What is creativity? It is the act of turning a unique idea into something we can see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. We think of great works of art — paintings, music, dance, and so on. And we sometimes recall famous creative people. However, anyone can be creative in one way or another. While traveling in western Crete, we discovered a good example of this. In the beach town of Kalyves, we turned inland towards the White Mountains (Lefkas Ori). On a hill not far from Kalyves we came upon a whimsical wonderland called Koumos.
The Koumos chapel surprises every visitor with its strange appearance
The chapel is only large enough for a few people at a time
The little chapel contains all that is needed for Sunday church services
Koumos is imagination made real. It all started in 1990, when the wife of Giorgos Khavaledakis suggested that he build a stone table in the garden behind their house. Giorgos thought about the project, and came up with a fanciful way to accomplish it — encrusting the sturdy supports for a stone tabletop with small stones and colorful bits of ceramic.
Antique (but functional) mill with fantasy stone work
This inspired him to attempt other projects, which became an obsession over the next 14 years. He carried selected stones and rocks down from the mountains to create all manner of distinctive buildings and artwork.
Buildings are covered with hand-placed stones and found objects
Stone benches around tree in an open stone tower with decorated walls
Intricate stone mosaics and fantastical sculptures cover the house, taverna, chapel, a small museum and every other building in the complex.
A fortress-like structure across the square from the taverna
Although he was not a trained artist or architect, the creations of Giorgos Khavaledakis are delightful and strangely compelling. In fact, they are similar in some ways to the work of Antoni Gaudi (1852 – 1926), the best known practitioner of Catalan Modernism. Because of his designs, Gaudi’s name was transformed into the word gaudy, meaning extravagantly bright or showy.
Goudi’s famous Sagrada Familia cathedral sometimes appears to be melting
Goudi’s colorful mosaic “El Drac” (dragon) in a public park
Quirky crocodile is one of many Khavaledakis sculptures at Koumos
No one questions the creativity of Gaudi, nor should they question that of Giorgos Khavaledakis — a self-made artist.
Traveling with Cretan friends, we boarded a ferry at the port of Iraklion bound for Karpathos — an island at the eastern corner of the Cretan Sea. After a boring eight-hour voyage, we finally drew near the island. Our impression was of a rugged mountain range thrust up from the sea (which it is), but it is also much more.
Like many ferries that ply the Cretan Sea, the Preveli was quite large
Karpathos is a craggy, sparsely populated island with a unique characteristic: many of its people still live by traditions that others have forgotten in modern times. Some say it is the most truly Greek island in Greece. Our ferry docked at the main town of Pigadia, the only port that can cope with large ships. Actually, there are only two ports on the island — not counting shallow bays where smaller boats anchor.
Wind was the first thing we noticed when we stepped off the ferry. Homer, the famous epic poet, mentioned Karpathos in the Iliad, and called it “the windy island.” This is because the mountains and canyons focus and intensify the Meltemi winds that sweep across the sea during summer. We were told that Karpatians build their houses with doors facing away from the incoming wind.
Pigadia harbor is the only one that can handle large ships
Our island guide (Eleni) was waiting at the dock. She took us to our hotel, where she explained our travel agenda. After settling into our room we went looking for a place to eat supper. Waterfront cafes seemed to be geared towards foreign visitors. As usual, we searched the backstreets for tavernas where local people eat. We found Mike’s Place, where the owner recommended Karpathian sausages — which were unique and delicious.
Our coastal ferry to the port of Diafani was a small, well-kept wooden vessel
The next morning we rose early, had a quick buffet breakfast, and boarded a bus that returned us to the harbor. The Chrysovalantou, a well-maintained wooden ferry was waiting for us at the dock. Eleni stood at the gangplank to explain our voyage to the port of Diafani, and then onward by bus to the mountain village of Olimbos. We learned that our bus driver (also at the dock) was Eleni’s mother. The captain of our ferry was her uncle, and the crew were relatives. Family businesses are common in Greece — and especially on Karpathos.
The trip north to Diafani was educational. When we first arrived on the big ferry, the island appeared to be rocky and desolate. Cruising near the coast, we could see that pine forests covered the mountains and extended down to the edge of sea cliffs. It is much greener than we had thought.
