Sunday, July 31

(N)ever Changing Greece: Paros

I just returned from my 21st visit to Greece. It never gets old, it never gets boring. And of course it has changed. A lot. "It's not like it used to be," I often hear. No, nothing is. But for those who have not yet been - you have no previous memories for comparison. And for those who have been - well, it's still a beautiful, sun drenched, aqua-sea and marbled landscape. Despite fiscal austerity plans, demonstrations and strikes, millions still pour into this tiny country yearly for the experience. (The tourist bureau says it's more that 15 Million!! Do try to avoid Greece in July and August!)

Actually, I think the Greeks have been participating in demonstrations and strikes ever since they first created 'Democracy'. The craftsmen probably weren't happy with their work hours  when Pericles planned the building of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in 447BC, and told him so with work stoppages. It's just what Greeks do when upset with their government.  

Each year, I usually pick a few islands to spend my time on; painting on each for a few weeks then moving on when I get restless. This time I spent 5 weeks just on Paros. I rented a small house right in the Old Town of Paroikia. My adventures were reduced to fixing blown fuses and minimizing the effects of stray cats and flies. But still, it was wonderful. And I got a lot of painting done, which is always my focus and point of view when I'm in Greece. And my excuse for coming back again and again.

Paintings from Paros by Amy Stark
My friend Anna had lived on this island in the 1970's. She wrote to me while I was there: "So sweet to imagine you in a house on Paros 40 years later. I turned 20 there during the junta, and there was only sometime power in the town, none at my place, almost no cars (the police had one), the Eli [ie: the ferry boat] came in 2x a week, we took things on baskets down to the baker to cook after the bread was out."

Now there are cruise-ship-sized ferry boats and truck-carrying catamarans. (The ferry I took from Piraeus had two escalators to get to the main deck. And when I was exploring, I noticed the elevator said I was on the 7th level!) Cars abound, as do motor bikes. Buses take you all over the island, helpful in finding the right beach experience. The bakeries serve croissants along with spanakopita. An Iced Cappuccino is as available as the Greek's Nescafe version: a frappe. And you can read newspapers in many languages. And on your iPod Touch thanks to Wi-fi. 

But some things don't change: the great food and drink; the music; a photograph calling out to be taken around every corner; sunsets shimmering on the Mediterranean . . .

. . . the strikes . . . 
. . . and the power still goes out.

Wednesday, March 2

Megisti Kastelorizo

Kastelorizo Harbor and Mosque
by Amy Stark

I'm sitting on the long balcony at "the Red House" where I rented a room. It overlooks the compact harbor town of Kastelorizo, a tiny Greek island tucked into the Turkish coast. When something breaks, when parts or supplies are running low, the locals are supposed to get their needs fulfilled by Greeks, in Greece. But the closest Greek neighbor is Rhodes, a 6 hour boat ride away. In reality, it's so much easier to just pop next door to the Turkish town of Kaş. As a result, this island has a much different relationship with Turkey than the rest of Greece, although somewhat clandestinely. In the harbor opposite from where I sit is the island's former Ottoman mosque which dates from the second half of the 18th century, and which has now been restored and re-opened as a museum. That doesn't happen too often in Greece.

Kastelorizo Harbor by Amy Stark
 I worked on this painting many days. My last day on the island I went out to finish the boat. The fisherman, when he came in early that morning, had tied it up parallel to the dock instead of perpendicular. Wrong! A local guy brought me to the fisherman's house. I definitely had interrupted either his lunch or his nap, but I showed him my painting and gathering my best Greek sentences together, asked him to please move his boat so I could finish the painting! 
And he did!

The ancient, and official, name of this island is Megistimeaning "Biggest" or "Greatest", though as I said, it is tiny. But for such a small place, I was amazed, there was always some drama going on, things are always happening. Perched on my balcony, I keep thinking: This is Theatre! I'm watching a non-ending performance. I've been on larger islands that were much more dull and sleepy. Here, boats always wandered in and out (especially high-end sailboats touring the coastline), but one day a flotilla appeared! Two large open boats, masts unfurled, filled with people. Packed with people. They hung onto everything that was hang-onto-able, looking as if they'd easily fall into the sea. This was definitely NOT a tour boat. They landed, came ashore and spread out. A few hours later they reboarded and left. I thought "every restaurant will be wiped out", as I headed into town to see if there was anything left to eat. But as Yianni explained to me, "they're from Turkey. They don't come to eat! They come over to buy tea and alcohol to take home!" And evidently, it occurs quite regularly.

