A 600-mile trek that saw an island in its last years of peace.
Every good book is like falling in love. There’s always a certain moment – a turn of phrase, an insight that echoes in your bones, a joke you weren’t expecting – where you’re suddenly pulled over some kind of emotional event horizon, and it has you.
In Colin Thubron’s Journey Into Cyprus, I’m smitten when the author squeezes his way into an ancient toilet:
…I was able to rest with my face turned upward to a thread of sky: a vision of paradise. I was staring through a deep crack in the pavement, and listening to a strange, regular drumming. The next moment a crepe sole landed high above my face and I saw the billowing skirt of an elderly British tourist. She was staring down.
“Look there, Leslie.” The tone was brusque and capable. “The standard of hygiene — isn’t that astonishing?”
An obedient voice murmured its astonishment.
She peered down harder then suddenly, with a stifled exclamation, stiffened and frowned. From the gloom of the Byzantine sewer an eye was staring back at her. Her face, haloed by a sun-hat over a sensible hairstyle, was puckered in revulsion. Yes, a dark Cyclopean eye (my other eye was closed) was gazing unwinking through phantom layers of excrement. The eye might even have been laughing. She jerked upright. Impossible, of course. There was no such thing as a sewer-demon. She refused to look any more. The next moment she had vanished from the slit of sky and I heard the exorcising click of her tongue and the march of practical shoes over the pavements.
He’s investigating the ancient ruins of Paphos (now called Κούκλια), and spotting a tiny opening under a gate-tower, he crawls in to investigate – and finds a 1500-year-old sewer, polished clean by centuries of rainwater:
I edged forward again. A minute later the sunlight splashed into the tunnel from the opening above me, the passage ended in a blank wall and I lay beneath the perfect ellipse of one of the seventh century latrines. A thousand years before I would have looked up at the threat of a Byzantine bottom. Now there was only the framed sky, an oval of deep and purest sapphire, and my own laughter.
It’s the Spring of 1972. Within two years, Cyprus will be a divided country – but of course, it already is. To advocates of enosis, reunification with Greece, the island’s uneasy independence is an anomaly. To the Turkish forces that invade from the north in July of 1974, responding to a pro-enosis political coup, Cyprus must remain independent to guarantee their national security. Between these extremes are a million variations, each worthy of consideration. Both Greece and Turkey have claims to Cyprus that are backed up by history. It’s an impossibly complicated situation, and will tear Cypriot communities down the middle, sowing decades of bitterness.
Today, Cyprus is still split lengthways – the EU-recognised Republic of Cyprus in the south, and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus at the other side of the United Nations Buffer Zone, which wriggles across the island from coast to coast, bisecting the island’s capital, called Nicosia in the north, Lefkosia in the south. But beyond that? The Cyprus of today isn’t, could never be the island Colin Thubron walked around. Forty years is a lot of healing, as the increasingly healthy tourist industries on both sides of the buffer zone are keen to stress (especially as Cyprus has some of Europe’s cleanest beaches). It’s also long enough for everyone to want to reach a solution and move on.
But let’s go back 40 years, to the Cyprus Thubron found. This is a book as old as I am. It’s also a glimpse of my childhood, because I grew up in Nicosia, followed the same paths and climbed the same mountains.
But the main reason this book got under my skin is because it’s about a deliciously huge walk.
When he explores the world, Colin Gerald Dryden Thubron relies heavily on his feet. In Journey Into Cyprus, he walks over 600 miles. Why would any sane person do this when there are perfectly good buses?
Can you not even afford a bus fare? Oh, you must be so poor.
Even today, epic walks take a lot of explaining to become socially comprehensible. You’re a travel writer? Oh, well then, I suppose that makes sense. But it’s a terribly long way. Can’t you just…hitch a lift or something?
Indeed, why not? What is the appeal of walking everywhere?
Here’s one thing Thubron discovered: if you stay on foot, many Cypriot people will assume you’re poor, down on your luck, or downright batty – and then you’re no longer a threat to them. Sure, you’re still a stranger, but in some difficult-to-pinpoint way you’re an okay stranger (or at least a harmless one), and so those people move closer, offer you a beer, invite you back to their house for dinner. Entire communities open up to you. You sink deeper into the human landscape – less an observer, more a participant.
And all you had to do was walk everywhere.
This is a book about sleeping under open skies until the stars come out, sometimes in wryly-tolerated discomfort.
It’s about poverty and generosity, because many of the people he encounters have nothing, but still offer the maximum possible hospitality to this wandering English school-teacher (Thubron’s disguise) with ruddy cheeks and worn boots.
It’s about history, because Cyprus has plenty of that, in every possible sense.
Much of the book is spent diving into the past, into religion and architecture and ancient copper mining, into the reasons the Greeks, Ottomans, British, Byzantines, Lusignans, Crusaders, Templars and nationalists of various affiliations have squabbled over this island for the last 2,000 years. Colin Thubron is
Even without foreknowledge of the island’s upcoming social cataclysm, it’s clear that in 1972, prejudices still run deep:
“Cauliflowers?” the miller repeated? He looked blank.
“Yes,” I pleaded. “Kunupithi.
“We don’t have them. I’ve never heard of them. Perhaps you can get them in Nicosia.”
Later I stopped an old woman. “Cauliflowers…” she said suspiciously. “There aren’t any. The Turks killed them.”
“But they aren’t people…”
She said quickly: “They were pulled down. Demolished.”
“They’re vegetables,” I said firmly.
She wiped a dirty sleeve over her mouth as if to speak better, then answered with finality: “The Turks ate them.”
But above all, it’s about how you experience the world when you walk over it.
Walking is a dominant theme in modern travel writing – take Bill Bryson’s bumbling assault on the Appalachian Trail, or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, an unflinchingly frank account of how a thousand-mile solo hike helped Strayed reassemble her shattered life. But there’s also something very British in this kind of epic stroll. The author decides on a hare-brained scheme, they feel under-qualified, they’re wracked with self-doubt, but in the spirit of good old British pluck, they throw themselves into it – and suffer immensely, communicating that misery to the reader in with ghoulish details flavoured with merciless self-deprecation. It’s a formula, and a hugely popular one.
Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.
– Kurt Vonnegut
Because I’m so in love with this genre, and because I’m so woefully ignorant of its classics, I’m currently educating myself. (Next up: Nick Hunt’s Walking The Woods And The Water). But Journey Into Cyprus is special to me. I picked up my battered paperback copy when I was a teenager. It was my first introduction to the idea that it was possible to sleep under the stars and not instantly die of hypothermia, or be rent limb from limb by the local wildlife. (Obviously these things might happen to you, but it’s not always a dead cert, that’s my point here.)
It’s a spectacularly well-researched book, showing Thubron’s fascination for the island’s history, and also his skill in never letting it get in the way of the story he’s telling. In later books he allows his wider life to intrude on the narrative (for example, in To A Mountain In Tibet he’s notes he’s there to grieve) but in this one, he keeps his deepest thoughts to himself, only letting them creep onto the page in moments of frustration, such as an attempt to argue a desperately poor antiquity-robber into choosing a new profession. This is far from being a memoir. The main character here is Cyprus, and Thubron makes no attempt to steal the limelight.
It’s the story of a walk, bolstered with a wealth of historical detail.
And it’s magnificently well-written. Every page has a line that knocks the breath out of me.
Because you experience a place like this.