Okay. Okay. Whew.
I’m leaning against the car door, gasping, giggling, sucker-punched by the cold. Around me, the landscape is motionless and brittle. The deep-frozen tops of the trees have exploded when the wind tried to bend them. Overhead, dark clouds boil past like timelapse photography. The rocky ground is so hard you expect it to ring. Take the trees and ice-rimed telephone lines away, and you’re left with the surface of Mars.
I’m on the same latitude as Algeria and Morocco, and the temperature is 15 degrees below freezing.
To get here, we drove up Cyprus’s Troodos mountains for a good hour, and the car’s thermometer enthralled us, falling away from the balmy warmth you’d expect from a typical November day in the Eastern Mediterranean, dropping degree by degree until I could feel the temperature difference by holding my hand a few millimetres from the closed car window. The cold puffed and hissed against my skin as the land falls away below us.
I remembered none of this. What was wrong with me? Had it changed so much in thirty years?
Mile by mile, the scenery became more stunted and bewildered-looking. But – Cyprus! Sun-tan lotion that’s never a high enough Factor, azure seas, dripping ice-creams, kebabs on the beach at midnight. Fried squid, chewy and lemony. Endlessly welcoming people. Isn’t that how this place works, even in winter?
(All these things are exactly why Wheel & Anchor has picked the island for the first round of its new LiveAway programme, coming later this year.)
But everything seemed alien to me. We drove through a scrappy outcrop of buildings, a boarded-up cafe, the skeleton of a ski lift. There was wind enough to blow litter around, but the trees didn’t move. We passed a car – the driver had rubbed a hole in the condensation-fogged windscreen so he could see out. Things glittered unexpectedly.
Then the moment when the car stopped, and it was time to leave its air-conditioned sea-level warmth. And with one lungful of fresh air I’m spluttering, propped upright against the car as my eyes stream. Every breath stings.
Cyprus isn’t a big island, but it’s never hard to get away from the crowds. Around 1.2 million people are spread across a landmass roughly equivalent in size to the distance from Washington D.C. to the outskirts of Philadelphia, with most Cypriots clustered along the spectacular, almost absurdly picturesque coast.
Go inland, and especially head towards the highlands in the centre of the island, and the people will disappear. They’re mostly down there in the warmth, sitting cocktails and stuffing themselves with kleftiko (slow-cooked lamb) and moussaka. And now I’m up here, beyond the remote mountain villages, near the roof of Cyprus.
At 1,952 metres above sea level, the summit of Mount Olympus is the highest and most exposed point in the island. It doesn’t dominate the surrounding landscape in that classic Paramount Network, lone-peak way - it’s surrounded by a cluster of similar-heighted hilltops - but on its upper slopes, the blanketing of dark pine frays and diminishes, the trees visibly shrinking before the wind. At its top perches a golf ball, as if waiting for Zeus to pick a club. (It’s actually a British radar installation).
And the view? Whew. The view never stops changing. Cloud races past at a speed you rarely see outside movie special effects. Sunlight pulses and fades, dazzles and snuffs out. Colours strobe through every shade imaginable. On cold days like today, everything looks like it’s dusted with icing sugar.
Did I mention it’s bitterly cold? It’s bitterly cold – the air up here not so much below freezing, but with a windchill that drags the felt temperature down to painful levels, numbing fingers within seconds when gloves are dragged off, searing lungs, making lips tingle. I don’t remember this cold - but it must have existed back then. Have I really forgotten so much of this?
See, I grew up here. As a Royal Air Force child living in the capital city, Nicosia, in the 1970s, I was regularly brought up here by my parents. We’d wander up onto these slopes (this is all according to family - I don’t remember any of it), my dad would snap photos that would take a month to develop and get back to us, and then we’d descend to the nearby town-resort of Platres for a slap-up meal ending with enough ice-cream to make me feel sick the entire way home (my memory definitely regains its strength here).
Thirty years later, here I am once again. But everything seems new.
We bundle back into the car and turn the heating up to its maximum setting. Have I recognised anything, my friends ask? No. It’s so weird. Not a thing. I’m drawing a blank.
For my entire adult life, I thought Cyprus was a place I really, truly knew. I thought that once I set foot back here, all the doors of childhood memory would unlock in my mind. All those fragments of recollection that have nagged at me since we went back to England would suddenly fit together, jigsawing into something tangible, renewed in bright primary colours.
But of course, that’s not how memory works at all. (If it was, then travel writers wouldn’t need notebooks.)
Now we’re driving down into Platres in search of calories to replace the ones we’ve been breathing out for the last half-hour...and finally, I recognise something. A restaurant. The chairs are packed away and the tables are pooled with rainwater, but in my mind’s eye I see it in operation when the weather’s right. I almost smell lemony kebab on the air. I almost taste the ice-cream. Here.
This is going to be Cyprus for the rest of my life, I suspect. Every return visit will feature one of those personal “Eureka!” moments, where suddenly I see the faintest trace of myself, a glimpse of my past in this place I once called home. It also means Cyprus is deliciously available for rediscovery, like a beloved book that, against the laws of physics, I’m allowed to read for the very first time more than once.
But - maybe we all have somewhere like that, a seemingly overfamiliar place that seems like it’s lost its mystery until the first time we go back and realise we never really knew it in the first place. Maybe, in a way, that’s what everywhere is like.
Well, these are big thoughts for another day. Aye, I say to my companions, I know it’s November, and yes, I know our boots are still frozen as we sit here in the car with the windows all fogged up with the blasting heat, but - can we find somewhere that sells ice-cream? Can we? It’s really, really important. Thanks.
Watch for upcoming details on the Wheel & Anchor LiveAways programmes, which will be released shortly for long-stay trips planned for January - April 2022!