The original Red Castle of the island name no longer exists. First the crusades, then WWII bombs took care of that. A modern one is perched in its place on the cliff opposite me, also overlooking the harbor.  My "home", the Red House, as the owner aptly calls it, was the Italian headquarters when wartime Italy occupied the island. I'm sure the plumbing was equally as precarious then.

This place has a very sad history, as do so many of the Greek islands. First it was Byzantine, then Egyptian, then ruled by Naples, the Ottomans, Venetians, Ottomans again, French, Italians, Ottomans again, and finally assigned to Greece with the Paris Peace Treaties in 1947. But during WWII, when the British occupied the island, they thought it prudent to evacuate all the islanders. Many had already emigrated to Australia. The remaining were removed to Cyprus (except for 1 very elderly man I met at dinner one night - he was the only one who had stayed!). Afterwards, their homes were burned in a great fire. Local lore has it that the British, after evacuating the inhabitants, set the houses on fire to prevent repatriation. Later, when it was finally safe to come home, 500 islanders were loaded onto an aging ship. Within sight of their island, the ship caught fire and sank. Today, many homes have been rebuilt, but burnt out houses are still here, bringing past to present. There are also empty plots of land with names sign-posted, like cemetery tombstones, marking a family home, should anyone come back to claim it. (As of my visit, they still resent the British, and are still waiting for reparations. As a result, the British tourists are the only ones they charge for "visas" to shuttle them across to Turkey.)

There are now about 200 inhabitants who have come "home" from Australia. Thick Aussie accents can be heard as you eat wonderful Greek food, in the Little Sydney taverna. And there is always something going on.

One last note: The wonderful Italian anti-war, Oscar-winning movie "Mediterraneo" was filmed on this island. They also thought it was a great location for drama! Tiny island. Megisti heart.

Saturday, January 15

Oh Porto!

Can you identify a city whose name, location and most famous exported product is all the same word? Hint:

Located along the Douro river estuary in northern Portugal, Porto is one of the oldest European centers, and registered as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. Its settlement dates back several centuries, when it was an outpost of the Roman Empire. Its Latin name, Portus Cale, has been referred to as the origin for the name "Portugal". When speaking in Portuguese, the city name uses a definite article: "o" Porto (the port). Consequently, its English name evolved from a misinterpretation of the oral pronunciation and is often referred to as "Oporto".

Paul & I have spent some time exploring this wonderful, very real city. It has walls of tiled murals, great art and architecture (Art Nouveau!), fine restaurants and tiny tascas (small neighborhood eatery), cafes on almost every corner, great coffee and pastelarias for your sweet tooth. (Here's the shameless plug: we're bringing a group here this Fall! Join us! Click on Art & Culture Tours icon in the left column of this blog.)

Traditional flat-bottom boats: barcos rabelos
We took the funicular from the upper city down to the river, and walked across the bridge that looks like the Eiffel Tower on its side. Good reason. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1843. It crosses the Douro River and bring you to the poetic sounding locale of Vila Nova de Gaia.

Now we get to the good part: Port wine. This is where it all happens. As Champagne is to France, thus Port to Portugal! And Vila Nova de Gaia is where it all happens. Produced up river, in the Douro Valley, the wine makes its way here (they used to use barcos rabelos, sadly they now truck it in). All the famous port companies (ie: Taylor, Sandeman, Calem, Ferreira) have their own lodges: caves built into the hillside where they age their products in barrels. There are a multitude of lodge tours you can take that include tastings and explanations on how port wine is made and stored.

We went to Ferreira, and tried 3 different ports: Ruby (aged 3 years in large vats - sweet and young), Tawny (dry but slightly sweet, aged 4 years in small casks), and a Don Antonio Reserve (!), aged 6-8 years in small barrels. Usually, a Tawny is the nicest for me. But I must say - that Reserve was delicious and worth every euro!

One warning: Port wine possesses a higher alcohol content than most other wines.

Ah Porto!

Saturday, September 11

Night at the Alhambra

I know it sounds like a title for a bad horror movie, but it will be quite the opposite. I hope. One never knows what will happen when one has made the best of plans, and emailed people in multiple languages. My Mom turns 85 in October ("pu pu pu" - said with a slight spitting action - so the gods don't notice. Or in Greek it's "po po po").

And she is going to spend the night of her birthday sleeping inside the walls of the Alhambra!

