Evenly spaced around the northern half of Zovigli’s base, oval shadows belie cave openings, the objective of our present expedition.

Zovilgli hilltop at Akrotiri Spada
Zovigli hilltop (upper right), elevation 370 meters

Lightly clothed against unseasonal April heat, wearing a hat and sunscreen against the rays, I carried in pockets a camera, a small flashlight, a pocket knife, and the dumbphone. A one-hour drive along a rough, gravel road took me to the start point, a lone farmhouse near the end of Rodopou.

Peninsulas Gramvousa (left) and Rodopou define Kissamos Bay

Peninsulas Gramvousa (left) and Rodopou define Kissamos Bay

Akrotiri Spada is named after its shape on a map. In Latin characters, the Modern Greek spelling is Spatha, which means “broad blade” or “sword,” and akrotiri means “cape.” Exploring is more fun in a place called Sword Cape.

A dirt track, impassable by car, leads two kilometers to the peninsula’s point. There, the hill is surrounded by several structures, including an empty concrete building, the remains of two stone-built towers, and a goat pen, the inhabitants of which roam free across the rocky landscape. The concrete building is certainly a wartime construction, built by German soldiers during the WWII occupation of Crete. The two round towers, both on the cliff’s edge overlooking the sea, were used by the Germans, but they may have been built earlier, possibly by the Venetians.

Ruined stone tower overlooking the Sea of Crete

Looking west from the point of Akrotiri Spada, a ruined stone tower overlooks the Sea of Crete; beyond is the point of Gramvousa Peninsula

Thorny cushion

A shrub called thorny cushion attacks exposed flesh below the knee

On approach to the hill, I surprised a goat kid, who put out a call to its mother. The nanny, on the hillside some distance away, returned the call and started down, while their herd-mates expressed displeasure at the unexpected visit. So, to a chorus of bleating goats, I picked my way over uneven terrain, up the hill toward a shadowy opening, avoiding sharp stones, holes, and thorny-cushion shrubs.

Beyond the cave openings are tunnels, blasted out of the stone hill by the Germans. The tunnels extend up to 50 feet straight into the hill. Inside, green moss grows in thin film on the walls near the entrances; a layer of goat droppings covers the floors. Bore holes in the rear of each tunnel give away the digging method: drill a hole a couple feet deep and the diameter of a dynamite stick, insert explosives, stand back and hold your ears, then clear out the rubble.

In front of the tunnels are gun emplacements and various structures I guessed were once headquarters and mess hall. Each emplacement is connected to the next by a man-height trench, also blasted out of solid rock.

Gun emplacement at 3

Gun emplacement at 3., tunnel behind

In all, I counted five tunnels. The trench leading east from the easternmost tunnel, which I refer to as the first or 1., leads to a large hole. Its purpose I could not guess.

In the opposite direction from the first tunnel, the trench leads to a rock slide. Pacing my steps, I counted—roughly, due to difficult footing—forty to fifty paces between each of the other tunnels. However, moving west from the first through the rock slide to the next tunnel, I measured twice the distance. Therefore, I presume the rock slide must cover another tunnel or some such emplacement.

Field sketch

Field sketch showing emplacements around Zovigli’s base

Emplacements from east to west:

0. Hole, trench begins
1. Gun emplacement and tunnel
2. Rock slide (buried emplacement?)
3. Gun emplacement and tunnel
4. Headquarters, tunnels on either side
5. Mess hall and forked tunnel
6. Depot, trench ends, road begins

What I call the “depot” (6.) is the foundation of a small rectangular building. An old track, now grassed over, starts there and goes a hundred feet or so before becoming lost in stones and thorny cushions.

Looking up the west face, it didn’t seem so very far to the top. I was ill equipped for climbing, shod in flat sandals. However, I knew from earlier satellite reconnaissance there was a rectangular structure up there, and this might be my only chance to explore it. So, I screwed on my hat, stuck the Arizonas to my feet, and scrambled to the top.