Diafani is a small port town with a few remnants of its agricultural past
Smaller and less touristic than Pigadia, Diafani is proud of its rich cultural traditions. This was obvious in the people — especially women — going about their daily chores in traditional clothing. Karpathians are very conservative about their way of life and their clothing, and even their language — which includes several unique dialects (one of which is similar to the Cretan dialect).
While waiting for our bus, Eleni gave us a quick tour around the harbor area. One of more interesting sights was the “Fountain of Poseidon,” the base of which was ringed by hand-made tiles depicting traditional activities on the island, and tiles on the upper basin portrayed heroes of the past.
The waterfront fountain depicts Karpathian heroes and traditional life style
The tile images depicted the clothing Karpathians wore in the old days. There have been changes in recent years, but many women still wear the traditional dress with colorful embroidered vests and aprons. On a nearby stone wall was a statue of a traditional woman looking out to sea, perhaps awaiting the return of her husband’s fishing boat.
Sculpture of traditional woman looking out to sea (photo by R. Williams)
Eleni’s mother arrived with our bus before we had a chance to see more, so everyone boarded for the ride to the village of Olimbos. It was a short trip — only 5 miles on a new road— but rather unsettling. The road (which has no curbs or guardrails) twisted and turned along the edge of deep gorges. Between crags and cliffs, we passed ancient donkey trails and foot paths, as well as farming plots wherever there was enough soil to produce crops.
The winding mountain road to Olimbos is not for nervous people
Olimbos is perched high on a mountain ridge, and the way up from the sea is steep and strenuous — as a protection against pirate raids. Many Karpathians abandoned coastal settlements between the sixth and 13th centuries, and built more defensible villages in the highlands. (Our own Cretan village was built on a mountainside for the same reason.)
Our bus had to park outside the village, because its steep and narrow lanes were designed for foot traffic and donkeys. With only about 400 residents, the village is a living museum, where traditional clothing, crafts, music and a local dialect are preserved. They used oil lamps and candles until electricity came in 1980. Because it is remote and has few lodgings for outsiders, the village is not clogged with visitors.
Olimbos would seem to be a mountain climber’s ideal town
Above the village, along a mountain ridge, is a string of ancient windmills. There are 75 of them on the windy slopes near Olimbos. Most are ruins now, but four of them are still used to grind wheat and barley into flour for bread. During the hard years of World War II, Olimbos windmills and highland agriculture fed everyone on the island.
The windmills are built along the ridge line, with full exposure to the wind
Walking towards the village, we quickly encountered a smiling woman in traditional clothing with a colorful head scarf. She wanted to interest us in some of her weavings. Many of the traditional folk costumes of Karpathos have been lost, except in the village of Olimbos, where inhabitants cling to the old ways.
The first smiling shopkeeper we met in the village (photo by R. Williams)
Karpathian clothing is symbolic — more so in the past than in modern times. A hundred years ago, the costume revealed the person. It was a status symbol that distinguished an upper class person from those of the lower classes. Now most traditional costumes appear to be very similar, with multi-colored embroidered skirts, aprons and scarves. The design of clothing worn by unmarried women and girls is somewhat different from that of their mothers.
We strolled along a lane wide enough only for people and donkeys, and paused at the counter of a small cafe, where a woman was hand-rolling some type of pasta. We were told these were makarounes — a Karpathian specialty. When someone mentions “specialty” we begin to fantasize about flavor, but it was early for lunch.
Making traditional makarounes to serve in her cafe (photo by R. Williams)
Continuing through the village, several of our female friends were attracted to a shop selling traditional headscarfs. Since we were heading towards the main church at the top of the village, those without head coverings for the church decided to buy.
Selling a traditional headscarf to a visitor on the way to church (photo by R. Williams)
Farther up the lane, we were invited into a Karpathian house. Although many island homes exhibit art and handcrafts and family photographs, this one was actually more a museum than an actual living space. It displayed a marvelous family record passed down for centuries in the form of colorful embroidery, knitting, weaving, and woodcarving.
The “traditional home” we visited was more a museum than a living space
We made our way up to the central square at the top of the ridge, where the impressive church of Kimisis ti Theotokou (the Assumption of the Virgin) stands. It is built in the Byzantine style and its interior is covered with murals dating from the years of Turkish rule. In the early days a much smaller village of Olimbos was located here, and fortified against pirates. In the center of the fortress was a church and a tower (now gone) from which watchmen scanned the western coast for the sails of pirate ships. Houses built on the western slope were not painted, so they would blend in with the mountain. None of the village houses had chimneys, which could also give them away.