Quite a bit older than my Mom (but not more beautiful), the Alhambra is a palace, garden and fortress complex built by the Moors. The site was first mentioned in the 9th century, with the royal residence added during the mid 14th century by the Moorish rulers of the city of Granada. They held on to power for about 150 more years, until the Reconquista by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492. 


For nearly three months, in the 1800's, Washington Irving lived in the palace while gathering material for his Tales of the Alhambra. And now we would, too. Well, not exactly in the Palace. Nor in the "most Expensive Parador in all Spain"- the Parador of Granada, which resides in a fifteenth century convent, also on the grounds. We have rooms at the only other abode up there, the Hotel América Granada. And I was amazed to find it, and to find it affordable. The plan was coming together.

Mom's birthday wish was to go to Spain, and I was up to the challenge of creating this family sojourn for participants who needed varying degrees of comfort. And even though my Mom could probably out-walk us all, I put together all the jigsaw puzzle parts of hotels, transportation, touring  and events, with "conservation of energy" in mind. So what better way to see the Alhambra than to stay there!

A train ride down from Madrid, we will arrive on that hilltop in time to see the art exhibit Matisse and the Alhambra (1910–2010). Serendipitously, it will have just opened in the Carlos V palace. Birthday dinner that night will be at our neighbor, the afore-mentioned "most Expensive Parador in all Spain". If not sleep, we can at least eat there. And at night, when the gates are closed to the tourist hoards, we can walk the whole area inside the walls, enjoying the illuminated view of the palace and city beneath us. Next day, I'll pick up our tickets and we'll go inside, with our own personal tour guide. Afterwards, the trip continues into Andalucia...

Well, at least, that's the plan.
Shhhhhh...don't tell Mom the details....

ADDED November 1st: It worked! All the months of planning delivered a great problem-free trip and perfect weather. That last bit was quite a feat. As you know (March blog), I don't mess with the weather gods.
I'm already preparing for the next travel adventure...

Thursday, August 5

Provincetown, Massachusetts

When we arrived, the Film Festival had just ended. When we left, the Portuguese Festival was just beginning. But while we were there, it was just perfect. Aside from the 90-100° temperatures, and high humidity. The art galleries and Museum were inspiring. The main street, Commercial Street, was mobbed with people. But if you got off it and walked along the wide beach, it was peaceful. Serene. Still. The soft white diffused light of the Cape is so different from the brilliance of the Mediterranean light, or the golden tones of California. I sat on the edge and painted the stillness. The color of the water blended into the sky. Small boats were wedged in the sand one moment, then lifted by the tide in the next. I named the series of boat paintings after that sense of stillness and quiet. Here are 3 of them.

"Stillness 1"                                  "Stillness 2"                                 "Stillness 3"

Thursday, July 15

Picasso at MoMA

I just came back from New York. It was incredibly hot and humid there. We waited for thunderstorms to break the heat spell. It didn't happen. I took refuge in the coolness of the Museum of Modern Art. There was an exhibit called Picasso: Themes and Variations. I've seen a lot of Picasso's work, all around the world, so I wasn't expecting much new. Surprise! This explored Picasso’s creative process through the medium of printmaking. I was wowed by his linoleum block prints, which I could not remember ever seeing. For example:

Man with Ruffled Collar  1963            The Vintagers 1959                         Bacchanal with Acrobat  1959 

Did he suffer from a lull in inspiration (hard to believe) when he turned to the past?  From the late 1940s to the early 1960s he focused on works by the Masters, making them clearly his own creation:

Portrait of a Young Girl, after Cranach the Younger, II

Luncheon on the Grass, After Manet
Picasso was a bullfighting aficionado from his youth and portrayed the bullring at various points in his career. In his Neoclassical period, he devised bullfight scenes that suggest the ballet. In the 1930s, under the influence of Surrealism, Picasso emphasized the violence of the subject. Returning to the bullfighting motif in the late 1950s, he focused on strong colors and decorative elements inherent in the unfolding drama. The one on the left looks like a circus, while you can feel the violence with the one on the right, though both identical images from the same block.

The Bullfight                                          The Picador

Even if you prefer more realism in your art, it's hard to deny this man's creative brilliance.

Wednesday, March 24

Don't Mess with the Weather Gods

It was a normal, beautiful sunny June day in Greece. The clear and incredibly blue sky a constant, the air clear, and very hot. I was on the tiny island of Schinoussa, setting out in the morning with my watercolors to find a fishing boat to paint. And there, on the beach was a perfect specimen. It's so much easier to draw a fishing boat when it is out of the water, instead of constantly bobbing around. Those angles are tough.

