A few weeks ago I did a review of a cookery book called “Cyprus A Culinary Journey” this time the journey is of a different kind and a different time. Colin Thubron embarked on a 600 mile trek across the sometimes forbidding terrain of Cyprus, the majority of the time is spent navigating his way across the mountain ranges of Troodos and the Pentadaktylos with just a compass as his guide. He undertook this colossal task in the Spring and summer of 1972 just before the Turkish invasion, imbuing many of the encounters and experiences he recounts at a later time, with great poignancy. These experiences are now impossible to relive as the villages in many cases are no longer inhabited by the same ethnic mixture and the freedom to wander in such a way is far more restricted. To undertake such an arduous journey in such a manner was looked on by the Cypriots as lunacy, as befits an Englishmen in their eyes. At some stages I’m sure Mr Thubron must have also questioned his own sanity in deciding to pursue such a course. To wander around this often desolate landscape, making his own path along the rocky, precipices of the formidable Troodos mountains takes courage, tenacity and a sure skill of navigating with a compass. I personally can think of few things that would terrify me more apart from maybe crossing the Atlantic single-handed. Even when offered a lift for a few miles he declined ,as this might cause him to miss some minute or rare detail of beauty. Being an accomplished linguistic offered him another rare opportunity, of understanding and being understood, both by Greek and Turk and Maronite.
He started his journey in the early months of the year which meant that the temperature fell quite low at night which he spent frequently under the stars with just a sleeping bag for comfort and no tent for shelter. The extraordinary kindness of shepherds and strangers he met in cafés who offered him shelter and a meal in their spartan dwellings was a humbling experience and this kindness came from Greek, Turk and Maronite equally. Through all the lyrical, erudite descriptions of landscape and experience all I could think was , “What must he have smelled and looked like, how did he wash himself and his clothes?” Even though he travelled light with just the very basics in his rucksack he had packed a pair of pyjamas, which I find infinitely amusing. The many places where he accepted the kindness of strangers afforded very little extra facility to carry out any ablutions that may have been required, except perhaps a water pump. I guess that is a ‘man’thing to be able to rough it and go without a hot wash for weeks without worry.
These practicalities and mundane musings of mine aside, I am enjoying the rich writing of Colin Thubron, his extensive knowledge of history, architecture, mythology and painting enrich his wanderings. His journey includes many of the Byzantium gems and ancient ruins he even went diving off the coast near Amathus to discover the extensive ruins of that ancient city spreading out half a mile underwater. He made stops at monasteries along the way for shelter including Stavrovouni which nearly did for him. I found it tiring driving up there and thought I would never reach the top, how he managed to walk up I find astonishing. He meets with the Chief engineer of the American mining company that were mining for copper still, as well as a Greek engineer who take him underground to see for himself how the mining is done and where it existed, the evidence left of the ancient mining casts. This is what makes the book so interesting as it weaves the past with the present. There are many astute observations of the Cypriot character often observed with affection. A highly recommended read.