Stranded in Cyprus

Gillian Darley · In Famagusta

The day before leaving for Cyprus, I read an excellent account of the sinister weather conditions of 1783, which Benjamin Franklin surmised were the result of recent volcanic activity in Iceland. I’m writing a book about Vesuvius and this was by way of light research. I was about to leave Nicosia for home when Eyjafjallajökull erupted.

Where we’re staying, indefinitely it seems, the garden is full of lemon blossom and scarlet hibiscus. Not far away, on the other side of a steep-sided water-course, is the svelte new Supreme Court of Cyprus; beyond that, a swathe of wasteland marked off with razor wire. One had seemed to offer tentative hope for the future; the other is a reminder of the enduring legacy of the catastrophe of 1974.

On Sunday night, fireworks exploded on the other side of the border before the official confirmation that Derviş Eroğlu, a hardliner, had won the presidential election, defeating the (relatively) conciliatory Mehmet Ali Talat. The strong link with Turkish nationalism is underlined by the huge flags (red on white, white on red) scored into the mountains to the north. They are usually lit up after dark, though the lights were switched off when Ban Ki Moon visited a few weeks ago. There’s a lunatic fringe in the Republic, too, of course, which hoist an elephantine Greek flag a few metres from the border on the day of the elections.

Earlier we’d been to the north-east, no longer ‘the province that time forgot’, since a more permeable frontier and financial inducements from Turkey as well as (indirectly) the EU have brought uncontrolled development. Villas, or rather follies, litter the plain, every bit as flash as those in the south. Commerce and industry are pelting ahead. After that, the old town of Famagusta (or Gazimağusa as it now is), seems more like the Cypriot villages I remember from my first and longest visit to the island in 1969. From inside its fabulous Venetian bastions, it’s hard to believe that Aya Napa, the legless capital of the Med, is only a few miles away to the west. To the east is empty Salamis: ancient columns rise out of a riot of yellow and blue flowers, there’s a poster-perfect turquoise sea, and not a visitor to be seen.

Meanwhile, back in the Republic, the daily routine continues of making a (futile) visit to the Cyprus Airways office and reading Robert Harris’s Pompeii, while we wait to see if the Royal Navy will come and take us off the island.