Sunday, 24 April 2016

More Shades of Blue, More Sea

Lobster pots, St Abbs harbour

Coldingham to St. Abbs, Scotland's south east coast.

I'd only just heard about a coastal path from Cockburnspath to Berwick on Tweed. I took the bus to the village of Coldingham and from there walked towards the sea.

Something about the street corner, the way it swept round, with a low wall and trees behind it, brought another image to mind, of another street somewhere.  It happens sometimes, but not very often. An immediate and abrupt association. An image in front of me, instantly replaced by another, in memory. But where was this other street? I could see it clearly in my mind's eye but I couldn't place it. 

I walked on down the street, the houses ended, fields on one side, a caravan site on the other, then a pedestrian path takes you away from the narrow road, so you can walk with a wall separating you from the traffic which is scant enough, but far more pleasant to walk without having to dodge the occasional car and with a field on the other side, sloping upwards into the blue sky. You are free to think or to dream, without having to be alert to traffic coming round the corner. I was thinking about the street I'd been reminded of.

And then it came to me. It was in Rio, a small town on the southern side of the magnificent bridge spanning the gulf of Corinth. Antirio is on the northern side, just a handful of kilometers from where I was staying, near Nafpaktos. As an alternative to the bridge there's a ferry that crosses the narrow neck of water, and I took this ferry one morning, just for the pleasure of it. I then walked into Rio, which may once have been a thriving and separate small town but is now virtually joined up to the suburbs of Patras. 

I wandered around for a while, and that's when I saw that other street corner with a low wall and trees behind it, branching off from the main road heading for Patras, a much more pleasant option, to walk through a residential area, before making my way back underneath the huge pillars of the bridge and across the empty parking lot to reach the ferry that would take me back to Antirio, with its two streets, a cluster of small shops, a café, bakery, a post office. 

North coast of gulf of Corinth, from the ferry

Close up of the Rio-Antirio bridge, from the ferry

I see from these pictures that it was a grey and cloudy morning. Yet I'm fairly certain that the sky cleared and the sun came out when I was in Rio, for that's how I see it in my mind's eye, a sunny day and a street lined with fig and eucalyptus trees.

And this morning too, I am heading to the sea, to the coast, and it's a warm day, the sky a cloudless blue. And I soon reach the sea, and it too, is deep blue and clear and the impression of similarity with the sea around the west coast of Greece, the Aegean, merging into the Ionian, continues. The bay with the fine sand, the colour of the water, all continues this association. It must be the sunshine I think.


I walk along the path marked as the coastal route to St. Abbs, a village with a tiny harbour and bay. 

Seagulls swarm on the rocks, and fly around the harbour bay, swooping low and casting great shadows. 

I've been here before, when I was very young but it doesn't look familiar. I just remember that we went out in the lifeboat and I didn't want to go, I was afraid of the water afraid the boat would sink. My father assured me that the lifeboat could not sink. I was persuaded but I still felt uneasy. Now, I trust boats in the same way that I trust airplanes. There is really no point in thinking about it, you are held in the hand of some great being that keeps the boat afloat or the airplane airborne in an impossible way, but it stays there and that's just how it is. But if I'm swimming in the sea I barely go out of my depth. Oceans are powerful and unpredictable. I will worship at their shores but I like to feel solidity under my feet.

The path continues up a series of steps, and looking out over the houses, there are more seagulls perched on chimneypots, basking in the sunshine. 

Out of the village the path leaves the houses behind, skirts the edge of a field then finds the clifftops again, studded with primroses, overlooking a bay edged with red cliffs. 

The path goes much further but I'm running out of time. I came here on impulse and I need to retrace my steps to Coldingham to catch the bus. I'd like to come back one day when I have more time. But will the coves and bay, will the clifftops and deep blue sea still have a camouflage cast to them, interwoven with a shimmer of Greece, a glitter of the Ionian? 

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Saint Hilarion Castle & Goat Pinnacle

St Hilarion Castle: - credit wikimedia commons
More from Cyprus. The ruined castle of Saint Hilarion is near Kyrenia, on the north coast of Cyprus. (Although I took plenty of photographs, none of them managed to fit in all of the castle ruins and rocks, in the way this one, by Richard, does so well).

Half way down the mountainside, I sit down beside the path. More than half way. I look back at that great ragged needle of a rock, at the very top, where I had been. But I can't determine that descent in terms of distance – or time. It has its own terms – the scrambling of the goats' hooves on the stony cliff-side, the rocks sent tumbling into the abyss below, the smell of billy-goat, the way they assemble on goat-pinnacle, to watch me stepping from one white rock to white stone, holding on, a few metres below them.

You measure it in one bird call, then the shafts of sunlight passing through; the gap between the pointed rock fingers, and the huge shadow cast on the descent, the north face of these mountains, which have trapped the fierce glare of the sun. You measure it in silence. And in the thud of guns, felt as an earth shudder, under my feet. The army sends their guns thudding into earth or rock, and the flags fly at half mast. There's no wind and once I reach the sunlight, beyond the mountain shadow, I sit down beside the path and look back at the needle I climbed up, then down, back at the goat-pass I climbed through, my knees shaking with the effort of descent.

