Friday dawned grey, sullen and wet. The car hire guy at the hotel, from the North East of England, said the season really starts to get going in April and by the summer there are not enough cars to go round. He did me a good deal and said he found the island a bit claustrophobic and tried to get off it as much as he could. But he seemed pretty content with his lot.
On island living, Durrell (Bitter Lemons) comments, 'Life in an island, however rich, is circumscribed, and one does well to portion out one's experiences, for sooner or later one arrives at a point where all is known and staled by repetition' (p.45).
His roguish Turkish Cypriot estate agent comments elsewhere, 'Cyprus is small and we are all friends, though very different. This is Cyprus, my dear.' This was in 1953-4 before the Emergency.
We set off for the far west of the island, Pafos, Polis tis Chrysochou and the Akamas peninsula. Cyprus has excellent motorways and we made good time towards Limassol. The car was a little Kia hatchback and went fast enough. It had clearly seen better days; it transmission grinding like an ancient mill.
Rain began to fall, first fitfully, then without let or hindrance. The passenger wiper jerked and juddered; mine made light of the whole thing and simply glided up and over the gushing water without a care.
The rain slowed and the tragic keening of rubber mashed into glass increased to a crescendo of scraped, staccato snorting. I was repeatedly gulled by the transposition of light and wiper controls; the 'indicator' set the wiper scrawping and farting, smearing grit and grime with abandon. I scrunched off-centre, the hand brake threatening to put a spanner in my works, so to speak, and sought out a gun-slit of clean glass to navigate the Limassol truck traffic.
Three ships sat at anchor in the bay set in neat parallels by the strengthening north easterly gale. The lorries turned off for the new port facilities and the wonderfully quiet road climbed into the foothills of the Troodos. The sea was dark and angry as we passed by the signs for Petra tou Romiou. We pushed on towards Pathos, the grinding in the back by now a familiar accompaniment to our sparse conversation.
We had nurtured fantasies of an unspoilt Pafos – Costas from Saloniki had said it was a better bet than the Troodos churches. And the guide book talked of the Pafoits as the Cornish of Cyprus. To which the Pafoits reply, 'The only dumb Pafoit you find was not born in Pafos'.
However, Pafos now has an International Airport and its isolation from the rest of the island has been much reduced by excellent road links. So we began to see the depressing and disordered sprawl moving up the slopes from the coast towards the motorway.
The Pafos strip had a slightly Wild West feel, brazen and aching to cash in on the tourist ‘oil’ flowing from rich Northern Europe. We climbed through the dwindling vestiges of pizza places and plant hire yards before getting stuck behind a coach.
Durrell in the 1950s found Paphos a different place: 'the whole of Paphos rings with desolation and decay; mean villages squatting out history among fly-blown coffee shops, deaf to the pulse of legend.' Bitter Lemons of Cyprus p.180
The road to Polis climbs over a spur of the Troodos and then drops into the broad valley of the Chrysokou river which flows, like most Cypriot streams, intermittently and mainly after winter rains. Although, as we had seen as we flew over Rhodes, it was clear that these mountain-fed streams could become torrents capable of carrying hundreds of tons of rock and mud into broad fans on the south-facing slopes.
Even with our limited engine power we managed to get round the coach and begin our descent towards Polis. We passed a horrible looking accident with three cars, one of them burnt out and police and firemen in attendance.
We progressed well, the sky over distant Polis and the steeply rising slopes into the high Troodos wine dark, for this is wine country with low blackened unsupported old vines, Iliad dark with the anger of Gods and the fragility of heroic lives in small boats in the rising waves.
We’d now been travelling for getting on for two hours and the road ahead looked bleak and unwelcoming. The B7 led us down through a string of little villages, all soaked and full of huge puddles. As we descended the vines gave way to groves of orange, lemon, clementine and grapefruit trees, their fruits radiant in the gloomy, dripping light. In one grove we saw a couple of pickers but most were deserted and close packed in their waxy, dark greens.
And then we were in the outskirts of Polis tis Chrysokou, the ancient city-state of Marion Arsinoe built on the copper wealth of the Limni mines where copper occurred in staggering quantities and at high concentrations -some field copper had a concentration of 15% or more and could be worked directly without smelting.
Arsinoe II was wife of Ptolemy II (283-246 BC) who ruled Hellenic Egypt and Cyprus. The only certain full-length representation of Arsinoe is in Room 22 in the British Museum.
I wondered if Cypriot copper and Cornish tin were brought together to fashion the bronze tools, weapons and ornaments of the Phoenicians. There is some record of Phoenicians reaching Cornwall and trading for tin. Other sources say that the tin used to make bronze in Cyprus came from Syria.