From Zovigli hilltop

From Zovigli hilltop, 370 meters above, a tour boat rounds the cape

I was alone, but there were witnesses. I reached the pinnacle and looked down. Passengers aboard a tour boat, likely on its way back from the remote beach at Diktynna, must have been saying, “Look, there’s a guy climbing up there!” and “Oh my God, he must be crazy.” I posed for photos.

The rectangular structure may be another wartime construction. Two by three paces in area, five feet high, the four stone block walls and a similar floor are in better shape than the ruins below. In one corner, a two-foot square opening in the floor captures one’s attention. Four rusty rungs set into the stone lead down a few feet. Below that, only a flat rock floats in cool darkness.

Stone block ruins atop Zovigli

Stone block ruins atop Zovigli from above

A debate raged in my head. There was much swearing. I really wanted to see what was down there. I could have descended the rungs and hung a leg down to test the distance to the rock, but if I so much as lost a sandal in that hole, the return hike would be grueling. And much worse than that was well within the realm of possibility. After more minutes than sanity should have allowed, prudence won out.

On the highest rock, there is a cement column, which serves as a geological marker, beside a cairn. The latter indicates the place has been visited by at least a score of other climbers since the Germans left. I found a suitable example to add to its height.

Up there, it was just me and the wind, with the rocks and the sea and the whole world below.

Tell me again, Jonathan Livingston, what is the perfect speed…?

A Bonelli’s eagle

A Bonelli’s eagle, common in Crete


The Hadrianic Road to Diktynna

P1000594

“Let me out here, Richard. Just around the next bend, the valley opens up. You’ll see an expansive view of the end of the peninsula. Stop there. You and Jean can take some pictures, and I’ll be along in two minutes.”

I was taking friends to Diktynna*, in the Menies Valley on the east coast of Rodopou Peninsula, Crete. I hopped out of the car at the spot I’d located earlier on a satellite image. On the screen, a blurry line ran down a ravine along side the gravel road that leads up the peninsula. I was doubtful, but I had to see what it looked like on the ground.

Two steps took me to the border between road and ravine. I saw it in an instant. I turned back toward the car and motioned Richard to halt. He and Jean dismounted to examine the discovery:

A few dozen meters of a road built by the Roman emperor Hadrian in the second century. 

P1000595

* For more information about Diktynna and the temple ruins there, I recommend this article, The Hadrianic Temple of Diktynna in Crete, by Carole Raddato on her blog Following Hadrian.


Retreat in Crete

“Hey Neil, I’m looking for a quiet place, beautiful surroundings, warm, with lots of sunshine to write for a couple weeks. Do you know of any place like that there in Crete?”

“My neighbors are looking for someone to cat-sit.”

I threw some T-shirts and the Arizonas in a bag. Brought the laptop connection to the Machine, as well. Staying at the home of new friends David and Juliet, a lovely English couple, hospitable, free spirits, big hearts, and 20-year residents of the Kissamos region on the Isle of Myth.

Between furry feline feedings, I visit old friends on the island, explore new-to-me ruins, and translate my recent French title to English.

The photo is from a hill above Potamida, showing the mountains around Topolia Gorge.

View of Topolia Gorge


Etika Mondo’s Ecological Tree House Village

The Cévennes
The Cévennes

Last week I ventured to the Cévennes in southern France to visit Boris Aubligine and learn about an ambitious project. Boris recently acquired a farm house on six hectares (15 acres) of forest land. During my stay, he shared with me his vision for the place:

Imagine a cabin, designed to minimize energy consumption and made with local lumber, cut using renewable energy. Put the cabin on wooden pillars in a forest. Now imagine a whole village of these cabins, and the inhabitants cultivate the surrounding land for their daily needs.

In-the-trees house
In-the-trees house prototype

Respecting their ecosystem, the trees are left alone. The “tree houses” are built on wooden pillars.

The Etika Mondo eco-site will be a self-sufficient, tree house village, integrated into the local ecology. To make a dream come true, first think of it as only an ambitious project.

On the web: Etika Mondo
Facebook: @etikamondo

“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.” — Christopher Reeve

A fantastic view
View from the prototype tree house

Mouchel and Langlois, Cherbourg Tutors

Bon Dumoucel dit Mouchel
Self-portrait, Bon Dumoucel “dit” Mouchel

“You don’t mean to tell me that this young man made those drawings by himself!” said Mouchel.

The elder Millet defended his affirmation, saying he watched his son draw them. He had brought Jean-François to see this Cherbourg artist who was also a tutor. They showed him two drawings the boy had made, hoping Mouchel would take him on as pupil.

The younger Millet insisted on his sole authorship, and Mouchel was eventually convinced.

“Well, then,” he said to the father, “all I can say is, you will be damned for having kept him so long at the plough, for your boy has the making of a great painter in him.” (Cartwright 32)

Thus, Jean-François Millet went to study painting in Cherbourg. Of his first tutors, history records little. Alfred Sensier devotes a few pages to these two characters in his Millet biography. Those pages, including footnotes added by the editor Paul Mantz, may well have saved the names of Bon Dumoucel, called “Mouchel,” and Lucien-Théophile Langlois from history’s oubliette. Though my research is far from exhaustive, Sensier’s work is the source of every other reference to them I’ve so far found.

Poissonnerie de la Grande-Rue à Cherbourg - Mouchel
Poissonnerie de la Grande-Rue de Cherbourg, Mouchel, 1836; currently at the Thomas Henry Museum

Sensier describes Mouchel as a curious character. A self-taught artist, he followed the neoclassical School of Jacques-Louis David. He began many large canvases but didn’t always finish them. On request of local clergy, he painted alter-pieces, which he then donated to the church.

Mouchel taught at his home-studio in a small valley on the edge of town, where he lived with his wife. He worked a garden beside a mill and had a pet pig whose language he understood and could speak. Sensier, less bold, writes, “pretended to understand” (emphasis mine).

As Millet’s tutor, he recognized genius in the young man and gave him free rein: “Draw what you like; choose anything of mine that you like to copy; follow your own inclination, and above all go to the Museum.” (Cartwright 33)

It was at the Thomas Henry Museum where a messenger found Jean-François to inform him of his father’s illness.

Months later, Millet returned to Cherbourg under another tutor. Théophile Langlois de Chévreville was a trained artist, student of Antoine-Jean Gros, also neoclassical. During his own studies, Langlois had traveled to Greece and Italy, a fact he made sure everyone knew. He was considered as Cherbourg’s best painter. Some years later, he would become a drawing professor at the town college.

Like Mouchel, seeing that he didn’t have much to teach the young man, Langlois gave his student much the same treatment as his predecessor. “Go to the Museum,” was a common refrain.

After less than a year, Langlois penned a letter to the Cherbourg town council to make Millet’s case. In the letter, he suggested that the town provide the promising artist with a scholarship to study in Paris. So confident was he in Millet’s talent, he dared to predict the future:

“Allow me, gentlemen, for once, to lift the veil of the future, and to promise you a place in the memory of mankind, if you help in this manner to endow our country with another great man.”

In January of 1837 with a Cherbourg scholarship of 600 francs, Jean-François Millet bid farewell to his mother and grandmother at Gruchy and rode by carriage to Paris.


Quoted dialog from Jean-François Millet, His Life and Letters by Julia Cartwright (London: Swan Sonnenshein & Co., 1896).

Biographical information from La vie et l’oeuvre de Jean-François Millet by Alfred Sensier (Paris: A. Quantin, 1881).


Thomas Henry Museum

Twenty year-old Jean-François Millet went to study painting in Cherbourg, where some 70 years previously Thomas Henry was born.

Though educated in commerce, Henry had a taste for art. In his early career he went to Saint-Domingue, a lucrative French colony on the island of Hispaniola. He was a merchant there until a successful slave revolt, now known as the Haitian Revolution, put an end to the colony and created the Empire of Haiti in 1804.

