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Orchid Manoeuvres

Or how the military found the flowers

So there I was scrambling about in the Kyrenia mountains looking for orchids. Finding nothing – no doubt because I didn't really know what I was looking for. Then I heard there was a man who did. The Major and I signed up for the orchid walk, leaving Ozankoy at 9am with a small group led by the orchid expert. Now North Cyprus is a small world but it had never occurred to us that the said expert would turn out to be our friend Peter Keech, ex-Royal Engineer and war veteran of Iraq and Bosnia. Somehow I hadn't had him down as a flower man. Which just goes to show how wrong you can be.

So, after a drive over to Esentepe village, we set off at a cracking pace up the mountain. Could this be yomping? Almost as soon as we were on the mountain path, Peter spotted the first orchid, pale mauve and white, on a green erect stem with a skirt of leaves on the ground: naked man orchid. And then there were dozens of them, grouped on the stony mountainside, all naked men together. A bit further there were bee orchids – so called because it resembles a furry bee bottom, nose deep in the flower sucking up nectar – and spider orchids, as well as a multitude of other wild flowers and herbs: wild garlic, sage and thyme.

It's not just flowers, though, you find up in the mountains. There's an awful lot of history here, too – ancient and modern, take your pick. So it was here that Crusader knights built their castles and, somewhat more recently, Greek EOKA terrorists blew up Brits in the Fifties in an effort to rid themselves of colonial rule. The British Army chased them up into these mountains, making basic roads by splitting the rocks with sawdust and water which expanded inside holes drilled into the mountainside. (I did mention Peter was an ex-engineer?) 105 British soldiers died, as well as 51 policemen. You can see the holes still.

We stopped for a picnic in the gardens of the long disused monastery of Antiphonitis. Built in the twelfth century, it consists of just one building with a wide dome supported on eight pillars. Pillars and walls are decorated with frescoes, some as old as the church itself, others dating from the 1400s. There's graffiti, too, of course, some of it quite venerable, left by visitors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This is a quiet spot, the only sounds the wind in the trees and a constant hum of bees. Tucked away in its corner of the Eastern Mediterranean, it's hard to believe on this tranquil, sunny day that Cyprus is just 40 miles from the coast of Syria and its savage misery.

We weren't the only ones to appreciate this peaceful place. A pair of partridges, their nest in a corner of the churchyard, ambled around among the flowers, quite unafraid. For an hour, we all shared the monastery's garden.

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