A beautiful church is located at the peak of the village
Climbing stairs to the square, we speculated that the bright colors of church and surrounding buildings were perhaps a celebration of freedom from piracy and the oppression these people had suffered for centuries.
Inside the church is a stunning display of gold and religious art
The interior of the church was a different world — filled with wall paintings, gold leaf, crystal chandeliers, religious icons, and countless candles representing the prayers of faithful visitors.
After visiting the church, we wandered downhill, investigating side alleys until we found a small cafe near the edge of the village. We stopped for iced coffee frappes and chatted with the lady who owned the place. She spoke English quite well, and had a good sense of humor. Members of our group began to walk by, and when we saw our driver we knew it was time for the bus to leave for Diafani.
The owner saw us off to the bus after coffee frappes and conversation (photo by R. Williams)
The return trip to Diafani was not as anxious as the journey into the mountains, perhaps we were used to it at this point. When we arrived in town Eleni informed us that we had some free time to explore and dine before boarding the boat back to Pigalia. So we did explore the town, and spent some time in their little natural history museum. We discovered that a large part of Karpathos is a refuge for various endangered species.
We found an inviting cafe nearly at the edge of town, just above the beach
After the museum, we walked along the waterfront almost the length of the town, until we found a cafe with outdoor seating and a view of the harbor. We looked over the menu, looking for something interesting. When the owner asked what we would like, we asked “Do you have makarounes?” She responded with an astonished “Of course we do!”
Makarounes topped with caramelized onions and grated goat cheese became one of our forever favorites.
NOTE: There are multiple spellings of the name Olimbos. Because there is no “y” in the Greek alphabet, and the letters “mp” are pronounced as a “b” there is some confusion when translating to English. Depending on what reference you find, the name of this village may be spelled Olympos, Olimpos, Olibos or Olimbos (which we saw on several maps and road signs). This is not to be confused with Mount Olympus (home of the ancient Greek gods), which is in northern Greece.
Postscript: Accounts of our travels over the following days are published in the next few articles below, so that they appear in sequence.
On our second day, we looked forward to exploring towns in the southern part of Karpathos. All of these are very old, but the legacy of this island goes back to a time before history was invented.
From the port of Pigadia, we went to the mountain villages of Aperi, Volada and Othos, then down the coast to Finiki and Arkasa, and through Menetes before returning to the port.
Archaeologists have proved the island was first settled by pre-Greek people during Stone Age times (around 8,000 years ago). Karpathos remained obscure for thousands of years, until Minoan traders from Crete discovered a good harbor on the island and built a trade center they called Potideon. This port had a profound effect on the civilization and history of Karpathos, and it became more important as the Minoans expanded their trading empire throughout the Aegean Sea. Some even believe that Minoans settled on Karpathos.
Minoans found a safe harbor at Pigadia, and built a trading center
Potideon and the people of Karpathos thrived for many hundreds of years, until the volcanic eruption of Thera (http://travelingclassroom.org/?p=1960) devastated northern Crete and crippled the Minoan trading fleets. Exploiting this weakness, the Greek Mycenaeans invaded Crete and took control of the valuable Minoan trade centers — including Karpathos.
Mycenaeans built their acropolis on the rocky hill overlooking Pigadia harbor
The port of Potideon was renamed Poseidion (for the Greek sea god), and the Mycenaeans built a fortress on the rocky hill above the harbor. Only a few bits of the ancient walls remain today, and the only recognizable structure in the area is a temple to the goddess Demeter (Dimitra).
Ruins of a temple dedicated to Dimitra still stand on the acropolis
According to Homer, the great king Agamemnon (of Mycenae) ordered that ships be sent from Poseidion to assist Greek forces in the Trojan War. They defeated Troy, but within a century the Mycenaean empire disintegrated and its cities lay in ruins. For a time, Poseidion became a harbor for other traders — enterprising Phoenicians from the Levant (around modern Lebanon).
After the fall of Mycenae, Phoenician traders briefly used the harbor
But the situation changed again, as it always does. A new power was spreading across the region. Dorian migrants arrived on the island around 1,000 BCE. They were an aggressive tribe of Greeks, and difficult to resist in battle. But when they settled an area, Dorians often integrated the local population (Karpathians still speak a Dorian dialect). The newcomers built four cities and brought prosperity to the island.
Karpathos was involved in several Greek wars over the centuries, and enjoyed self-rule during the Hellenistic period. Then various invaders came to conquer and rule: Romans, Arabs, Venetians, Ottoman Turks, Italians and others. Each left a mark on island history.
Here and Now
Our bus departed from Poseidion (now called Pigadia) shortly after breakfast. On the coast, at Vronti beach, we came to the ruins of Afoti — the early basilica of Saint Fotini. The elegant marble columns made it look like a Roman temple (remember: the Eastern Roman empire was Christian).
Ruins of the early basilica of Saint Fotini stand on the beach outside Pigadia
We continued northward to the village of Aperi on the slope of Mount Hamali, surrounded by rich farmland. It was the capital of the island for nearly 200 years (during the 18th and 19th centuries). After government offices were moved to Pigadia, it remained the spiritual center — where the island’s Metropolis (main cathedral) stands.
The beautiful village of Aperi spreads across a high mountain slope
Aperi is a thriving village, filled with people who love education. With financial help from Aperitans who immigrated to New York City in the early 1900’s, they built the island’s first elementary school, high school, and lyceum (lecture hall) near the cathedral.
The first island high school was built in 1939 with donated funds
Our primary purpose in Aperi was to visit the church of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, which is home base of the Archbishop for Karpathos and the nearby island of Kassos. Because the lane to the cathedral was narrow, our bus stopped at the bottom of the hill. Everyone had to hike up.
Koraki hill was probably the site of an ancient acropolis, and a Dorian inscription found in the area indicates that a sanctuary of Apollo was located somewhere nearby. There are also ruins of a castle dating from the Venetian Cornaro family, which ruled the island from 1306 until 1538, until the Ottoman Turks took possession. A number of people were winded when we finally reached the cathedral.
The Aperi cathedral is the religious center of the island
The interior of the cathedral was impressive — filled with brilliant wall paintings and religious artifacts. A young priest gave us a history of the church, and how the local people had raised money for its construction.
The interior of the cathedral is absolutely stunning
One of the priest’s most intriguing stories was about an ancient icon of the Theotokas (Mary, the mother of Jesus) that kept vanishing from a small Byzantine church higher up on the mountain and appearing at the site of the cathedral. Each time it was found, it was returned to its church … only to disappear again and appear at the same location. Finally, it was decided to build the great church at that place. The icon now holds a place of honor in the cathedral.
The mysterious icon that led to the village to build a cathedral
Another tale involved a painting of the dormition (death) of the Theotokas. There are many such paintings in Orthodox churches around the world. Some include the image of a man beneath the funeral bier. This is from the tale of a man who, out of hatred for Christians, tried to topple the bier. At the moment his hands touched the bier, the sword of an invisible angel cut them off.
Painting of the Dormition of the Theotakas, with a reality twist at the bottom
The relevance of this tale is the priest’s account of a local man who stole money the villagers collected to build their cathedral. His image is depicted beneath the bier in the painting — forever cursed by his fellow villagers. It is the only known instance of a real person appearing in Orthodox religious art.
After leaving the cathedral, our bus crossed the Gefiri stone bridge, which separates Aperi from the nearby village of Volada. Built between mountains at an altitude of 1480 feet, Volada is a beautiful little village, guarded by the ruins of three castles and surrounded by farmland. However, the streets of Volada are narrow, with little room for buses to maneuver or park. So we continued up Mt. Lastos to the village of Othos.
17th century Church of the Dormition in Othos village
The highest village on the island, Othos offers a beautiful view to the sea. Most of its 300 inhabitants are involved in farming. The village is surrounded by trees and vineyards, which produce a famous sweet red wine. Colorful houses create a pleasant atmosphere, but there were few people about when we arrived. The villagers were tending their crops and livestock. After a short visit to the local folklore museum (very much like the traditional Olymbos home we visited the day before), we traveled westward through Piles and down to the coast. We stopped at the little fishing village of Finiki.
Well-kept fishing boats in Finiki harbor
Our fellow travelers scattered through the village, looking for good tavernas to eat lunch. We found a quiet place just off the harbor, and tried some traditional dishes. Afterward, we walked back to the quay, where we found an interesting monument. It tells the story of brave villagers who risked their lives for Karpathos during World War II.
Finiki monument to brave seamen who saved the island from starvation
Karpathos had been occupied by German and Italian soldiers for some time. But, as the tides of war shifted, the Germans fled with all their weapons on October 4, 1944. Emboldened by this, the next day Karpathian resistance fighters moved against the remaining Italian forces. The men of Menetes attacked first, followed by the villagers of Arkasa, Mesochori and Olymbos. Soon the island was free of foreign rule for the first time 500 years.
Seven men in a small fishing boat sailed to Egypt for help
The remaining problem was that the invaders had stripped the island of food, and people were starving. Seven brave men sailed out of Finiki harbor in the Immakolata, the only fishing boat on the island with a motor. Their goal was to contact the exiled Greek government in Alexandria Egypt. It was a 335-mile voyage across rough seas in bad weather. But they did reach Alexandria, where they reported that Karpathos was free and begged for help.
Two allied destroyers rushed food and help to Karpathos
The men returned to Karpathos as heroes with two allied war ships carrying supplies for the islanders. This was the start of the official liberation of the island. A few years later, Karpathos became part of Greece.
Arkasa is a beach town with a peninsula that once was a city long ago
Leaving Finiki and traveling south along the beach road we soon reached Arkasa, a village with a very long history. Arkesia (now Arkasa) was one of the four Doric cities of Karpathos.
Remains of a great Doric city lie quietly on a peninsula overlooking the sea
The Doric acropolis was built upon a rocky peninsula that juts into the sea. Local people call it Palaiokastro (old castle). Walking through the ancient city, an observant visitor can find many centuries of Karpathian history and different civilizations in a single place. There are ruins of medieval buildings lying over enormous Mycenaean walls. Doric capitals and columns are repurposed to create lodgings, and watchtowers stand near gaping ancient cisterns.
Ancient church of St. Sofia stands and the base of the acropolis
Not far from the ancient ruins, at the base of the acropolis, is the old church of St. Sophia. It was erected on the site of the earlier (4th-6th century) basilica of St. Anastasia, which was built using marble parts from the temple of Athena (the ancient Greek goddess) located somewhere nearby. This is about 3,000 years of history at a single location.
After leaving Arkasa, our bus wound through the hill country to the town of Menetes, a pretty village with an excellent view down to the sea. Some of our friends went to visit the local church. The rest of us explored the narrow lanes and charming houses, often highlighted with flowers.
Off the main road through town, narrow lanes climb up the hillside
We looked for a place to have a cup of coffee, and found one occupied by elderly retired men. Some might have witnessed the rebellion against occupation forces during World War II, and seen their island become part of Greece.
Old friends meet at kafenions for coffee and conversation
After finishing our coffee, we joined the others to board the bus. No far outside of town, we came to a war memorial overlooking the sea and Pigadia in the distance. It honors the Menetes resistance fighters, who in 1944 were the first to strike out against the occupation forces and win freedom for their people.
A tribute to resistance fighters who fought for freedom
Shortly after breakfast, we walked up the street to an old stone well to meet our bus. Pigadia is known for its wells and excellent water (in fact, Pigadia means “wells”). From there we traveled northward, climbing into forested hill country until the road veered towards the eastern coast.
Our route to Mesohori and Lefkos is marked in green
Moving through the highlands, we could see beautiful sandy coves at the foot of high cliffs off to the right. Some of these beaches are accessible only by boat; others can be reached on steep roads that look barely passable.
There are hidden sandy coves all along the coast
Turning away from the coast, we traveled westward through oak and pine forests. Many of the trees were bent and twisted in the same direction. They grew this way due to the nearly constant assault of winds that blow here.
Pine trees are shaped by the Kapathian wind
The forest thinned near the west coast, and we were soon able to see Mesohori perched on a high cliff overlooking the sea. The view was fantastic! We turned down a side road towards Mesohori, but had to park at the edge. There are no regular roads into this traditional village. Everyone walks.
Mesohori village has a fabulous view of the sea and coastal mountains
We descended into the village on stone stairs so steep that the doors of adjacent houses were on different levels. There were only a few elderly local women on the stairs. Perhaps most of the residents were tending the fields and orchards outside the village (they still live a traditional lifestyle).
The stone stairway down into the village seems unending
Most of the antique homes we passed appeared to be in new condition, and surrounded by colorful arrays of flowers. There were only a few houses awaiting renovation.
Most of the old village houses were pretty and well-maintained
Eleni (our guide) took us to one house and knocked on the door. She had apparently called in advance to let the owner know we would be visiting. A lady and her adult son greeted us with smiles and invited us inside. The main living/sleeping room had a traditional sofas, decorated with weavings, hand-made linens and lace, and the panosoufi platform for sleeping.
A traditional home, complete with panosuofi sleeping platform
There were wood carved shelves holding decorative hand painted plates and family portraits. Our hostess was happy to explain everything about this traditional home. The most appealing fact was that this was a real home — unlike the display house we had seen in Olimbos village. It even had a modern kitchen, where our hostess had prepared several plates of snacks to pass around.
On all the walls were shelves lined with family memorabilia
After our visit, the woman’s son motioned us to walk a few doors down the lane to his home. It was similar to his mother’s house, with a wooden sleeping platform, family photos, and other decorations. However, the absence of brightly colored weavings and lacework suggested that he was unmarried.
Continuing down the stairs, and down and down, we finally reached the level of the stone-paved platia, where there are two small churches. One of them is on the edge of a cliff that plunges almost straight down to the sea. Since the village was built here as a defense against pirates, it is not farfetched to imagine a village priest ringing the church bell as a warning when suspicious ships appeared on the horizon.
The village platia and old church are on the edge of a cliff above the sea
Not far away, the church of Panagia Vrissiani (Nativity of the Virgin Mary) now serves as the main place of worship for villagers. Chairs and tables stacked under a pergola near the church indicated there had been a recent festival (there are many in this village).
Panagia Vrissiani church is the center of village religious activity
The architecture of Panagia Vrissiani is appealing and the interior is filled with marvelous religious art and ornamentation. After exploring the church, one of our friends (Manolis), was inspired to sing a religious song with his wife and son. Manolis has a wonderful voice, which attracted others of our group to join in. Soon the church was filled with beautiful choral music.
The interior of Panagia Vsissiani church is very impressive
Outside we found stairs leading to a grotto under the church. Panagia Vrissiani is actually built over a natural spring, the main source of water for the village and all surrounding farmlands. Folklore declares that a woman who drinks from this spring will be married with a Karpathian. I noticed a few women collecting water in bottles.
Artesian spring beneath the church supplies the entire village
After our church visit it was time to hike up the daunting stairs to the top of the village. Up, up, and more up, until we were finally on the road. Catching our breath, we stopped at a quite taverna and ordered coffee frappes. We sat on the balcony and enjoyed the view of Mesohori.
It was a long climb back up the stairs to the road
Our bus continued southward, into a rather desolate area. Much of the green forest south of the village was burned away because of the foolish act of one person. The island lost more than 30,000 acres of pine forests. We saw that pine seedlings were beginning to take hold, but it will be many decades before the forest recovers.
A fire ravaged the green forests south of Mesohori
Nearing the seaside village of Lefkos, we reached the edge of the fire zone, and could see green forests saved by the firefighters. As in Mesohori, our bus had to part outside the village, and we hiked down to the shore. Below us was the shallow bay, encircled by Lefkos. It was much smaller than we expected, and now given over almost entirely to tourism.
Once a small fishing village, Lefkos is now a tourist destination
Along the way, we saw a sign pointing the way to an archaeological site. Nearby was an underground cistern, which once served a Roman settlement in this area.
A cistern once provided water for the Roman settlement near here
Not far from the cistern is a strange community of stone-built houses and stables hidden in a cavern that locals call Kamara (“chamber”). It reminds one of ancient Indian cliff dwellings in the American Southwest. No one knows how many generations of people found shelter here. Considering the history of invasions and piracy suffered by Karpathians, such secrecy is quite rational.
Homes and stables built in a hidden cave above the sea shore
In the village, we found a pleasant taverna above the beach, where we could sit in the shade, enjoy the sea breeze, and have a relaxed lunch before returning to Pigadia.
Driving west of Iraklion on the E75 highway, we turned southward toward Fodele (pronounced Foe-deh-lay). The road runs through the lush Pantomantris river valley filled with citrus groves and native forest. Fodele is a quiet farming village is known for its oranges and macramé artists, but it is mainly noted as the place where Domenikos Theotokopoulos, popularly known as El Greco (The Greek), was born in 1541. We came to visit the El Greco museum.
An ancient plane (platanos) tree dominates the central platia of Fodele village
Passing through the village square beneath a thousand-year-old plane tree, we could see the river flowing through in a canal designed to prevent spring flooding. However, during summer months the river becomes a shallow stream, perfect for wading on a hot day.
About a kilometer beyond the village, we parked near the 14th century Byzantine chapel of Panagia (Holy Mother). There are beautiful murals inside, but the doors were locked (churches do not leave valuable art unattended).
Byzantine church of Panagia on the roadside near the El Greco museum
So we crossed the road and climbed stairs through several terraces to an ancient stone house converted for use as a museum. It is thought to be the artist’s home, but no one knows that for certain. Regardless, a bronze bust of El Greco is mounted by the doorway.
A bronze bust of El Greco stands near the entrance of the museum
Inside, we found a collection of reproductions of El Greco’s paintings hung with back-lighting, accentuating their own light and color. Visitors are permitted to take photos (which is not allowed in most museums). We have seen a few El Greco originals in Greece, but most are scattered across Europe in churches and museums. So this was an opportunity to see many of his paintings in one place.
El Greco’s painting are displayed as large, backlighted transparencies
El Greco attended the Agia Ekaterini (St. Catherine) school in Iraklion. Their art department focused on the Byzantine style of those times. It produced some of the best religious artists of the century. Unlike his schoolmates, who worked within a framework of religious art, El Greco began to develop his own style at an early age.
El Greco studied art at Saint Catherine school in Iraklion
One of his early works, the icon “Dormition of the Virgin” in the Cathedral of the Dormition on the island of Syros, exhibits a Byzantine style. But this soon evolved into something new and different.
The Dormition is one of the most famous of the artist’s early works
Around 1566 he went to Venice and studied under Renaissance masters, which is reflected in some of his early work. El Greco combined Titian’s use of color and Tintoretto’s compositions of people and use of space. It was a clear departure from Byzantine icons.
El Greco’s Disrobing of Christ shows the influence of Titian and Tintoretto
When he later moved to Rome, where he was further influenced by some of the great Italian artists and sculptors of the time. However, disappointed by his inability to earn a living in Rome, in 1577 he moved to Spain in search of a patron for his work.
His first Spanish commission was for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The Assumption of the Virgin (now on display in Chicago) was based on that of his old master, Titian. But El Greco was already showing his own style. He used strange colors, groupings and proportions for the figures. Throughout the rest of his career these differences became more evident, though Byzantine influences can still be seen through the mystic expressions and mood of his paintings.
The Burial of Count Orgaz is considered one of El Greco’s finest masterpieces
El Greco was well known and did have supporters in Toledo, but his style was unlike that of other artists of that time. He was forced to accept all kinds of commissions to pay off his debts, producing numerous portraits and religious images. He struggled for acceptance throughout his career, and he died trying to finish a commission in a hospital chapel.
For centuries after his death, El Greco was virtually ignored. Then, in the late 19th Century, he was rediscovered and studied by modern artists. Now he is considered an influential figure in the development of art in the 20th Century and into our time. This can be seen in the examples below.
Lady in Fur is a well known El Greco painting from his time in Toledo
Cézanne’s “Lady in Fur” is the artist’s tribute to El Greco’s work
Expressionism was a movement that used distortion to suggest mood and emotion, and El Greco was hailed as the forerunner of this style. In fact, he is considered a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. He is seen by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school.
Vision of Saint John (The Fifth Seal) shows El Greco’s elongated figures and bold use of color
El Greco’s work inspired Picasso’s “Ladies of Avignon“ (compare the women to the right of St. John)
This week the Prado, Madrid’s top art museum, unveiled a major exhibit exploring the influence of El Greco on modern greats such as Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, and Pablo Picasso.
El Greco’s composition is the source of the Expressionist painting on the right. Note that the positioning of the various figures and the colors used are very similar.
It has been more than 400 years since Domenikos Theotokopoulos lived, but the fame of El Greco has been rekindled and continues to grow. His artistic concepts (so strange to those who lived in his time) have inspired artists who live today. What was old has become new.