Precious are the lost

Posted Mon 23 Aug
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I don’t, anymore, tell (many) stories of what I do with my life, those weblogging days are gone, but this one is a special case. A very special case. An awesomely special case.

It so happened that I found myself in Cyprus. Work, free drink, 45°C temperatures. Most of those in the company just like the sun, sea, beach and booze. Me, going all that way, I had a better idea. A plan. I did pitch the plan to the whole company, and while many indicated they would love to do it, only five of us did.

And it was perfect. Five blokes, road trip. I guess it is best I do this in some sort of chronological order. Roll with it, it might make sense.

We picked the car up at 9 in the morning, with a list of Byzantine churches to go see. And off we went. Head to the mountains, a vague inkling of where we were going. The sun was out, the aircon was on, nothing was going to stop us. And it didn’t. It was one experience after another, one moment of transcendence followed by another. And a few U-turns.

Not long in to the journey, we approach the first stopping point. And, luckily, there were a few big coaches, indictating tourists. A bonus, we could start with some classic Eastern Orthodox tat. Byzantine theme park for history nerds.

But wait! Tourists, you say? Those don’t look like tourists…those are…pilgrims! Considering we are half way up a mountainside, with sweeping corners and VERY CLOSE EDGES THAT WE COULD FALL OFF, this is no tourist country. A monastry, a priest with an awesome Orthodox beard, and a bloke selling blessed apples from the back of his van. What was a boy to do, but take his hat off, cross himself and go in and kiss some Virgins.

I probably let myself down by going in the wrong order, but I was entranced by the gold, the icons, the frescos, and the quiet still devoutness on display. It was mentioned a few times why I wasn’t my usual, um, combative self, but I am pious when I need to be. Bearded or not. And I wasn’t bearded.

The interior of Eastern Orthodox churches. Inspired, totally different to those damned Latins, and just so much more of everything. You can feel the mystery, and feel the loss that we have in the West.

A nod to the priest later, and in to the car, to head up further into the hills. Winding switchback-laden single lane tracks, with signposts the just appear causing more U-turns. One more stop before lunch. A village nestling in a valley, long main street, single track doubling up as a two-way road. And park where you want. Corners, no problem.

So we park. Almost on a corner, beside a huge church, evidently currently still in use. Not the Byzantium we were looking for, just a quick bonus on the way to the church of the Archangel Michael. An impressive structure, what else would a boy do but wander around taking photographs? And what else would a boy do when he sees the old caretaker hobbling by but ask him if we could go inside?

Inside. What can prepare you for a building with a centre done, three stories high, pillars, and painted from floor to ceiling and back again. With the gold, the icons, the chandeliers. The seats, the books, the fresco hidden behind golden gates, which I am not sure we were supposed to pass. The quiet, the history, the something more than austere and dour Protestantism or the secondhand Byzantine pistache that is Catholicism. No incense was harmed in the making of this sacrilege.

Of course I left a donation on the plate. How could I not? I would have happily paid an entrance fee, to see that, to be there. Helpfully, old caretaker dude (with a disappointingly shaven upper lip) pointed us in the right direction, and we moved down the hill and back seven centuries.

Most of the Byzantium buildings didn’t allow photography inside, and the pictures were taken from the door, not inside. This tiny church, this tiny place, again, was something else. You can’t get craftmanship like that any more, and to think how long that has stood, and the colours still there, the damage of time and man barely noticeable in places.

We could have stopped after any single visit, and I would have been more than happy. That it kept getting better, well, it was just making me, and keeping me, happy. The company was great, kudos to NrG for the driving, despite my Cantabrigan aversion to anything more than a gentle incline. The weather was great, as was the aircon. I am sure there are better Byzantine examples, better scenery, better cars, but I was there, right there, right then, and it was everything it should have been. Everything is context, and cultural context at that, and this was a single point in my life. A shining single point. Could it have been better? No, it could have been different. Could it have been more? No, it could have been different. With different people (most noticably I would have loved to have done it with my squawks and heart of my heart) it would have been different. Better isn’t the word, and one day I will take them. It would be more complete for me, perhaps, or maybe better is the word.

But even blown minds need to continue, and continue on a full stomach. But who wants to eat in a village? Best to drive more into the mountains, and just stop somewhere, anywhere, just somewhere local. Where they barely speak English, and we barely speak (modern) Greek. Where they bring you food. Where this food was simple, but beyond plain. Absolutely glorious, so we ate, ate well, chatted and laughed, soaked the sun, looked over the valley, listened to the trees chatter in the wind and were sated of mind and body.

You can’t see everything in the single day we had, and there were obscure turnings we ignored, major sites we decided against, and went with the flow. From our base in the south west of the island, we wound our way up through the Trodos mountains, getting as far as the Turkish border, with many high vantage points to stop and look into the distance from.

Another church to see, but this time the bearded priest was resting outside, and the purported icon museum was closed. Even though it shouldn’t have been. But who was complaining? 7th century frescos, with the Gospels depicted with Crusader livery, the tree of Jesse stretching thirty feet up to the ceiling.

Who was complaining? I bought an icon from the priest, and a tenth of the price a different, similar one was at the airport. And this one was of an icon I saw in the church. Occlude, guidebook man extrodinaire, has a list of the names of all the places we did go to. I will make a google maps track from it at some point. Without the U-turns.

More villages, more Coke Light, more U-turns. More signs that lie, more hairpin bends, more Cypriot girls in those white dresses with rather fine tans. More melons, more Coke Light, more Pervoe FM. More Beach Bar!

There was now one major site we wanted to see, a collection of ruins containing an amphitheatre, a basillica, an agora and more. Sprawling on the coast, on our run back to the hotel. This was a paid-for place, and we had to part with a whole one Euro seventy. Remind me why I live in rip-off Britain?

By now the sun was setting. Can I hear you say orange light and magic hour? On Greco-Roman stone? This was a big site, with a bit of wandering around. We got to the limits just as the sun was disappearing behind the hills. Achilles’ house, with parts of the mosaics, we our limit. Quite literally. We could go no further, so wending our way back through the ruins in a different direction, perhaps we could catch different angles and columns.

But no, not a chance. A young lady with a badge and a mobile phone asked us to go, as the gates were closing in ten minutes. Quite insistent we leave. Well, we were in a good mood, so off we stroll, only stopping for a group-hug photograph. Little did we know she had a car, and bombs off away from us. We get to the main through road on the site, and some agitated Ruins Nazi winds down his window and veritably shouts at us, telling us to get to the gate now, and one of us run to the car and drive it down.

Mr NrG saunters to the car, we saunter down the hill to the gate. Big wooden gates. One closed, three people standing tapping their feet. So we stand too, doing the usual ribaldery and jocular cracking. Eventually, NrG arrives. Three minutes after they were due to close. Take that, Ruins Nazis! We win! And we did, being there at that time of day. Magic, magic hour.

Picking a route back (eventually), another drive along the coast, through the hills, the sun now gone and everything lit in a deep red just above the horizon, the Mediterranean darkening as we look at it.

You know what else added to it? I set this up with the express intent that it was all for me. I wasn’t sure that the others would really appreciate, or want, to drive for twelve hours around Cyprus looking at churches, ruins and roads. But they did. It was a fantastic excursion. Even though there was less religosity in them than me, it was appreciated, enjoyed, and that also makes me happy. A more than fine, a more than great, a more than day was had by all.

It was just…just…just right.

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