Goat Pass

I nearly didn't try the path, marked on the map, I doubted my ability to not get lost among the circling trails I could see, looking down from that pinnacle, the last tower on the topmost point on that rock that went up and up, dwindling away to almost nothing, to a point where even an eagle couldn't get a foothold.

Looking down on Kyrenia and the sea

In Journey into Cyprus Colin Thubron describes the castle of Saint Hilarion as ...insanely dramatic. Its walls fluttered up and down the precipice or sprouted from crags in a troubadour's dream. 

This stone feature looks both delicate and immensely strong. It is hard to see what is original mountain and what is man-made and constructed.

Prince John tower atop the ruins of St. Hilarion Castle

It is thought that the castle  dates from the 10th century, and was originally a monastery and hermitage. It was abandoned in 1489 when the Venetians invaded Cyprus. At one point it was inhabited by Prince John, brother of Peter I, King of Cyprus. 

Prince John Tower

The Prince John Tower, right at the top, was apparently the site where the eponymous Prince pushed his loyal Bulgarian troops, one by one, over the edge. So I read on an information panel in the castle.

He did this because he had been tricked by Queen Eleanor  into believing they were plotting against him. As far as I could understand she had it in for him because John had caused the death of her husband, Peter I. She invited John to a meal chez elle in Nicosia and though he was warned not to go, he did go and she had him killed. In stories like this, people often seem naïve to the point of absurdity yet in life in all times we do the same kind of thing – don't listen to good advice, and listen to the ones who don't have our best interests at heart. Perhaps he rather liked this woman, his sister-in-law, and imagined she liked him too. Or perhaps there was a lot more to the story. It seems that all these murders were to do with power struggles and who should inherit the throne.

I praise all weather-forecasters – blessed be the weather-warners, for I saw the little swirling blue flecks on the TV screen, and knew the edge of storm would catch this island during the night – and today it would be hot and sunny. The wind at night, rustling all the lemon trees.

And a perfect morning to visit the castle. 


Armed with a map of walking trails, I want to follow the path that slides down the mountain, and head back to Kyrenia that way. But I'm hesitant. Just because there's a dotted line on a piece of paper does not mean that the path will be clear, or even exist. And then there is my propensity for getting lost. And there's a military area just on the other side of the road leading to the castle and it extends down the mountainside. The soldiers are practicing, round after round of shots are fired, then after-silences, laden with the shadows of the sound.

Military training ground

If I can see the path, I say to myself, where it's marked n the map, at the beginning of the approach road to the castle.... and there it was, quite clear, so I took it, joyful in the sunlight, stones marked with green, sometimes stripes of green and white – what could be clearer? Blessed too are those who mark the Ways. But it did not take long for the path to disappear among white stones and boulders, with no room to place your feet, and the abyss on my right and I had to avoid looking down and I saw a goat a little way ahead of me and I thought, goats can do this, but I cannot. 

Spot the camouflaged goat

Sadly, I picked my way carefully back  to the broad, safe path, on flat land and then – noticed that the marked path went off, straight downhill, to the left – there was the green circle plainly showing the way to go, which I'd missed. It went straight down but not far, to the cleft between two fingers of rock. And so I followed it. It levelled out and headed to the goat-pinnacle, but there was room to place my feet, always enough flat gravel, with grasses and spiny plants and even here and there, a yellow flower, between the path and the steep slope down below. Plenty of painted green circles, to show I was taking the right steps, between the right rocks.

Goat silhouettes

Meanwhile the goats' hooves clattered on the stones and there were so many of them – black, grey and tawny brown and I glimpsed the big horns appearing then disappearing in front of me from behind rocky outcrops and spiny bushes. Remembered my last encounter (my only one) with a billy goat up the  mountain path at Roquefixade in the Languedoc. I don't want one to turn around and block the path, (as it did then) not when it's so high up and narrow though thankfully almost always with boulders on my right between me and the abyss.

Step by step, down between the rocks (no longer a path) holding onto boulders, goats to the left of me, abyss to the right.

Passing Goat Pinnacle

After the rocks the final clamber down onto the broad track, my legs are trembling and I feel the purity of a sense of accomplishment, how it washes you clean and I look down and there's a series of level switchbacks, no more precarious descent but I want to walk down quickly, because they're in the shadow of the mountain.

In the Shadow of the Mountain

And beyond the twists and curves of path, there's the plain, in sunshine, and the clusters of white buildings, streets and houses all piled on top of each other. And then there is the sea, with whispers on its surface, a pattern, a scrawl, and it doesn't move, it's like a signature scribbled in haste and now inscribed upon the surface of the water.

And once I've left the shadow of the mountain behind, I sit down beside the path and look back at the needle rocks I've come from.