I was also interested in Polis/Marion-Arsinoe because there is an Archaic torso of a young man carved in cloudy marble in the British museum that was found by the German archaeologist Max Ohnefalsch-Richter at the turn of the 19th century in one of the many tombs of the Necropolis II that were discovered above Polis. (See my Kouros sculptures and drawings).
This particular motif, a nude young man, one foot forward known as a 'kouros' became ubiquitous in Archaic Greek city-states over a hundred year period and heralded the dawn of the Classical Greek sculpture where God and Human supposedly met in marble and bronze forms. The kouroi, however, lack the d perfected bodies of the buffed-up self-conscious Greek athlete and have a modesty and enigmatic air – reticence – that is striking. They were deployed as grave markers and votive figures and over an intense hundred year period there is a marked shift towards greater anatomical observation as the figures are freed from the schematic and formulaic patterns inherited from Egyptian motifs.
The Marion kouros in the British Museum, discovered when the British had taken control of the island from the Ottoman empire, was found guarding the entrance to tomb 92 in Necropolis II. This was an innovation in the use of Kouroi. The statue has been dated as c520 BC.
The Marion kouros is a thing of understated beauty, largely overshadowed by the British Museum’s wealth of Classical age Greek sculpture – the Elgin marbles being the most notorious of these. It was much admired by Henry Moore and it inspired me to attempt to carve a likeness in wood and to explore the attraction of the kouroi which are, like the Marion one, often reduced to an enigmatic torso following the depredations of age and rough treatment by subsequent civilizations - see for example the lime kiln built at middle age Kourion to reduce marble sculpture and buildings to lime.
So arriving in modern Polis tes Chrysokou had a special meaning for me but it was difficult to see much of that Classical world in the face of thoroughly modern Cyprus with its car dealerships, Ikea and adverts for Lidl lining the route.
This seemed at least to my jaded, tired eyes a million miles and years from the Archaic period with its successive rulers from Persia, Egypt and Greece. Although, in fact the ancient city of Idalion is only a few kilometres from the Larnaca-Nicosia motorway and an ancient olive oil mill dating back to the first century BC in the Larnaca Archeoligal museum was uncovered during the earthmoving for the motorway.
But our arrival in Polis was dominated by the weather – black and pouring out of an angry sky boiling up into the Troodos. And the location felt nothing like an ancient city-state but rather a far flung rapidly developing tourist town. It was early February and there was that air, seen through the shattering smear of the windscreen, of a scrubby, fragmented town bolted down and abandoned for the winter. Huge puddles on the road, muddy filth running out of a villa project of half finished, grey, skeletal cast concrete houses; boats pulled up and half painted; and the Mediterranean, driven by the North Easterly, making a show of crashing swell on a tired, rubbishy strip of a beach wedged in front of the road.
It is amazing how weather and fatigue wear down the soul, turn magic into mire, and give minor mechanical irritations a charge and insistence that can begin to feel overwhelming – it was only a faulty windscreen wiper, after all.
But as we drove west of Polis through the muddy port of Lakki with its buttoned down seafood restaurants and neat villa complexes something began to change. The sky brightened, the great mass of lowering cloud shifted up into the Troodos to the east and the sun burnt through to make a tiny patch of brilliant emerald green far out on the surface of the shifting sea. As we began to climb towards the eastern spine of the Akamas peninsula the rain finally stopped, the road opened out and the sign said ‘Baths of Aphrodite 1km’.
The road climbed from the plain, rounded a corner with a fish restaurant with pickups parked outside, and ended in a stony car park, a closed kiosk to one side and an old woman with a lined face but surprisingly black hair, cranking another pickup into place so that its front tyres came to rest against two big stones – 'Lakki brakes', I thought wittily.
As we scrabbled stiffly out of the car the mild, fragrant air seemed to caress us. Turning we looked north east to the great pile of cloud and mountain rising behind Polis, the clouds hanging in steep valleys and the sea, white-capped racing away to a distance horizon and Anatolia beyond.
We were blessed, a little interregnum of kinder weather to greet the traveller and lead us towards Aphrodite and the Akamas. The track was flanked on the uphill side by tumbling spiky sparse vegetation. Was this the stinking juniper, convoluted, wild haired, clinging to the friable, vertiginous slope running down from clotted, knotted cliffs of iron oxide-red rock with their perched, clinging clumps of Brutia pine. And interspersed a few, pale pink, delicate, high stalked Cyclamen Cypricum and unnaturally large daisies, with pendulous shy heads, tipped down from the sky and light.
On the downhill side a blaze of the most intense green grass, as if new made that day, interspersed with thirty and forty foot high trees and under these old white caravans in different styles of decor and decay. Looking like a backwoods Welsh caravan park, randomly scattered, somehow snug and homely, each with its shade tree and anchor in the buffeting warm wind. Everywhere clumps of tulip - tulip cypria - leaves pushing up through the moist, fecund soil.
And below this plateau the racing sea, crashing into the cliffs below. And looking north westward the dark islet of Agios Giorgious and far beyond possibly a Greek trireme hull-up on the horizon, straining in the wind towards land, cloaked figures with tousled hair and big beards dripping salt water on bronzed skin and sandalled feet, shouting above the sea’s roar, pointing to the turbulent shore and the tiny haven beneath the looming mountains. Or something like that.
The air had that feel, the place suddenly let the imagination roll out to sea – even the caravans in their declaration of such basic shelter, seemed to let the gods out, the long arc of Chrysochou Bay ending in the sharp truncated vertical mass of the Tillirian Hills, fading in spray and spindrift and gloomy mountain light, Polis nestled below, indistinct, imaginary, the kestrel battling the wind above, the sharp jumbled cliffs of Akamas, the stinking juniper, the sound of goatbells above, Pan, satyrs, the spiced fragrance of the air, life bursting to be let off the leash and grow and sprout in the arriving, promised, blasted spring.
If you could eat a view, we feasted. If you could embrace a place, we held it hard against our parched and pallid bodies.If you could breathe in new life we gulped the air, giddy on its scent, turbulence, warmth, intent.
We walked beside the wind, glorying in its glory, even as two police jeeps careened past, unsmiling into Akamas; even when we passed the sign telling us not to pick anything up because it could explode and kill; even because this was an abandoned British artillery range. Because the day shone and the sea swept through us. We marched, raced into the wind, into the beckoning wilderness, as all the while the rain gathered its resources across the bay and sheeted down on Polis tis Chrysokhou.
To the left the steep slopes rolled down on us. Spring plants interspersed with the thorn bushes, juniper and higher up stunted pines. To the right the sea running in indented bays up to the distant flat headland at Cape Arnaoutis – picked out by a crescent of foam- the cliffs bright oxide and orangey sienas, the rock broken and blasted by the sea, as if someone had been at it with a huge wrecking ball, bedding planes tipped up by massive forces, the bare rock and iron soil running in under the scrubby, dark trees, huge boulders standing sentinel in the crashing swell.
The squall over Polis was approaching and despite the gods, triremes etc. we were not equipped for a good soaking. We had no cloaks, no bronzed sandalled feet etc. So we turned back reluctantly towards the car in a race with the approaching storm. We broke into a stiff trot as the great mass of Tuneresque, St-Gottard-Pass-oblivion approached. The caravan park on its nubby promontory looked distant and the going was hard.
After a hard slog that had the sweat running under our heavy winter clothes we regained the caravans and domesticated trees. Above the goat bells were louder and the flock came tumbling down the steep paths. Down they came in lordly fashion, an amazing array of makes and models – white and back, black and tan, piebald, striped faces and spotty faces. All intent on the rich grass below. Although the trees seemed to hold equal attraction as one splendid fawn and white and piebald concoction raised herself on hind legs.
I was reminded of all those black scratched Greek pots, jugs, kraters in the British Museum with their cloven hoofed satyrs with erections and light-hearted mayhem on their minds. An image reined-in by the neat plastic ear tags being carried by each of the goats.
Birds sang in the trees unseen, one calling with startling ferocity. The rain held off, stalled over the mountains. The rock at the edge of the track was now exposed and deeply copper blue. Here was a vein of the famous copper, crumbly, inviting, a thin strand beneath an impressive cap of hard tan rock veined with quartz – the old sea floor of 90 million years ago.
We took a quick look at Aphrodite’s Bath. Located in a cleft of thick vegetation and towering Murray Red Gum trees (eucalyptus camaldulensis) the bath is a dark, overgrown, dripping grotto. The roof of the dank cave is covered by dark-green algae covered accretions of limestone. On that breezy day it seemed an unlikely place to take a bath but in the scorching - 40 degree plus - days of high summer it would be a different story.
By now the rain and as we passed the old pick-up using stones for brakes the old woman jumped out and persuaded us to buy a 2-euro bag of ridiculously sweet clementines.
We stopped briefly at Lakki and the rain began to fall more heavily and soon we were in a full downpour. We took a diversion that kept us on the fertile alluvial plain of red soil through banana groves before climbing onto the bluff and Polis. As the rain slashed down and we worked our way through the mess of Polis and its puddles and careening pickups it turned out Pomos, and its recommended fish restaurant, was 19 km away. We drove on along the little flat coastal strip, the Tillirian Hills barely visible, the windscreen wipers as maddening.
Beyond Polis the traffic thinned to pretty much nothing. The rain pounded down and the aspect was bleak. Villas and closed up beach kiosks, 'Liza’s Place' and all the time the mountains edging in closer to the coast, the great spur of the Troodos pushing out into the sea.
It was a dispiriting drive, the sea leaden, the daylight of the short day foretelling night and darkness, and our hotel a long way off. It was a familiar feeling of foreboding and anxiety that inhabits remote peninsulas and capes. The land becomes pinched and mean, the sky pressing down, the sea pushes in and the weather smashes like a hammer on the anvil of the rocky land. Peninsula-bound roads in winter storms are lonesome places.
I remembered my Conrwall days, driving those final miles down the A30 on fading winter afternoons, the dwindling land a series of folds towards Redruth and Camborne, Hayle and the hills and granite road to St Just and Lands End. Old mine engines and wind-bent trees punctuating the sky, the sea potent and angry stretching unbounded into Sole, Fastnet and Fitzroy, the West stealing the dying light, stretching out into unknown depths and lost men.
Well, it wasn't really that bad but you get the picture. Pomos emerged out of the dark sky and slashing rain, closed up and dreary. The mountain gorges now packing into the sea, the road twisting round unstable banks of ox-red spoil. The first 'Kanali Taverna' was closed, shut up and sad. We continued, a car stuck up our tail. Then a sign to another 'Kanali Taverna' – how strange is that, two 'Kanali Taverna' in the same tiny town (pop.595). I gouged the car to the left and down a winding road, sodden trees dripping and flailing in the gale. The Taverna emerged with nothing behind it but sea and spurs of mountain disappearing in the mist and spindrift; fifty feet below the harbour, two limestone moles with beacon lights and a gaggle of sheltering boats.
The point was fabulously exposed to the roaring north easterly gale, the rain driving under the terrace where we took shelter. The restaurant would have been glorious but it was shut and not opening until March.
Pre-partition we could have pressed on round the coast hugging the shore through a gaggle of villages – Pachyammos, Kokkina, Kato Pyrgos, Ammadies. But now Kokkina is a Turkish Cypriot enclave and the Green Line – grey on our map – starts at Ammadies. By the old road Nicosia was an hour's drive away. But our route would be an 150 kilometre drive back, round the base of the Troodos massif. Of course, we could have set off up into the Troodos and climbed to over 1000 metres on spectacularly winding roads into the torrential rain and possibly snow. (There is now a crossing a Limnitis near Katos Pyrgos but rental car insurance is invalid on the other side of the Green Line.)
We headed back for Polis, unsure now what to do. There was no possibility of hurrying in the rain and on the way out to Pomos a big four-wheel drive monster had chucked a huge, frightening wave of water over us.
So we changed plans and decided to head for Pafos it being 2.50 pm when we arrived back in still drenched and still dreary Polis.
(We only realised, later that we could have stopped in Polis and seen the museum. The clock in the hire car had been set one hour ahead of Cyprus time. Maybe this was just as well. The historical omens were not good. Ohnefalsch-Richter relates the sad death of one of his companions, the brother of the man sponsoring the dig in Polis, the Director of the Imperial Ottoman Bank in Limassol, Charles Christian. The brother caught ‘an insidious fever of a kind hitherto unknown in Cyprus’ and was dead within 24 hours. (See Ohnefalsch-Richter, M. 1983, p.44.)
We drove back along the Pafos road and the clouds began to lift, the sun threatened to shine and the mountains steamed. The strange valley and plateau country was lush green in the bottoms and matt dark green on the steep slopes and tops. Cloud lingered in last gasps in the valleys while the sun broke through the great mass above.
Hunger getting the better of us we stopped at a very quiet supermarket. I was by now so dazed with driving and peering around the windscreen wipers I was at a loss as to what to buy. I just couldn't orient myself in the shop that time forgot. I came out with two bottles of water, crisps and green olives.
We drove on the sun working its magic as we climbed up the saddle to drop down to Paphos. Looking up to the Troodos, covered in cloud, we could see the patchwork of valleys, plateaus, green fields, ploughed marly patches, stunted old-vine vineyards and trees in different stages of leaf and leaf fall arranged in irregular large terraces. This was further confused by great tongues of cloud in the valleys and bright slashes of sunlight.