|St Hilarion Castle: - credit wikimedia commons|
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.
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.
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.