One of the most pleasant interludes in our trip to Cyprus in March was a visit to the excellent Soloneion Book Centre in Nicosia for lunch with its owner, Akis, and his family. Akis is one of my current Open University students and had kindly agreed to let us leave our hire car in his car park and give us a lift to the border post so we could pick up a taxi to Kyrenia. You can’t easily take a hire car across the border into the Turkish-occupied north but, having read Lawrence Durrell’s book ‘Bitter Lemons’ about life in the village of Bellapaix in the late 1940s and Colin Thubron’s ‘Journey around Cyprus’ written just before the Turkish invasion, we were keen to visit. The north is also separated geologically from the rest of the island by the young sediments of the Mesaorian plains.
The Pentadaktylous mountains, along the north coast, represent the very edge of the Eurasian plate, thrown up above sea level by its collision with the igneous rocks uplifted to form the Troodos mountains. Mostly limestone, the mountains are not as interesting as the Troodos to a geologist but the site of St Hilarion castle, above Kyrenia, turned out to be as interesting to me for its botany as for its history. Even the road up to the castle was lined with a new range of legumes and Cistus.
Top, left to right: Cistus criticus, C. salviifolius, Lotus tetragonolobus
Bottom, left: Onobrychis aequidentata; right: Tripodion tetraphyllum subsp. tetraphyllum
The first fortifications at the site were begun by the Byzantines, in the 11th Century, then added to over the next 400 years or so, to defend the coast against Arab pirates. Its defensive site, atop a steep limestone ridge, is second to none.
St Hilarion castle and the view north along the Pentadaktylous mountains
The terraces on which the various sections of the castle is built provide pockets of botanical treats; short grass full of dainty Ornithogallum pedicellare and several different types of Ophrys orchids.
Clockwise from top left: Ophrys kotschyi, Ophrys lutea subsp. galilaea, Ornithogallum pedicellare and Ophrys umbilicata
The castle walls are adorned with plants too, the most spectacular of which is Hyoscyamus aureus, a member of the same plant family as potatoes and tomatoes. I’ve seen in growing in a similar habitat on the walls of the ancient city of Jerash, in Jordan.
When we stop to enjoy some fresh lemon squash in the café in the middle section of the castle we chat to the initially rather dour man serving the drinks, only to find that he is the Mustafa Gürsel whose stunning plant photos are displayed on the walls and for sale as postcards and on CDs. Once he realises we are also big fans of the flowers around the castle he tells us all about how he takes the pictures using an old-fashioned SLR camera, just a single shot of each plant, developing and printing the photos himself.
Higher up the hill, in the third section of the castle, there are swathes of Ranunculus asiaticus and superb views south along the mountains.
At the very top the plants are smaller and hug the rock surface – one looks very much like the ‘Virginian stock’ of my earliest childhood gardening exploits and turns out to be from the same genus – Malcolmia – whilst another is the same genus as the Bugle (Ajuga) which grows on limey soils at home.
Left: Malcolmia chia; right: Ajuga chamaepitys
The centre of the village of Bellapaix, our second destination in the hills a little south of Kyrenia, is probably barely recognisable from Durrell’s time here – its magic largely gone due to the tourist trade built around his book. The abbey, founded by Augustinians in the early 15th Century, has been tidied up and the shops around it are full of tourist tat but you don’t need to go far from the centre of the village to find narrow streets completely unsuited for motor vehicles (as we found out!) which look quite unchanged, from the outside at least.