When I got to the sky, instead of the solid blue I'd been painting all month, I decided to create some nice puffy clouds. When I was finished, tired and quite happy with my painting, I headed home.

"Beached Blue Boat" watercolor by Amy Stark

As I walked, an odd thing occurred. Slowly clouds started to form and drift across the sky. By the time I arrived back at my room, the wind had picked up and the sky, now filled with clouds, was darkening. "It never rains in the summer", the Greeks always say. But as night came on, I sat on my balcony watching the rain pour down amidst a fantastic lightening show flashing over the island and the sea beyond. I had goosebumps, and not just from the drop in temperature. I felt that I personally had conjured up this rain storm by putting clouds into the clear sky of my painting. And you can't convince me otherwise. 

Monday, February 8

3 Cups of Tea Redux

In 1993, Greg Mortenson barely survived a failed attempt to ascend the infamously dangerous K2 in the Himalayas. He was found near death, and nursed back to health, by the people of an impoverished Pakistani village. When he left them, Mortenson promised to return one day and build them a school. 16 years and 131 schools later, Mortenson has dedicated his life to promote education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. "If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. But if you educate a girl, you educate a community."

This incredible phenomenon has spurred fundraising events around the world to help Greg continue his work. Here in Santa Cruz, an art auction took place online, and culminated Feb. 11, with an event at the Rio Theatre. 

My encaustic painting "1 Lump or 2?"

Sets of teacups, paintings, sculptures, all relating to 3 Cups of Tea were included. This event was able to send $19,223.62 to Greg's Central Asia Institute.

Bravo to all who have been a part of this endeavor!

Saturday, January 16

In The Beginning

Did you know there are 6000 islands and islets in Greece? Only 277 are inhabited, and of those, you can visit about 80. They are clustered into 7 groups, each with its own landscape characteristics and architecture. Even after 20+ years of exploring, I haven't been to them all. Though I am getting close! And those are just the islands. It is an amazingly diverse country.

I spent this November in the Mani. Rugged and rocky, it's on the southern-most outcrop of the Peloponnese (Greek pron.: pelo-PON-nee-sos), which is a hand-shaped peninsula, stretching into the Mediterranean Sea. As if to keep from floating away, it holds onto the mainland by a thumb, crossing the Corinthian canal. 

The Peloponnese. Remember Pelops? The son of Tantalus and father of Atreus. He was killed by his father and served up as food to the gods, but only one shoulder was eaten, and he was restored to life with an ivory shoulder replacing the one that was missing. This was his island ("nissos" in Greek). Only, of course it's not really an island.

The tip of the Mani in the Peloponnese

And if you jumped off the tip, swam south, you'd surface in Africa. Libya to be exact. Susah, to be more exact. Susah, also known as Apollonia - yes, after the Greek god Apollo. Now there's something to think about...

But I digress...the Mani.

Patrick Lee Fermor, Sir Patrick 'Paddy' Michael Leigh Fermor, born in England in 1915, author, scholar and soldier, he played a prominent role behind the lines in the Battle of Crete during World War II. And lived to write about it. But earlier, in 1933, at age 18, he set out to WALK across Europe to Constantinople. And if that wasn't enough, in 1935 he then proceeded to walk throughout Greece, and finally, down into, and across the Mani. I suppose if he was able to deal with the Alps, the Mani wouldn't be so hard. But I was there - and it's rough! But beautiful, especially in November.

Driving over the mountains from Kosmas...

Yes, we drove that road, through rocky landscapes and villages of stone towers.

South to the port of Gytheion (also: Gythio), the most important town of the Mani...

and Octopus (Greek: oktapodi) Capitol of the Peloponnese.

Once out of Gythio, it's rocks and towers again. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, and the Byzantine empire fell, the Maniots were never subdued. Their fierceness, and the towers, helped protect from enemies.


Back to Sir Patrick, who's walking all over this place... years later, after many other adventures, he wrote about the experience. The book is aptly titled: Mani, Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, and is required reading for anyone interested in this area. He is widely regarded as Britain's greatest living travel writer. Yes, living... near the Maniot village of Kardamyli...

After many adventures of our own, climbing back up the west side of that 'finger' of the Mani, we settled in the beach town of Stoupa, blissfully empty in the off-season. Nearby Kalogria was home to another writer with a bit of reknown, Nikos Kazantzakis, who lived and wrote there in 1917 and 1918.

"A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free."

From Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis