Greece

The Mosaics of Rhodes, Greece.

The Mosaics of Rhodes, Greece (or How Mosaics Should be Seen)

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Partridge feeding her chicks, 2nd century AD, Rhodes Archeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

The conversation went a bit like this:

D: There are some really good off-season deals on flights to the islands. Shall we go?

Me: Yes!

D: Santorini or Rhodes?

Me: (Inner musing: Santorini = the whole Greek thing. White washed houses set on cliffs over looking azure seas. Rhodes = mosaics)  Rhodes! 

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Mosaic floor, Rhodes Archeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

And so off we went one weekend to see the mosaics of Rhodes, Greece. As it happens, Rhodes is a perfect place to really see mosaics, not just the tarted up ancient variety which now hang on museum walls. Pebble mosaics, characteristic of many of the Greek islands,  are everywhere in the medieval town of Rhodes covering pavements, shop entrance ways, hotel foyers and cafe floors. What a delight! Instead of cranning your neck to see mosaics plucked from their original settings and displayed like works of art in hushed settings or having to lean precariously over a barrier to get a closer view of them at archeological sites, here they are all over the place. Neither revered or disregarded; they are just there. Continue reading

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Ancient mosaics and big cats

As you might have gathered by now, I have a bit of a mosaic fetish going on. You could even call it a problem. When I am not making mosaics, or fiddling about with designs, I have to admit I can often be found rummaging through photographs on Flickr and Pinterest in a furtive compulsion to look at them.

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Many of the more unusual ancient Roman mosaic images come from the Ancient Rome Facebook page and there are also wonderful images posted in the Flickr Antiques Mosaiques group for which I am very grateful, not to mention the ones which turn up on Pinterest which I jealously hoard on my Ancient Mosaics board.

There are abundant examples of wild animals in some of the oldest mosaics but big cats turn up more than most. Their obvious qualities of ferocity and beauty made them ideal candidates for the mosaic medium but their representation is varied, rangeing from the macabre:

martyr2To the tender:

Cleveland Museum of Art, Tiger and cubs.

Among the most famous and extraordinary mosaics featuring big cats are the ones of Pella, Greece (top). Made of finely calibrated pebbles, these mosaics date back almost 2,500 years and show Alexander the Great strutting his manly stuff out in the forests of Macedonia, hunting lions without a stitch on or a care in the world before vaulting on the back of an obliging leopard:

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Ah, but they are just the beginning. Here is a random selection of ancient mosaics and big cats:

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A Tale of Two Houses – and their mosaic decoration

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Once upon a time we bought a house in Pelion, Greece. It was a simple house on a hill overlooking the sea. So simple that it had been on the estate agent’s list for years. No one wanted it. The agent’s photo showed only a drab concrete wall and an unappealing add-on room. There was a mention in passing of a view, but Pelion is a mountain peninsular surrounded by water so saying a house has a view is almost like saying it has running water.

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But one day, expecting nothing,  I went to see the house, climbed over the almond tree which had fallen over the entrance way, slithered down the bank to the front of the building (when I say mountain, I mean mountain – this house was settled comfortably into a steep slope like a head supported in the crook of an arm), and it was as if someone had punched me. I wasn’t quite standing on a precipice, merely on a continuation of the steep bank, but it was the same sensation you get when you climb in soft drizzle, doggedly following a path, head down, seeing only a few hundred yards in any one direction and then, when you finally get to the top, the clouds lift…. That lurching, exhilarating sensation of being deafened by beauty.

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Needless to say, we bought the house. The bank I slid down became steps to the lower level, the concrete wall was plastered and painted, the bare approach was paved and covered, the fallen almond was replaced with a sturdy sapling. We used the house on weekends and during the holidays and I planted anemones in the long grass and pomegranate, cherry and hibiscus trees on the terraces. A young vine and wisteria curled their way up the new pergola and every time I went, I had that same sensation. You couldn’t escape it, like having a world class symphony orchestra hidden behind the unappealing add-on. Brushing your teeth, doing the washing up, or putting the children to bed, there it was – that astonishing, heart-stopping view.

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I made one of my first ever mosaics for it – of two birds based on a mosaic from Larissa, Greece – and took it to the builders to insert into the wall above what were once the animal’s quarters on the lower level. That’s all there was in terms of mosaic decoration and I don’t even have a photograph of it.

Not that the house was perfect. The fact that it was built into the hill meant there was always some sort of problem with damp. The configuration of the rooms was odd and would have been odder as the boys got bigger. And the only way to get to the house was to park your car at the top of the hill and carry everything to the door down the steep slope, which was fine on arrival, but not so fine in 35 degrees lugging heavy cases back up after a longer stay.

Then one day we decided to sell it (don’t ask me why) and, as soon as the decision was made, I realised it was a terrible mistake and so within weeks, we’d bought another house over a ridge and down a bit from the first house. The second house did not make my heart stop but by this time I had grown fond of the hill and the neighbours and it wasn’t only the view I couldn’t bear to leave, so we bought the second house from the owner who was born in it and once again set to work to do it up. No need this time to plant a vine as there was already a grand, old, gnarled one leaning nonchalantly against an outside room. 1-Pinakates-7-6-09

Still in mourning for the first house, I had no interest in making a special mosaic for the new house and gave the builders a mosaic that I happened to have lying around – an indirect piece based on a Coptic textile from the Benaki Museum, Athens, with a heart-shaped pebble in the middle which they incorporated into the threshold paving:

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I also gave them an old mosaic which had broken across the middle during a move and so they put it around the side of the house where it cant be seen:

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Then, slowly, I grew attached to this second-choice house with its drooping electric cable stretched carelessly across the view. The venerable vine survived the building work and climbed quickly and obligingly over the wooden trellising, dropping fat bunches of grapes over the table where we eat. A red rose which was still blooming next to the outdoor kitchen twenty years after the house was abandoned, accepted relocation gracefully and continues to bloom. The house, in the middle of an olive grove, was difficult to fence so we only planted things which can withstand being nibbled by the herds of goats and untethered horses that wander across the terrace, but oleander, aloe vera and African daisies grow thick and strong.

Eventually and no longer grudgingly,  I made a mosaic on mesh for the window indent in the bathroom:

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Then last summer I covered a garden pot with broken shards from once loved pots to house a bougainvillea which, despite a harsh, dry summer and weeks of neglect, has somehow survived.

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Not very lovely (the grout should be darker, I haven’t bothered to paint the rim) but the shards include a bowl I bought in Fayoum, Egypt; a plate from the Iranian market in Bahrain, a jug made by a Thessaloniki potter and received as a present from a university friend, and a Turkish dish from a shop in Cappadocia whose proprietor freely gave me his cast-offs.

Which brings me to my first real mosaic project for the Blue House – a Gaudi-esque covering for this horrid column:

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Under Greek law, you are obliged to have a structure of some sort on the edge of your land to connect the mains electricity to the house. It would be nice to have it tidied away in a cupboard or to have something inoffensively and unobtrusively clad in stone, but somehow we ended up with this ugly column which has only taken three years to look woefully bedraggled and down at heel.

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I will ask all my friends and friends of friends to donate their broken crockery and slowly it will be transformed. I cant guarantee it will be a success. It might, like the wire across the horizon, just be something I get used to, but it will be a sign that after all these years, the house which I didn’t even like, has become a house I have become uncommonly fond of.

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(The house last weekend – a warm, bright December day)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mosaics in Greece: black and white mosaics at Isthmia.

Floor view, Isthmia
Black and white floor, Isthmia, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Mosaics at Isthmia, Greece

Another example of little known, or at least little written about, mosaics in Greece. These black and white mosaics at Isthmia, near Corinth, can be about an hour’s drive from Athens.

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Octopos, Isthmia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

The site isn’t on the main tourist trail and was virtually deserted the day we visited so I had them all to myself. They are unfenced and you can walk on them which seemed disconcertingly decadent as well as marvellously thrilling that more than a millenium after completion they are sturdy enough to do the job they are made for.

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Mosaic floor, Isthmia, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Aquatic motifs

Aquatic motifs keep coming up in Roman mosaics – what better symbol of trade, wealth, food, the fickleness of the nature, the unpredictability of the Gods and the extraordinary beauty of the seas?

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Mythical creature at Isthmia, Greece – part God Oceanus, part fish, part horse. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

Countless people must have sat waiting for months and years for their loved ones to return from long sea voyages and when such a wild and monstrous force dominated your life, it was inevitable that it would turn up in other forms suitably contained, controlled and domesticated.

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Dolphin detail, Isthmia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

I am struck by how extraordinarily similar in execution these mosaics are from others on the same theme – of course one would expect creatures from common myths to crop up all over the Roman empire, but why, in some cases, are the same themes actually made in almost the same way? Pattern books? A few specialist mosaic designers who travelled though out the region?

Take this mosaic at the Palazzo Massimo Museum in Rome:

Black and white aquatic scene, Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome.

This in Pompeii:

Mosaic floor in situ, Pompeii bath house.

Or this floor mosaic at the House of Italica, Western Andalusia, near Seville:

Black and white aquatic mosaic, Italica house, Western Andalusia, near Seville

Terrifying and mysterious as it was, the sea, pristine, crystal clear and teaming with fish must have been more lovely by far than even the loveliest of Mediterranean seas of today. Here’s an example of one in Pelion, Greece, not far from where Jason set off on the Argo:

Labinou beach, Pelion, Greece.

 

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The glass ‘mosaics’ of Kechries

Kechries glass mosaics - ship and squid

My friend Alison Scourti, who keeps cropping up because she is almost the only person I know who shares my passion for mosaics, and therefore shares a part of who I am, told me to go see the glass mosaics of Kechries at the Archaeological Museum of Isthmia not far from Corinth, Greece. Needless to say, I didn’t know what she was talking about. She told me they were Roman and were oddly wonderful. Roman glass mosaics? Who ever heard of such a thing? Bits of glass in Roman mosaics, fine. But whole mosaics made out of glass, just didn’t sound right. I have seen the opus sectile mosaics in the Palazzo Massimo Museum of Rome, but they were made, as one might expect, with different coloured sections of marble. Not glass.

Kechries glass mosaics - fisherman and port

But a mosaic is a mosaic and if Alison said I must see them, then I clearly must, so on a recent trip to the Venetian town of Naphlion in Greece’s Peloponnese region, we stopped at the one-room museum which houses findings from the adjacent archaeological site. The museum has all that one might expect of a museum from an important site dating from the seventh century BC with lots of additions and modifications over the following centuries. There are pots and jewellery and clay figures but there are also the glass mosaics that Alison had insisted I see. They are panels not floor mosaics and rather disconcerting in their unexpectedness. Seeing them was like seeing a middle aged lady in twinset and pearls on the 10:23 to Henley take out a copy of NME from under her Daily Telegraph. One’s preconceptions get all jumbled up. They are  strange; they open another up another window, a different vision of what you thought you knew and their strangeness makes them wonderful indeed.

Kechries mosaics - borderKechries glass mosaics - border detail

It seems that there were once as many as 126 panels which were probably brought over from Alexandria, carefully taken off the ship which carried them, and stacked in their original wooden cases against a wall. But before they were installed, an earthquake struck and the panels were covered by the sea and never recovered until the 1960s. According to the blurb at the museum they ‘belong to the mosaic decorative arts which originate in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Similar compositions in glass or marble were found at Ostia, the harbour of Rome. The style, belonging to Hellenistic, Roman and Egyptian tradition, is already reminiscent of the Byzantine style.’

I took tea (and delicious cake) the next day with Matthew Dickie and Elizabeth Gebhard, who was there when the panels were excavated and who has been director of the University of Chicago excavations at Isthmia since 1976.  She explained that the mosaics were stacked facing each other, and that when they were discovered they were fused together by time and water to such a degree that it was largely impossible to separate them. Therefore what we now see is the backs of the works.

Here, to help you out with the concept of the decorative arts originating from Mesopotamia and Egypt, are two examples of opus sectile from the Palazzo Massimo Museum in Rome:
Opus Sectile, Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome. Opus sectile, Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome.

For me, the beauty of the panels lies in their naïve execution and the appreciation they reveal of their makers’ delight in the natural world and pride in man’s achivements. The gigantic squid next to a ship in full sail with a gorgeously curved prow. The fisherman sitting staring into the sea depths in front of a harbour lined with impressive-looking public buildings. The colours, now muted, must have been fabulous. A bit like the colours of the socks my mother knits.

Mummy's socks

 

 

 

 

 

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Mosaics out of ancient pots?

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We were in the car again. The temperature outside was nudging 40 degrees. We’d spent the weekend diligently looking around ancient sites (of which more later) with the sun beating down on our heads and peering at bits of old things in museum display cabinets. Now we were heading back to Athens and the idea of a swim seemed more like an imperative than a choice. The road ran next to the sea and it was just a matter of finding a place where it was easy to park so we could plunge in with no further ado.

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So we chose a stretch at random which had no particular appeal – the beach was narrow and close to the road. It was not a place you’d normally want to linger but the water was clear and cool and that’s all we cared about. Then, as we swam out we noticed there were signs of ancient remains on the waters edge and when we swam closer we could see submerged outlines of man-made structures – walls, perhaps, or pavements.

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We later discovered that we had been swimming over the Roman harbour of Kechries where St. Paul landed and, so the story goes, cut his hair in fulfilment of a vow, before proceeding up the road to preach to the Corinthians.

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What was intended as a quick dip turned into a happy hour of marine archaeology for David and the boys, while I swam back to shore to fiddle, as is my wont, with pebbles and to look for pieces of coloured glass worn smooth by the sea. But this time my idle sifting was not among pebbles, but through shards of ancient pottery strewn all along the shore, as casually discarded as the cigarette butts and plastic bags of modern life. What fun I had! Its no secret that the beaches on this particular shore were rich with broken pots but I had never expected such a hoard as this. I found what looked like a crudely made pot lid (top left in photo above) and a piece of clay with wavy striations (bottom middle). Fergus discovered what must have been the base of a amphora handle.

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I could have gathered bagfulls but, for now, I am content with a modest supply. I want to see if I can make mosaics with them. I cut a couple of pieces and laid them the flat side down with the sea-rounded edges upwards – see the bottom left hand corner of the photo. I love the range of terracotta tones and I think that something fine could come out of them. Let’s see. If I do make something from them it will be a particular pleasure to think that one of the pieces might have been thrown aside the day St. Paul came into land, dropped by an excited follower in his eagerness to get close to the man himself.

 

 

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A weekend of mosaics, Candili, Greece.

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Group photo, Candili Mosaics Weekend. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Here we all are! Who says you cant make mosaics in a swimming suit? It’s a new trend and thoroughly to be recommended.

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A young mosaic maker all set to go. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Alison and I drove from Athens in a car heaving with marble and materials, not entirely sure how many people were going to join us for a weekend of mosaics  at Candili on the island of Evvia.  Three families were spending the weekend there with various offspring and relatives varying in age from five to seventy five but weekending in Candili with its lovely grounds, heavenly food, easy access to the beach and the constant appeal of a large pool surrounded by trees and tended lawns, is one thing. Spending hours hunched over a table painstakingly gluing bits of stone onto a board on a hot summer day, is quite another.

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Family fun making mosaics. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

So we set up our temporary studio in the Candili art room fully expecting the children to just pop in and then drift off. Sure enough, we had a handful of takers at the start of the day and we launched into design choices and basic cutting techniques quite content to concentrate our weekend of mosaics on a limited number while most of the children raced and frolicked outside. Twenty minutes or so passed and then one of the fathers hit upon a plan – he seized a rod of marble and a pair of nippers and headed for the pool and then, lo and behold, he returned shortly with a flock of young, eager mosaic makers.

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Finished mosaics laid out to dry. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Luckily I had a brought a large stack of boards and we ended up with a grand total of sixteen finished 20cm by 20cm mosaics made from scratch and grouted and varnished to boot. I had pre-prepared a number of sized designs from Rosalind Wates’ The Mosaic Decorator’s Source Book which were popular with the children who variously chose a snail, a crab, a moor hen, a star fish, and a frog although 11-year-old Hector did an interesting black and white cartoon design, Hume opted for simple but effective Moroccan-style houses, George made a fabulous rocket with different shapes of stone, his 13-year-old older brother chose a self portrait with protruding teeth and young Alex (aged 6) made a mosaic replica of his favourite Eeyore soft toy complete with a ribbon on the end of its tail.

Here’s a picture of a row of boys absorbed in their work with Alison keeping a beady eye on them:

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Alison Scourti directs the boys. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

At the same time, the adults set to work on their own designs which ranged from Bill’s unorthodox iphone mosaic using different coloured stones for the buttons, Meriel’s tortoise which bore an uncanny resemblance to the real thing, Anne’s beautifully proportioned hoopoe bird, Lia’s eye-catching leaf, while Jenny made one of Lawrence Payne’s little birds. The air of industrious concentration which filled the room was most impressive.

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Meriel and her turtles. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Here’s Meriel with her mosaic and a real tortoise which Bill came across in the plunge pool as he headed out for a stroll and was mercifully able to rescue before it was too late: I kick myself for not taking photos of each mosaic with its maker but I was too engrossed in the excitement of the occasion to even think of it. Nevertheless, here are a selection of photos from the weekend.

Hard at work:

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Thinking about designs. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

Alison (on left) and me on Saturday afternoon with the mosaics before they were grouted:

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Helen and Alison with student’s work. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Bill and his mother, Anne, grouting on Sunday morning:

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Two generations grouting. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And a special mention goes to Johnnie who started the mosaic course a little later than the others after a hard morning playing tennis in Athens and who sat on to finish his crab well after his friends had left and then turned up again in the morning to grout it:

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Johnnie, aged 9, grouting. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

 

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Candili weekend: teaching mosaics. Before

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This weekend, Alison Scourti and I will be teaching mosaics for the first time at Candili  (shown above) on the island of Evvia, Greece.

Three families have signed up and two extra adults but I am not sure whether all of them are going to be mosaicing. Given that the house is set in acres of glorious grounds, that the pool (decorated by Martin Cheek, no less) is full, the beach not far away and the sun is always shining, I suspect that there might be a few deserters.

Still, preparations are underway. Boards have been bought, designs thought of, marble ordered and collected (from the most amazing marble supplier on earth) and numerous lists written, checked and counter checked to make sure we dont miss a thing. Something that seems so simple when you are sitting at home surrounded by jars of tesserae and drawers full of tools suddenly seems immensely complicated when you have to ship the whole operation to a temporary new space.

We have decided to give everyone the choice of either following a preprepared, relatively simple design ( for example: a crab, bird or snail) or do a bit of experimenting with abstract designs which is Alison’s forte:

Alison's WIP

This is her current work in progress. As you can see, she makes stunning pieces with natural stone and marble using the indirect method. She’s planning to rustle up a few extra designs too, just in case people prefer to follow her ideas rather than have to dream up something on the spur of the moment for themselves.

The plan is to have two, three-hour sessions and although we’ve done a dry run and timed how long it will take to cover the 20cm by 20cm boards, I am sure the timing might go a bit hay wire, and we’ll run over time. But just in case our students zoom along (especially the children) we’ll be bringing along plenty of extra boards and marble.

Whatever happens, Candili is one of the places where its just nice to be, so I am looking forward to it.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Mosaics of Nikopolis, Greece.

A chance encounter with the Mosaics of Nikopolis, Greece.

Border design, NikopolisWe were in the car heading up the west coast of Greece to meet friends in Epirus during the Greek Easter break. The journey was long, the roads were atrocious and I had no appetite for sight seeing along the way. Many years of veering off major roads to follow brown signs promising interesting archeological remains and either ending up hopelessly lost  in a farmer’s yard, getting to the site to find it firmly closed with the desolate air of a place that hadnt been open for decades,  or finally reaching it only to discover a pile of unremarkable stones, had thoroughly put me off experimentation. So we whizzed on past brown signs aplenty, my mind firmly focused on our beachside destination,  until an unusually plantive cry from my sightseeing-obssessed son in the back seat persuaded me to pull over. Grudgingly, I agreed to see where this particular sign led, and so we took a narrow country road heading, so I thought, to nowhere.

Bird with ribbon, Nikopolis

A padlocked gate and dilapidated sign

Sure enough, we arrived in front of a large padlocked gate and a delapidated sign and I felt vindicated. Undeterred, the sightseeing son leapt out, followed by his younger brother and the dog and – undaunted by the locked gates – climbed over a half collapsed wall. I stayed in the car. Then, a few minutes later I heard an excited cry: ‘mosaics!’ I climbed up on the wall and shouted back: ‘worth seeing?’ A son appeared  and replied: ‘yes’. So down I went over the grass covered wall, sliding through a gap between the stones, trying not to think about snakes and still slightly thinking that that they wouldnt be worth the effort. How wrong I was. I will never, ever say no to a brown sign again.

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This, withoout us knowing it in advance, was once the city of Nikopolis founded by Octavian in 31BC after he defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. This was something special.

Fisherman, Nikopolis.

The mosaics are in newly constructed open-sided brick structures – covered, but with nothing to protect them from the rain slanting in or  from people walking over them or indeed doing much worse. Let them speak for themselves:

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