The Conversion of Saint Augustin
The Conversion of Saint Augustin by Fra Angelico, ca. 1430; donated to the town of Cherbourg by Thomas Henry, 1835

Having proved himself in business, back in France Henry went to Paris and became a painting restorer, then an accomplished artist as well as a successful art dealer. From this time onward he collected paintings and sculptures from the major movements in Western European art of the previous four centuries. He became a celebrated connoisseur, his opinion of a work’s provenance and of its quality being highly regarded.

By 1831, he had lost both sons and sensed his own life’s end. He began donating—anonymously—portions of his collection to his native town.

La Justice
La Justice, original by Pierre Subleyras, ca. 1740 (left); copy by Jean-François Millet, 1837

After receiving a significant number of these artworks, the Cherbourg town council decided to open a museum. An investigation revealed the donor’s name, and the Musée Thomas Henry opened its doors in 1835. Among its first visitors was Jean-François Millet, who came to copy the works of the masters as part of his studies.

Petit génie de la peinture
Petit génie de la peinture (Little genius of painting), Jean-François Millet ca. 1842; part of the Ono donation, as was Millet’s Justice above

A later donation, that of Millet’s nephew Paul Ono in 1915, would add to the museum’s collection a large number of Millet’s early paintings. Among them were many of the student artist’s copies, which museum visitors can see beside the original.

Today, the Thomas Henry Museum holds the third largest Millet collection in the world.


Young J. F. Millet, Road to Success

Maison où est né Millet
House where Millet was born.
(Pastel from the collection of Mr. Feuardent father.)
Sensier 3

That the young Millet grew up bigger than the other kids his age and strong and curious, that his father was a farmer like his grandfather, that he was the oldest son of eight children and so was obliged to become a farmer as well, that he enjoyed the work and didn’t regret this duty, that he learned Latin and read the Bible and the Confessions of Saint Augustin in that language, that he loved to draw and had a natural talent for it—all this has little bearing on the legend which would be born nearer the end of his life than its beginning. 

Gruchy
Apart from cars on paved roads and a rooftop antenna, modern day Gruchy appears much the same as in the early nineteenth century

However, within the summary of the painter’s youth are two separate lessons concerning success: How much counts the encouragement of our loved ones, and how narrow is the window of opportunity.

At eighteen, Jean-François talked with his father about his desire to become an artist. His father said:

“My poor François, I see thou art troubled by the idea. I should gladly have sent you to have the trade of painting taught you, which they say is so fine, but you are the oldest boy, and I could not spare you; now that your brothers are older, I do not wish to prevent you from learning that which you are so anxious to know.” (Sensier 40)

Millet’s birthplace
Inside the Millet home now a museum

So with his father’s encouragement, he went to Cherbourg to study painting. But only two months later the father was dying of a sudden illness. The son returned to Gruchy to sit at the deathbed.

Although the short time in Cherbourg had lit the passion within him, after his father’s death, Jean-François succumbed to his sense of family duty and stayed to run the farm. It was only by his grandmother’s insistence that he returned to his destiny:

“My François, you must accept the will of God; your father, my Jean-Louis, said you should be a painter; obey him, and go back to Cherbourg.” (Sensier 42)

How much counts the encouragement of loved ones toward our success! How narrow the window of opportunity!

 


This is the latest episode in A Pilgrimage to Barbizon. Follow this link to catch up on previous episodes (listed in chronological order). On Wednesday we’ll follow the fledgling painter to Cherbourg. 

Quoted dialog from Jean-François Millet, Peasant and Painter. Alfred Sensier, Helena de Kay translator. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1881.

Image “House where Millet was born” from Sensier’s original work, La vie et l’oeuvre de J.-F. Millet. Paris: A. Quantin, 1881.

 

The House by the Well at Gruchy
The House by the Well at Gruchy,
painting by Jean-François Millet, 1864